I’ve Changed my Mind: ‘One Day University’ Sucks

Note: Click here for my glowing review of One Day University and to read some amazing facts and tidbits. I’m not nearly as pleased with my second visit.

One Day U. again came to New York City. This time, however, I regrettably heard one professor bash the Obama administration for an hour (he was supposed to be discussing how we can predict future wars), a neuroscientist talk about how an fMRI machine works (rather than lecture on the actual title of the session which suggested how human behavior is dictated by biological processes) and an Economics professor cover how China’s rise as an economic power effects virtually everything *.

Needless to say I was disappointed and considered demanding a refund to no one in particular. That said, there was one extremely interesting lecture given by Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale. The talk was about the psychology of morality and the academic debate of emotion versus reason in the development of morals. Dr. Bloom presented both positions:

Theory 1: Morality is emotional, not the product of reason

This idea is supported by studies of children who engage in what could be basic empathy skills to both other children (e.g., often crying when other babies cry) and adults (e.g., by helping adults open doors without prompting). The babies also seemed to be much happier watching videos showing characters that helped people versus those who hindered. Since babies don’t ‘reason’ in the way adults do, one might infer that empathy (and perhaps certain basic morals of human decency) is universal and hard-wired.

Theory 1 is also supported by what Dr. Bloom called the ‘power of disgust.’ He asked the people in the audience who viewed themselves as ‘morally liberal’ to think about what they would consider to be moral behavior for adults. The consensus was that assuming individual behavior didn’t hurt others, behavioral freedom should be allowed without moral judgment. Then he asked the audience to think about the following examples:

1) A brother and sister, both adults, often take family vacations together. On one particular holiday, they realize they are bored and decide to have sex together. The sister isn’t capable of having babies, and the brother and sister do not engage in sexual relations with each other again. Is this morally wrong?

2) A family’s dog is killed when he runs out into the street and is hit by a car. The family is grieving, but also realizes that they do not have any food in the house for dinner. They decide to cook the dead dog and eat it. Is this morally wrong?

3) A man buys a chicken (dead) at the grocery store for dinner. Before cooking it, however, he has sex with it. Is this morally wrong?

4) A man is cleaning his bathroom when he runs out of paper towels and rags. However, he has an old U.S. flag in his bedroom, and he uses this to clean the toilet. Is this morally wrong?

Now, pure ‘reason,’ according to Dr. Bloom, would say that these situations aren’t morally wrong. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Most of the people who were involved in the actual research said that it wasn’t morally wrong per se; rather that it was disgusting and ‘just not right.’ However, they couldn’t really explain why they felt that way. This is what he called Moral Dumbfounding.

Another example for emotional morality comes from what Dr. Bloom described as the Trolley Dilemma. You are standing near the tracks on a trolley, with a lever that controls on which track which the trolley runs. You find out that if you don’t pull the lever, five people a few miles down will be run over by the trolley and killed. However, if and when you pull the lever and derail the trolley to a different track, a single person will be killed who is on this track. Almost everyone selects to pull the lever, saving five people instead of one.

Now, when a person is standing on a bridge and sees the train coming toward the five people he/she cannot access the lever. But, there happens to be a large man on the edge of the bridge who, if pushed off, could take the brunt of the train’s power and save the five people by dying himself. The logic remains the same (saving five versus one), but many are now hesitant to push the man. It feels worse because an actual human being is the instrument by which we would save five.

Theory 2: Morality is deeply affected by reason

This idea is supported mainly by the existence of what Dr. Bloom refers to as “moral progress.” There has been a decrease in violence over history (as measured by murder). There has been a greater appreciation for the evils of slavery, sexism, and racism. And while only 5% of people approved of interracial marriage in 1958, a 75% approval rate was noted in 2007. Dr. Bloom reports that many of these people changed their minds about what is morally right and wrong through personal experiences and stories that challenged their mindsets.

Like virtually all psychological issues, one theory cannot explain the phenomenon of morality. Dr. Bloom therefore proposed an interplay between emotion and reason when determining morality, and his data is very compelling. He concluded by addressing why moral psychology matters: everyday you will meet people who share a different moral code than you. Rather than expressing your disagreement, consider how those people came to their conclusion. This creates greater empathy and the ability to address moral issues in a more productive way.

* This last lecture was actually quite good, just over the head of people like me who aren’t gifted in math and economics (or, as my mom calls us, “stupid.”)

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20 Responses to “I’ve Changed my Mind: ‘One Day University’ Sucks”

  1. Thomas Orange says:

    This is a great article.

    I find this to be the most fascinating aspect of morality, which reinforces the idea that biology interacts with the environment — life is not about nature versus nurture anymore. It is comforting to know that moral feelings are not only based on reason, but also have an emotional basis. We must make do with what we have. Furthermore, I feel that reason is not always the good guy in a battle against our emotional self. Reason can sometimes lead us to morally wrong choices. Maybe instead of vilifying our emotional response, we should learn when to allow it to take the wheel.

    Here’s an interesting article on the Moral Instinct.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html

  2. Pete says:

    It seems that morality and judgment go hand-in-hand. Our emotional sense of what is “moral” stems from what our elders have taught us, e.g. “You just don’t eat your dog”. We therefore look down on (and feel superior to) those who do eat their dogs, sleep with their sibling, sodomize a chicken, etc. Could morality also stem from an emotional survival mechanism, i.e. “I will more likely survive if I am morally superior”?

    Or rather, could we have a hardwired “moral defense” mechanism, whose content is mostly defined by our upbringing?

  3. Mike says:

    Hmmm. Defining “morality” is notoriously difficult. Seems some of the answers to the questions are not so much moral/amoral as “socially acceptable” or not. Eating the dog surely depends on the situation. Surely for Koreans it’s no different than eating the pet chicken. Otherwise – if the kids are starving ….

  4. nikolina says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the listed situations technically. The 3rd one not at all, that’s just a particular food fetish. As for the others, one could say they were “emotionally wrong”. But morally they seem to check out, no one is hurt in any way. I think it is more disturbing just because they imply abnormal emotional connections and perspectives, and we are wary of such people.

  5. It’d be much easier if everyone just agreed with me and my morals. 😀

  6. Wayland says:

    Very cool. Despite the title of this entry, I see that you were able to get something from it. I’m thinking that the people who didn’t speak on the proposed topic just weren’t prepared and made something up to cover for the lack of preparation.

  7. Dr J says:

    Very interesting topic. Another example of emotional morality versus reasoned morality comes from methods of applying the death penalty.

    There has been some medical evidence that the modern lethal injection used in the US is inhumane because the first drug causes paralysis making the subject *appear* peaceful, yet there maybe significant discomfort. The gas chamber and electric chair have been criticised similarly for causing unecessary suffering before death.

    The superficially more brutal method of decapitation, still used extensively in other parts of the world (e.g. UAE), has been viewed as objectively more humane because it minimises suffering prior to death.

    This is only one perspective, but if decapitation *is* the more humane method in terms of minimising suffering of the subject then who are we trying to protect? It may be that the current chosen method is the most “emotionally moral” because it *appears* painless, whereas the most effective and painless, the most “logically moral”, appears barbaric.

  8. Shay says:

    Cross posted to FB and actually pimped your story about helping the woman get over her specific phobia of vomiting today in Psychopathology.
    Can’t wait for the radio show with you and Philalawyer.
    Keep it up Dr. Rob!

  9. BL1Y says:

    The first three all have an evolutionary explanation for why, even though we recognize they are not morally wrong, we still think “that ain’t right.”

    Don’t screw your sister, don’t eat things you have an emotional bond with, and don’t put your willie in a dead chicken. They all make sense as ingrained evolutionary instincts, even though we can recognize that no one is harmed.

  10. Gordon says:

    I really enjoyed this one. This is the kind of thing I wonder about that flies around in my head every day; to see this stuff all researched and laid out by someone who knows what they’re talking about is great.

  11. Amber says:

    This one left me very very disturbed. And in need of a hot scrubby type shower. And a brain flush cuz damn.

  12. I’m still surprised you found an academic (excludimg economy or law) to actually bash him. It is usually a lovefest of epic proportions.

  13. Jim says:

    I have added your blog to my favorites list.

  14. Josh says:

    Last year in my Sophomore Honors English class, we had a discussion on morality and how it pertained to the novel “Grapes of Wrath”. I took a very simplified version of Dr. Bloom’s stance, basically saying that there was no inherent right and wrong. I was subsequently attacked by the 30 other people in the classroom, inculding the teacher. I was shocked that they couldn’t see that fact but it looks like I was right in the long run.

    Me:1
    Them: 0

  15. Dr J says:

    Josh: Maybe not *right*, but certainly not wrong.

  16. Please email me at steven@onedayu.com

    I feel badly you didn’t enjoy One DayU…

    Will you attend our April 25 event at no charge? Go to website for schedule…

  17. Chase says:

    It sounds like what started out as a great resource turned sour. That’s too bad.

  18. Martin says:

    My wife and I agree with the overall assessment. When we first started attending these events, we were thrilled. After a few more, we became gradually less enthusiastic. After today’s session (October 16, 2011), we pretty much concluded that it was probably our last one.

    Generally, too many of talks are a just weak, especially those in the “soft” sciences. Example: a woman psychologist who explained that mass killings like Columbine are only done by males, with only the weakest of arguments in support. Of course, a few days later, there was a teen age girl who was the murderer.

    Also, in too many cases, the talk has nothing to do with the topic. Today, we were interested in one session entitled “No Right Answers: Ethical Dilemmas in Modern Society”, but the speaker only covered anomalies in the effects of voting blocs (how the result of the legislative process is one that actually is opposed by a majority of the voters). An example would be the effect of the electoral college which can elect a President the majority voted against. But this had absolutely nothing to do with any ethical issue. Another speaker was supposed to tell us what was wrong with Congress. I expected to hear how the filibuster can defeat the majority’s will, or the difficulties in getting a closure of debate, or why the House and the Senate work at cross purposes and, perhaps, some suggestions for improvement. But the only suggestion, and one that took the entire hour lecture, was to increase the terms of Representatives to three years. The justification is that that is how long it took to write regulations for the Dodd Frank Bill, and we need to give the electorate time to see if the bills that the Representative supported turn out to be good or bad. I didn’t have a chance to raise my hand and tell this speaker how many other laws have been on the books for decades without regulations–the Treasury still has not written final regulations for some tax laws enacted in 1968! Even after the regulations are written, it takes many years to decide whether they are effective. Do we extend the term for 30 or 40 years to see if the 1968 tax changes were good???

    Two speakers were worth hearing, but you need a better than 50% batting average to make it worth spending the day.

    There is a lot of excitement among young people in California about TED, but I found that even worse and costs tens of times more. Each lecture takes only 18 minutes, half of which is just introducing the speaker, or the speaker relating his own bio. You may get 5 or 10 minutes of substance, which is hardly worth it. You can get more info just reading the NY Times or Wall St. Journal every day while commuting on the IRT. I suspect that the reason why the people in California enjoy TED is that the average attention span of the audience is less than 18 minutes, and no one in that community bothers to read newspapers of general interest anymore (if the story in the paper isn’t about the latest Iphone or social network, it won’t be read).

  19. Its pretty interesting that the mainstream media has changed the way it looks at this recently dont you think? What used to neve be brought up or discussed has changed. Frankly it is about time we see a change.

  20. Seviah says:

    I prefer the idea of ethics. I’m not Christian, but I admire the idea of love as an action, as a thing one does rather than feels. The feeling may follow. We start with our own circles of obligation. A Lanister always pays his debts. But how frightening debilitating when one simply fails, as recently I have done. The mathematics to saved lives is complex–there’s an intensity gap, for one, the circles of obligation, what is sometimes referred to as “imagined communities” for another. Most of us would be Hitler’s willing executioners is the downer. The upper is most of us will not be so called. Practice in daily goodness constitutes for most of us the order of obligation, and with a little luck will keep the willing exectutioners at bay. That dailyness though, more of a bitch than it seems.

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