The Greater Good: Psychology and Social Policy

Welcome to The Greater Good.

Posted Dec 04, 2008

Welcome to The Greater Good. This blog will discuss issues that intersect psychology and social policy, preoccupations of my new book, The Empathy Gap. This is my inaugural entry, a mere introduction. In the next offering, I will ask whether recent psychological discoveries can help define the limits of government's interference with individual choice. (Actually, I will be talking about how many insect parts the FDA says can reside in our peanut butter). Sometimes this effort will bring to life hallowed but arid philosophical issues, like the nature of liberty and well-being. At least as often, this material will be controversial. I am not much interested in ideology. My goal is to advance discussion of issues that we should think more about, or that we should think about in a new and perhaps jarring way.

I am a philosopher of science by training, but have published experimental work in spoken language processing as well. Readers of PT online already know about the new generation of "experimental philosophers" - such as Josh Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Ron Mallon and Edouard Machery - who do psychological experiments designed to clarify, even decide, issues that have embarrassed, puzzled, or paralyzed philosophers for centuries. Currently underway are experimental research programs on consciousness, free will, justification, intention, and moral judgment.

But before there was experimental philosophy there was philosophical naturalism - the view that the best philosophy is guided by, and maybe even reducible to, the best science of the time. So philosophers don't necessarily have to run experiments if the experiments have already been done by psychologists. This view has taken hold in the expected places, like the specializations of the philosophy of science. But naturalism lags in fields like ethics and social & political philosophy (excepting people like John Doris, Steve Stich, and a handful of other philosophers), areas that still struggle in glorious isolation from the other disciplines. Philosophers occasionally concede the importance of empirical research to their fields, but there isn't any professional expectation that philosophers should know about empirical findings. So the standard philosophical approach is to try to move forward by cobbling together intuitions or generating proposals that feel coherent. As a result, the influence of scientific evidence in these fields has been slow and uneven. We will have the chance to talk about the reasons for this resistance to psychological findings. But for the most part, I will be doing naturalistic philosophy rather than talking about it. When discussing and criticizing interesting scientific results, it will become clear that a naturalist needn't be a giddy enthusiast for science.

Very clever experiments in judgment & decision-making and behavioral economics, for example, yield startling and robust results about the frailties of our intuitions. They show how people miscalculate risks, discount the distant vs. nearby needy, are subject to framing and status quo biases, trade many statistical victims for just one concrete victim, and gripe about taxation as they adapt to it. These are just a few of our cognitive and empathic frailties. And they are potent imperfections; in all of these cases, our errant beliefs influence our actions, and frustrate our pursuits.

Policies and institutions like social security, public education, health care, and the correctional system affect millions of people at once, so we should probably try to improve upon the blunt and provincial intuitions employed for centuries in the crafting of customary well-being strategies - intuitions about how we would behave as social isolates in the state of nature, what contributes most to happiness, and whether character plays as dominant a role in our success and failure as the orthodox American success narrative proclaims. We already have the psychological knowledge and superior methods to improve upon the traditional answers, and future posts will investigate their promise in securing a greater good.