Next week on Experiment Theater…

French TV breaks new ground, mining academic literature for game-show ideas:

The Game of Death, which goes out tonight on the state-owned France 2 channel, recruited ordinary people who had no idea they were being set up.

Based on a US psychological experiment in the 1960s, the man apparently being shocked is zapped each time he gets a quiz question wrong.

Each time the show’s hostess urged contestants to turn up the voltage until the man screamed in pain with the audience, who also believed the game was real, shouting “punishment” as encouragement.

Eventually the “victim” appeared to drop dead.

Situationism is a recent trend in moral philosophy that denies the existence of global character traits.  (“Global” character traits are what non-philosophers just call “character traits”; they’re dispositions like kindness, generosity, courage, mean-spiritedness, and competitiveness, that crop up across a wide range of situations.)  Situationists believe people are motivated by highly situation-specific factors.  Someone might be generous to family members, on sunny days, after she’s had a good night’s sleep, for example, but no one displays the global character trait of generosity.

Situationists cite the Milgram experiment like crazy.  They take the willingness of people to torture strangers as evidence that people lack global character traits like sympathy and kindness.

I’m unpersuaded by situationism for lots of reasons.  But one reason is that the situationist interpretation of the Milgram results seems strained.  To me, the obvious interpretation is that most people have a global disposition to obey authority, and that disposition overcomes any disposition to kindness.

I think my preferred interpretation makes good sense in the game-show case.  The contestants may be kind– even globally kind– but much more than that, they don’t want to disobey an authority figure on TV.  From the same article:

“They are not equipped to disobey,” [Christophe Nick] added. “They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to,” he told French news agency AFP.

Thus the game show doesn’t reveal the non-existence of character traits, as the situationists would have it.  Rather, it reveals the presence of an obedient (and probably an attention-grubbing) character.

Anyway!  I’m all for game-show recreations of famous experiments in psychology.  Let’s hope they make it a series!

Related articles:

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown (October 2007)
Philosophy Compass

The competitive spirit

Christopher Hitchens takes to the pages of Newsweek to publish a glorious anti-Olympics rant.  The subtitle is the thesis:  “How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.”

Hitchens is too quick to declare the issue settled, but he’s on to something interesting.  What should moral philosophers– especially virtue ethicists– say about the character trait of competitiveness?  Hitchens is making the “vice” case:  excessive competitiveness can, indeed, bring out the worst in us.

There’s no doubt that the competitive spirit, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can have the terrible consequences Hitchens catalogs.  But the same can be said of uncontroversial virtues.  Generosity, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can lead to terrible outcomes.  Consider the excessively (or exclusively) generous person who might help a jonesing addict buy his next dose of heroin, or help a struggling thief carry a heavy painting away from a museum.

But what of a competitive spirit bounded by virtues like kindness, generosity, and perspective?  It seems to me that, bounded by other virtues, a competitive spirit might be revealed as a virtue.  It is, or can be, a major driver of self-improvement.  It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the violinist to stay up late practicing in hopes of winning first chair.  It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the inspiring sorts of achievement we sometimes see in events like the Olympics.

Related articles:

Kantian Virtue
By Anne Margaret Baxley, Washington University in St. Louis
(April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University
(February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Punking the BNP

Scientific_racism_irishK-Punk (aka writer Mark Fisher) writes about possible responses to the BNP on his blog:

“Much of the BNP’s appeal derives from its granting of legitimacy to those feelings of resentment and aggrievement – yes, it says, you’re right to feel angry and betrayed…Here, class emerges…But this brief flash of class antagonism is immediately subsumed by race-logic”.

Later on he notes that any effective response to the BNP cannot simply argue with the BNP within the current framework, but seek to undermine the framework itself, this thing that sublimates class differences into racial differences. He describes this process using a particularly philosophically-loaded term: Narrative.

Narrative is that which gives structure to everyday human existence – it is historical, social. In After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre argues that the self is a “narrative self” (as opposed to an “emotive self”) – identity is constructed by the myriad roles an individual plays in multiple systems. The good for an individual must therefore be “the good for one who inhabits these roles” (AV, 220). If Macintyre’s argument holds water, this means that social critiques – such as the one detailed in the previous paragraph – have not only political implications, but moral ones.

Related articles:

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Race, Colorblindness, and Continental Philosophy
By Michael J. Monahan , Marquette University
(Vol. 1, September 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Curiosity as a Vice?

Moral philosophy has been recently shifting its attention to a classical view on ethics – virtue ethics. Kant, Hume, Mill and others – each on his own way; contributed to the modern ethical concern: what is the right thing to do? On the other hand, Aristotle and his contemporaries were concerned about something else: what makes a man a “good” man?
In the re-emergence of virtue ethics, how to categorize the character trace of curiosity? Stanley Fish raises the debate in this recent post in The New York Times.
The categorization of curiosity as a moral vice or moral virtue seems to lie in the threshold of the ongoing divergences between science and religion Continue reading “Curiosity as a Vice?”