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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A random post about ethics

Guest bloggers over at Adam Serwer's place, making a lot of sense on how not OK both torture and the clamor for a dead man's picture are.

In not entirely unrelated news, a couple of interesting finds, courtesy of my brother. The first is from the Harvard Business School, and discusses a new books that explores the blind spots in our ethical reasoning -- why we often fail to act  in accordance with our ethical ideals, and why we tend to think we are more ethical than we actually are. The article also references a book on biased judgment in sports  and how it means that that one umpire really does have it in for the Saints. OK, that's not what it says, but it does suggest that referees are likely to unconsciously favor the home team. Combine these two, and you get, among other things, a fancy explanation of why I only care that the ref is totally biased when he's biased against my team, as opposed to all the time.

The second rec. is about a different type of bias: homophily (love of the same), or the tendency to make a bunch of friends who are pretty much just like you. That is, of course, a very loose and flippant definition of the term used to discuss things ranging from why black people tend to have mostly black friends to why you're shocked when you find out that one of your close friends does not share your opinion on something you really value. The author threw a party and, shocked by how white it was, set out to make new black friends. Some interesting things in there, from the specific project of making new friends, to the larger societal trend he sees his tendency towards "monoculture" as a reflection of.

Not surprisingly, I find this set of articles interesting. Not at all shocking, but interesting to look at, and especially interesting to look at together. Yes, I do believe that our willingness to condone torture "under the right circumstances" is directly tied to our ability to overlook our own principles when it suits us, sometimes consciously, sometimes less so. I also think that our tendency to prefer those we consider "like us" works in larger (world politics) and smaller (dinner party) ways to make us more likely to overlook, mistreat, or avoid those who are "not like us." Some will say that the answer to that problem is improving our capacity for empathy by developing the ability to see how "like us" all those others are, but I'm not always sure about that. I think that's obviously part of the problem. But at what point do we talk about how to include those who we really do see as different (sometimes for legitimate reasons) in our empathic considerations?

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