How To Be More Reasonable

Are you convinced that your moral and political views are the right ones? If you were to lay out all of your views and examine them, would they fit together in a coherent package? Are you open to new ideas that run contrary to your intuitions?

In my last post I explored Bertrand Russell’s proposition that “the stupid are cocksure” while “the intelligent are full of doubt.” My conclusion: there is more evidence for the former contention than for the latter. Many intelligent people are headstrong too. But there is hope. We can achieve greater coherence in our own views and we can move toward greater civility and agreement with others if we engage in a deliberative process philosophers call “reflective equilibrium.”

In a nutshell, reflective equilibrium is a method of testing our judgments vis-à-vis our moral principles and, where a disjuncture is found, tweaking our convictions and principles so that all fit together more snugly and more intelligently.

This minimal type of reflective equilibrium (which Rawls calls "narrow") is my focus in this post. It's demanding enough. Those who wish to achieve "wide" reflective equilibrium will need to subject their principles to greater scrutiny by studying alternative philosophical frameworks. And "full" equilibrium comes only when citizens are in wide agreement about the conception of justice that binds them together. Maybe someday.

Step One

Start by bringing to mind one of your most strongly held convictions. Maybe you advocate abortion rights, support the death penalty or think the estate tax should be abolished. Maybe you think that government should be as small as possible. Maybe you are committed to marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

You might be so convinced of some of your views that you can’t imagine re-examining them. These are exactly the ones to take another look at: you will likely hold those views even after due reflection, but your commitment to them may be helpful in developing your thinking about analytically similar issues and lead you to surprising conclusions.

Beliefs you embrace reflexively in a moment of weakness or without giving them due consideration aren’t yet ripe for the method of reflective equilibrium. Only “considered judgments,” as John Rawls calls them, should be on the examination table. This implies that you should have very little confidence in judgments you arrive at quickly and without adequate study, or when you are emotionally wrought or distraught. Maybe you read Andrew C. McCarthy of the National Review this morning and suddenly think President Obama has sold out the First Amendment to Islamists. (He hasn’t.) Maybe you’re a teacher and jumped up in support of the teachers’ strike in Chicago before learning about the specific issues at stake there. (I made this mistake. It’s not so simple.) Maybe you heard one stump speech by a fantastic orator and were just carried away. (I admit that a tear came to my eye when I listened to Barack Obama's speech after he won the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008.)

Step Two

But if you keep your intellectual guard up when watching cable news shows, listening to candidates and reading blog posts, and if you consult reliable sources and think about what they’re reporting with a critical eye, you are on your way to developing a set of considered judgments. Once they are set, here is the basic procedure for achieving “narrow reflective equilibrium”:

  • Elucidate the principle (or principles) behind your considered judgment. 
  • Ponder the meaning and implications of that principle (or those principles) for relevantly similar issues/cases.
  • Consider whether you have good reason to agree with the implications of the principle(s) that informed your original judgment.
  • If you are troubled by the implications of the principle, you have two choices: revise your principle(s); or adjust one or more of your considered judgments to fit the principle(s)
  • Massimo Pigliucci offers a helpful example of piety in crisis:

    Let’s suppose that you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Suppose you also think morality comes from God. And further suppose that you maintain that it is immoral to kill children if they curse their parents. Then you read the following in Exodus 21:17: “He that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”

    Now, if you are concerned about the coherence of your beliefs, you have several moves at your disposal. You could admit that the Bible is not infallible, and that God may not have meant what Exodus attributes to Him. Or, you could abandon the idea that morality comes from God. Lastly, you could agree that yes, after all it is all right to kill children who disrespect their elders. In considering any of these options, and actually adjusting your set of beliefs about morality, divinity and children’s behavior, you have engaged in an exercise of “reflective equilibrium.”

    Paul Ryan’s Testimony

    Last spring, Paul Ryan was pushed into an episode of reflective equilibrium when professors at Georgetown University challenged his “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” The signatories to the letter noted a clear inconsistency between Ryan’s religious commitments and his political positions:

    [Y]our budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.

    The message is clear: you can be a faithful Randian or a faithful Catholic, but not both. You certainly should not distort the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” to defend your budget. In response to this claim, Ryan denied the professors’ premise:

    The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.”

    The audience was unconvinced by this tack, and it is unclear how carefully Ryan considered the possibility that his budget cuts may actually be inconsistent with the teachings of his church. Nor did he speak to the numbers: over 90 Catholic theologians and bishops signed on to the strongly worded condemnation of Ryan’s budget on religious grounds. But Ryan’s response illustrates one path out of contradiction in the method of reflective equilibrium: revising the principles. Catholic social teaching emphasizes truth telling and long-term financial solvency, he claimed, not feeding and clothing today’s poor and vulnerable. I’ll leave it to you to determine how persuasive this position is.

    Of course, Ryan could have opted for the Walt Whitman approach and revelled in his mutually conflicting beliefs. Remember Whitman's celebration of disequilibrium:

    Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

    This is poetic, but not very politic. When it comes to our views about morality or government, contradiction is not something to celebrate. We can do better, and finding an equilibrium is within our grasp.

    My Story

    A case of cognitive dissonance is the reason some of us decide to go to graduate school. In my case, incompatible convictions grew out of two years I spent in Israel after I graduated from college. I grew very attached to the Jewish state very quickly. But as I very happily lived and learned and worked in Israel, a conflict on a theoretical level nagged at me: Israel is the antithesis of a state that is neutral with respect to religion, as most forms of political liberalism demand. It is a Jewish state. Yet it also aspires to be a democratic state, the only one of its kind in the Middle East. How do Israel’s Arab citizens feel living in a Jewish state? What about secular and non-orthodox Jews, people like me, whose beliefs and practices differ in important ways from the established public faith? How can Israel be both a liberal democracy and a Jewish state? Or rather: can it?  

    I approached this question by conducting in-depth interviews with Israelis of all stripes — religious and secular, Arab and Jew — and asked them questions about their interpretations of the problem both conceptually and in terms of on-the-ground details life in a religious polity. The process was fascinating and humbling and often only made me more confused. But at the end of my analysis, I found something close to reflective equilibrium by tempering my Zionism and arguing for a new account of liberalism that makes room, in certain societies, for religious state symbols and government funding for religious services while maintaining a prohibition on government policies that subject citizens to religious law without their consent.

    Looking back on my conclusions a few years later, I have some doubts. My equilibrium is ready for a tweak. But that’s the very idea behind this process: intellectual homeostasis is a constant yet elusive goal. As Rawls puts it, “those who suppose their judgements are always consistent are unreflective or dogmatic; not uncommonly they are ideologues and zealots.”  

    When Rosh Hashanah arrives tonight, Jews around the world will begin to atone for the sins of “haughtiness,” of “passing judgment,” and of “obduracy,” among many others. We may never achieve perfect harmony within our own souls, but working toward that goal pays dividends — for ourselves and for our democracy.

    Image credit:

    Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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    Why compassion fades

    A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

    Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships

    One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or genocide? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

    Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

    Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

    Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured and dead mounts.

    The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

    That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

    The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

    Some back story

    Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

    The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


    Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

    There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

    A Dunbar Correlation

    Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

    "Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

    I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

    Professor Dunbar's response:

    "The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

    I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

    "These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

    In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

    Friendship, kinship and limitations

    "We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

    These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

    "These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

    As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

    We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

    Emotional regulation

    In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

    This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

    If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

    Gray matter matters

    One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

    It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

    It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

    Rabbit holes

    There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

    (1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

    (2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

    In the end

    Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

    Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

    Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.

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