Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.
I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)
We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.
So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.
We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.
They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)
So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger).
Point being: first game looks more fun. Gets good and hot! But the second, despite it’s apparently dull pattern of play, is really a remarkable achievement in the history of game design.
I like to have fun, in short. (I also did some good theory of justice as IKEA instructions parodies.)
For the final two weeks we’re reading some Jonathan Haidt, followed by bits from Joshua Greene’s new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them [amazon]. My line is basically that Greene, as a forthright utilitarian, is a philosophically improved Jonathan Haidt – who is also a utilitarian, but reluctantly and, therefore, schizophrenically. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt spends a great deal of time abusing utilitarianism as a symptom of intellectual error – even of personal autism. Utilitarians are described as the sort of people who would open a restaurant serving only sugar. And then, more than halfway through the book we get this:
I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.
This contains the sum total of Haidt’s official argument for utilitarianism, and it puts his earlier attacks on utilitarianism in a strange light. He says he just wants utilitarians – rationalists generally – to be more open to appreciating human complexity. But, for the most part, his evidence that they are bad anthropologists and bad psychologists just is that they are utilitarians. Which he is himself.
Greene straights all this out by being much clearer about the following: if you accept Haidt’s basic picture of human nature; if you are a utilitarian; what should you advocate?
I’m not very trolley problem-positive, as a rule. I think it tends to get a bit silly. But Greene’s book is good. I was substantially won over as to the utility of these silly stories, not so much for thought-experimental purposes, but for actual cognitive science experimental purposes. I’m now convinced that asking people this stuff probably does show some stuff about how the brain works. (Of course, we don’t really know how the brain works. But you have to try, if that’s your job.) Anyway, the lesson for course purposes is: if you actually subscribe to a basically rationalistic ethical philosophy in which you think everyone should be pursuing the Form of the Good – that’s Plato, Haidt and Greene – you need to be clear that this is what you are doing, and how and why. That’s Plato (sort of) and Greene (sort of) but not Haidt.
I’m not just negative about Haidt, however. His first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is a good example of how to do popular stuff right, I think. The Righteous Mind … I didn’t like so much. The politics stuff takes the author too much out of his areas of competence. But I didn’t end up really talking about the liberals vs. conservatives stuff much in my course. So I won’t go into that now.