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Behavioral Ethics–Explanation or Excuse? March 30, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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I read an interesting piece in Harvard Magazine, “On Behavioral Ethics” by the authors of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, Straus professor of business administration Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Martin professor of business ethics at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Here is an excerpt from their piece which is also taken from Chapter 1 in their book:

In the wake of troubling decisions—cooking the books at Enron, going to war in Iraq on suspect grounds, making mortgage loans to indigent borrowers and passing the risk on to others—scholars in many fields are examining how individuals and organizations conduct themselves relative to ethical standards.

[The authors] seek answers not in philosophy, but through analysis of cognition and behaviors, such as “ethical fading.”

Ethics interventions have failed and will continue to fail because they are predicated on a false assumption: that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when it is presented to them. Ethics training presumes that emphasizing the moral components of decisions will inspire executives to choose the moral path. But the common assumption this training is based on—that executives make explicit trade-offs between behaving ethically and earning profits for their organizations—is incomplete. This paradigm fails to acknowledge our innate psychological responses when faced with an ethical dilemma.

Findings from the emerging field of behavioral ethics—a field that seeks to understand how people actually behave when confronted with ethical dilemmas—offer insights that can round out our understanding of why we often behave contrary to our best ethical intentions. Our ethical behavior is often inconsistent, at times even hypocritical. Consider that people have the innate ability to maintain a belief while acting contrary to it. Moral hypocrisy occurs when individuals’ evaluations of their own moral transgressions differ substantially from their evaluations of the same transgressions committed by others.

Traditional approaches to ethics, and the traditional training methods that have accompanied such approaches, lack an understanding of the unintentional yet predictable cognitive patterns that result in unethical behavior. By contrast, our research on bounded ethicality focuses on the psychological processes that lead even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics.

If ethics training is to actually change and improve ethical decision-making, it needs to incorporate behavioral ethics, and specifically the subtle ways in which our ethics are bounded. Such an approach entails an understanding of the different ways our minds can approach ethical dilemmas and the different modes of decision-making that result.

 Of course I have not read the entire book, so my evaluation is merely based on the excerpt, but while I at first thought the idea of bounded ethicality sounded interesting, on second thought I’m not so sure. Of course it is always interesting for a philosophy of human nature to figure out why people can’t live up to their own moral standards, in the business world or elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on those standards. For one thing, dismissing the entire tradition of moral philosophy because (business) people can’t live up to their own ideals is sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater–a waste, and hardly rational. For another, this supposed realization that people aren’t very ethical is hardly news. From “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” to “Do as I say, not as I do,” humans have struggled with that internal battle for as long as we’ve had records of human behavior. The difficulty of maintaining our moral ideals under pressure is precisely the raison d’etre for ethics—moral values are traditionally hard to live up to. If it were easy to be ethical, it wouldn’t be a perennial topic for our arts, stories, religions, and other cultural expressions.  It seems to me that the behavioral ethics project, as described here, amounts to (1) a mere psychological analysis of what people actually do, instead of discussing the normative concept of what they ought to do, and why, and (2) an excuse for not even trying to live up to a set of challenging moral standards. If the authors don’t want to do philosophy, that’s fine.  But if you don’t want to include the concept of prescription in a study of ethics, well, then you’re simply not studying ethics in the traditional sense.

Update on Abbie Dorn March 26, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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You may remember the case of Abbie Dorn who ended up braindamaged after giving birth to her triplets in 2006 due to a series of medical errors. Her mother requested that Abbie’s children, being raised by her (now ex-) husband, should have regular visits with their mother, but their father refused on the grounds that it would be traumatic for the children, and claiming  that Abbie would not benefit from it, either, due to her reduced mental state. Now a judge in Los Angeles has ruled that Abbie will indeed get visitation rights:

In a tentative 10-page ruling, Judge Frederick C. Shaller said that Abbie Dorn, 34, can see her daughter, Esti, and sons Reuvi and Yossi, for a five-day visit each year pending a trial in the acrimonious custody case. She also entitled to a monthly online Skype visit. A trial date has yet to be set.

“We are thrilled,” said Felicia Meyers, one of Dorn’s attorneys.

Although “there is no compelling evidence that the visitations by the children will have any benefit to Abby,” Shaller wrote, “…there is no compelling evidence that visitation with Abby will be detrimental to the children.”

In my previous post about Abbie’s situation I concluded (and pardon me for quoting myself! It’s easier to paste it in, here on a Saturday morning, than to rephrase it),

It’s not such a hard question. Be Solomonic. Err on the side of inclusive personhood—as long as there is a chance that Abbie is having experiences and wishes, respect them, and her. She is on a long, dark journey, and adding insult to her terrible injury by disregarding her potential personhood is unworthy these days. On the other hand, there is no reason why visitation rights should be granted from one day to the next, with the risk of traumatizing her toddlers. After all, she’s not asking for custody. If Abbie’s parents, and Abbie, want the best for the children (who at this point don’t even know they have a mother), they should be left with their father, and slowly be introduced to the story, with pictures, video, etc. Writing letters and drawing pictures to their mother could be the start of a relationship, building up a unique situation over months. I would assume that having a mother without a voice, or without arms that can hold them, but with loving eyes speaking a language of their own (if indeed Abbie herself is still behind those eyes), is a whole lot better than having no birth mother at all in their lives, and being told the story later when it is too late to amend the situation …what “might have been” is going to be cold comfort…

It seems that Judge Shaller holds the same view of Abbie and her children.

The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice March 25, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Following the story of the “Fukushima 50,” now up to 1000 workers, still working in shifts under what seems to be an increasing threat level, here from USAToday:

…Two workers have gone missing and 25 have been hurt or overexposed to radiation since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit March 11, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the plant. Most of the injuries occurred during explosions that resulted from uncontrolled buildups of hydrogen and oxygen in two reactor units.The latest injuries were reported Thursday, when TEPCO said two workers were sent to the hospital after their legs were contaminated with radiation, indicating the facility remains dangerous. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says it could be weeks before the radiation is under control.”Anybody that voluntarily enters a situation that puts their lives on the line can be called a hero, and those workers certainly meet that definition,” says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.”I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” says Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

In the emergency, Japanese authorities increased the permissible radiation exposure to five times what plant workers normally are allowed in a year.

That move “ethically is a problem,” says Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “On the other hand, there are large-scale population needs and somehow that needs to be balanced. It’s basically men and women voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way so thousands of others can be safe.”Such self-sacrifice is not uniquely Japanese, Redlener says. “It is something about human nature in emergencies that people step up to the plate in the interest of the greater good,” he says, citing battlefield troops and responders who entered the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The key word here, from a Western moral perspective at least, is volunteering. Willingly taking on a burden that will help others, but endanger your own life and wellbeing is what makes the ethics of altruism so challenging, and fascinating. It is hard to evaluate what cultural/professional pressures that may be involved in the current situation at Fukushima, because the Japanese tradition does value the ethics of self-sacrifice—but as long as we’re not talking about a company deliberately sacrificing its workers for the common good, utilitarian-style, a group-ethics pressure to volunteer doing helpful, but life-threatening work still requires a personal decision, and that decision is still a heroic act—even if it may be embedded in the cultural tradition, and expected in times of need. And, as the article points out, it is not unique to the Japanese tradition.

Update on the “Fukushima 50” March 19, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The Guardian writes,

… plant workers, emergency services personnel and scientists have been battling for the past week to restore the pumping of water to the Fukushima nuclear plant and to prevent a meltdown at one of the reactors. A team of about 300 workers – wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed with duct tape and known as the Fukushima 50 because they work in shifts of 50-strong groups – have captured the attention of the Japanese who have taken heart from the toil inside the wrecked atom plant. “My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

Little is known about this band of heroes, except for the few whose relatives have spoken to the Japanese media. One woman said that her father, who had worked for an electricity company for 40 years and who was due to retire in September, had volunteered. “I feel it’s my mission to help,” he told his daughter.

On Wednesday, the government raised the cumulative legal limit of radiation that the Fukushima workers could be exposed to from 100 to 250 millisieverts. That is more than 12 times the annual legal limit for workers dealing with radiation under British law. Each team works as fast as possible for the briefest of periods. The pilots of the helicopters used to “water-bomb” the plant have been restricted to missions lasting less than 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, the workers have not only managed to link a power cable to one of the plant’s reactors, No 2, but they have also connected diesel generators to the No 5 and No 6 reactors, which have so far not suffered serious damage. “If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,” said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group. However, the government has conceded that it was too slow in dealing with the crisis at Fukushima. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that “in hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and co-ordinating all that information, and provided it faster”.

The fires at Fukushima have also triggered serious criticism of the plant’s design. The decision to place storage tanks close to reactors has been pinpointed as a key design error. When those reactors caught fire, they quickly triggered reactions in the storage tanks which themselves caught fire, and so the fires spread.

Altruism Unfolding March 17, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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A moving story is unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan: a group of engineers (now becoming known as “the Fukushima 50” although there appear to be close to 200 individuals) who were ordered out of the structure have volunteered to keep working, at levels of radiation that may be lethal. Assuming the the story is as reported, the workers’ willingness to do the right thing while risking their lives deserves to be mentioned as a case where reality matches, or even outdoes fictional narratives of self-sacrifice.

From BBC:

One woman told the papers her father, who had worked for an electric company for 40 years, had volunteered to help.

He was due to retire in September.

“The future of the nuclear plant depends on how we resolve this crisis,” he was reported to have told his daughter. “I feel it’s my mission to help.”

The workers might be faceless heroes for the moment, but their bravery has won them the admiration of many Japanese.

“They are sacrificing themselves for the Japanese people,” says Fukuda Kensuke, a white collar worker in Tokyo. “I feel really grateful to those who continue to work there.”

“They’re putting their life on the line,” agrees Maeda Akihiro. “If that place explodes, it’s the end for all of us, so all I can do is send them encouragement.”

From New York Post/AP:

“My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.

“My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,” said one woman, according to ABC News.

He told her via email, “Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile.”

An email from the daughter of one volunteered was shared on Japanese TV and read, “My father is still working at the plant — they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence.”

The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.

I will update the story here, and also through Twitter.

Human Nature Decoded–No Whiskers, and No Penile Spines! March 10, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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I’ve written a book about the Philosophy of Human Nature, The Human Condition. I’ve given talks, and written papers and blogs, and tweeted about the subject. I’ve been devouring every morsel of information about human evolution I could get my hands on since I was 13 years old. I teach two classes per year focusing on Phil of Human Nature. And what do I read this morning in the CNN online Health section? Brand new research about a significant difference between apes and humans: Ape males have penile spines and human males don’t. First thing I thought was, “And a good thing, too!” Now wipe the smirks off your faces—this finding turns out to have seriously philosophical consequences:

We know that humans have larger brains and, within the brain, a larger angular gyrus, a region associated with abstract concepts. Also, male chimpanzees have smaller penises than humans, and their penises have spines. Not like porcupine needles or anything, but small pointy projections on the surface that basically make the organ bumpy.

Gill Bejerano, a biologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, and colleagues wanted to further investigate why humans and chimpanzees have such differences. They analyzed the genomes of humans and closely related primates and discovered more than 500 regulatory regions — sequences in the genome responsible for controlling genes — that chimpanzees and other mammals have, but humans do not. In other words, they are making a list of DNA that has been lost from the human genome during millions of years of evolution. Results from their study are published in the journal Nature.

…[The scientists] found that in one case, a switch that had been lost in humans normally turns on an androgen receptor at the sites where sensory whiskers develop on the face and spines develop on the penis. Mice and many other animals have both of these characteristics, and humans do not.

“This switch controls the expression of a key gene that’s required for the formation of these structures,” said David Kingsley, a study co-author at Stanford University. “If you kill that gene — smash the lightbulb — which has been done previously in mouse genetics, the whiskers don’t grow as much and the penile spines fail to form at all.”

To sum up: Humans lack a switch in the genome that would “turn on” penile spines and sensory whiskers. But our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, have the switch, and that’s why they differ from us in these two ways.

So what does it matter, other than, presumably,  a different female sexual experience, and a lack of ability to sense things a few inches from our faces?

The other “switch” examined in this study probably has to do with the expansion of brain regions in humans. Kingsley and colleagues believe they have found a place in their genome comparisons where the loss of DNA in humans may have contributed to the gain of neurons in the brain. That is to say, when humans evolved without a particular switch, the absence of that switch allowed the brain to grow further.

The earliest human ancestors probably had sensory whiskers, penile spines and small brains, Kingsley said. Evolutionary events to remove the whiskers and spines and enlarge the brain probably took place after humans and chimpanzees split apart as separate species (Some 5 million to 7 million years ago), but before Neanderthals and humans diverged (about 600,000 years ago), Kingsley said.

So there you have it: We were on the fast track to becoming Homo Sapiens when the switch for sensory whiskers and penile spines was turned off! Make of that what you want, in this Women’s History Month! For me, that story made my day!

(I thought of calling this blog post “Of Mice and Men”, but that would be unfair to Steinbeck.)

Patricia Churchland at Book Works March 9, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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A quick message for interested San Diegans: Patricia Churchland will be doing a reading Thursday evening , March 10:

In “Braintrust,” Patricia Churchland, professor emeritus of philosophy at UCSD, uses neuroscience to question accepted wisdom about the origins of morality.

She will be at Book Works in Del Mar Thursday at 7 p.m. for a reading.

From a San Diego Union Tribune interview:

What is new about the hypothesis you are offering?

As I see it, moral values are rooted in family values displayed by all mammals — the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles.

Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled.

A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

Read more here.