Wednesday, 16 August 2017

What can Philosophy learn from Economic Psychology?

I've been coming across the work of Molly Crockett increasingly in various media in recent months. Molly is a psychologist who studies issues of morality and she does a very good of linking her research to real world issues.

For example, she has suggested the possible links between Brexit and the desire to punish those who treat us unfairly in a very good 247 podcast. The argument is that a majority of people think that elites have supported globalisation that benefits them more than it does regular people and that people are willing to punish themselves economically in order to punish the elites more. This seems plausible, though it is galling if true because probably a lot of wealthy people will do just fine out of Brexit, particularly if it develops the UK into even more of an Tax haven than it already is.

A guardian article reports that people generally prefer to earn money in a fair manner rather than through exploitation. This suggests that ideas of fairness are hard-wired into us, which might explain a lot about people's views about justice (including those of political philosophers).

It has occurred to me, for instance, that children tend to complain very loudly that things are not fair. We can all recall instances of significant indignation where one sibling seemingly gets a better deal than another. This is perhaps a further example of how some basic (untutored) notion of fairness is hard-wired into us.

There is of course controversy about the link between human psychology and ethics. Nietzschean Sceptics about morality might think that we have inherited the architecture from our ancestors who needed it to survive in a prior age and that by understanding it we may be able to transcend it. We could then move to a post-moral age.

A more traditionally philosophical alternative would also hold that we should transcend any natural moral inclinations. However, instead of moving to a post-moral age we should replace our natural notions with reasoned principles of morality that improve on these impulses.

I would certainly prefer the latter, but think it is worth acknowledging that we have the brains and society we have and our moral rules have to be compatible with these.

Psychological research therefore has potential not just to inform us about how people work but also for philosophers to challenge their own intuitions and take into account how untutored moral impulses will impact the development, dissemination and application of proposed ethical theories.