All my thinking lays on fragile ground

Credit: Gregory Koop // paper: http://journal.sjdm.org/13/13613a/jdm13613a.html

This diagram depicts how people come to make a decision- YES means a utilitarian (greater good) response. Personal means the crisis affects you.

I’ve started watching the recorded lectures of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course, a philosophy series (that feels like a rock concert), that is one of the most popular in modern Harvard history. The first episode focused on the nature of murder and how it can be ethical or unethical, depending on the situation and what emphasis you give the actions.

What I think is interesting  is something that happens in philosophy but also in social science, my field of study. He begins with two scenarios, each with two forms. In the first one, most of the audience agree in the first forms that it’s morally right to sacrifice one to save five others. In the second form it’s the opposite- most people oppose the sacrifice.

The shift in focus changes how people defend their choice. The first forms have people thinking in terms of consequences, while the second creates an unpleasant twist that makes people think in terms of the action- to most of us, some things are just wrong to do.

This ties into how opinions are solicited on political and economic issues. The answer you get is influenced heavily by the language used to ask the question. Just like these moral questions of sacrifice, it’s pretty easy to make a question about same-sex marriage garner heavy approval and heavy disapproval. The above picture, one of those online “polls” that’s actually an ad, is shoving the viewer towards a “no” vote. The objective isn’t to gauge opinion, but rather tie the obvious answer to opposing the president.

It ultimately creates a bit of chaos, at least in my mind. How much of our political and moral opinions exist because we haven’t been asked enough challenging questions? Take an online political quiz- the results are frequently used as a shorthand for our worldview. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz wants to push participants into a libertarian mindset. Political Compass has a clear socialist and, most noticeably, anti-corporate flavor. Am I a socialist? The latter seems to think so. Am I a small-government libertarian? The former wants to make the case. In each context the result makes sense, but if I want to think of myself as a single person with a single morality, it’s not coming out so well.

In the kind of moral philosophy Sandel teaches, the single morality is something that is valued. To a pollster, morality can be pushed around to meet certain goals. In fact, one of the most exhausting endeavors in all of science (social or otherwise) is to make a survey that’s representative, comprehensive, and doesn’t have a certain goal besides getting “honest” information.

There’s no big conclusion to this piece (this is more thinking out loud). I was part of Sandel’s majority in his examples- in one case thought killing one person was clearly justified, in the other it was far more difficult. The mental feeling of that shift is…powerful. It’s strange to think how fragile our opinions could be.

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