Friday, January 01, 2010

Noble lies

(Richard Holton/Enquiry)

""""Most of us, certainly most of us working in universities, like to think that the spread of knowledge will be beneficial. Diffuse knowledge, goes this pleasingly democratic line, and people will be better off. But there is another strain of thought, going back at least to Plato, that takes the contrary course, arguing that widespread knowledge of the truth will be damaging, and so insisting on the need for the Noble Lie. Some recent work in social psychology has lent support to this latter approach, apparently showing that getting subjects to reject the existence of Phree will or to believe in the truth of determinism makes them less likely to behave morally. In a pair of studies Vohs and Schooler found that getting subjects to read some passages arguing that free
will is an illusion subsequently made them more likely to cheat in a test.2 In further studies, Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall found that reading passages propounding determinism increased subjects’ tendency to behave aggressively towards others (serving hot salsa to those who had said they hated it), and decreased their tendency to say that would behave helpfully in various situations.3
Assuming that these results are real, how are we to explain them? One obvious
explanation will occur to philosophers: if the subjects believe that free will is necessary for moral responsibility, then, given minimal rationality, undermining their belief in free will should be enough to undermine their belief that they are morally responsible. And if they no longer think that they are morally responsible, immoral behaviour will follow. Supporters of this interpretation might then point to a set of recent studies that seem to show that most people do think that moral responsibility is absent in a deterministic world, at least so long as they think sufficiently abstractly.4 If determinism is in fact true, the conclusion is a rather depressing one: we should either cultivate a belief in free will as
a necessary illusion for moral behaviour; or else we need to embark on a probably
fruitless attempt to convince the masses of the truth of compatibilism.
I want to suggest an alternative interpretation. Although it is true that some studies do suggest that most people believe that there is no moral responsibility in a deterministic world, it appears that this finding is highly sensitive to how the
deterministic world in described. A recent study by Eddy Nahmias and colleagues has found that what subjects really find inimical to moral responsibility is mechanism: the idea that we are being pushed along by happenings at the molecular level. 5 And this finding is even more marked when they are asked, not about moral responsibility, but about freedom. This opens the door to the possibility that the apparent commitment to incompatibilism stems from a misunderstanding of the true nature of determinism, one that sees it as more mechanistic than it need be. And on the basis of this we might try for an alternative explanation of the Vohs and Baumeister results: perhaps the deterministic texts are encouraging a mechanistic view of the way the world works, and the moral demotivation stems from the subject’s belief that that is incompatible with moral responsibility.""""

In other words, YOU can't handle the Twooth; ergo, substance dualism holds.....


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