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.”

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Ecological Rationality: When Is Bias A Good Thing?

By Rebecca Brown

Many people will be broadly familiar with the ‘heuristics and biases’ (H&B) program of work, made prominent by the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. H&B developed alongside the new sub-discipline of Behavioural Economics, both detailing the ways in which human decision-makers deviate from what would be expected of homo economicus – an imaginary, perfectly rational being that always aims at maximising utility. For instance, in a famous experiment, Tversky and Kahneman gave people the following information (1983: 297):

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. 

Participants were then asked which of the two alternatives was more probable:

1. Linda is a bank teller.

2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

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Cross Post: IAI debate, ‘Doing Right and Feeling Good’

Zero Degrees of Empathy author Simon Baron-Cohen, philosopher Peter Dews and Oxford Transhumanist Anders Sandberg dispute how to be good.

We think empathising with others is the route to a better world. But studies show that empathy encourages us to help one named child over ten anonymous others. Is morality perhaps not about empathy at all? Does the moral way to act have more to do with thinking than feeling, or is empathy a vital force for good?


Freezing critique: privileged views and cryonics

Cryonics – the practice of freezing people directly after death in the hope that future medicine can resuscitate them – is controversial. However, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction with an explicit anti-cryonics law (banning advertising or sale of cryonics services), and a legal challenge is apparently being put together. The motivations for the law appear murky, but to some this is a rights issue. As Zoltan Istvan notes, “In a world where over 90 percent of the people hold religious views of the afterlife, cryonics could become a noteworthy global civil rights issue. ” Maybe the true deep problem for getting cryonics accepted is that it is a non-religious afterlife, and we tend to give undue privilege to religious strange views rather than secular strange views.

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What is the chance of an MP being wrong?

When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.

How should a rational person react to this news?

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