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Aesop and the Unvaccinated: On Messaging and Rationality

cartoon image of scorpion on frogs back

Aesop shared a fable once about a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion asked a frog to ferry him across a pond. The frog was reluctant because he feared the scorpion’s sting. But the scorpion appealed to the frog’s intellect and pointed out that if he did sting the frog, the scorpion would surely drown as well. So, the frog agreed to the request. But, as expected, about halfway across the pond, the frog felt an awful pain and before they both died, asked the scorpion why. The scorpion replied that he really couldn’t help it saying, “it’s in my nature to sting.”

Why did the frog make that irrational decision, even though he knew better? Fables typically have a moral for us to learn, and this one is no different; make rational decisions. Unfortunately, we make irrational decisions all of the time, even if, in the animal kingdom, we are known as the rational ones.

As of this writing, about 50% of the U.S. population is vaccinated. Since it is estimated that between 70% and 90 % of the population will need to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus to reach herd immunity, we have a long way to go. But the vaccination rate overall has slowed significantly. We watched the vaccination rate begin to plateau in late June and early July, at about the same time that the more deadly Delta variant began to ravage the unvaccinated. Now, with new cases rising each day across the country, one wonders why anyone would put off getting the vaccine.

Explanations for this phenomenon abound; some believe that vaccine hesitancy is to blame. Early on in the rollout of the three major vaccines available in the U.S., many were “hesitant” because they wanted more information about the vaccines. Were the vaccines safe? If so, like most medications, they probably were not safe for everyone, so for whom were the vaccines not safe? Where would people go to get the vaccines? What costs would be involved? These are rational questions the population was asking; they may have been gathering facts to make rational decisions. Or were they?

Humans aren’t really known for our ability to be consistent when it comes to making rational decisions. Some of those same people get flu shots every fall and make sure their children receive needed vaccinations as infants and again prior to the start of school, still don’t want to take the COVID vaccine. All despite the fact approximately 99% of deaths in America due to COVID are found among those unvaccinated. It seems irrational not to avail oneself of this life-saving intervention.

Even some government officials — in those areas where the vaccination rate is low, and the spread of the variant is high — are growing more outspoken about their constituents’ health decisions. Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has reiterated in public that for those who can be vaccinated to do so. (His state, Kentucky, has a lower-than-average vaccination rate.) The Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivy, recently said that this is now an epidemic of the unvaccinated in her state, further stating that you just can’t teach “common sense.”

But alongside these pleas are plenty of name-calling, finger-pointing, and blaming — all of which may be smokescreens for the fact that we don’t really know how to message the vaccine’s appeal to remaining holdouts. We continue to assume that humans are consistent in making rational choices, and when we believe they have not done so, we have a tendency to throw up our hands. We think that stupid decisions are made by stupid people. The truth, however, is that we aren’t consistent in making rational choices; irrationality abounds, and it has nothing to do with stupid. The same people who buy lottery tickets also buy insurance. Why? Cognitive science and the felicific calculus of Jeremy Bentham may both give us a peek into why we make decisions as we do, whether they are rational ones or not.

In the 18th century, Bentham formulated the “felicific calculus” which stated that an event can be assigned a value (typically numeric) as to its utility or worth. That worth was measured in terms of the amount of happiness or pleasure the event would bring people; the more happiness, the better the decision that caused it, and the more rational it would be seen. This mathematical algorithm measured pleasure or pain in terms of several facets; among them were the pleasure or pain’s intensity, its duration, the probability of its occurrence (and reoccurrence), and the number of people affected. While being mathematically sound, philosophically appealing in many ways, and rational, for most day-to-day decisions the calculus was impractical. Adapting a thought experiment originally posed by cognitive scientist/mathematician Amos Tversky however, may help us understand from a cognitive perspective why people are so inconsistent when making decisions.

Example 1. Let’s say that your local health department has projected that 600 people will get the Delta variant of COVID-19 in your hometown of 6,000 people.

There is a proposed treatment, A, and if applied it will save 200 people. 

There is another proposed treatment, B, and if applied, there will be 1 chance in 3 that 600 people will be saved, and 2 chances in 3, that no one will be saved.

Which treatment would you choose?

When presented with the original problem, most people chose treatment A where there is a surety that 200 people will live.

Example 2. Now, let’s say that the health department again predicts that 600 people in your hometown of 6,000 will get the Delta variant of COVID-19.

There are 2 treatments, A and B.

If treatment A is applied, 400 people will die.

If treatment B is applied there are 2 chances in 3 that all 600 will be lost, and I chance in 3 that no one will be lost.

Which treatment would you choose?

When presented with the original problem, most people chose treatment B.

Notice, however, that 200 people survive in each case. Despite this, in case one, treatment A was chosen as the better alternative, while in case two, treatment B was chosen. Why, when the probabilities and outcomes are the same, did A get chosen one time and B the other time? It’s the way the cases are presented, or framed. In the first scenario, the probabilities are presented in terms of lives saved (gains), and in scenario two the probabilities are framed in terms of lives lost (losses). We focus on the number of lives saved in either case, whether it’s a “sure bet” or the better probability.

Currently, public messaging regarding vaccinations focuses on lives lost rather than the number of lives saved. If we reframe messaging to focus on lives saved (gains) instead of lives lost (losses), the application of Tversky’s thought experiment might get us over the hump and on our way to achieving herd immunity. The felicific calculus of Bentham applies as well; perhaps a mathematical algorithm makes more sense to us homo sapiens in this case. Think of the number of persons who would experience happiness and pleasure instead of pain over a long period of time, plus the freedom from worry that the Delta could re-infect us. Correctly framing the message seems to be one effective and scientific way to help people manage the inherent irrationality that comes with being human.

Autonomy, Euthanasia, and Non-Terminal Patients

photograph of hospital room with empty beds

In March of this year, changes to the law regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada loosened some of the restrictions about who is eligible to apply. Assisted suicide and voluntary active euthanasia has been legal in Canada since 2016, however, the law governing such procedures was recently challenged for being too restrictive and not in keeping with the original ruling of the Supreme Court. Initially, to be eligible for assisted suicide or euthanasia the patient’s terminal condition must have been considered “reasonably foreseeable,” but now that criterion has been dropped so that even people suffering from grievous and irremediable mental illnesses will be eligible. But this new-found freedom only raises more questions about the concept of consent, especially in those cases where patients with impaired mental faculties express a desire to end their life.

There are relatively few nations in the world which permit either physician-assisted suicide or physician-assisted euthanasia, and even fewer that permit them for people who are not terminally ill. For example, in the United States passive euthanasia is legal, and in a few states voluntary active euthanasia is permitted but only in situations where there is a terminal illness. On the other hand, Canada will now join nations like Belgium and the Netherlands in permitting voluntary active euthanasia and assisted suicide to patients who are not terminally ill. In Belgium, patients with psychiatric conditions, even children, can request euthanasia. But in non-terminal situations where a patient may request that their life end because of a psychiatric condition like depression or dementia, the issue is complicated. In all of the above nations, the notion of informed consent is paramount, but it isn’t always easy to determine if a patient is competent enough to provide consent.

As Scott Kim, a psychiatrist and philosopher, notes,

“It is not easy to distinguish between a patient who is suicidal and a patient who qualifies for psychiatric euthanasia, because they share many key traits…one does not need to be a psychiatrist to appreciate how psychiatric disorders, especially when severe enough to lead to euthanasia requires, could interfere with a patient’s ability to make ‘voluntary and well considered’ decisions.”

Unlike in the case of terminal illness which may be determined by a chemical or imaging test, it can be difficult to say for sure whether a patient with a psychiatric illness has “unbearable suffering without the prospect of improvement.” For example, a Dutch woman elected to be euthanized 12 months after her husband’s death for “prolonged grief disorder,” despite being otherwise physically healthy. To make this determination even more complicated, just last year, the Dutch Supreme Court expanded the law to extend this choice to those suffering from dementia as well.

Those who defend the idea of psychiatric-assisted dying in non-terminal patients argue that the suffering caused by mental illness justifies physician-assisted dying, but only if the patient is able to request such a procedure autonomously and rationally. However, some philosophers and ethicists take issue with this criterion. In a paper on the subject, Jukka Varelius points out that, “Given that the distress of a psychiatric patient undergoes can be very severe and that there may not always be adequate means of alleviating it (short of ending the patient’s life), the idea that psychiatric-assisted dying could sometimes be morally acceptable does merit attention.” Indeed, many argue that excluding the mentally ill from enjoying this freedom on the basis of disability is objectionably discriminatory.

For a patient to make an autonomous decision, it is commonly thought that it must be voluntary, intentional, and based on sufficient understanding of the nature and consequences of the decision. But certain mental illnesses undermine a patient’s ability to understand the world. A similar problem occurs in cases of dementia. As noted in a paper on the subject from the Journal of Neurology, “those suffering from dementia suffer from a disease that itself infiltrates the very center of autonomy and voluntariness.” But Varelius makes the case that even if their conception of reality is distorted, non-autonomous psychiatric patients can also suffer unbearably if they are unable to express a reasoned decision to end their life. It is already common practice, for example, to engage in non-voluntary euthanasia by withdrawing life support from non-autonomous patients if it is deemed to be in the patient’s best interests, such as those who are in an irreversible comatose state or those with severe brain damage. It is, however, difficult to argue that we have any certainty regarding the patient’s personal preferences. Because of this, our standards involving autonomous choice may be less important than we often make them, and it would be cruel to claim that the suffering we force people to endure due to our skepticism of their “true” interests is not morally significant.

On the other hand, many may argue that there is a significant difference between active and passive euthanasia, or even that passive euthanasia should be endorsed at all. Also, when it comes to issues like dementia and mental illness, it won’t always be clear if suffering can be abated. Longitudinal studies show that patients with chronic psychiatric disorders sometimes get better or worse for reasons beyond the control of healthcare providers. So, it might not ever be clear whether there are other reasonable alternatives to euthanasia. And, without the ability to predict the future or have a meaningful conversation with a patient, there is no more reason to think that a person would want to be euthanized than to think that they wouldn’t.

There is also strong rejection of euthanasia from psychiatrists stemming from the nature of the profession. A fundamental core of psychiatry, to many, is to prevent suicide and to address hopeless, helplessness, the desire to die, and the inability to see the future. The shift in policy towards psychiatric euthanasia is considered a fundamental change to the practice of psychiatry. Many worry about slippery slope precedents of the ever-expanding criteria for euthanasia which are beginning to include reasons those who feel “like they have a completed life” and are tired of living. And some studies of the system in Holland reveal that the no-reasonable-alternative criterion is not always met.

For these reasons, it is difficult to assess whether a decision is autonomous or how important that determination is in many of these cases. We need to explore the various frameworks in place to determine appropriate eligibility criteria and approval processes. Finding the right balance (if there even is such a thing) may be something that can only be learned the hard way.

UFOs and Hume on Miracles

photograph of silhouetted figure shining flashlight at light source in the night sky

UFOs appear to be having a cultural moment. A Pentagon report laying out what U.S. intelligence agencies know about UFOs — or, to use the government’s preferred acronym, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) — is expected at the beginning of June. A recent “60 Minutes” segment included interviews with two former Navy pilots who described their encounters with a UFO. The New Yorker ran a long piece about UFOs in its May 10th issue. And last week former Nevada senator Harry Reid penned a long reflection in The New York Times about his interest in the phenomenon.

It is relatively common to see UFOs, such as those tracked by Navy fighters’ infrared weapons cameras, described as “defying the laws of physics”; for example, flying at many times the speed of sound and then coming to an abrupt halt, without any visible means of propulsion. Being woefully ignorant about those laws, it is difficult for me to tell whether this is journalistic hyperbole or a claim to be taken literally. But if we do take it literally, then we can call on the great Scottish philosopher David Hume to help us decide what to believe.

Hume famously defined a “miracle” as a violation of a law of nature. For Hume, a law of nature obtains only when we have an extensive, and exceptionless, experience of a certain kind of phenomenon: for example, our extensive experience of human beings dying “establishes” the law that all human beings die. (As this example suggests, violations of laws of nature are not impossible or inconceivable; they are simply counterinstances to our extensive, exceptionless experience.) If UFOs really defy the laws of physics, then they perform miracles in the Humean sense.

Hume argued that no testimony — i.e., a person’s statement that something is true — can establish the existence of miracles. His argument can be summarized as follows:

1. The evidence against the existence of a miracle is as strong as it possibly could be.

A law of nature is established on the basis of experience, which is the only kind of evidence we can have for a causal proposition. And our experience is both extensive and exceptionless, so it furnishes evidence that is as strong as experiential evidence could be.

2. The evidence for the existence of a miracle from testimony, while perhaps very strong, is weaker than the evidence against the existence of a miracle.

Hume avers that it is always more probable that testimony is false — that the person giving the testimony “either deceive[s] or [has been] deceived” — than that a miracle has occurred. Put another way: to constitute stronger evidence than that which we have against the existence of a miracle, testimonial evidence for a miracle must be such that its falsehood would itself be a miracle — in fact, would itself be a greater miracle than that which the testimony is evidence for.  But for any given piece of testimony, there is always a non-miraculous possibility of its falsehood.

3. We ought to proportion our belief according to our evidence, and evidence for contradictory conclusions cancels out.

Hume here appeals to “evidentialism,” the commonsense idea that we ought to proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence we have for it. In addition, he says that evidence for a proposition and evidence for its negation “destroy” each other.

4. Therefore, whenever our evidence for a miracle is based entirely on testimony, we ought to believe that it did not occur.

Since the evidence against the existence of a miracle is always stronger than testimonial evidence for it, when testimonial evidence is all the evidence we have for a miracle, we ought to believe that the miracle did not exist or did not occur.

We can now see how the argument can be applied to UFOs. If UFOs really perform miracles, then any testimonial evidence for the existence of UFOs is always weaker than the evidence against their existence. Therefore, we should reject the existence of UFOs if the only evidence we have for them is based on testimony.

It might be objected that we have non-testimonial evidence for UFOs, such as the infrared camera videos. However, these videos are by themselves difficult for most people to interpret or understand, as are most of the alleged photographs of UFOs. The layman must instead rely on the testimony of experts to interpret the videos or photographs for him or her. Thus, even when photographs or videos are held up as evidence of UFOs, it is really the testimony of experts, who provide authoritative interpretations of these materials, that is doing the evidentiary work. And this leads us back to Hume’s problem.

Of course, Hume’s argument is not without its many detractors; objections are legion. One objection revolves around what Hume says about the “Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost …” The Indian prince had an extensive, exceptionless experience of water in a liquid state. Frost is a counterinstance of the “law” that water is always liquid. Does it follow, then, that the Indian prince could not justifiably believe in frost on the basis of any testimony, no matter how strong? Hume’s response is that solid water is an experience that is not contrary to the prince’s experience, although it is also not conformable to it. The more general problem is that Hume needs to allow for progress in the sciences, including the revision of our understanding of the natural laws. Like many of Hume’s arguments, his argument about miracles set the agenda for much of the succeeding discussion, but left many questions unanswered.

Still, Hume’s argument against miracles is undeniably compelling. As applied to UFOs, the argument shows us the limits of testimony, however well-intentioned or authoritative.

Testimony, Conspiracy Theories, and Hume on Miracles

abstract painting of two faces without eyes facing away from one another

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume reports a local rumor from a town in Spain conveyed to him, with a healthy amount of skepticism, by a cardinal. The story was about a man who had undergone a rather miraculous recovery from an ailment. As Hume describes it,

“He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs.”

The townsfolk were all ardent believers in the miracle, and it was accepted by “all the canons of the church.” The story spread and was believed on the basis of testimony, and was able to pass and be sustained as easily as it was, in part, because of a shared trust among members of the community. Nevertheless, the cardinal himself gave no credence to the story. Despite the fact that many people were willing to testify to its truth, a story about such an event is just not the kind of thing that has any meaningful likelihood of being true. The cardinal “therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.”

Hume relates other stories, common at the time he was writing, of people offering and accepting accounts of miracles. He argues that to adjudicate these matters, our evidence consists in our set of past observations. Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. When we consider whether we ought to believe in miracles on the basis of testimony, we must weigh our past observations of the workings of the laws of nature against our observations regarding the veracity of testimony. The former will always win. We will always have more evidence to support the idea that the laws of nature will remain constant than we will to support the belief in eyewitness testimony which reports that those laws have been broken. As Hume himself states, “the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.”

Hume is not just reporting historical fact but is also prescient (though he might object to that characterization) when he says, “men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind.” More than 250 years later, we’re contending with elaborate conspiracies such as shape-shifting reptilian overlords, 5-G towers that transmit coronavirus, vaccines that implant microchips, and wild accusations of widespread voter fraud sufficient to change the outcome of the election. The Q-Anon conspiracy theory even has representation in the House of Representatives. Believers in this conspiracy think that a powerful cabal of pedophilic baby-eating democrats is secretly running the world, and a child-sex ring. A secret whistleblowing governmental agent — Q — is conveying all of this information to true patriots on internet chat rooms. Q-Anon spread in much the same way that the story about holy water being used to grow new limbs spread — through testimony.

Hume points out that the practice of coming to know things on the basis of testimony depends on certain enduring features of human nature.

“Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree, had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.”

Society couldn’t function if we couldn’t rely on testimonial evidence. The present political climate elicits feelings of impending existential dread — a sense that truth and meaning are bleeding off the page like amateur watercolor, leaving no visible boundaries. The characteristics that Hume describes are being worn down. We’ve been told not to rely on our memories; it is unpatriotic to pay too much attention to the past. There are no behaviors that should make anyone feel shame; to suggest that someone ought to feel ashamed for deceiving and misleading is to “cancel” that person. In an environment immersed in “alternative facts,” there is no inclination toward truth or “principle of probity.” It is little wonder that in this environment people favor the likelihood of the existence of liberal pedophilic cannibals over the likelihood that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.

With the possible exception of the lizard people who can transform into humans, these conspiracy theories aren’t violations of the laws of nature. That said, a similar kind of inductive argument is possible. Most of these conspiracy theories require a level of seamless complicity among many, many people, who then leave behind no compelling evidence. Election fraud conspiracies, for example, require complicity across states, political parties, and branches of government. So, we’re left with two broad options. Either every person played their role in this flawlessly, leaving behind no trace, or the theory is false, and it arose from “the knavery and folly” of human beings as has so often happened throughout human history. There is a much stronger inductive argument for the latter.

All of this has a moral component to it, but it is difficult to know exactly how to identify it. As Hume points out, humans have certain dispositions that incline them toward truth. On the other hand, they also have strong tendencies to believe nonsense, especially if that nonsense is coherent with what they already believed or might otherwise make them feel good. We could say that everyone ought to have higher epistemic standards, but ought implies can — it makes no sense to say that a person ought to use better methods to form their beliefs when their psychologies prevent them from having any control over such things. There may be no ultimate solution, but there might be some chance that things could improve. Making things better might not be a matter of changing individual minds, but, instead, altering the environments in which those minds are formed. Education should be a high priority and well-funded. We must have policies that reward honesty among public officials and there must be serious consequences when our public figures tell lies.

On the Rationality of the Capitol Rioters

photograph of rioters in front of Capitol

In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, there was no shortage of commentary concerning the moral and intellectual failings of the rioters. However, one not infrequent theme of this commentary was that, for all their errors, there was something about their behavior that made a certain sort of sense. After all, if one believed that one’s presidential candidate actually won the election by a landslide, and that this victory was being subverted by shadowy forces that included the Hugo Chávez family, then storming the Capitol can seem like a reasonable response.

Although the word “rationality” was not always used in this commentary, I think this is what these pundits have in mind: that the Capitol rioters were in some sense rational in acting as they did, given their beliefs. They probably didn’t know it, but in making this claim they echoed the view about rationality endorsed by the renowned moral philosopher Derek Parfit. In his magnum opus, On What Matters, Parfit argues that our desires and acts are rational when they causally depend in the right way on beliefs whose truth would give us sufficient reasons to have these desires, or to act in these ways. As applied to the case of the Capitol insurrection, Parfit’s view would seemingly endorse the rioters’ acts as rational, since the content of their beliefs about the election would, if true, give them sufficient reasons to riot. The key point is that on Parfit’s view, it does not matter whether the beliefs upon which the rioters’ actions were based are themselves true, but just that they rationally supported those actions.

Alternatively, David Hume famously wrote that the truth of one’s beliefs does make a difference to the rationality of one’s actions and desires. “It is only in two senses,” he wrote, “that any [desire] can be called unreasonable.” One of those senses is when the desire is “founded on the supposition of the existence of objects, which really do not exist.” In other words, desires based on false beliefs are irrational. Yet Hume appears to be mistaken here. One’s desire to run away can be rational even if based on the false belief that there is a rattlesnake about to strike inches from one’s feet, particularly if one’s belief is rational.

But what about the view that our desires and acts are rational just in case they causally depend in the right way on rational beliefs, whether true or not? If we accept this view, then the Capitol rioters’ actions and desires turn out to be irrational, since they are based on beliefs that are arguably irrational. Parfit resists this view using the example of a smoker who has a strange combination of attitudes: on the one hand, the rational belief that smoking will destroy his health, and on the other hand, and because of this belief, the desire to smoke. According to the view we are now considering, the smoker’s desire would be rational, since it depends on a rational belief. That seems false.

Another view about rationality that might support the Capitol rioters’ actions is the view, familiar from social science disciplines like economics, that the rational action is the one whose subjective expected utility — reflecting the utility of the possible outcomes, and the agent’s beliefs about the probability of those outcomes — is the highest. This view of rationality more or less abandons the idea of rationally assessing our non-instrumental desires, and simply evaluates actions in terms of how well they fulfill those desires. So, on this view, we might say that the rioters’ actions were rational because they maximally fulfilled their desires.

The Parfitian and maximizing views of rationality share a feature that the philosopher Warren Quinn famously highlighted in his article, “Rationality and the Human Good”: according to both views, rationality is at least sometimes indifferent as to the shamelessness, or moral turpitude, of a person’s ends. For example, Parfit’s view implies that someone who believes that the Jews are sub-human and, because of this belief, desires to exploit them in ways that would be immoral if the Jews were full-fledged members of the human race, is practically rational. Similarly, the maximizing view implies that someone who wants to exploit the Jews in such ways is practically rational if they take efficient means to that end. However, Quinn argues, this conception of practical rationality is in tension with the ancient idea that practical rationality is the highest virtue of humans as practical agents. How could practical rationality be morally defective, indifferent to the manifestly forceful practical demands of morality, and yet be the most “authoritative practical excellence”?

If rationality is integrally connected to morality in the way Quinn suggests, then it becomes harder to see how we could say that the Capitol rioters’ actions and desires were rational or in accordance with reason. Even if their beliefs, if true, would have justified their desires and acts, and even if their acts maximize the fulfillment of their desires, the fact is that their beliefs were false, and their actions and desires shameless. And if Quinn is right, that fact should make us reluctant to credit their actions and desires with the label “rational.” For Quinn, you can’t be rational and immoral at the same time. For Parfit or the maximizer, you can.

Thus, it turns out that much of significance hangs on whether we think what the rioters did was in accordance with reason. If we say that it was, either because we adopt Parfit’s conception of rationality or the maximizing conception, then we commit ourselves to the occasional indifference of rationality to moral considerations. If, instead, we adopt Quinn’s view, then we must reject that indifference.

Under Discussion: Is It Rational to Be an Ignorant Voter?

photograph of people in voting booths

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

If you’re an American and of voting age, and allowed to vote, should you vote in the upcoming election? The answer seems like an obvious “yes.” There is, however, a bit of a puzzle when it comes to voting, especially in elections in very large democracies like that in the US: you ought to vote, even though the chance of your single vote is almost certainly not going to make any difference overall. That’s not a comment on you, it’s just math: there are a whole lot of people voting, and so really your one vote is not going to make an appreciable difference in the outcome. And it’s not as though voting is an easy process: it takes time, is an inconvenience, and, depending on where you live and who you are, can sometimes be a pretty miserable experience overall. So given that your one vote won’t make any difference anyway, why bother putting up with all that hassle?

You’ve no doubt heard this kind of reasoning before, perhaps from people you suspect were trying to justify their laziness. Of course, we might think that one has other reasons to vote, beyond just the chance of making a difference to the outcome of the election. For instance, one might think that not voting sets a bad precedent, which could lead to lots of other people not voting; or, perhaps one thinks that, regardless of the potency of a single vote, it is nevertheless one’s duty – perhaps a moral duty, or a duty that one has in virtue of being a citizen of democratic country – to vote. We might think, then, that even if one has some practical reasons not to vote – one’s vote won’t make any difference and it’s a pain to have to go through the process – then these factors are outweighed by other obligations one has.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether it is, in fact, rational in this practical sense to vote, despite one’s vote likely making no difference in the outcome. Here are two reasons why voting might in fact still be rational, regardless of any kinds of duties we might think we have: first, one might argue that it is still important how much a candidate wins or loses by. This might be because one’s vote can show that there is support for a candidate even if they lose, or make the winner more legitimate if they win by a larger margin. It might also be rational to vote in terms of the overall expected benefits of doing so. Here’s the argument: consider an election in which the stakes are high, such that if candidate A wins then there will be a lot of good outcomes for you, your community, and the people you care about, while if candidate B wins it will be very bad for all those people, instead. In this case, even if your vote has only a tiny chance of making a real difference, that chance is worth it given the potential benefits if your candidate wins.

Consider now a related problem. It seems that we not only want people to vote, but we also want those voters to be informed: we want people to know things about the history of the candidates, their stances on important issues, their policies and proposals should they take office, etc. But now we also have something of a similar puzzle to the one we just considered: it seems like you should be a well-informed voter, but given how small of a chance your vote has of making a difference, it might not seem worth it to take the time to become well-informed. After all, just as there is a practical cost in voting, there is a practical cost that comes along with being well-informed: you need to keep up with the news (something that is mentally taxing enough these days without the help of it being an election cycle), sort the good information from the bad, and do research about those aforementioned policies and proposals. What’s worse, it seems like much more work to gain all that knowledge than it is to just go and vote.

So like the worries about whether it is rational to vote, we have here a related worry about whether it is rational to become a well-informed voter. Again, the problem is that the costs in becoming informed may seem to outweigh the benefits: why should I spend so much time reading the news, doing research, etc., when chances are my vote really won’t make a difference and so it doesn’t matter how well-informed I am anyway? Whether this is the way people think about the issue or not, the outcome is the same: the problem of voter ignorance is a problem, with people typically lacking even the most basic knowledge of how their government works. While people will often take the time to go out and vote, then, the amount of effort it takes to become well-informed may then be seen by some as just too much work.

Here again we might appeal to other kinds of obligations: again, one might think that the duties of a democratic citizen are not only that one ought to vote, but that one also ought to be informed about who one is voting for. Or we might think that it would be morally irresponsible to not be well-informed, given the potential consequences of voting for the worse candidate. However, it might be more difficult to convince voters to become better informed, given the practical costs of doing so. It’s also not clear who gets to decide who’s really “well-informed” and who isn’t: one might think that they know all they need to already, even while knowing very little. While it is easy to tell whether one has done everything they need to when it comes to obligations to vote (e.g. whether they have, in fact, voted) it can be much less clear whether one has fulfilled one’s duties to be well-informed.

Due to these problems, instead of trying to convince someone to change by appealing to their duties, it is perhaps better to simply lower the costs of becoming well-informed. Websites that consolidate information that is useful to voters could be a step towards a solution to the problem (for example, sites like BallotReady). This is not to say that democratic citizens do not still have an obligation to be well-informed; rather, it is important to recognize that not all duties are as motivating, or easy to tell whether one has fulfilled them. In these cases, the best thing to do is perhaps to just make it easier for those duties to be fulfilled.

Impeachment Hearings and Changing Your Mind

image of two heads with distinct collections of colored cubes

The news has been dominated recently by the impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, and as has been the case throughout Trump’s presidency, it seems that almost every day there’s a new piece of information that is presented by some outlets as a bombshell revelation, and by others as really no big deal. While the country at this point is mostly split on whether they think that Trump should be impeached, there is still a lot of evidence left to be uncovered in the ongoing hearings. Who knows, then, how Americans will feel once all the evidence has been presented.

Except that we perhaps already have a good idea of how Americans will feel even after all the evidence has been presented, since a recent poll reports that the majority of Americans say that they would not change their minds on their stance towards impeachment, regardless of what new evidence is uncovered. Most Americans, then, seem to be “locked in” to their views.

What should we make of this situation? Are Americans just being stubborn, or irrational? Can they help themselves?

There is one way in which these results are surprising, namely that the survey question asks whether one could imagine any evidence that would change one’s mind. Surely if, say, God came down and decreed that Trump should or should not be impeached then one should be willing to change one’s mind. So when people are considering the kind of evidence that could come out in the hearings, they are perhaps thinking that they will be presented with evidence of a similar kind to what they’ve seen already.

A lack of imagination aside, why would people say that they could not conceive of any evidence that could sway them? One explanation might be found with the way that people tend to interpret evidence presented by those who disagree with them. Let’s say, for example, that I am already very strongly committed to the belief that Trump ought to be impeached. Couldn’t those who are testifying in his defense present some evidence that would convince me otherwise? Perhaps not: if I think that Trump and those who defend him are untrustworthy and unscrupulous then I will interpret whatever they have to say as something that is meant to mislead me. So it really doesn’t matter what kind of evidence comes out, since short of divine intervention all of the evidence that comes out will be such that it supports my belief. And of course my opposition will think in the same way. So no wonder so many of us can’t imagine being swayed.

While this picture is something of an oversimplification, there’s reason to think that people do generally interpret evidence in this way. Writing at Politico, psychologist Peter Coleman describes what he refers to as “selective perception”:

Essentially, the stronger your views are on an issue like Trump’s impeachment, the more likely you are to attend more carefully to information that supports your views and to ignore or disregard information that contradicts them. Consuming more belief-consistent information will, in turn, increase your original support or disapproval for impeachment, which just fortifies your attitudes.

While Coleman recognizes that those who are most steadfast in their views are unlikely to change their minds over the course of the impeachment hearings, there is perhaps still hope for those who are not so locked-in. He describes a “threshold effect”, where people can change their minds suddenly, sometimes even coming to hold a belief that is equally strong but on the opposite side of an issue, once an amount of evidence they possess passes a certain threshold. What could happen, then, is that over the course of the impeachment procedures people may continue to hold their views until the accumulated evidence simply becomes too overwhelming, and they suddenly change their minds.

Whether this is something that will happen given the current state of affairs remains to be seen. What is still odd, though, is that while the kinds of psychological effects that Coleman discusses are ones that describe how we form our beliefs, we certainly don’t think that this is how we should form our beliefs. If these are processes that work in the background, ones that we are subject to but don’t have much control over, then it would be understandable and perhaps (in certain circumstances) even forgivable that we should generally be stubborn when it comes to our political beliefs. But the poll is not simply asking what one’s beliefs are, but what one could even conceivably see oneself believing. Even if it is difficult for us to change our minds about issues that we have such strong views about, surely we should at least aspire to be the kind of people who could conceive of being wrong.

One of the questions that many have asked in response to the poll results is whether the hearings will accomplish anything, given that people seem to have made up their minds already. Coleman’s cautious optimism perhaps gives us reason to think that minds could, in fact, be swayed. At the same time it is worth remembering that being open-minded does not mean that you are necessarily wrong, or that you will not be vindicated as having been right all along. At the end of the day, then, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the possibility of progress in such a highly polarized climate.

Debunking the Marshmallow Myth: Rationality in Scarcity

photograph of several marshmallows, the largest in the center standing upright

On May 25th, researchers published findings that altered our understanding of a classic psychological study, the marshmallow test. In the famous test, young children are offered a marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. Then, researchers follow up with the children, and supposedly those that delayed gratification for more marshmallows did better in terms of standardized tests and other measures of success. Continue reading “Debunking the Marshmallow Myth: Rationality in Scarcity”

Reason, Listening and Fixing “How to Fix American Stupidity”

A photo of an old, weathered wooden barrel.

In a Time Magazine opinion piece, “How to Fix American Stupidity,” the philosopher Steven Nadler laments what he sees as a creeping intellectual stubbornness afflicting American citizens and offers some ideas about how to cure it. He calls this cognitive pandemic stupidity. As evidence of our country’s stupidity, Nadler cites the growing denial of anthropogenic climate change, denigration of Islam, and repudiation of evolution by natural selection.

Continue reading “Reason, Listening and Fixing “How to Fix American Stupidity””