Thursday, December 5, 2013

How To Evaluate a Scientific Study: The Actual Study Vs How a Study is Reported

Back in the pre-internetz days, there were fewer media outlets.  Nowadays, there is no shortage of websites that have news that is tailor-made for your biases interests.  Of course, having only a few media outlets is a double-edged sword.  I probably don't have to list all the disadvantages of there being only a few media outlets.  One of the advantages, however, was that each media outlet could hire someone with scientific training to do the science reporting.  

What happens now, is that any hack with an internet connection can post an article about a "study" purporting to support whatever ideology that particular website has.  This is a problem for several reasons but I will focus on two right here:

(1)  Very often the article and (especially) the headline do not support the data or the conclusions of the actual study.
(2)  The results of the study are not reported in the context of the background literature on the topic.

Lets take a look an example to illustrate what I'm talking about...

Consider this article that breathlessly announces that science "proves" (a Harvard study no less!) that Faith has a positive effect on healing.  Lets take a look at the claims in the article, then contrast them with what's in the abstract of the actual study (I don't feel like paying $35.00 for full access).

Basic overview of the study:  The study looked at the effects of (teaching?) positive religious coping beliefs (it's all part of God's plan) to psychiatric patients, some of whom, pre-treatment, had negative religious coping beliefs (God's punishing you, the Devil's doing it).  The upshot is that getting these people to have positive coping beliefs leads to better outcomes.

Aside: Am I the only one that finds it ironic that the study is about trying to treat people who often suffer from mental delusions  with more mental delusions? 

Headline:   Faith and healing: Religious coping improves outcomes for people being treated for severe psychiatric illness.

Ok, so based on this headline I'd believe that a Harvard study shows that religious coping mechanisms improve outcomes for severe psychiatric illness.  Wow!  As if fear of God smiting me wasn't enough incentive to believe! 

The first paragraph then goes on to restate the study's "findings", plus give them some cred because it was a study by a researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Ok, so we need to ask a couple of basic questions about (a) what was actually in the study compared to how it was reported and (b) what basic weaknesses the actual study might have.

Reporting Vs The Study
First of all, the way the headline of the article reads, it seems like its an open and shut case that religious coping improves outcomes.  Lets take a look at the first line of the actual study:

Religious coping is very common among individuals with psychosis, however its relevance to symptoms and treatment outcomes remains unclear.

Well, that doesn't seem to be the same degree of certainty as the article headline suggests, does it?  However, in all fairness, this might not be the right interpretation of what the author's intend.  They probably mean that since outcomes have been unclear, we decided to do a study...Lets let that slide.

Now lets look at the final results of the study (as reported in the abstract):

Negative religious coping appears to be a risk factor for suicidality and affective symptoms among psychotic patients. Positive religious coping is an important resource to this population, and its utilization appears to be associated with better treatment outcomes.

Well, based on this information, appealing to faith and religious coping--unqualified--might not be a good idea for all groups, but this is certainly not what we'd assume from the article headline.  What seems to be good is a particular type of religious belief.

At this point, we might want to ask what the relative effect of negative and positive religious beliefs might be on mental health.  If negative-coping religious beliefs only have a small effect while positive-coping religious beliefs have a large effect, we could plausibly argue that, on balance, religious beliefs (unqualified)  and faith might be a good thing for mental health.  Lets take a look at the numbers, shall we?

According to the study the negative-coping religious beliefs accounted for 9-46.2% of the negative effect on pre-treatment conditions while positive-coping religious beliefs accounted for 13.7-36% of the positive outcomes.  

So, again, it looks like, contra the headlines, not any old religious beliefs will do.  Consider that the article (and the study) claim that religious belief (unqualified) has a positive effect on mental health.  However, their own data shows that 9-46.2% of a subjects psychological problems can be attributed to religious belief.   Furthermore, 

Negative religious coping appears to be a risk factor for suicidality and affective symptoms among psychotic patients.
Purportedly, the good effects only come from a particular kind of religious belief.  I sure hope they're the one's sanctioned by God and not the ones that are merely convenient for us! 

I'll come back to these numbers when we look at the study.

Defining Categories
Up until now we've been throwing around the term "religious beliefs" and "faith" as though it only comes in two flavors and degrees: positive and negative.  What we should check is to see how this quality was assigned.  As it turns out,

8 percent of subjects referred to themselves as very religious and 20 percent identified themselves as religious—nearly 85 percent of the participants indicated they used spirituality in some way as a coping mechanism for dealing with their illness or stress. (my emphasis) 

Hold on a tick.  Did they just say spirituality?  I challenge you to find a single person on the new-age infested West Coast who considers themselves to be "spiritual" and also religious.  In fact, I challenge you to define "spiritual" in any meaningful way that doesn't capture more fairy tales and superstitions than a Chinese grandmother subscribes to.  Bottom line, the article (and the study) claims to be about religious belief and faith but the actual study expands the category such that it catches just about anything some damn hippy can imagine.  (Damn hippies!)

The Study
At this point, with all the category shenanigans, we might want to turn a critical eye to the study itself.  

A.  One thing we might consider is the relative effect sizes of negative and positive-coping beliefs and how subjects might be clustered within these ranges.  For example, the study says that the negative impact of negative-coping religious beliefs is between 9 and 46.2%.  We have no way of knowing where in this range the subjects are distributed.  Are 90% of them clustered near 46% and 10% near the 9 %?  Without paying the $35.00, we don't know.  Nevertheless, this is important.

Suppose it is as I hypothesize: Most negative-copers are near the 46% mark.  Now suppose also that when subjects receive the beneficial effects (range 13-36%) of positive coping beliefs, they are clustered near the 13% end of the spectrum, with a few outliers in the high range.  If this is the case, then the net effect of religious belief is still (significantly) negative.  (A possible reply is that, yes, but with the positive beliefs they are still moderately better off than they would have been otherwise:  True.  I'll address this in section D below).

B.  One of the first things you should look at when evaluating a study, because it take very little math, is the sample size.  The sample size here is 47.  But the study isn't making conclusions about a sample of 47 people; the conclusions are about sub-groups which made up of those 47 people.  Let do some 'rithmatic:

Group 1: 8% of 47=3.76 people (WTF?) are "very religious"
Group 2: 20% of 47=9.4 people (WTF?) are "religious"
Group 3:  85% of 47=39.95 people (WTF?) are "use spirituality in some way as a coping 
(I think we can safely assume that Group 3 is comprised of Group 1 and 2 plus 26 people.)
Group 4 (?): 7 people who didn't have any spiritual coping mechanism.

Where to begin? Here are a few problems to consider:

C.  The study's conclusions are about the effects of negative and positive-coping religious beliefs, but as the results are reported, the outcomes aren't divided up into 4 (?) subgroups.  This creates some problems (unless we get behind the pay wall).  For example, it could be that all the "very religious" people (3.7 people) are the the ones who experienced the greatest positive effect, in which case, we're drawing conclusions based on a sample of 3 or 4 people.  I shouldn't have to explain why this is a problem.  There are a boat-load of similar problems depending on how the different categories overlap.

D. Probably the biggest problem is where dafuk is the control?  Results are fairly meaningless without one.  The entire group of subjects with any kind of uber-broadly-defined religious coping beliefs (i.e., spiritual) was 40 out of 47 people.  So the control/non-religious group was 7? Or were these 7 also receiving "treatment" with positive coping religious beliefs? Any well designed study has a control that is roughly equal to the treatment group.  

How can we attribute effect if we aren't comparing to anything?  The subjects were all getting treatment.  What they need is a group that gets the same treatment minus the positive religious coping beliefs, then we might be able to infer that it's the positive coping beliefs that are doing the work. 

E. How do we know that it is the fact that the coping beliefs are of a religious nature that is the reason for the outcome?  Maybe you could bestow similar coping devices with secular trappings.    We'd need to control for this...oops!

F.  This brings me to my final analytical point.  You cannot evaluate studies in isolation.  Every study needs to be evaluated within the context of basic scientific knowledge as well as the research literature of which it is a part.  If an individual study shows results that conflict with either of these to contexts, you should be very skeptical.  

It doesn't mean the study is wrong, it only means that the burden of proof is higher for that particular study and we should probably wait for replication (with good controls, large sample sizes, and rigid methodology) before we think magic treatment x cures all our ills without side-effects.  If one study purports to overturn basic science and well-established literature, the burden should be high.  That's how science works.

Also, you cannot give each study equal weight.  You have to look at the relative quality of the study.  A study with sound methodology and controls should be weighted more heavily than one that has obvious flaws.  Not all studies are created equal.

As for this particular study, I'm not too familiar with the literature and am too lazy to do a search right now.  I know that I have seen well-designed studies as well as meta-analyses that show no effect or negative effect for intercessory prayer (not the same issue but related).  I've also seen well designed studies showing that some popular "positive thinking" techniques can actually have a negative effect.  I've also seen studies to the contrary.  I'm not familiar enough with the evidence to have a position.

My main point regarding this study is that, to properly evaluate it, I'd have to get behind the pay wall.  However, one thing is certain, the headline of the article and the contents of the study don't match up too well. 

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What's scary about this?  First of all, the website it was posted on looks pretty "scienc-y".  There are, however, a few red flags.  The first is ads.  This in and of itself doesn't delegitimize the source but it tells us that the purpose of the site might be to get eyeballs rather than be a careful curator of legitimate science literature.  (Of course the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).  

This can be a problem because the site may have a tendency to either (a) present studies in such a way that isn't representative of their actual content in order to draw eyeballs, (b) might have a bias towards reporting studies that are only preliminary and poorly constructed (that's why the effect is surprising).  

On the website, there are lots and lots of links to articles on the latest studies.  In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if a portion of the studies it has articles on are good studies. However, I find it hard to believe that with well over 30 linked articles a day that there is much vetting going on.  

But that's not the issue.  The issue is how the studies are being reported, and that they are being reported in a way that is not always representative of the data in the actual study--be it a good or bad study.  This is why arming yourself with critical thinking skills is so important.

At the end of the day, if you want to know if an article about a study is properly representing the study's findings you have to find the original study...and then you need to look at the abstract...and then you need to get behind the got tam pay wall if they have one.

For a limited time I'm willing to teach you the amazing secret to critical thinking the "establishment" doesn't want you to know.  Please send your credit card numbers to my email.  Thank you.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mill: On Utilitarianism

Mill would might respond to Arnold one of 2 ways.  First, he might say that while pain might sometimes be an instrumental good, it is not a good in itself (unlike pleasure).  Therefore, pain cannot be pleasure.  Second, he might respond that Arnold is confused.  He seems to be saying that, for him, growing is a good in itself.  But would Arnold pursue growth if it didn't bring him pleasure?  Probably not.  So, it is not growth that is the good in itself, but the pleasure that Arnold gets from growth.   

Arnold, you are a great man in many respects, but a logician you are not. 

In the chapter of Utilitarianism titled "What Utilitarianism Is" Mill replies to a series of common misunderstandings and criticisms directed at utilitarianism.

1.  Objection:  Damn fools be confusin' what utilitarians mean by 'utility'.

Reply:  Utility is not something different from pleasure but "pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain".

Clarification:  Definition of Utilitarianism/Greatest Happiness Principle:  Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.  Happiness means the same as pleasure and absence of pain.  Unhappiness is pain and privation of pleasure.  Morality is founded on the principle that "pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain."

Issue:  Mill thinks that we ought to act on the greatest happiness principle because it brings about 'good' consequences.  However, one might contend that morality involves what is right, not necessarily what is good.  Are rightness and goodness one and the same?

2.  Objection:  Utilitarianism is the doctrine worthy only of swine--there are nobler objects of pursuit for humans other than mere satisfaction of pleasure.

Reply: Ah ha! It's not the utilitarians but their critics who represent the human condition in a degrading light.  The critics assume that human beings are only capable of the same pleasures that humans are capable of.  But surely the pleasures that would fully satisfy a beast would not satisfy a human being's conception of happiness.  Humans also have pleasures of the intellect, imagination, and moral sentiments which animals don't have.

Mill's Qualitative Hedonism:  No inconsistency arises in utilitarianism by saying there are distinct kinds of pleasures, some of which are more desirable and more valuable than others.  In other words, there's no good reason to suppose that pleasure is all of one type and can only be measured in terms of quantity and intensity.  There are higher (i.e., intellectual) and lower (i.e., bodily) pleasures.

Ok, but how do you decide why one type of pleasure is higher and another lower?  It seems kind of arbitrary...Here's how you dooz it:  If a majority of people who have experienced and are able to understand and appreciate both kinds of pleasures have a preference for one, then the preferred one has the higher ranking.  To determine different kinds of pleasure you'd run the same test but if the majority wouldn't trade a small amount of one type of pleasure for any amount of the other, then you have 2 different kinds of pleasure (high and low).   It seems as though, in theory, you could have lexical scale of kinds of pleasures.

For example: Suppose we want to compare the pleasure we get from being on facebook to writing an 'A' paper.  If the majority of people who have done both wouldn't trade even a small quantity of the 'A'-paper feeling for a ton of time on facebook, then we could say that the kind of pleasure you get from being on facebook and the kind of you get from writing an 'A' paper are qualitatively different.  They are of distinct kinds.

People who are acquainted with both higher and lower types of pleasures prefer the higher pleasures:  According to Mill this is an empirical fact.  Part of his supporting evidence is that few humans would give up being human in exchange for being a fully satisfied pig and few well-educated people would give up their education for being a fully-satisfied ignoramuses (ignorami?).  As Mill famously says,

[i]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

Rob Ford Counter-Reply:  How do we explain people giving up long-term higher pleasures in favor of short-term lower pleasures?  People can knowingly make bad choices.  For example, we know we shouldn't be chronically checking facebook when we're supposed to be writing a paper or studying, but we do it anyway.  The fact that we don't act on our knowledge is no indictment against the claim that we have the knowledge of what is good for us.

So, now that we've sorted out what utilitarians mean by 'utility' and that there are (at least) 2 distinct kinds of pleasure, lets look at some further objections that Mill deals with...

3.  Objections from Kantian (aka deontological, aka transcendental) Ethics:  
(a)  Happiness cannot be the rational purpose of human life because (i) it isn't attainable and (ii) ain't nobody got a right to happiness. 

Reply 1:   Dude, even if you were right that happiness isn't attainable, which your aren't, the objection still wouldn't apply to the other half of the utilitarian doctrine--that utility also includes avoidance of pain and suffering.  So, even if we can't attain happiness, rational action is still directed at avoiding and minimizing pain and suffering.  Boom goes the dynamite. 

Reply 2:  You're wrong about the unattainability of happiness because you misunderstand what it is. Happiness is not just a "state of exalted pleasure" or "a life of rapture".  No, my dear friend; by happiness we mean "an existence made up of few transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive," and not expecting more from life than it can reasonably bestow. 

(b)  True nobility and virtue requires renunciation of one's own happiness.

Reply 1: You're all like "virtue and nobility require self-sacrifice blah, blah, blah".  Yeah, OK, I get it. But check this out.  Why would anyone sacrifice their own happiness? Go ahead, I bet you'll never guess.  Give up?  Cuz they're trying to make things better for other people.  Maybe for their family or friends or community.  Maybe they realize by sacrificing their own happiness they can make many more people happier or at least reduce their suffering.  

Sure we call this virtuous doubt.  But at the end of the day this only further confirms happiness as the supreme good because no one in their right mind would suffer and sacrifice their own well-being if they didn't think the consequence of this suffering would be an improvement in the well-being of others.  The suffering itself is not a good, rather its consequences are.  To voluntarily give up one's own happiness without the effect of improving the well-being of others is not virtuous, it's just plain loco...ese. 

Clarification of Utilitarianism and the Principle of Impartiality:  Don't get it twisted.  Utilitarianism isn't about maximizing your own individual happiness at the expense of others.  What makes an action right is that you impartially evaluate the sum total of happiness that several courses of action might produce and choose the one that creates the most--regardless of how it's distributed.  

For example:  Suppose you can do A or B.  Action A will improve your own utility by 4 units but Action B will improve 5 other people's utility by 3 units, for a total of 15 units.   You must make the decision from the point of view of a "strictly impartial" and "disinterested and benevolent spectator."  The right choice, as prescribed by utilitarianism is B.  You do not treat your own well being as of greater importance as the well being of others.

Practical Application of the Greatest Happiness Principle:  (a) Laws and social arrangements should seek to harmonize the happiness/interests of the individual with the happiness/interests of the community. (b)  Education and opinion should serve to teach people that their own individual happiness is bound up in the happiness of others.

4.  Objections:  The utilitarian standard is too high!  It's unreasonable to expect people to consistently put their own happiness aside in favor of the happiness of others.

Reply (and criticism of Kant):  First you said it was too low and now it's too high.  Make of your freakin' mind people!  99 times out of hundred our own interest will align with what's also best for others.  So long as we don't confuse motivation of action for the rule of action, utilitarianism is not too high a standard.  Kant thinks that only an action's motive defines if the action is right.  But this is wrong.  The motive tells us about the moral worth of the agent, it does not tell us about the moral worth of the act.  

If we want to know if the act is right, we look at the consequences of the act; if we want to know if the agent is good, we look at the intentions behind the act.  Don't get 'em mixed up.  Of course, good acts usually come from agents with good intentions and agents with bad intentions usually do bad things but it's not necessarily the case.  Sometimes someone who intends to do good can cause harm and vice versa.

Criticism of Aristotle:  A moral standard doesn't decide whether an act is good or bad based on whether the person who did it is good (i.e., virtuous) or bad.  That's loco.  Good (i.e., virtuous) people can sometimes do bad things just as non-virtuous people can sometimes do good things.  Defining the action as good or bad in terms of the agent's moral character is loco.

ISSUE: What is morality about, the act or the intent behind the act?  Or is it both?  Or is it the agent's character?

5.  Objection:  It's just not practical to do a utility calculus every time we have to act in a moral situation.  Sometimes there just isn't time or energy or the foresight to anticipate and calculate the utility calculus of each possible course of action.

Reply 1:  That's just ridiculous.  Ain't nobody sayin' we can't use Christianity as a guide for action because there isn't time to read the Torah and New Testament before each decision...

Reply 2:  Besides, it's not like we're starting from scratch every time we have to make a decision.  Each individual has a lifetime of experience and a wealth of social knowledge to draw on for rules of thumb.  We learn what general principles tend to give the best utilitarian outcomes in like situations.

For example:  It's not like you need to sit down and weigh the consequences of murder and stealing each time it crosses your mind, you've got secondary rules prohibiting these acts that already conform to the main principle.  Duh! 

We can use the first principle of utilitarianism to derive secondary (practical) principles of action.  If, in a particular situation, the secondary principles conflict, we can resort back to the first principle to decide which secondary principle should take precedence. 

Kinds of Utilitarianism Rule vs Act Utilitarianism:  Ok, there's an extensive literature on this topic so I'm just going to give a brief outline.  

(Simple) Act Utilitarianism:  For each act, you must perform the utility calculus.   Otherwise stated, for each act, you should judge its rightness or wrongness in terms of how much relative happiness is created (relative to other options or inaction).

Rule Utilitarianism (weak):  We use secondary rules to make decisions.  However, if we encounter a situation where the secondary rule dictates a course of action that doesn't maximize happiness, we temporarily suspend the rule in favor of the Greatest Happiness Principle.  Under this type of rule utilitarianism, the secondary rules are heuristics, but can be suspended for special cases in which they don't give the right result.

Rule Utilitarianism (strong):  Same as weak except the rules are never suspended. Suspending rules undermines predictability causing anxiety and uncertainty which, in turn, diminish utility.

Common Objections to Utilitarianism
A.  It seems to commit us to doing things we consider to be immoral:  For example, suppose there's a terrorist who's going to blow up half of Uzbekistan.  The authorities have managed to capture his two children.  The only way to convince him to give himself up is to threaten to kill his two sweet innocent children who have never even hurt a fly.  In fact, it was reported that they have flies for pets and they treat them very well.  Anyhow, we know that he doesn't believe that the authorities will harm his kids and that the only way to get him to believe it and turn himself in is to kill the first one.  

Utilitarianism commits us to killing the first kid in order to save half of Uzbekistan. Although it might seem justified, killing innocent children hardly seems to be a moral act.  Also, because the good is defined in terms of utility, utilitarianism call this action 'good'.  But killing innocent kids (especially if they don't hurt flies) doesn't seem good...

B.  The Experience Machine:  Suppose it's the future.  It is the year 2000.  There are robots and flying cars everywhere and they both talk in robot voices.  Neuroscientists have invented an experience machine...basically like the matrix.  You can plug in and have any experience you want.  You can have any the memories implanted too.  You can choose to have the experience of climbing mount Everest.  You'd have all the memories of the struggle along the way and the triumph at summit.   

In fact, if you wanted, you could remain plugged into the machine forever and pre-program the exact life you want.  You'd never know the difference.  Would you choose to be plugged in forever?   

Utilitarianism defines good in terms of pleasure (and absence of suffering).  However, this thought experiment seems to show (if you answered no) that there's something more that we desire beyond mere pleasure.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kantian Ethics: A Summary

Introduction and Context
Kant is considered to be one of the most important philosophers ever...EVER!  Therefore, everything he says it true.  The end.  Well, not quite.   Lets avoid appeals to authority and look at the arguments ourselves, shall we? 

As I mentioned in earlier posts the difference between the 3 main ethical theories (virtue, deontology, consequentialism) is a matter of emphasis.  While virtue ethics answers the question "what should I do" by emphasizing what a virtuous person would do (i.e., emphasizing things about the agent),  deontologists replies "you should do what ever you have a moral duty to do" (i.e., emphasizing properties of the action).  In a moment I'll explain how we figure out what our duties are but for now, know that Kantian ethics has to do with moral duty.   This why it is often referred to as deontology (Latin deon means "which is binding" or "duty").  

Ok, so the obvious question is "what's my duty?".  The short answer is that for any given situation you should figure out what principle (maxim) you are acting on and decide if you would want everyone to act on that principle.  As Kant says:

act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

So, in plain English, what does this mean?  It's like this y'all.  Suppose you want to know if you should keep a promise.  Last week you borrowed $50.00 from a friend and you promised to pay it back this week.  Well, your favorite DJ is in town this week and tickets are $50.00.  Not only that but you're going to need a new outfit.  Who the hell wears the same outfit two weeks in a row, right?  Am I right? And of course you're going to need money for X.  The music is never as good when you're sober.  

Anyway, enough about my your weekend.  What should you do about the promise you made?  Lets see what happens when we apply Kant's rule (referred to as the categorical imperative or CI).  First, figure out what maxim (i.e., principle) you're acting on.  Maybe something like "if your want to borrow money but know you won't be able to pay it back, promise that you will anyway."  If it became a universal law that everyone who made such a promise in similar circumstance broke it, then promises wouldn't be possible.   Whenever you promised a friend that you'd pay them back, they'd know that nobody in your situation ever keeps promises, and so they'd have no reason to believe you.  By universalizing your behavior you'd eliminate the very possibility of there being promises.  In short, by universalizing your behavor a sort of logical contradiction is caused.  

Main Points
1.  The moral quality of an action is solely determined by the intentions behind it, not by its consequences.  Consequences, shmonsiquences...what I the nature of your intent?
Issue:  Is this true?  Can you think of counter-examples? 

2.  The appropriate moral action for any situation can be known by any rational agent; that is to say, reason gives us access to moral truth.  
Issue:  What is the necessary assumption about the relationship between reason and morality?  Is it true?  Can you think of counter-examples? 

3.  The only thing in the whole world that is good without qualification is a good will.  
     (a)  For example, the virtues such as courage, power, wealth, and honor may be good but they can all serve evil ends if the agent doesn't have a good will.  A good will, on the other hand, is always good in itself, not because of any consequences that may follow from it. 
     (b)  A well-intentioned action way end up not having the intended consequence, but this doesn't negate the fact that the will was morally good.  For example, I might give money to a homeless person with the intent of helping them.  However, they take the money, buy drugs and OD.  Assuming there was no way for me to reasonable anticipate the outcome, my act was still good because it was well-intentioned.  The unfortunate consequences are outside my control and so that they turned out bad does nothing to diminish the moral goodness of my act.  It's not that consequences don't matter at all, however, they don't matter when we evaluate the moral worth of an act.  For this, we only consider the intent of the act. 
Issue:  Is the only intrinsically good thing a good will?  Can you think of counter-examples?  Is it true that we should take into account the consequences of an action in evaluating its moral worth? 

4.  The only appropriate motivation for a moral act is duty.  
     (a)  For example, suppose you want to impress someone you have a crush on.  You're walking down the street with this person and you see an old lady who needs help crossing the street.  Even though it's out of your way, you help the old lady.  However, the real reason you help her, (i.e., your intent) is not because you feel a sense of duty to help those who require help but because you want to impress your friend and show what a swell guy/gal you are.  For Kant, your act is not moral even though it had a good consequence.  
     (b)  The example that Kant gives is of a shopkeeper who doesn't overcharge his customers.  However, he doesn't overcharge because he acknowledges a duty to only charge what is fair and to not deceive people, rather he doesn't overcharge because he knows, in the long run, it will hurt his business as people find out.  This is acting out of prudence rather than duty.  So, for Kant, the shopkeepers actions have no moral worth.  It is merely a happy coincidence that duty and enlightened self-interest align. 
     (c)  Some people are naturally disposed to helping others out of compassion.  But we cannot call actions moral that arise out of someone's inherent disposition.  It's just dumb luck that their particular inclinations line up with duty.  They did not exercise their will in choosing to do the right thing.  Morality demands exercising the will to act according to duty.  Their inclinations could have been otherwise.  However, someone who doesn't feel compassion for others, yet acts out of duty to help them, is acting morally.   
     (d)  Recall in (2), that moral action is accessible to any rational agent.  So, if moral action depended on having the good fortune of being born or having the right upbringing to act morally, then moral action wouldn't be possible for everyone.  Contrast this with Aristotle who said pretty much the opposite--people learn to be virtuous by establishing the right habits.  But if you don't have the right dispositions or upbringing to establish those habits as a child/youth then as an adult won't have the ability to be virtuous/moral.  It's too late to form the right habits. 
Issue:  Does an action that arises from compassion devoid of moral worth because it wasn't arrived at rationally?

5.  You can know whether an action is moral by identifying and evaluating the underlying principle (i.e., "maxim") according to which it was done.  Two people can act in exactly the same way in the same situation, but only one will be acting morally.  To distinguish the two, we need to look at the maxim according to which each acted.
     (a)  For example, your girlfriend/boyfriend asks you "where were you last night?".  You tell the truth that you were poppin' bottles in VIP at Hakkasan with your ex.   Now, we need to ask what maxim you were acting on when you decided to tell the truth.  Suppose you accidentally posted a time-stamped instagram on facebook right around the time that you texted you bf/gf that your were at home working on your philosophy paper.   You told the truth because you were acting on the maxim "always tell the truth except if you think you can get away with it."  However, suppose in a parallel universe, your Kantian twin tells the truth because he/she is acting on the maxim "always tell the truth *period*."
Which one is acting morally?  According to Kant, it would be your twin.  But why?...(see: (6))

6.  The Categorical Imperative (CI) and how to distinguish between moral and non-moral maxims.  As you might have guessed, the way to figure out which maxim is the moral one (i.e., duty), you run it through the Categorical Imperative-o-Matic.  Lets look at the example in 5 (a) to figure out which of the two maxims is moral.  Remember, figuring it out isn't a matter considering particular consequences, but of what is rational.  Basically what you need to do of each maxim is to ask whether we could wish it to be a universal law.  That is, could we wish that every person past, present, and future, would act according to that maxim.        
     (a)  Lets look at the first maxim:  "Always tell the truth unless you can get away with it."  Now, what would happen if we universalized this maxim?  This would mean that anytime someone was in a situation where they thought they could get away with a lie, they'd tell a lie.  But if everyone did this, then lying in such a situation would be logically impossible:  if it is a universal law that people do this then anytime we ask someone to tell the truth in a situation where they could get away with a lie, we already know that they will lie!  Because we already know that in this situation people will lie (because it's a universal law), then the lie doesn't work.  Lying requires that people think you will tell the truth!          
     (b)  1st criteria for identifying whether a maxim can be universalized:  Because universalizing this maxim results in a logical contradiction/negates itself, reason tells us it is not part of the moral law and we should not do it.  In short, any maxim that results, through universalization in a contradiction/self-negation is evidence for the us rejecting that maxim as moral.  Maxims that are the opposite of the ones that lead to contradiction are called perfect duties.  E.g., lying leads to contradiction, therefore you have a moral duty to act on the maxim "always tell the truth."
     (c)  Lets consider the second maxim: "Always tell the truth."  If I universalize this law, that is, suppose that every person, past, present, and future always tells the truth then no contradiction ever results.  For this reason this second maxim is a moral law, and we are duty-bound to abide by it.
     (d)  Now, what about a situation where you have mucho dinero and you see a homeless person asks for some help.  You decide not to help them.  Lets figure out what your maxim of action is and run it through the categorical imperative to see if your action is moral.  Maxim:  "don't help people even if you can."  Well, if I make this a natural law, no obvious contradiction emerges.  So is it morally permissible not to help people?  Kant says it's not just logical contradictions that tell us if a maxim is moral, it's if we could "will that it become a universal/natural law."  So consider that your current good fortune is a contingent matter. It could easily be otherwise and you might be in a position requiring compassion and assistance.  If this were the case, would you wish that is were a universal law that nobody helps those in need?  You couldn't rationally wish this.  And since we need to consider universalization not from our contingent circumstances but from all possible circumstances we might be in, we could not rationally will that the maxim "don't help people in need even though you can" be universal.
     (e)  Second criteria for deciding if we should act on a maxim : If we eliminate the contingent facts about our situation, could be rationally will our maxim into universal law?  Moral maxims discovered through this method are called imperfect duties.

7.  Categorical Imperative Vs Hypothetical Imperatives.  
     (a)  Lets start with hypothetical imperatives.  These are conditional statements of the form "if you want X then do Y."  They usually have to do with goals or desires.  So, if I want to be wealthy, I should become a philosophy rock star.   If I want to be famous, I should get a reality TV show.  If I want to be wealthy and famous, I should be a philosophy rock star with a reality TV show (watch out Kardashians!).  What all hypothetical imperatives have in common is that they are contingent.  They are contingent on some end or goal (it could be moral or not).  If the goal or end changes, then what I should do also changes.
     (b)  Categorical Imperatives are, well, categorical.  Categorical means that it is absolute.  It does not change in relation to my goals or circumstances.  An imperative is a command.  So, a (the) categorical imperative is an absolute command that applies to all people across all circumstances.   In terms of application, whenever we find ourselves in a moral situation, whatever maxim the categorical imperative spits out is what anyone in that situation or relevantly similar situations is obligated to do; they have an moral duty to do it (or refrain from doing it).  There cannot be special exceptions.
     (c)  Kant's classic example:  Recall the example of the $50.00 your friend lent you and you promised to pay back.  You consider acting on the maxim "keep your promises unless it's going to inconvenience me."  Now we have to run this through the CI and see if we can universalize it without giving rise to a contradiction/self-negation.  Ask, could I will it that it were a universal law that everyone breaks their promises when it's inconvenient for them.  Well, if this did become a universal law, then the practice of promises would be undermined.  Consider how much stock you'd put in someone's promise to pay you back the next time you lent them money.  The promise would be essentially meaningless because we'd know ahead of time (because it is a universal law) that people will break their promises if keeping them causes personal inconvenience.  The conclusion is that since the very practice of promise-keeping would be negated by this universalization, the maxim is not part of the moral law, and therefore, we should not act in accordance with it. 

8.  The second formulation of CI:  Kant give a second formulation of the CI, which, if you run maxims through it, should yield that same outcome as the first version:  Always act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
     (a)  What does this mean and how does it fit with Kant's ethics?  For Kant rationality and autonomy are closely tied.  Moral action is only possible if people have freedom of will; that is, if you automatically, without exercising any volition, always acted according to duty you could not act morally.   Moral behavior requires the exercise of choice--i.e., choosing to act according to duty. Because freedom of will is the source of moral behavior, interfering with it would prevent an agent's ability to act morally.  Since the first formulation would prohibit us from preventing people from acting morally, it follows that infringing on people freedom is is morally prohibited.  
     (b)  We cannot interfere with rational agents (i.e., treat them as means to some end that isn't their own) because it would prevent them from exercising their own will freely.  For this reason we cannot treat people merely as means, but must treat them as ends in themselves.
     (c)  The qualification "merely" is important.  Sometimes, my action might treat someone as a means to furthering my own ends, but this is OK so long as I do it in such a way that also treats the other as an end in themselves (autonomous agent).   That is, I must seek consent (so they can freely choose to help me further my end) and/or my action has to also further a goal of the other agent.

10.  Kant vs Aristotle:  
(a)  For Kant emotions play no relevant role in morality.  Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that part of cultivating virtue (moral behavior) is learning to feel the appropriate emotions for a given circumstance.  There is an appropriate amount of shame, compassion, anger, sadness, etc...for any given situation.  Learning to feel these emotions in their appropriate amount is part of being moral.  It is a necessary component.  Aristotle also says the appropriate mean of emotion for a particular situation will vary from person to person based on their character and their position.  In the face of violence, we expect a soldier to feel more courage than we do for a baker.
(b)  Kant thinks moral prescriptions are universal, categorical, and exceptionless while Aristotle advocates flexibility. Aristotle says "for among statements about conduct those which are general apply more widely, but those which are particular are more true, since our conduct has to do with individual cases, and our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases."
Issue:  Who's right? 

Common Criticism
1.  Reason is content-free and so the theory doesn't provide any content.  Suppose you want to know whether we should build a park or a shopping mall.  The park will have some benefits and provide disproportionate benefits to some people.  The same can be said of the mall.  Because Kant's ethics is value-free, it doesn't seem to offer us any way of making choices between competing values--and presumably, ethics is all about values!  

Reader Comment:
I think I would rephrase that 1st "common criticism" of CI being content free to say it probably isn't a comprehensive decisive test for every action you could possibly do. As your "ball park v shopping mall" suggests, there are quite a lot of situations where CI doesn't give an obvious sign that you have an obligation to commit or refrain from doing something. I think Phillipa Foot (Foot some year, some page) suggests that this limited applicability of CI means it's a side-constraint on our actions that might well be silent on a lot of our possible actions which are then decided on say, either our inclinations or on pragmatic, consequentialist grounds. On this reading, actions done on these latter grounds are not strictly speaking moral, but are just different, and not necessarily inferior(?), kind of acts.
From Jay Carlson, famous American philosopher

2.  Does the fact that a maxim yields a logical contradiction really mean it's immoral? Without much effort we can come up with ethical dilemma where both maxims of action don't yield contradictions.  How do we choose between the two if we can't appeal to consequences? 

3.  The CI seems to allow some acts that we consider to be immoral.  There no logical contradiction in willing that "always use the most efficient means of medical research, regardless of animal welfare."

4.  Regarding promise keeping, you could have the maxim "break your promises as long as you can get away with it and no one else knows that this is your policy".  This would not yield any logical contradiction/self-negation of promise keeping.  If everyone acted according to this maxim, this would not harm the practice of promise-keeping.

There's a possible reply which is that I would not will that people do the same to me; that is break promises whenever they can get away with it. 

5.  It seems odd to say that a compassionate disposition has no bearing on morality.  We often conceive as the capacity for compassion as very closely tied to morality.  For Kant a key issue with compassion is not that it's bad or anything but that it clouds the judgment of whether the agent's actions are moral are not (i.e., from duty vs disposition).

More Issues:  
What reason do we have to suppose that reason and morality necessarily align? 
If we say they don't, then by what method can we arrive a moral truth (objective or subjective)? 
How do we know how to ask the right questions?  At what level of particularity do we consider the situation? 
If consequences don't matter, how do we choose between two actions which are both moral? 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Moral Problem: Michael Smith

Introduction and Context
So far it looks like if we're moral realists (i.e., we believe there are objective moral facts) we are in deep doo-doo.  In Why Be Moral, Glaucon and Adeimantus compellingly argue that it's better to appear moral than to actually be moral.  The Euthyphro dilemma shows that appealing to God can't, on its own, give us an account of objective moral truth--if anything it points to a naturalist account.  And if that isn't bad enough, Mackie's arguments from disagreement and queerness undercut the likelihood of a naturalistic account objective moral truth.  

Before you go around raping and pillaging, lets take a look at what a naturalistic account of objective morality has to offer in terms of a response to the various problems that have emerged. 

Started from the Bottom, Now We're Here
Contemporary naturalistic theories of objective morality (moral realism) pretty much all start from the same place:  Moral obligation is justified in terms of reasons.  There is some reason for which it's wrong to poke babies in the eyes for fun.  There is some reason for which you shouldn't steal.  There's some reason for which should help to feed a starving child.  Reasons for and against an action are at the bottom of all naturalistic moral realist theories...and now we're here.

So far so good...except what happens if we don't share or we disagree about what the relevant reasons are in respect to what we should do?  How do you decide whose reasons are the true indicator of moral facts?  Maybe I have what I think is a good reason to steal Bob's money but you tell me that the reason I shouldn't steal Bob's money is because it harms Bob's interests.  I respond, well, that it will hurt Bob isn't a reason for me not to take Bob's money--I couldn't give two hoots about Bob's interests.  I only care about mine.

Ok, you reply, but suppose someone were to do the same to you, would that bother you?  Of course it would.  It would bother me because my interests are at least as important as the interests as the next person, and stealing from me would cause me to my interests to subverted by the interests of another. 

Enter the principle of impartiality:  Stealing from me isn't wrong because there's something special about stealing from me or that there's something special about my interests.  Stealing from anyone is wrong.  From the point of the view of the universe, ceteris paribus, all of our interests have equal weight/are worthy of equal consideration and so any act that unjustifiably preferences one set of interests over another is wrong.  

This principle sounds good in theory but there are also good reasons to think we needn't alway act impartially nor that morality demands it.  If I can only save one life: the life of a close family member or a stranger I've never met, it doesn't seem wrong for me to prefer the interests of my family member.  What about spending money to extend my life 1 year or spending that same money to extend the life of a stranger for 5 years?  What about my personal interest in going to a concert and the interests of a starving child who could eat for 3 months off the ticket price?  Is it morally wrong for me to preference my own (possibly trivial) interests in such a situation?  The point is, reasons as a ground for naturalistic moral realism seem to only get us so far.  As it stands, we have no clear account of how to weigh them against each other or how to reconcile competing reasons. 

Another Big Problem
So far we've said that appeals to reasons ground an account of objective morality.  But where do reasons come from?  (On some accounts) reasons are a reflection of our motivations.  We all have different motives for action but different motives will generate different reasons for action. If I'm motivated to X then I have reason to X.  But what if I'm not motivated to X (i.e. I have no desire to X), does it mean that I have no reason to X?  

Since reasons underpin naturalistic morality, people having different reasons will imply different standards of wrong and right.  This will undercut any hope at objectivity in morality.

What constitutes a good reason for action for you might not be a good reason for me, so I will use my reason to justify my action and you'll use your reason to justify your different action and we'll both be right.  The only way out of this mess is to come up with a way to mediate between competing reasons...

Enter Smith's moral realism

Smith's Rationalist and Internalist Moral Realism 
Smith has two main issues to deal with:  (1)  Explain how there can be objective morality despite the fact that we all can have different reasons for action and (2) explain his answer to (1) in a way that also addresses Mackie's argument from moral disagreement and argument from queerness. 

Before proceeding, lets get one conceptual distinction out of the way:  explanatory reasons vs justifying reasons.   If I keep a lost wallet we can ask "why did you keep the wallet?"  I can respond "because I like money and there was money in it."  This would be an explanatory reason.  The reason I give doesn't justify my behavior but it explains it.  It is often said that explanatory reasons are agent-relative reasons.   A subclass of explanatory reasons are motivational reasons.  These are the specific sub-class of reasons which explain an agent's actions in terms of their particular motivations, desires, and means-end beliefs (i.e., beliefs about how to best realize what they are motivated to do).

A justifying reason, on the other hand, would be something like this:  "I kept the wallet because I couldn't afford food for my children and it's true that if you are given a choice between letting your children go hungry and returning a wallet, you should not return the wallet."  Justifying reasons are generally considered to be reasons we'd appeal to for or against acting in a certain way.  Justifying reasons are sometimes called normative reasons

How to Get Moral Objectivity from Reasons

Solution summary: Rationality is a universal quality and humans all possess it (to varying degrees).  The desires you'd rationally have about a situation are the desires that we'd share universally about that situation.  Since, under ideal conditions of rationality, we'd all have the same desires (and motivations), we'd also all have the same reasons for action (in a given moral situation).  Therefore, we could, if acting rationally, all share the same reasons for action thereby giving rise to objective morality.

So, to repeat, the first main problem for Smith is this: Objective moral facts can be known by appealing to reasons.   However, if not everyone thinks that the same reasons are good reasons for an action, then people will have different ideas about what is right and wrong, and objective morality doesn't get off the ground.  

There's a side-issue that need resolving too.  What kind of reasons are we talking about to ground moral judgment?  Motivational or justifying reasons?  If it's only agent-relative motivational reasons then it doesn't seem like the project will get very far.  Clearly, we all have different motivations for doing things.  On the other hand, if we're talking only about justifying/normative reasons then it doesn't seem that reasons have any power.  

What I mean is, if knowledge of right and wrong doesn't motivate action, what use is it?  If mere awareness of a normative reason doesn't motivate action, there doesn't seem to be any practical value in figuring out what's right and wrong.  If, upon discovering a (normative) reason for acting morally, people who were going to act immorally aren't motivated to do act otherwise, what practical value is there to figuring out and explaining moral truths?  

Because of this problem, Smith defends a position called "reasons internalism".  Reasons internalism attempts to connect justifying reasons to agent-relative motivational reasons.  In other words, reasons internalism tries to show that knowing a moral fact (justifying reason) will necessarily play a role in motivating the right actions.

Ok, now that we've got most of the terminology and context out of the way, lets take a look at how Smith attempts to deal with the problem of moral objectivity.  

What is (naturalistic) moral rightness?  Moral rightness is what we'd desire ourselves to do in a certain circumstance if we were fully rational.   So, if you want to know what 'right' is, (a) imagine that you are perfectly rational and (b) imagine what you'd want done in that particular situation.  

Consider an example:  You find a wallet on the ground and want to know what to do.  First imagine that you are perfectly rational and then imagine what you would want done in that particular circumstance.   Under these conditions you have a good chance (not a guarantee) to know what the right thing to do is. 

So, where does the objectivity come from?  Ah! Ha!  I'm glad you asked.  Lets work backwards for a second.  How do we determine what to do?  We appeal to reasons.  But of course, if we all have different reasons then we'll come up with different answers about what to do.  But where do reasons come from?  Reasons come from agent-specific desires, beliefs, and motivations.  Obviously, we differ enormously in these agent-specific appealing to them will not get us commonly-held reasons.  

The trick is to find a way to make everyone recognize and be motivated by the same reasons.  The only way to do this is to find something that generates the same desires.  We need something that is grounded in something universal: i.e., something we all share that is homogenous.  Rationality. Ta! Da!  Since rationality is universal, if in any particular situation we imagine ourselves as purely rational we will share the same motivations and desires (because they arise from the same source).  Those same motivations and desires (across individuals) will in turn generate the same reasons for action (across individuals), which in turn will generate the same moral judgments about a particular moral situation. 

Now, how does this connect to the agent-relative vs justifying reasons issue? Knowing what a (hypothetical) fully rational agent would want to do creates in (actual) you a desire to do that thing. Added to our pre-reflective set of desires, we now have a new desire to do what a purely rational agent would do.  This new desire will play a motivational role in how we act (because we want to actualize desires).  But since this new desire is something that would be universally shared (because it's what all purely rational being would want), it is not merely an explanatory reason (i.e., "because I wanted to do x") but a justifying reason (i.e., "because it's what all fully rational agents would want").

1.  Why should we suppose that there is an overlap between what is rational and what is moral?
2.  Would our desires really be the same if we were all fully rational?
3.  Can desires be rational or is reason content-free?
4.  Is it true that knowing what a fully rational agent would want to do cause me to want to do that too?

Reply to Mackie's Argument from Queerness
Mackie says that moral properties can't be a feature of the world be cause they'd be metaphysically and epistemologically queer.  I can come to know and study all the properties of matter and energy but how come no one has ever scientifically identified the property of 'rightness' in something?  I know how my sense of sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing work.  But how come no one's ever discovered a moral sense organ?  If we can sense these properties, surely there must be an organ or faculty for it.

Smith's reply is this:  Rightness is simply the qualities or properties we would want acts to have in circumstance C if we were fully rational.   There's nothing magical going on here.  If you want to know what rightness is, think about what a fully rational being would want in a particular moral situation. The features that we'd want the acts to have in those situations is 'rightness'.  

One might object that we've defined 'rightness' in terms of rationality, and maybe we can't give a naturalistic account of rationality.  Ok, maybe so, but rationality is naturally realized; that is, it emerges from the natural world.  A rational creature is simply one with a certain psychology-type.  And psychology is something that can be studied scientifically, so it is therefore, a natural quality. 

Reply to Mackie's Argument from Moral Disagreement
Recall that the argument from moral disagreement goes something like this:  It's an empirical fact that there is and has been a lot of substantive moral disagreement between cultures, over history, within cultures, and between individuals of the same culture.  Rather than saying this moral disagreement is a consequence of people misperceiving objective moral truth, it make more sense to say moral rules are socially constructed and reflect cultural ways of life.  

In Smith's reply, notice how he employs a very similar strategy to Mackie's but starts with different evidence arguing for the opposite conclusion.  

Convergence Claim: 
Smith's basic reply is the convergence claim:  If you removed all the distorting factors in people ethical reasoning (cognitive biases, cultural prejudices, uncritically accepted beliefs, dogma, ideology, religion, disagreement over non-moral facts) and engaged in rational discourse, everyone would eventually end up with the same moral conclusions.

Mackie is cherry-picking:  He's only looking at instances of moral disagreement but there is and continues to be lots of important moral agreement in the world--across cultures and individuals.  The empirical fact that moral arguments tend to illicit the agreement of our fellows gives us reason to believe that there will be a convergence in our desires under conditions of full rationality.

Abduction: The best explanation of moral agreement in the world is our convergence upon a set of extremely unobvious a priori moral truths. And convergence on these truths requires convergence in the desires that fully rational creatures would have.

Counter: But what about all the moral disagreement?

1. : Alongside massive disagreement we find entrenched agreement.   For example, there is widespread agreement on thick moral concepts (descriptive concepts that are also value-laden): courage, brutality, kindness, meanness, honesty.  Moral agreement is so extensive that normativity has been incorporated into naturalistic descriptive concepts.  If we look at how these concepts are used across cultures we will find significant overlap not only in the behaviors they describe but also in the moral evaluation of those behaviors.
2:  Past moral disagreement was removed, inter alia, by a process of moral argument.   The fact that rational argument can lead to changes in culture's and individual's moral evaluations of cultural practices and behaviors is strong evidence for the positive role of rationality in accessing moral truth. Consider, for example, slavery, women's rights.  Essentially, there is moral progress across and within cultures, and one reason for this is rational discourse.

3: Current intractable disagreements can be explained away by absence of ideal conditions of reflection and discussion; i.e., if we removed the elements that distort or impede rational discourse, we'd have substantive moral agreement.

1.  Is it rational arguments that bring about change in moral attitudes or is it something else like emotions and the ability to empathize?
2. If we did remove all the distorting influences, would there be a convergence of desires of fully rational people?
3.  Is the convergence claim falsifiable? If it isn't, it doesn't mean it's false, only that as an empirical claim it will lose some strength.

Replies to Foot
Foot's main criticism is that logical consistency doesn't necessarily imply moral behaviour.  Eg. A criminal can have logically consistent premises about what to do yet not arrive at the correct moral conclusion.

The criminal's flaw is his premises. He has a normative reason to gain wealth no matter what the cost to others. But a fully rational creature would not want this.  His desire isn't what a fully rational creature would desire.

Counter:  The problem of conflicting intuitions about what a fully rational creature would want
What if the criminal says that he did rationally reflect on what a fully rational creature would want in his circumstance and he came up with a normative reason to gain wealth no matter what the cost to others.  He comes to this conclusion even thought the vast majority of others conclude the contrary.

Reply: Intellectual Arrogance
Just because his intuition differs from the vast majority doesn't mean, ipso facto, he is wrong.  But the criminal is demonstrating intellectual arrogance.  The criminal sticks to his opinion that he has reason to gain wealth no matter what the cost to other.   He sticks to his view without good reason. He doesn't weigh his position "in light of the folk...the only court of appeal there is for claims about what we have normative reason to do."  

Reflecting on what a perfectly rational individual will do doesn't guarantee the correct answer, it's a starting place.  From there we engage in rational dialogue and check our intuitions and arguments against those of others.  If they differ, they we need to find some reason for which we should prefer ours...especially if we are in the minority.  It doesn't mean we're wrong, only that we shouldn't be so arrogant to suppose we have stumbled upon the truth while the majority (of epistemic peers) has erred.

Issue:  Is this a satisfying reply?