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Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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The Morality of Sport-Hatred

It used to be the case that fans of Auburn University’s football team would gather after victories at Toomer’s corner in Auburn, Alabama, to throw rolls of toilet paper into the historic oak trees there. The trees have been removed. Not because Auburn University wanted it that way: Harvey Updyke, a fan of the University of Alabama’s football team – Auburn’s hated cross-state rival – poisoned the trees in 2010. Updyke was caught when he called in to a local sports radio show to brag about the deed. He was charged with criminal mischief, desecrating a venerated object and damaging agriculture. Although he initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, he later made a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to criminal damage of an agricultural facility. He served six months in jail, and was released in June of this year.

This is of course a bad situation. I’ve been to football games at Auburn, and though I sport-hate their football team, the celebration at Toomer’s corner was a great tradition and the trees, themselves, were beautiful. I don’t wish to pass more judgment on Updyke, but rather to reflection on an ethical question his action raises. Read More »The Morality of Sport-Hatred

‘Losses disguised as wins’: Slot machines and deception

Last week, Canadian researchers published a study showing that some modern slot machines ‘trick’ players – by way of their physiology – into feeling like they are winning when in fact they are losing. The researchers describe the phenomenon of ‘losses disguised as wins’, in which net losses involving some winning lines are experienced in the same way as net wins due to physiological responses to the accompanying sounds and lights. The obvious worry is that players who are tricked into thinking they’re winning will keep playing longer and motivate them to come back to try again.

The game set up is as follows: players bet on 15 lines simultaneously, any of which they might win or lose. A player will accrue a net profit if the total amount collected from all winning lines is greater than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. Such an outcome is accompanied by lights and sounds announcing the wins. However, lights and sounds will also be played if any of the lines win, even if the net amount collected is less than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. If a player bets 5 credits per line (5 x 15 = 75) and wins 10 back from 3 (= 30), then the player has actually lost money, even though the lights and sounds indicate winning. The loss, the researchers claim, is thus disguised as a win.Read More »‘Losses disguised as wins’: Slot machines and deception

Casinos should say: ‘Enough. Go home.’

Over about 14 months, Harry Kakavas lost $20.5 million in a casino in Melbourne. It could have been worse. He put about $1.5 billion on the table. He sued the casino. It knew or should have known, he said, that he was a pathological gambler. It shouldn’t have continued to take his money. It should have protected him from himself. Nonsense, said the High Court of Australia.

Here’s why:

Even if, contrary to the findings of the primary judge, the appellant did suffer from a psychological impairment, the issue here is whether, in all the circumstances of the relationship between the appellant and Crown, it was sufficiently evident to Crown that the appellant was so beset by that difficulty that he was unable to make worthwhile decisions in his own interests while gambling at Crown’s casino. On the findings of fact made by the primary judge as to the course of dealings between the parties, the appellant did not show that his gambling losses were the product of the exploitation of a disability, special to the appellant, which was evident to Crown.

Equitable intervention to deprive a party of the benefit of its bargain on the basis that it was procured by unfair exploitation of the weakness of the other party requires proof of a predatory state of mind. Heedlessness of, or indifference to, the best interests of the other party is not sufficient for this purpose. The principle is not engaged by mere inadvertence, or even indifference, to the circumstances of the other party to an arm’s length commercial transaction. Inadvertence, or indifference, falls short of the victimisation or exploitation with which the principle is concerned.‘ (paras 160-161 of the judgment).

So it all turned on findings of fact (it wasn’t ‘sufficiently evident’ that his losses were the result of a disability, and if they were, they weren’t the product of a disability ‘special to the appellant.’)

That last criterion is interesting. The court seems to be implying that everyone who puts themselves in the position of losing large amounts of money in a casino is necessarily not quite right in the head. To establish liability you need a degree of vulnerability over and above that possessed by the ordinary punter. By accepting the trial judge’s finding that Kakavas did not suffer from a ‘psychological impairment’, the court was presumably saying: ‘Right: so Kakavas is weak and easily exploited: but that’s true of everyone who walks through the door, buys some chips and sits down at the table. That sort of weakness is within the general bell curve of human flabbiness. But Kakavas wasn’t particularly, dramatically, visibly weak.’Read More »Casinos should say: ‘Enough. Go home.’

The times they are a changing…

In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58… Read More »The times they are a changing…

The Philosophy of Bad Badminton: Another Look

Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.

Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:

A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.

So let’s assess these four arguments.

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“Focus Pocus” and Beyond: consumer brain computer interfaces for health, self-improvement and fun

 In September 2011 ,the most advanced computer game to use a consumer brain computer interface (BCI) will go on sale. Its name is Focus Pocus (see video trailer here, its awesome) and it is aimed at children with ADHD so that they might use gamification to train their brains to improve focus and impulse control.

Use your brain to battle an evil necromancer!

The game is based on neurofeedback enabled by the use of the Neurosky dry-electrode EEG (Electro-EncephaloGram) headset, which anyone can purchase for under $100 (or 100 Euros if in Europe)  Earlier this week, BBC2 did a special on the headset. The basic Idea is that the single electrode on the Neurosky headset (placed on the forehead) is able to pick up a few simple and characteristic brainwaves (created by activity in populations of neurons), some that have been shown to be enriched when the subject is awake and attentive (ex. Beta-waves), and some when the subject is relaxed (ex. alpha waves). Neurosky has developed algorithms to funnel these and other brain waves into measures of “focus” and “meditation.” Look here for more details on how it works.

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The Ethics of Gamification: Little Rewards for Everything

[note: the original version of this post contained some interactive code, which has been removed from the archives]

Notice that the first word of this post is red. Point your mouse cursor at the words as you read them, and each subsequent word will turn red as you read. You are now being graded on how quickly you read these words. And there’s a little visual reward in store for anyone who reads the first paragraph quickly. Now look to the right of this post, where it says ‘Top Posts’. One of the reasons we have that is to help readers to find the most popular posts on the blog. But another reason we have it is so that our contributors will be motivated to write more interesting and thought-provoking commentaries for the site. It is a high score table, and the winner is the philosopher with the most interesting post.

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