Tag Archives: language

Popular morality: spare those on the left

Jen Wright at Experimental Philosophy:

… I’m writing this post because I found something even more interesting…and puzzling. Leaving people’s actual looking behavior aside, I found a very powerful effect — consistent across all the vignettes — for which side of the screen the potential victim (the fat guy or the baby) was on. When the victims were on the right-side of the screen, people’s would and should judgements were significantly higher (i.e., they were more willing to, and thought more strongly that they should, kill the victim to save the others), than when they were on the left-side of the screen.

So, does anyone have any suggestions as to what might explain this finding?

My guess is that it’s related to the previous findings that people tend to place active people on the left of passive people in pictures (though it seems to vary across languages). The easiest interpretation is that it seems more moral to sacrifice passive people than active ones. That would also fit with the pattern I pointed out before in our moral intuitions, that moral concern is highly contingent on whether we can be rewarded or punished by the beneficiary of our ‘compassion’.

How the abstraction shield works

All kinds of psychological distance make things seem less important, presumably because they usually are. So it’s better for bad things to seem distant and good things to seem close.

Do we only modify importance in response to distance, or do we change our perception of distance in order to manipulate our perception of importance? This article suggests the latter is true: people view things they don’t want to be guilty of as further back in time:

Germans (but not Canadians) judged the Holocaust to be more subjectively remote in time when they read only about German-perpetrated atrocities than when this threat was mitigated. Greater subjective distance predicted lower collective guilt, which, in turn, predicted less willingness to make amends (Study 1). Distancing under threat was more pronounced among defensive Germans who felt unjustly blamed by other nations (Study 2). In Study 3, the authors examined the causal role of subjective time. Nondefensive Germans induced to view the Holocaust as closer reported more collective guilt and willingness to compensate. In contrast, defensive Germans reported less collective guilt after the closeness induction. Taken together, the studies demonstrate that how past wrongs are psychologically situated in time can play a powerful role in people’s present-day reactions to them.

That defensive Germans thought the Holocaust was earliest than either the innocent Canadians, or the more guilty and more guilt accepting Germans implies that the effect is probably not related to how bad the guilt is, but rather how much a person would like to avoid it.

Psychological distance also alters whether we think in near or far mode and our thinking mode alters our perception of distance.  So if we want to feel distant from bad things we could benefit from thinking about them more abstractly and good things more concretely (as abstraction triggers far mode and concreteness near mode). Do we do this?

Yes. Euphemisms are usually abstract references to bad things, and it is often rude not to use them. We certainly try to think of death abstractly, in terms of higher meanings rather than the messy nature of the event. At funerals we hide the body and talk about values. Admissions and apologies are often made abstractly, e.g. ‘I made a mistake’ rather than ‘I shouldn’t have spent my afternoons having sex with Elise’. We mostly talk about sex abstractly, and while it is not bad it is also not something people want to be near when uninvolved. Menstruation is referred to abstractly (wrong time of the month, ladies’ issues etc). Calling meat ‘dead animal’ or even ‘cow’ is a clear attempt to inflict guilt on the diner.

Some of these things may be thought of abstractly because people object to their details (what their friend looks like having sex) without objecting to the whole thing (the knowledge that their friend has sex), rather than because they want to be distant especially. However then the question remains why they would approve of an abstract thing but not its details, and the answer could be the same (considering what your friend looks like having sex is too much like being there).

On the other hand we keep detailed photographs of people and places we like, collect detailed knowledge of the lives of celebrities we wish we were close to, and plan out every moment of weddings and sometimes holidays months in advance.

It’s otherwise unclear to me why concrete language about bad things should be more offensive or hurtful often than abstract language, though obviously it is. People are aware of the equivalence of the concepts, so how can one be worse? I think the answer is that abstract language forces the listener psychologically close to the content, which automatically makes it feel important to them, which is a harm if the thing you are referring to is bad. It is offensive in the same way that holding poo in front of someone’s face is meaner than pointing it out to them across a field.

Agreeable ways to disable your children

Should parents purposely have deaf children if they prefer them, by selecting deaf embryos?

Those in favor argue that the children need to be deaf to partake in the deaf culture which their parents are keen to share, and that deafness isn’t really a disability. Opponents point out that damaging existing children’s ears is considered pretty nasty and not much different, and that deafness really is a disability since deaf people miss various benefits for lack of an ability.

I think the children are almost certainly worse off if they are chosen to be deaf.  The deaf community is unlikely to be better than any of the millions of other communities in the world which are based mainly on spoken language, so the children are worse off even culture-wise before you look at other costs. I don’t follow why the children can’t be brought up in the deaf community without actually being deaf either. However I don’t think choosing deaf children should be illegal, since parents are under no obligation to have children at all and deaf children are doing a whole lot better than non-existent children.

Should children be brought up using a rare language if a more common one is available?

This is a very similar question: should a person’s ability to receive information be severely impaired if it helps maintain a culture which they are compelled to join due to the now high cost of all other options? The similarity has been pointed out before, to argue that choosing deaf children is fine. The other possible inference is of course that encouraging the survival of unpopular languages is not fine.

There are a few minor differences: a person can learn another language later more easily than they can get their hearing later, though still at great cost. On the other hand, a deaf person can still read material from a much larger group of hearing people, while the person who speaks a rare language is restricted to what is produced by their language group. Nonetheless it looks like they are both overwhelmingly costs to the children involved. It may be understandable that parents want to bring up their children in their own tiny language that they love, but I’m appalled that governments, linguists, schools,  organizations set up for the purpose, various other well meaning parties, and plenty of my friends, think rescuing small languages in general is a wonderful idea, even when the speakers of the language disagree. ‘Language revitalization‘ seems to be almost unanimously praised as a virtuous project.

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More stuff

A few more bits I liked in The Stuff of Thought:

Hypernyms elevate

Labeling someone with a small aspect of what they are – a trait or part –  undignifies them. Calling someone a cripple, the blonde, a suit, isn’t nice. The opposite works too often – things sound more dignified if you label them with a larger category than usual. Driving machines and dental cleaning systems sound more pretentious than cars and toothbrushes.

Lots of our phrases rest on the same conceptual metaphors

Though we don’t have a specific saying that ‘up is like good and down is like bad’, it’s easy to see that we equate these things  from our endless sayings that spring from this metaphor. Feeling high, spirits soaring, hitting rock bottom, a downturn, pick me up, low mood, low character, low blow, feeling down, over the moon, I’m above you. I can make up new phrases using the same metaphor and you will know what I mean without apparently thinking about it. These things suggest that the connection between goodness and upness is still active in our minds; these things aren’t idioms.

Intuitions that phrases like ‘pin the wall with posters’ are wrong follow simple rules that we are introspectively oblivious to.

You can say ‘splatter paint on the wall’ or ‘splatter the wall with paint’. You can say ‘pin posters on the wall’. This seems analogous to ‘splatter paint on the wall’, so why don’t we use the same alternative form with that?

The answer is that the first form implies that you were changing the paint or the poster by putting it on the wall, whereas the second form implies that you were changing the wall by putting paint or a poster on it. Painting a wall changes the nature of the wall in our eyes, while pinning posters on it doesn’t.

This explanation holds across the many other examples of this pattern, and similar explanations hold for others. You photograph a wall with your camera, but don’t photograph your camera at the wall. You fling a cat into a room, but you don’t fling a room with a cat. You can load hay into a cart or load a cart with hay.

Some situations it makes sense to frame in a different way and others not. Other conceptual differences that matter with verbs for instance include whether the action was purposeful or accidental, physically direct, took time or was instantaneous, and whether it happened to a person.

Working out why some things sound wrong was a tricky puzzle for the conscious minds of linguists, though the whole time they could say that ‘pour a cup with water’ sounded wrong.

Intuitive causality is different to philosophically reputable conceptions

It’s been suggested that causality is just what we call things we see happen together a lot, or actions that go together across close counterfactual worlds we imagine, or pretty confusing.

Our mental picture of causality seems to be much simpler. It looks like one object with an inherent tendency to move or stay still, and another object standing in its way or pushing it. We have no trouble knowing which counterfactual to compare situations to because inherent in the idea is that the first object had a tendency to do something.

The evidence for this is apparently in the various words we use, for instance which features they bother to differentiate. For instance the difference between forcing something and allowing something is whether the causal agent is pushing the other agent, or not getting in the way of its inherent movement. If our minds were different we may not care about this distinction; in both cases the causer can decide whether the thing should happen, and chooses yes.

Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

Dominant characters on the left

From Psyblog:

Research finds that people or objects moving from left to right are perceived as having greater power (Maass et al., 2007):

  • Soccer goals are rated as stronger, faster, even more beautiful when the movement of the scorer is from left to right, rather than right to left.
  • Film violence seems more aggressive, more painful and more shocking when the punch is delivered from left to right, compared with right to left.
  • Cars in an advert are rated as stronger and faster when they are moving from left to right, rather than right to left (take note advertising executives!).

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that athletes, cars and horses are all usually shown on TV reaching the finishing line from left to right.

According to other studies mentioned by Maass et al, in Western societies most people also tend to preferentially imagine events evolving from left to right, picture the situations in subject-verb-object sentences with the subject on the left of the object, look at new places rather than old ones more when stimuli show up in a left to right order, memorize the final positions of objects further along the implied path more when they are moving left to right, imagine number lines and time increasing from left to right, and scan their eyes over art in a left to right trajectory.

Why is this?

It seems likely that this left to right bias has its roots in language… people who speak languages written from right to left like Arabic or Urdu … display the same bias, but in the opposite direction.

So Maass and the others guessed that characters perceived as more active would also tend to be depicted on the left of more passive characters in pictures. Their research agreed:

We propose that spatial imagery is systematically linked to stereotypic beliefs, such that more agentic groups are envisaged to the left of less agentic groups. This spatial agency bias was tested in three studies. In Study 1, a content analysis of over 200 images of male–female pairs (including artwork, photographs, and cartoons) showed that males were over-proportionally presented to the left of females, but only for couples in which the male was perceived as more agentic. Study 2 (N = 40) showed that people tend to draw males to the left of females, but only if they hold stereotypic beliefs that associate males with greater agency. Study 3 (N = 61) investigated whether scanning habits due to writing direction are responsible for the spatial agency bias. We found a tendency for Italian-speakers to position agentic groups (men and young people) to the left of less agentic groups (females and old people), but a reversal in Arabic-speakers who tended to position the more agentic groups to the right. Together, our results suggest a subtle spatial bias in the representation of social groups that seems to be linked to culturally determined writing/reading habits.

Adam appeared on the left in 62% of paintings considered, far less than Gomez Addams is portrayed on the left of Mortissa (82%). (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

Adam appeared on the left in 62% of paintings considered, far less than Gomez Addams is portrayed on the left of Mortissa (82%). (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

Note that the first study only looked at four couples; Adam and Eve, Gomez and Mortissa Addams, Fred and Wilma Flinstone, and Marge and Homer Simpson. The last three were compared to surveyed opinions on the couple’s relative activeness, dominance and communion, and the Flinstone and Simpson couples were found to be about equal. An earlier study also found that Gabriel was portrayed to the left of Mary 97% of the time.

Most languages also mention the (active) subject before the object, which means the active entity is on the left when written in a left-to-right language. Grammar predates writing, so if this ordering of nouns is relevant, as the researchers suggest, it seems it combines with the direction of writing to cause the left to right bias. It would be interesting to see whether natives to the few languages who put the object before the subject have this bias  in the other direction. It would also be interesting to see whether the layout of sentences more commonly influences our perceptions of the content, or whether the effect is so weak as to only have influence over years of parsing the same patterns.

‘Clearly’ covers murky thought

Why do we point out that statements we are making are obvious? If a statement is actually obvious, there should rarely reason to point the statement out, let alone that it is obvious. It’s obviousness should be obvious. It seems that a person often emphasizes that a statement is obvious when they would prefer not be required to defend it. Sometimes this is just because it is obvious once you know their field but a lot of effort to explain to someone who doesn’t, but often it’s just that the explanation is not obvious to them.

But saying ‘obviously’ is too obvious. A better word is ‘clearly’. ‘Clearly’ sounds transparent and innocent. In reality it is a more subtle version of ‘obviously’.

I have noticed this technique used well in published philosophy from time to time. If getting to your conclusion is going to require assuming your conclusion is true, ‘clearly’ suggests to the reader that they not think over that step too closely.

For instance Michael Huemer in Ethical Intuitionism, while arguing that moral subjectivism is wrong, for the purpose of demonstrating that ethical intuitionism is right:

Traditionally, cultural relativists have been charged with endorsing such statements as,

If society were to approve of eating children, then eating children would be good.

which is clearly false.

Notice that ‘false’ seemingly means that it is false according to his intuition; the thing which he is trying to argue for the reliability of. If he just said ‘which is false’, the reader may wonder where, in a book on establishing a basis for ethical truth, this source of falsity may have popped from. ‘Clearly’ says that they needn’t worry about it.