moral sense

4 Answers to the Purpose of Life

People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life?  See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.

 

However, this post is not about such philosophical questions.  Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.

Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is

  1. To Understand the Universe

  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)

  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?

  3. Does it make you ethical?

Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?

Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘

So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.

Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us.  Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.

The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a  paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.

In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference.  This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.

In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.

In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:

  1. to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
  2. to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
  3. to be moral by being good and caring about others
  4. to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning

If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!

The Stages of Moral Development

I have alluded to Kohlberg’s stage theory of Moral Development a few times in this blog, but never devoted an entire post exclusively to that; time to rectify that. For those not familiar with the Kohlberg model, I suggest that they read up an excellent description here.

Morality Play (novel)

Morality Play (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, Kohlberg argues, that we go through three levels (and two stages within each level) as we advance on our path of moral development. He arrived to this conclusion, among other things, based on a long-term study of 58 young men over a span of two decades. The stage of moral development was assessed by analyzing answers to moral dilemmas like the famous Heinz dilemma. (in which a not-so-well-off person steals from a druggist a drug to save his dying wife).

After presenting people with various moral dilemmas, Kohlberg reviewed people’s responses and placed them in different stages of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, an individual progresses from the capacity for pre-conventional morality (before age 9) to the capacity for conventional morality (early adolescence), and toward attaining post-conventional morality (once Piaget’s idea of formal operational thought is attained), which only a few fully achieve. Each level of morality contains two stages, which provide the basis for moral development in various contexts.

The standard stages, as deciphered from say the below responses to Heinz dilemma, are as follows:

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison which will mean he is a bad person.
Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband.
Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal.
Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person.

Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

From the above it should be amply clear what is salient for each stage and level.

Today I came across an old article by William Damon in Scientific American (PDF here) and he does a pretty good job of describing the stages, and levels, using terminology that is easy-to-understand and correlate.

Level 1: SELF-INTEREST

 

Stage 1:PUNISHMENT “I won’t do it, because I don’t want to get punished.”
Stage 2: REWARD “I won’t do it, because I want the reward.”

 

Level 2: SOCIAL APPROVAL

 

 

Stage 3: INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS “I won’t do it, because I want people to like me.”
Stage 4: SOCIAL ORDER “I won’t do it, because it would break the law.”

 

Level 3: ABSTRACT IDEALS

 

 

Stage 5: SOCIAL CONTRACT “I won’t do it, because I’m obliged not to.”
Stage 6: UNIVERSAL RIGHTS “I won’t do it, because it’s not right, no matter what others say.”

Now, long time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology and the eight stage model of development. To recap, the four dimensions important for any psychological model are Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Dynamic (motivational/social) – the right order of development is A->B->D->C. There exist two polarities relevant at each dimension. For Affect, it is the polarity of Pain-Pleasure; for Behavior, the polarity of Active (approach/reward)-Passive(avoidance/ punishment) , for dynamics (or social) it is Self vs Others and finally for Cognition, it is Narrow vs Broad. This model is based on the pioneering work of Theodore Millon and combines various other theoretical frameworks.

If one were to see the Kohlberg’s levels/stages from an ABCD lens, it is clear that SELF-INTEREST is a Behavioral level, with the people moving from a passive (punishment avoidance perspective) to an active (reward approaching perspective) way of reasoning and acting as they function and evolve at that level; SOCIAL APPROVAL is a Dynamic /Social level where people move from a primarily Self focus (avoiding social disapproval) to a primarily Others focus (keeping the glue of society intact); and finally The ABSTRACT IDEALS is a Cognitive level with people moving from a narrow view of morality as utilitarian/ social contract based to more broader conceptions like based on universal human rights.

All the above is fine, but what about A or Affect based level/stages in our model? Are there moral reactions and behaviors of children (less than 9 or say even 5 years of age) that cannot be explained solely as a matter of rewards and punishments? Did Kohlberg miss on an important moral foundation on which many of our initial moral acts are based? My contention is yes, Kohlberg did leave out an important moral foundation. I will call that Affect based moral level Level 0.

The Level 0, of moral action and reasoning, is before an infant/ toddler/ child start thinking of, and justifying, their moral actions in terms of self-interests or rewards and punishment. This Level 0 is the Level of EMPATHY. Research in infant and toddler development has shown that the first moral or pro social behaviors develop out of an ability to empathize with others; if an infant or toddler will witness another person crying they will try to soothe the other person even if their means of helping may be inadequate; similarly toddlers, given an opportunity to help another person by saying opening a cabinet, when a stranger has his hands filled with books, will help the stranger, without any regards to any rewards or punishments, but because of the sheer joy of seeing the other person become happy as a result of their actions.

It’s unfortunate that infants cannot speak and many toddlers haven’t developed a good vocabulary, so the verbal responses to dilemma approach cannot be applied as is to them; but clever researchers have developed ingenious protocols to observe and ascertain moral behavior in children of that age group, and probably can develop new techniques to figure out their moral reasoning too. For example, in one of such experiments, children are shown animated clips of figures like squares and triangles that are either helpful or hurtful (pushing around a loved object ) and based on which figures the child prefers, one determines that indeed children like helpful figure/ animation characters over hurtful/ bullying characters; one could modify this paradigm by varying the distress felt by a loved object, that is being pushed around, by increasing the squeaking noise that object makes, to find whether more squeaking leads to more empathy and thus more moral/ pro social action.

The point I am making is that the prediction that there is an earlier moral reasoning/action stage characterized by empathy, is an empirically testable fact and I do hope someone conducts appropriate experiments to modify and add to Kohlberg’s theory.

To reiterate, there does exist a Level 0 of morality based on EMPATHY and the stages here are that based on Avoiding Pain and Enhancing Pleasure; the Avoiding Pain reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, because it will cause the druggist to become sad (as the druggist has lost something dear to him)” ; the Enhancing Pleasure reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, so that the druggist can live happily based on profits he earns” .

So the bottom-line, we all start with EMPATHY on our paths to moral development and that provides a solid foundation on which higher stages like those based on abstract ideals are achieved.

In brains we trust, or do we?

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

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Much has been written about the seductive allure of fMRI brain images accompanying research papers and giving them more credence than is deserved; similarly much has been written about the whole enterprise of fMRI based research that tries to find the neural correlates of X,Y,and Z, as if X/Y or Z being human/animal faculties could have a substrate other than neural.

 

In both of the above cases, while the neuro babble seemingly provides more authority to the underlying argument, it is not clear what value , if any , one gets by just identifying a brain area responsible for X/Y or Z.

 

Patricia Churchland‘s quest for roots of human/animal morality is similarly besieged by the allure of all things neural- it is to her credit that despite being a philosopher she gets the neuroscience part not just so-so right, but precise and accurate with all caveats included;  but what one is left at the end of reading ” Braintrust : what neuroscience tells us about morality” is the feeling that she could have spent more time bolstering her main point that morality arises from sociality rather than talking about oxytoctin or mirror neurons.

 

While she does treat mirror neuron hyped research with the contempt and dressing that it deserves by trying to explain more than is warranted; her own enthusiasm for Oxytocin as the magical trust molecule or the epitome of moral foundations, deserves similar treatment. Again it is to her credit that she does not shy away form discussing latest studies that have shown oxytocin in not so moral light as in when it is involved in out-group prejudice; but still the discussion of neurotransmitter or vasoprassin or mirror neurons detracts rather than amplifies her thesis that morality evolved from social living.

I am much sympathetic to her main argument that morality may have arrived as the care system became enlarged to cover self, kids, kith and kin, partners and finally strangers. That caring and sharing might be the roots of all goodness in the world was apparent even to miss universe like Sushmita Sen back in 1994, not an unremarkable achievement considering the latest miss America contestants views on evolution. But I digress. The thing is that Patricia should have spent more time on this and bridging the leap from social behavior to moral behavior by maybe using philosophical devices/arguments rather than just peppering her statements with neuroscientific jargon and assuming that that will settle the point.

Along the way she casually dismisses the important work that may support her position like that of Jonathon Haidt- she claims that morality is innate but seems reluctant to grant that it could also have a universal structure.

If you want to know the latest neuro research around sociality – go read this book; you will read all the proper studies with all caveats and without misrepresentations. However, if you were yearning for any philosophical insight into the nature of morality, how ‘is’ and ought’ are not necessarily the same and from where to derive the ‘oughts’ in life you might be in for a disappointment. At least I was.

 

ps: Disclosure of interest. : I received a free copy of Braintrust for review from Princeton university press.

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Ethical BlindSpots and what to do about them

Ford Pinto. Foreground car is a restored examp...

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This is a review of Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel’s new book ‘Blind Spots: why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it‘ published by Princeton. Before I start a disclaimer seems right. I receive review books from Princeton and have received this book free of cost for review. Considering that I love free stuff, esp if it is good psychology / neuroscience books, and considering the fact that Princeton editors are more likely to send review copies to those who give a positive review, there is a potential conflict of interest. Now that I have disclosed this conflict of interest, my review should be less biased and more responsible. Or so you thought!

Not so, if we go by Max and Ann’s research. They don’t specifically study the problem of bias in book reviews🙂 , but have gathered a pile of evidence in related conflicts of interest scenarios like a researcher publishing on efficacy of a drug where the sponsor of the study is a drug company ; or the auditors disclosing their other consulting businesses with the audited firm; all of which point to the fact that disclosing (or being mandated to disclose) our conflicts of interest , sort of gives us a license to be biased; and more so when authors are explicit about the conflict of interest, the readers are less likely to detect the bias.

The above is just one of the numerous examples of what the authors call bounded ethicality, in the same vein as bounded rationality. As per the bounded ethical view of human nature, we have limited resources esp the conscious deliberate decision making moral system resources as compared to the other fast and intuitive decision making system. The trouble lies with the fact that we are blind to how we will act in a future ethical dilemma (because we have hard time visualizing that our ‘want’ self will override our’ should’ self in the heat of the moment) or even if we will see the issue as an ethical issue at all (the case of ethical fading) .

When those in our organizations or government try to make policies that don’t take into account these psychological realities or blind spots, what effects they have on ethical issue is either sub-optimal or may even backfire. To take two well known examples: if an organization uses punishment as a tactics to enforce ethical behavior it may backfire. Consider the well known daycare center/ school study wherein parents were punished with a minimal fine if they didn’t pick their child at time after school. Thsi resulted in more parents being late to pick their child as instead of seeing it as a a moral or ethical issue involving the guilt system, they re-framed it and started seeing it an economical terms and using a reward (cost/benefit analysis) system.

Another famous example is that of opt-in or opt-out forms for organ donation and the corresponding different rates of organ donations in different countries. Here Max and Ann advocate Richard Thaler style Nudges to make best use of human blind spots to achieve ethical policy goals.

Max and ANN touch on a vriety of t=ethical issue aand blind spots at individual , organizational and society level and the discourse is peppered with actual real world examples like Enron – Arthur Anderson fiasco or Ford Pinto gas-chamber disaster. The examples, although taken from the US point of view, have global appeal and visibility and would be accessible to people form other nations too. This book is a must read for those who are in charge of organizational or society level implementation of ethical policies and programs, but is also helpful for us , the corporate or academic individual contributors/ mangers/administrators as to how we can apply the psychology of bounded ethicality to change ourselves and the world around us.

Despite having a strongly ethical/ moral agenda, the book strays clear of imposing a particular set of ethical values , either implicitly or explicitly, on others. The only appeal they make is to be true to oneself and if one wants to be ethical how to not be foooled into thinking that one is indeed acting ethically while indulging in unethical (by ones own standard) behavior. If you want to be an ethical person or organization and are sometimes left nonplussed by the unethical behavior that still ensues nonetheless, then this is the right book to help you understand and correctly ensure that ethical behavior happens when push comes to shove.

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The factor structure of virtues and perosnality: a continuing mess

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Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.
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Continuing my theme of focusing on human character strengths and virtues and relating them to personality,  I have been doing more reading of the literature and want to discuss three papers today.

First up is Shyrack et al’s recent paper that again explores the factor structure of VIA-IS and finds support for a 3 or 4 factor solution. They discuss the various conflicting/mutually supporting factor analytical results and the resulting 4 or 5 underlying components or factors. the VIA-youth scale consistently gives 4 factors while the VIA-Is (adult form) gives 5 factors.

However, I have issues with the samples on which the factor analysis is done. the mean age in Shyrack’s current study was 50 years approx, but in most other analysis, the analysis is conducted on university students. The age and developmental stage of the sample is important because as per a developmental stage perspective many of the virtues will not become manifest/ apparent and bloom in full strength until a particular age has been reached. for eg, till age 50 people have perhaps mastered the first 6 stages (including intimacy as per Erikson’s model) but still have not finished to satisfaction the developmental tasks of generativity (seventh stage) and integrity (eights stage). Not faced with any developmental challenges to these situations, the people may have lacked incentives to develop the corresponding virtues; thus I would not be surprised if people identify / relate to only at most 6 virtues. I would suggest that new tests be developed for post middle age and senior citizens than the normal adult scales and their data analyzed to understand the true factor structure of virtue. This is akin to their being different measurement instruments for children, adolescents and adults for character strengths and perhaps rightly they reflect different underlying factors thus validating a developmental stages approach. If analyzed this way I am sure the data for aged people will support a eight factor structure. Much of the data obtained from college students, in my view would only support 4 or 5 factor virtue structure.

Shyrack et al find support for 3 or 4 factor model, but based on a cursory look at their extraction using goldberg technique (see figure) I can extrapolate that a support for eight factor structure , with social strengths splitting in justice and humanity, and temperance splitting in temperance proper (restraint) and emotional strength. I hope someone perofmrs extraction till 8 factors and tries to label them, especially with aged poulation.

That bring me to Munro et al paper that also used undergraduate students as samples and performed factor analysis to come up with 5 factors ; however they also centered their data and after centration (to reduce social desirability effects). Their scree plot supported a 9 factor structure. See the scree plot that clearly shows at least eight factor (eigenvalues > 1) . to me it is not understandable why they left this centered data and instead went on to derive a five factor structure from the non-centered raw data.

That brings me to the last paper. It is by Cawley et al and is based on lexical analysis of virtue adjectives and nouns and also uses a different Virtue scale the Virtue Scale instead of VIA-IS. This approach too yielded a found fold structure (Empathy, Order, Resourceful, Serenity), but I believe there is much scope for more exploration with their data. However the best take home from the very insightful article is that virtue and ethics are separate. Virtue is related to being; while ethics is related to doing. Ethics is more cognitively grounded , especially the one gauged by DIT or Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas and is not related much to virtue which is more grounded in character or personality. And they found support for this in their data. That I believe is an important difference an finding to keep in mind. Also I liked this paragraph that lists the attributes that give rise to moral domain competency. To me they follow naturally , as stage tasks and issues , in reverse order as one undergoes moral development:emotions (1st stage), will (second stage) , motivation (3rd stage), Ethics (4th stage) and Virtue (5th stage).

The independence of this measure of the virtues and the personality measures from the more cognitive DIT measure of moral development may also reflect the independence of the mental (cognitive±intellectual) and moral (emotional±motivational) domains in psychology and philosophy (Averill, 1980). Averill observes that the mental domain evolved from studies of epistemology, while the moral domain (including personality) evolved from studies of virtue ethics, motivation, will, and emotion. Thus, from Averill’s observation, one would expect a measure of virtue to be more strongly related to measures of personality than to measures of cognitive moral development. Additional empirical data on the relationships among virtue, personality, moral cognitive development, and epistemological style can be found in Cawley (1997).

Also, I liked this para, that distinguishes between temperance proper (2nd stage doing with restraint) and Activity (7th stage that is more agentic):

McCrae and John (1992) also acknowledge that there are two components of Conscientiousness (C): an inhibitive view and a proactive view. They note that:
A number of di?erent conceptions of C have been o?ered. Tellegen’s Constraint and Hogan’s Prudence re¯ect an inhibitive view of C as a dimension that holds impulsive behavior in check. Digman and Takemoto-Chock’s Will to Achieve represents a proactive view of C as a dimension that organizes and directs behavior. The term Conscientiousness combines both aspects, because it can mean either governed by conscience or diligent and thorough. Empirically, both kinds of traits seem to covary. (p.197)
Perhaps the virtues factor Order represents the inhibitive, non-impulsive aspect of Conscientiousness as a virtue, and the virtues factor Resourcefulness represents the proactive, diligent aspect of Conscientiousness as a virtue (see also Johnson & Ostendorf, 1993).

Overall, I highly recommend reading the Cawley et al paper (available freely on the web) and encourage more research that utilizes multiple approaches to correlating Virtues with other constructs as outlined in this bit from munro et al:

In addition to developing their classification system, Peterson and Seligman (2004) have also suggested how their classification of character strengths and virtues is related to, but distinct from, already established theories of values. For example, Peterson and Seligman (2004) see their classification of character strengths and virtues as being related toMaslow’s (1973) idea of self-actualised individuals, the Five FactorModel (FFM) of personality (McCrae & John, 1992; Costa & McCrae, 1994), Cawley’s virtue factors (Cawley,Martin, & Johnson, 2000), Buss’ evolutionary ideas about what is attractive in a mate [i.e. what character traits are essential for survival and propagation, (Botwin, Buss, & Shackelford, 1997; Shackelford, Schmitt, & Buss, 2005)], and Schwartz’s (1992) Universal Values.
Some research into establishing the validity of these claims has begun. Haslam, Bain, and Neal 2004) found that both Schwartz’s (1992) Universal Values and the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality were conceptually linked to the 24 character strengths. However, as these constructs were defined and subsequently measured by only one or two terms that were ranked and grouped together by participants on the basis of conceptual likeness, more thorough research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.

Heer is toast to more such research!

Shryack, J., Steger, M., Krueger, R., & Kallie, C. (2010). The structure of virtue: An empirical investigation of the dimensionality of the virtues in action inventory of strengths Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (6), 714-719 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.007
MACDONALD, C., BORE, M., & MUNRO, D. (2008). Values in action scale and the Big 5: An empirical indication of structure Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (4), 787-799 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.10.003
CAWLEY, M., MARTIN, J., & JOHNSON, J. (2000). A virtues approach to personality1 Personality and Individual Differences, 28 (5), 997-1013 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00207-X

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