Thursday, June 28, 2007


5/6. 3002.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stevens is 87

Ordinarily I make this observation in connection with the dire need to win the next Presidential election lest we see the end of Roe. And if we don't win the next election, we shall see the end of Roe.

But not today, today that observation is all I can muster to explain the quoted passage below from Stevens' otherwise incisive dissenting opinion in Morse. There are many good reasons that students should be able to unfurl a banner off school property that says "Bong Hitz 4 Jesus" but my dear John Paul, if you think this is one of them, then those crazy kids today have begun to talk past you:

To the extent the Court independently finds that“BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” objectively amounts to the advocacy of illegal drug use—in other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as such—that conclusion practi-cally refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advo-cacy. The Court’s feeble effort to divine its hidden mean-ing is strong evidence of that. Ante, at 7 (positing that the banner might mean, alternatively, “‘[Take] bong hits,’” “‘bong hits [are a good thing],’” or “‘[we take] bong hits’”).Frederick’s credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message—he just wanted to get on television—is also relevant because a speaker who does not intend to persuade his audience can hardly be said to be advocating anything. But most importantly, it takes real imagination to read a “cryptic” message (the Court’s characterization, not mine with a slanting drug refer-ence as an incitement to drug use.)

It does not take imagination to imagine "bong hits 4 jesus" as an incitement to drug use, it takes having been born in the latter half of the 20th century.

The majority's position that students should not be able to advocate illegal activity in connection with the school is not crazy, but I think its wrong. The difficulty with this position is not the difficulty of cabining the right to suppress speech of a certain message -- the legal vs. illegal distinction seems clean enough -- it is the difficulty of cabining the zones at which speech may be suppressed at all. I suspect if we tracked our lives step by step throughout a typical day, we would find that we spend an awful lot of time in places that someone else might find "special enough" to merit a special exception to the first amendment. Work, someone else's property, public meetings, public travel infrastructure. No, sorry, without a physical threat to security, the government can engage in no speech suppression at all. I don't care what the message is.

Hat tip to the debate blog, home of a law student who claims not to see the message as obviously pro-drug use.

My suspicion is that he or she is baked.


Regrettably, the hyphens in the Stevens opinion are an artifact of the cut and paste function from the Supreme Court web-site, rather than an artifact of the writing styles prominent when Stevens learned to write.

Yet another war advocate awakens to reality. How thrilling

I am genuinely torn as to which of our new found anti-war coalition to receive more brusquely -- the conservatives who are slowly emerging from the intoxicating frenzy of war-mongering, or the so-called liberals and moderates that knew it didn't make a lick of sense, but who yielded out of political convenience or cowardice.

The latter I think.

Hat tip to Dymaxion World

Ahh primaries, the era of the hajluos ahtsis moment

That would be the reverse Sistah Souljah moments. When the Republicans get their reactionary freak on -- yes, tell us all about the South Carolina battleflag, and pretend to be Pro-Life -- and its like the Democrats are speaking directly to me. And you get theatrical moments like this -- the Edwardses picking fights with Ann Coulter to prove that they're the ones she hates most.
I know, I know, there's no substance there, and it won't last, but for 18 short sweet months of the cycle, it almost seems like the bad-guys will make themselves unelectable, and the good guys will be worth electing.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I have previously expressed some mad accurate suspicions yo.

Continuing my review of prison release data that measures the relationship between prison population and crime rates. Since 1996, scholars have used prison releases generated by prison litigation as a means of testing the magnitude of incapacitation, and have generally found a positive relationship between such releases and regional crime rates. The work ofRaphael and Stoll, although not limited to litigation-driven releases, is fairly representative. I have come close to giving up on the notion that prison produces net increases in violent crime, but there are two important limitations that occurred to me as I was reviewing this literature. Neither of them, as it turns out, escaped the attention of this guy:

There are two additional situations that could further negate or at least diminish incapacitation. The first one relates to crime desistence, a phenomenon exhaustively documented in crime research. Simply put, as a result of aging, many offenders stop committing crimes, and thus past a certain point their incarceration yields no incapacitation benefits.

In the second case, incapacitation would initially be effective but would eventually become counterproductive, if as a result of an episode of incarceration, an offender upon release evolves into more serious crimes or engages in the same criminal behaviors but at substantially higher rates. In this instance prisons would have a criminogenic effect, preventing some crimes at first but at the expense of contributing to more serious or to a higher number of crimes in the future.

The incapacitative estimates presented before only indirectly attempt to control for replacement or desistence of offenders following incarceration, and none allow for the possibility that prisons are indeed criminogenic. These omissions further compound the uncertainties surrounding the available incapacitation estimates and show the need to develop yet better measuring techniques and substantially richer data sets.

I can't figure put who the hell he (or she! I have retained my lesson from the Digby out-coming for at least five days) is, but it sounds right to me. The association of crime with prison releases tend to confirm the school of crime hypothesis. Raphael and Stoll believe that the releasee is on average less criminally active than the average new prison commitment, but this doesn't tell you where the releasee would have been were it not for prison. Find a way to measure that one, egg-head.

Incidentally, Professor Sharkey of Boalt Law School, who lurks behind a Yale Law Jorunal pay-wall, confirms my previously expressed suspicion that the most prominent such research simply ignores crime in prison:

Studies of the effect of incarceration on crime rates usually ignore crime within prisons. See, e.g., Steve Levitt, The Effect of Prison Population Size On Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 5119, 1995); William Spelman, Criminal Incapacitation (1994); Franklin E. Zimring & Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (1991) [hereinafter Imprisonment]; Thomas B. Marvell & Carlisle E. Moody, Jr., Prison Population Growth and Crime Reduction, 10 J. Quantitative Criminology 109 (1994). Crimes committed within the prison walls, if explicitly acknowledged in a utilitarian analysis of incapacitation, would reduce the calculated social benefit of crimes averted in society.

Baseball stat blogging

Would it fucking kill them to throw the numbers of homeruns and RBI's over the number of at-bats? I root for a team that has no consistent starting line-up ('cause it, well, kina sucks), and have no idea what the power numbers mean.
Of course RBI's/at bats would not really standardize for RBI opportunities, but it would be better than the raw number for cryin out loud. Which is what I'm doin' here. Cryin out loud. Boo hoo

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I've got it!

Aha! I figured out how to free myself from the never-ending cycle of dreaming that I wake up, being certain that I am finally awake, and then dreaming again that I have woken up. Whats the one thing you never experience in dreams, but always experience in your first moments of wakefulness? Sleepiness!
Now, if I can just remember to do this when I am unconscious...

Please backchannel if I am only dream-blogging

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I am epistemically baffled by the failure of contemporaneously given polls to provide a consistent result. Polls taken over the same window show Thompson up by one and Giuliani up by about ten. I remember a period after the GOP convention in 2004 when a bevy of polls were failing to coalesce around any reasonable margin in the presidential election.
I can understand that certain periods may pose more difficult problems for creating an appropriate model, but the explanation I remember from that period was that wildy unstable polling was common during periods of transition, when the numbers were moving.
What? But there was, on any given day, a certain number of real Americans leaning to Bush or Kerry, right? And if it were moving from a reality of Kerry +5 to Bush +5, why wouldn't the values in the middle occur on every day in between?
Kina gives me chills, people.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Couch Time

I am stone cold fucking flabbergasted that Digby is a woman, and this tells me quite a lot more about myself than I wanted to know. I had heard the theory and rejected it because -- and this thought entered my conscience mind -- I didn't think the writing sounded feminine. The gender politics of that didn't escape me, but I nonetheless thought that the idea of a gendered written voice was no different than the idea of gendered hand-writing (in which, perhaps haven failed to learn my lesson, I still believe). And I didn't think that different necessarily meant inferior, although I had no doubt women were perceived as less credible and authoritative.
Well, the widespread belief in Digby's masculinity does confirm that respect and perceived competence are correllated with masculinity (because, let's face it, Digby is quite simply, the shit). But it either tends to disconfirm the idea of a distinct gendered voice, or it tends to show that our ability to identify it, even when gender politics are foregrounded, is frustrated to the point of impotence by the ingrained sexist associations of masculinity and authority.
You heard me. Sexism = Impotence.
Anecdote, plural, data, plural of, not the, etc...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Apologia for half-hearted progressive democrats

Dave at Orcinus persuasively argues:

The immigration debate, for those progressives deeply involved in it, has felt rather like waiting for Godot -- we know our fellow progressives are going to be coming along any day now to join the journey toward effective reform. Still, we sit and sit, checking our watches as the clock ticks down, and we wonder.

So far, the debate has almost entirely revolved around the division between rival factions of the right: the corporate conservatives who have benefited from the status quo and would benefit even more from a "guest worker" program; and the nativist bloc that wants every one of the 12 million "illegal aliens" in America rounded up and "sent back where they came from."

If there is a progressive position, it hasn't been enunciated clearly at all -- which means that there has been precious little advocacy from the left. It's well past time for that to change.

but I nonetheless disagree, at least insofar as the observation pertains to elected officials. 2008 abolutely, positively, has to be won. Stevens is 87 and the Fifth vote on Roe. If the US invades Iran, every possible hope of stemming the violence in Iraq is lost, and a long term troop commitment is inevitable. And we are past the point where long term institutional damage to democracy in the executive branch will be easily reversible.

Immigrant hating is popular. It just is, right now, and the Republican center is willing to be the punching bag about it. This not only provides cover to the democratic candidate, it makes it less likely that the GOP will nominate its most centrist candidates. And since there are very few democratic votes in the Senate against the reform in the first place, and Bush is pressuring his own party, it is very likely that the votes necessary to pass the bill will come from the GOP.

None of this excuses the absence of our involvement in the private sector, and Orcinus' recent posts have been excellent models of cyber-journo-activism on the issue. The breathtaking marches last year did not appear to be imputed to congressional democrats, and probably did much to soften the ultimate bill.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Omelette flipping blogging

I have an omellette cooking that is a nice thick four egg disc in about a 9 inch diameter pan. I have used a lot of oil, so I am not anticipating stickage. I want to turn it over before I add the filling, because I dont want salmonella. Should I turn it upside down into a pan-lid, slide it onto a pan lid and then attempt to flip the lid over, or just pull it up with a spatula. The filling is going to be vegetarian chili and cheese.

I will do whatever the consensus of the comments is, but to make sure its a good representative sample, I will wait until I have a few hundred comments. Hurry guys, I smell some scorching!


Its been more than an hour you guys! Is someone backchanneling all the commenters to prevent them from commenting on this, as a joke? Touche, you pranksters, you got me good this time. But seriously, its getting really burned! How should I flip it?


Ok, guys, a joke's a joke and all, but now I have to go to bed, and if I leave the pan on, there's a real fire hazard here! I had to disable the smoke detectors hours ago.


God what an awful night, I got up fourteen times to put out grease fires. Seems like everytime I got up, half the wall had burned again. I waived at the neighbors through the wall (it seemed so much thicker before half of it burned away). Jeez Louise, tell me how to flip the fucking omelette already.


ohhhh.... I get it, the omelette has been cooking for several days and burning down large sections of the wall, bringing down chunks of debris into the pan, so you just don't know what strategy would be most effective. You are confused about the texture of the omelette, so you aren't sure what the best answer is. Right.
Ok, its, uh, uh, well, completely black, even on the top side, although that might be the debris. The aromatic burned egg smell has sort of turned into a four eggs left out for several days smell. I would say its completely congealed, and surprisely unfastened to the bottom of the pan. Also its covered in some fire extinguisher material, which might not cook so well if it were flipped over.

Measuring the negative experience of prison

So it has come to my attention that some fairly rigorous and pretty well thought out academic research believes that prison reduces crime -- that incapacitation overwhelms the school of crime and job-market displacement arguments. I would be curious to know whether the crime rate stats they use include crime in prison, but I suspect that they would still find a net decrease.
I don't think this is a complete argument for expansion of prisons or for keeping them at their current levels for two reasons -- first, it is likely that similar crime reductions could be achieved by substituting police force expansion. Second, I think it is necessary to count the subjective experience of prison against its net utility -- for philosophical reasons beyond the scope of this post, I don't think criminal activity forfeits the right to have your experience considered by policy-makers.
The question then becomes how to calibrate the experience of prison against the experience of crime victimization. I doubt that most people would trade even a day in prison for the ability to avoid most property crime, residential burglaries (maybe) and large-scale-life-saving-wiping fraud excepted. Nor, likely, would they trade the absence of most petty-assaults for more than a few days of prison, maiming assaults excepted. Sexual assaults, maiming assaults, some quantity of drug offenses equivalent to a long-term enslvaing addiction, and of course homicide are all likely to be worth prison.
But how much? In principle, it doesn't seem to difficult to test that question -- simply ask people how much time they would be willing to do to avoid each of these crimes. Three design problems occur to me though.
First, much of the negative subjective experience of prison probably stems from a fear of victimization. This creates the problem of deciding whether to subtract the actual number of prison assaults from the total crime reduction that occurs as a consequence of incapacitation. If you do subtract it, you run the risk of double counting them -- once by subtracting it from the overall crime reduction, and once because people will consider it as part of the negative subjective experience of prison. You could tell them to assume that they won't be victimized, but then you may be neutralizing not only the experience of being victimized in prison, but the fear thereof, which is probably even exceeds the actual experience of being victimized as the reason it sucks to be in prison. You could tell people to assume that they won't be victimized, but also to assume that they will be afraid of it, but that is not only complicated but might also be distorting the results by highlighting one side of the equation. But if you don't subtract the total rate of victimization in prison from the overall crime reduction, you run the risk that people will not appraise this risk accurately. You could tell them the actual rate of victimization, but much of the negative subjective experience of prison might arise from an overestimation of the risk of being victimized. On the other, they might not accurately guage the negative psychological experience of being victimized outside of prison either, if it has never happened to them.
Second, there is the question of whether the person taking the survey will assume their own innocence when answering the survey. I have no doubt that the experience of being imprisoned is worse when you are innocent, but if you tell people to assume their own guilt, they might tell you that they see no downside to imprisonment because they deserve it, which I doubt replicates the experience of the typical prisoner.
One approach would be to do the study twice, resolving all the design issues in favor of a pro-prison bias one time and in favor an anti-prison bias the second time, and then see if the results ultimately counsel for or against expansion of prison either way.

So, go ahead and get right on that.

h/t commenter JasonR on Ezra Klein.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Potential > Actuality

Occasionally, there comes along a target so dumb, so slow-moving, and so worthy of being derided, that every comic angle that you don't exploit will inevitably seem superior to the one you actually take. And this preposterously offensive proposal, which tells us so much about the link between masculinity, stereotypes, and militarism in the minds of military planners, requires us to optimize our derision. So, no, I wont be telling you that this isn't a proposal I can get behind, and I wont be telling you that the weapon, in fact, turned out to be techno, nor will I tell you that the lab got the idea from a movie they saw in an adult theater in the Mission district. No, my friends, however long and hard I, uh, thought about this, I could never ever mock this more savagely than it mocks itself.

With no further ado:

A Berkeley watchdog organization that tracks military spending said it uncovered a strange U.S. military proposal to create a hormone bomb that could purportedly turn enemy soldiers into homosexuals and make them more interested in sex than fighting.

Pentagon officials on Friday confirmed to CBS 5 that military leaders had considered, and then subsquently rejected, building the so-called "Gay Bomb."

Edward Hammond, of Berkeley's Sunshine Project, had used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the proposal from the Air Force's Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio.

As part of a military effort to develop non-lethal weapons, the proposal suggested, "One distasteful but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior."

The documents show the Air Force lab asked for $7.5 million to develop such a chemical weapon.

"The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soliders to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistably attractive to one another," Hammond said after reviwing the documents.

Hat tip to realclear politics.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A very distinct memory

is coming back to me now, because I accidentally slammed my middle toe into a piece of furniture and it is huge and deep red and blue and black. My memory is of dropping a very heavy dresser drawer on my big toe when I was ten and rolling around in extreme pain while my toe grew, you guessed it, big and red and blue and black. My very clear recollection is that my uncle offered to come over with a power tool of some kind, I think a drill, and puncture the top of my toe-nail, which, he said, would cause blood to spurt out and instantly relieve the pressure, sweelling, and pain. He said he had done the same thing to himself once and it worked and was safe and no big deal. My mother, who, I want to stress, was not a good but a great parent, said this was my decision but made absolutely no effort to discourage it. I struggled with the idea but ultimately decided against it.
A Muppet Christmas special was on TV.


Did I say ultimately opted against having a hole drilled through my foot? No, I, uh, mean, uh, my uncle actually came over and, uh, it turns out it wasnt a power drill, but, uh, but, a, uh, power sander, and uh, a buffer. So, no, it didn't help the pain, but really brought out the colors.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Grudgingly, yes...

Paradocs at Kos believes that this footnote by the district court in United States v. Libby is now the best legal footnote ever:

It is an impressive show of public service when twelve prominent and distinguished current and former law professors of well-respected schools are able to amass their collective wisdom in the course of only several days to provide their legal expertise to the Court on behalf of a criminal defendant. The Court trusts that this is an indication of these eminent academics' willingness in the future to step to the plate and provide like assistance in cases involving any of the numerous litigants, both in this Court and throughout the courts of our nation, who lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions even in instances where failure to do so could result in monetary penalties, incarceration, or worse. The Court will certainly not hesitate to call for such assistance from these luminaries, as necessary in the interests of justice and equity, whenever similar questions arise in the cases that come before it.

Because it speaks to a pressing social concern, I am inclined to agree. It will be so hard to part with the thirteenth footnote from Blakely v. Washington, the sharpest blow ever dealt to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines:

To be sure, Justice Breyer and the other dissenters would forbid those increases of sentence that violate the constitutional principle that tail shall not wag dog. The source of this principle is entirely unclear. Its precise effect, if precise effect it has, is presumably to require that the ratio of sentencing-factor add-on to basic criminal sentence be no greater than the ratio of caudal vertebrae to body in the breed of canine with the longest tail. Or perhaps no greater than the average such ratio for all breeds. Or perhaps the median. Regrettably, Apprendi has prevented full development of this line of jurisprudence.

Come here and gimme hug, Scalia, you big pompous lug you...


Also covered at the debate blog

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ay Calor! Los Panatlones, Como Queman!

The idea of a testable and universal biological manifestation of lying seems plausible enough, although my understanding is that all the current leading candidates -- polygraphs, microexpressions, pupil dilation -- remain unproven (to say the least). And I am damn sure that free-style lie detection -- observation of demeanor, eye contact, gut feelings -- is an unmitigated failure. This fact functions as a damning indictment of the American jury system, or more specifically, the tradition of discretion given to finders of fact on the ground that they can observe the witnesses and need not rely on a "cold record."

How good are we humans at using demeanor evidence to detect truth-telling or lying? A considerable amount of research has been conducted in recent decades on non-verbal behavior and the detection of deception. The findings indicate that demeanor cues often reduce accuracy in detecting deception, by distracting people into looking at cues they think are associated with lying and overlooking cues that actually are. Table 1 summarizes the findings of a meta-analysis of a number of experiments. Observers receiving no information at all would have standard deviation scores of 0.00 (sheer guesswork). Where no speech is provided, but only non-verbal cues, observers do no better when they see the face and nothing else (0.05), noticeably better when they can see the body and not the face (0.43), and when they can see both together, their performance falls a bit (0.35). Apparently, facial cues provide little help and sometimes do more harm than good. By contrast, subjects given transcripts alone are better at detecting deception than any of the conditions we have considered thus far (0.70). Speech sounds alone, with no visual cues at all, raise performance further (1.09). So much for the notion that non-verbal channels of communication carry more information than verbal channels, for human deception detectors to rely upon. Adding body cues to speech raises performance to its height (1.49). Adding facial cues to speech-with or without body cues-drags performance below what it was with speech alone.

But even if it were possible to find some universal phsyical manifestation of deception, the speaker's ability to know that he or she is actually engaged in deceptive conduct will remain a major limitation. As Richard Wiseman tells us in the Guardian's article -- the title link of this post -- lying is ubiquitous. It is simply not possible to imagine that if people are telling 14 lies a week, most of them are not spontaneously told -- in most cases, there is then probably time only to compare the lie to the truth and note its passable similarity. Accordingly, there is probably not time, in most cases, for the liar to have formed a firm opinion about whether or not it is truely a lie. If whatever bodily manifestation of lying eventually emerges fails to sweep in this huge gray area, situations where the liar is unsure whether to disbelieve himself, it will be next to useless. If it does sweep this in, it will be dangerously inaccurate.

Hat tip to slickdpdx at

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The structural collapse of American thought

Piaget argued that a critical moment in the development of a functioning human mind is object permanence. Before object permanence, infants can only learn basic biological skills, like sucking, or touching. Afterwards, they can collect information about objects in their environments. To do this, however, they must learn to identify obvious, tangible patterns in their environments as objects.

Sensori-motor Stage

0-2 years It is at this stage that children develop their senses of the world in general through movement such as sucking, grasping, crawling, standing and walking. Children also use their senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound in order to develop schemata of the world. In this way children put together a picture that incorporates these elements. Piaget sees the adult as being important during this stage in terms of providing the stimulus needed to help the child gain a variety of experiences. One of the key stages is the development of object permanence. Piaget argues that the child cannot grasp the concept that objects still exist when hidden or taken away until the age of 8 months. Up until that point, out of sight is literally out of mind.

Piaget tested for object permanence by hiding a toy that the child was playing with under a blanket. He found that the child under 8 months did not search for the object, seeming to lose total interest in it. After 8 months, however, children would attempt to find the object after it had been hidden from them.

I actually have some grave doubts about pulling out of Iraq. I dont think it follows that if the troops should be removed merely because the invasion itself was a reprehensibly stupid act of mass murder. But wathcing the GOP debate tonight, I found myself terrified by the strength of Giuliani's performance on "National Security" issues.

Fact is, Giuliani said exactly what Bush has been saying, only with less drooling. And yet, it felt different. Newer. More resonant. Plausible to the middle. Maybe it was the background of acknowledged failure. Or maybe it was the fact that Giuliani has, for some reason, been getting a complete pass on the central political question of the day -- will you or won't you pull out the troops. Its astonishihing, but I dont know the answer, and I dont think either of the moderators have asked him. I dont mean I can't find it, but it doesn't seem to matter because he didn't get us into it. So even prosective questions about the war are deflected because its not an issue he owns.

The point can be pushed too far, but it does make sense, to a point, to understand cultural and political decision-making in psychological terms -- countries process information, aggregate conflicting impulses, and store trauma. Every group brain of any size is sluggish, stupid and spastic. But until now, there were threads of rationality, connections between national events and a political course. 9-11 was a trauma, and the result was a massive consolidation of federal and governmental power, and a widespread intolerance toward dissent and ethinicity. It was awful, but the reaction was goal directed. Katrina and Iraq produced massive electoral defeat for the GOP -- nobody in the democratic party had a particularly compelling plan to rebuild the coast, and the Iraq debate was consistently retrospective. But there is no surprise in seeing punishment meted out for grotestque, traumatizing incompetence.

Tonight, I smelled a further regression. I smelled a Rudy who can stand up, say that we need to stay in Iraq because it is a place to fight terrorists, and generate the same reflexive nodding obedience from pundit and voter that lubed us up for the Iraq invasion.

This is a gut impression, but it is a gut impression of a gut impression, and I can't think of a better way to measure and sense a gut impression. My gut impression, though, is that something, something, something has disabled the American information processing mechanisms and rendered us incapable of that most basic cognitive act -- recognizing the same object after it has been momentarily removed from our sight.

Bush and Rudy are talking about the same war. I am fearfully unconfident that this most gruesome traumatizing object can be identified by the American brain as the same gruesome traumatizing object it was six months ago if a different person is talking about it.

Something has changed. It is not a more warlike attitude. It is not a lower threshold for fear. It is not an attitude or a proclivity. It is an intellectual collapse caused by a structural change in the way information is being processed. I don't know what it is or what is responsible, and could very very well be full of shit, but TV, I (like everyone else) am looking in your direction.

Monday, June 4, 2007

A Phrenology of Utilitarianism?

The Washington Post reports on the startling neurological genesis of moral reasoning -- actually not only of moral reasoning, but of a particular moral perspective. It would appear that there is, literally, a region of the brain that imposes moral side constraints, and that when it is disabled, utilitarian moral reasoning emerges.

Moral decisions can often feel like abstract intellectual challenges, but a number of experiments such as the one by Grafman have shown that emotions are central to moral thinking. In another experiment published in March, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

Are utilitarians, then, mentally disabled?

The most interesting part of this is that folks with the defective ventromedial cortex still had moral answers -- they were just dispassionately delivered. Does this mean that morality to them is simply a learned algorithm that pairs certain outcomes with the words "should" and "good" and "bad"? Or do they still fully understand and believe in the concept of "should" but simply reach different conclusions?

On behalf of my utilitarian brothers and sisters, I think the most likely explanation from the experiment is the latter -- we can learn an algorithm against side constraints (never kill) as well as a utilitarian equation. The difference between the reasoning that emerges from this disability and that which is more commonly seen thus does not appear to be the depth of appreciation for the concept of moral duty, but the results. Alternatively, I think it is entirely possible that morality itself -- as a form of belief -- may be nothing more than an algorithmic pairing of circumstance and outcome. Either way, I don't think that it is fair to describe that form of moral reasoning as [ACCESSING DATA, ACCESSING DATA] effectively inhuman.