Decoupling, Contextualising and Rationality

Written by Rebecca Brown

In February 2020, just before science journalists had to start writing about covid full time, Tom Chivers wrote an article for Unherd, ‘‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’’. In it he describes a Twitter outcry provoked by Richard Dawkins who tweeted: 

It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

Chivers analyses the fallout in terms of a distinction between ‘high decouplers’ and ‘low decouplers’, a distinction described by the blogger John Nerst, here and also here. Chivers (and Nerst) describe decoupling as a ‘magic ritual’ that a speaker can perform in order to disassociate the thing they are about to say from all of the baggage that might ordinarily attach to it. So, one might say “I don’t think we should kill healthy people and harvest their organs, but it is plausible that a survival lottery, where random people are killed and their organs redistributed, could effectively promote longevity and well-being.”

Philosophers are typically familiar and comfortable with these kinds of moves. They allow us to use thought experiments where innocents are tied to trolley tracks or where violinists’ circulatory systems plugged into unwilling hosts without condoning any such activities. Importantly, such moves allow sensitive ethical issues to be discussed with a degree of protection. Without these kinds of ‘magic rituals,’ exploratory discussion would be much harder since interlocutors would constantly risk being denounced for ‘following arguments where they lead,’ even if they are clear that they personally reject whatever unpalatable conclusions they arrive at.

High decouplers are those who, like many philosophers, are typically comfortable isolating individual claims from other related but distinct claims. Contextualisers (or ‘low decouplers’) are those who reject such partitioning, and insist that claims cannot – or should not – be interpreted in isolation from their context.

I take it that decoupling is commonplace and fairly uncontroversial in much of philosophical practical ethics Outside these and similar settings, however, things may be very much coupled. And this can be equally reasonable.

Neil Levy (2019) discusses the relevance of higher-order evidence when considering whether or not it is rational for a person to adopt some belief. Higher-order evidence is evidence about your evidence – how strong or reliable it is. For instance, a clinical trial might find evidence that Drug X is effective at reducing people’s lifetime risk of developing Alzheimers. This is first order evidence. If we are now told that the clinical trial was funded by a pharmaceutical company that manufactures Drug X and stands to make a massive profit if it is proven effective, this is higher-order evidence. Knowledge of the conflict of interest might make us downgrade how much confidence we place in the first order evidence that Drug X is effective. Similarly, if the trial was published in a journal with an excellent reputation, or appears to have extremely rigorous methods, then we might upgrade our confidence in the result. 

It is ecologically rational to take into account higher-order evidence when evaluating claims. Gerd Gigerenzer (2019) has convincingly argued that many features of human reasoning that are described as ‘biases’ are in fact useful heuristics that, in the right settings, help us to successfully interpret and act upon the world around us. For instance, when a doctor chooses to communicate the predicted effects of an operation in terms of the likely benefit (rather than the likely harm), her patient might reasonably interpret the doctor as intentionally emphasising the benefit, and as therefore recommending the surgery. Sensitivity to framing effects (e.g. whether some decision is framed in terms of benefits or harms) might not be an irrational bias, but rather an ecologically rational response to higher-order evidence. 

Coupling, or contextualising (in preference to decoupling) seems superficially to be less rational than decoupling. When reading the articles by Nerst and Chivers mentioned above, I get the sense that the authors have to work a bit to avoid saying that decoupling is more rational than ‘failures’ to decouple. Nerst originally describes decoupling as a ‘skill’ that low decouplers lack, which he later revises in a follow up post. The discussion of decoupling (at least using this terminology) has mostly come from those broadly within the ‘rationalist‘ community (not to be confused with philosophical rationalism) who naturally identify as high decouplers. But in some instances, contextualising (not decoupling) looks like ecological rationality and attention to higher-order evidence in action.

When people communicate, the meaning of what they say can shift depending on contextual factors  including the tone they choose, their identity, the audience they are talking to, the things they choose not to say, and so on. Humans are highly sophisticated communicators and can take account of such factors without needing to explicitly recognise that that is what they are doing. If a member of the Taliban says “it is perfectly acceptable for women to remain in domestic positions rather than seek paid employment outside the home” it is likely to be interpreted very differently from the same sentence spoken by someone who has campaigned for women’s rights their entire life. Recognising not just the narrow, decontextualised meaning of a communicative act, but the meaning the speaker intends to convey (albeit indirectly via subtext, dog-whistling, nudges and winks) requires contextualising.

If people always spoke literally (or as close to this as is possible) – in the manner of Dr Spock from Star Trek – perhaps there would rarely be a need for coupling and contextualisation in order to correctly interpret what they say. But in the real world, communication often requires attention to context and layers of meaning. It is clear that paying attention to such context is far from irrational, but a central aspect of human communication. So while decoupling is an essential and invaluable part of the ethicist’s intellectual toolkit, we should perhaps remain cognisant that our magic rituals may only have local power.

Levy, N. (2019). No-Platforming and Higher-Order Evidence, or Anti-Anti-No-Platforming. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 5(4), 487-502. doi:10.1017/apa.2019.29

Gigerenzer, G. (2019) Axiomatic rationality and ecological rationality. Synthese 3, 1–18.

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