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Magic tricks and moral fibre

By Charles Foster

How well do you know yourself? Can you identify confidently your convictions on major moral issues? If you can, do you think you could change them in a moment, and argue robustly and with conviction for exactly the opposite position?

Most people will say, unhesitatingly, ‘very well’, ‘yes’, and ‘of course not’. They should read a recent paper by Hall, Johansson, and Strandberg. Indeed we all should.

The methodology was ingenious. The researchers asked people walking across a Swedish park to complete a questionnaire which posed questions about foundational moral principles and currently debated moral issues. An example: respondents were asked to rate, on a 9-point bidirectional scale, the extent of their agreement or disagreement with the statement ‘large scale governmental surveillance of email and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.’ Having completed the questionnaire, the participants were asked to read aloud some of their answers, and to explain the ratings. However, unknown to the participants, a magic trick had been used: two of the statements read aloud were the reverse of the statements they had originally rated. Thus, in the government surveillance example, the new statement read: ‘Large scale governmental surveillance of email and internet traffic ought to be permitted as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.’ The rating, however, was not altered, and accordingly the new assertion was the reverse of the original.

What did people do? You’d hope that they’d detect the error. But most of the errors went undetected. Read the paper for the details. But a frightening 69% of all the participants accepted at least one of the two altered statements. Not only that, 53% argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original position in at least one of the manipulated cases. You might have expected them to tend, in their explanation, towards their original position But no.

What should we make of this?

1.            We should look first to ourselves. The paper is a call to humility. We should become dogmatically non-dogmatic. The paper should make liberals of us all. There’s a danger, though, that it will do exactly the opposite, and be cited as authority for a sort of intellectual totalitarianism. Some will conclude that  the only people whose views should be taken seriously are the Philosopher Kings – those who have exhaustively and exhaustingly examined and re-examined their own views. That view is deadly wrong, but needs to be taken seriously.

2.            That said, though, there’s no doubt that the paper is a good marketing tool for professional philosophers. It emphasises the importance of examining critically our reasons for asserting anything.

3.            It no doubt has something to say about notions of authenticity and self-definition. But at the moment I’m not sure what.

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14 Comment on this post

  1. juergen martin moeller

    People walking in parks are not in the mood to answer abstract questions, and are not in the mood bluntly to say NO either. So they play the game of cooperation instead of reading, reflecting and responding precisely. This brings us one more study with non – convincing results.

    1. juergen martin moeller

      That is exactly what I am not convinced about: my guess is that people in the crossing-a-park-situation are not thinking precisely. There might be some cognitive dissonance mechanism which drives them to their paradox answer.

      The answer-situation itself is so superficial, that they even may not be aware of their flipping in a new position. And strenuous arguments you can find for any position, any time – just to hide your lack of deliberation.

  2. I think it would largely depend on what they rated their moral conviction. If I rated a strong moral conviction towards being free from survelliance, I would probably notice if it were turned around. But if I were more ambivalent, I just might argue the opposite position, because its an issue I haven’t fully formed an opinion on. (Just quickly skimming the article, it seems like their findings agree with my intuition). So, it doesn’t seem to be terribly interesting to say that on issues that people don’t have well formed opinions on, that they would be willing to flip flop on them.

  3. Thanks, Wayne. I’d have thought that privacy and the legitimate reach of government were questions about which most adults have pondered. Nothing particularly arcane there.

  4. Hello Charles
    Re point 3, could it be that Swedish park-strollers are flattered by the attention that their views provoke, and that this is for them more important than the truth or authenticity of the views expressed? A sort of bottom-up desire to become high-impact philosophers, so to speak.

  5. Anthony: many thanks. An interesting thought. And it might be an explanation for some of the responses. But the effect was so big that I’d have thought it unlikely that your suggestion is the whole story, or even most of the whole story.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      I’m sure you’re right, Charles : my hypothesis is unlikely to account for all of the responses. Perhaps some of the rest of those interviewed were lawyers? (Those who, as you argue elsewhere, have signed away the right to conscientious objection.)

  6. Anthony drinkwater

    Is memory dangerous? Plenty of people would argue that memory is a duty. Interesting philosophic debate……

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