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.