Saturday, June 25, 2016

What's wrong with parochialism?

Recently popular political movements have been anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade, and more generally anti-globalization. What these positions share is a lack of concern for outsiders. For example, U.S. discussions of the Trans Pacific Partnership (which has many advantages and disadvantages for everyone) tend to ignore completely the apparent large benefits for Vietnam.  The technical term for this lack of concern is parochialism. In part, parochialism is part of our political language. The use of "we" in refers to fellow citizens, sometimes even excluding members of recently arriving ethnic groups. But some people, in their thinking if not in their speech, consider effects on outsiders, or even think of themselves as members of larger groups such as Europeans or citizens of the world. Once this kind of cosmopolitan thinking was even fashionable, as expressed, for example, in John Lennon's (1971) song "Imagine", and it seems to be coming back into fashion among some young people in Europe.

The simple argument against parochialism is that it is morally arbitrary, hence unjustified. The question of who should count in our moral judgments is a very basic one. The answer cannot be derived from competing philosophical approaches such as utilitarianism or deontology in general. So the usual attack on parochialism of any sort is to ask why a distinction should matter. This was the logical move made against slavery, racial discrimination, and discrimination against women. Of course, the defenders of these institutions sometimes tried to answer this attack by pointing to supposed empirical facts about, for example, how women's emotionality made them unsuitable as voters or office holders. But these arguments were ultimately recognized as post-hoc justifications, with little empirical basis. So the basic argument was, "If you care about what happens to X, why shouldn't you care equally about Y, even though Y is a different race, sex, or nationality?" This kind of logical argument is powerful, yet it is rarely made in public debates.

One counter-argument comes from a different analogy, loyalty to close kin. Equal treatment of everyone would imply that you should care about a stranger's child, spouse, or parent as much as you care about your own. If it is morally acceptable to give preference to loved ones, why not co-nationals too? This objection has several possible answers. One I like is that morality should concern itself with choices among options that are on the table. And the option to sacrificing one's own child for a greater good is not something that most of us would consider. We could just not bring ourselves to do it. (More precisely, our willingness to sacrifice our own concerns and desires is limited, so we should make our decisions so as to do the most good overall within this limit.)

Assuming that this argument works for loved ones -- and I think it does -- then could it also work for co-nationals? Yes, it could, if we feel such strong loyalty to our co-nationals. But we can take a step back and ask where our loyalty comes from. In the case of children, it is biologically determined. However, in the case of co-nationals, it is the result of an acquired abstract category. Even if humans evolved to be loyal to those in their immediate group of non-kin, the extension of group membership to total strangers requires a learned categorization of certain strangers as members of this group. Such categorization cannot plausibly be the result of natural selection, as it is, once again, arbitrary. If we can define "our group" as "German citizens", we could just as easily define it as "European citizens". People who reflect on this arbitrariness may come to change their loyalties.

In sum, it may be too late for those who feel very strongly about their co-nationals. From their perspective, parochialism can be justified, assuming that they cannot modify their feelings by reflection. Yet we can still object to the cultural forces that lead people to think this way, including the assumptions of political discourse itself.

A second line of argument for parochialism concerns the definition of responsibility that comes from the specific social roles. Social organization gives people decision-making authority in limited domains. When people violate these limits, they risk losing their authority, and they set a precedent for subverting a useful system. Police officers are not supposed to make decisions about punishment. That role is left for courts and judges, which are limited in yet other ways.

This is also a good argument, but is the role of a citizen just to advance what is best for their co-nationals. Many citizens do not limit their role in this way, and they are not even considered to be bad citizens as a result. Recent immigrants often think about others from their country of origin who might also want to immigrate. Some people take into account the effects of policy on other countries to which they have secondary loyalty. And still others think about issues that affect the whole world, such as climate change. We have no written rule against such a view of citizenship, nor any obvious social norms.  The narrow definition of the citizen's role as serving only national interest is one that some people arrive at by themselves. It is not part of the social structure of roles, unlike the roles of police officers and judges.

Citizens do have a special responsibility toward their own nation, if only because they are in the best position to know what is good for it. They cannot rely on foreigners to decide on issues that have mostly local effects. But the exercise of this responsibility does not imply that outsiders should simply be neglected. It is a responsibility that applies much more to some issues than to others. As a citizen, we have a special responsibility to inform ourselves about national and local issues that don't have much effect on outsiders, and there are many of these. But just as our concern about city and state issues does not justify neglect of national issues, so our concern with national issues does not justify neglect the world outside.

In sum, the justification for parochialism of the sort we see in current politics seems weak. Would it be possible to confront people with arguments against this view in general? We don't know unless we try.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Learning social rules

I just read a forthcoming paper (in Mind and Language) by Shaun Nichols and several others, which argues that it is rational to develop moral rules that distinguish (for example) acts and omissions. The relevant idea of "rational" is from rational concept formation.

When you learn a new concept, it is best not to generalize it too much. In some experiments, subjects were given examples of rule violations, for learning, and tested with other examples. When the learning examples were of the form "X did an action A that caused outcome C to happen", subjects generalized this to similar test examples with other examples of A and C. But they did not consider examples of the form "X failed to do B, which would have prevented C from happening" to be violations of the rule. In order to teach subjects that the rule applied to omissions as well as acts, the training had to include omission cases as examples of rule violations.

This behavior of subjects makes perfect sense in the case of arbitrary rules, and even legal rules. But I was bothered because I don't think moral rules should be arbitrary in this way.

One possible explanation of the difference is that sophisticated moral rules arise from reflection on the social rules that we have learned. Specifically, we reflect by asking questions about purposes (which I call "search for goals" in some places). When we see an example of a rule and ask about its purpose, we might discover what general purpose it serves. We can then think about how to generalize it so that it serves that purpose. If it does not serve the purpose in some cases, or if it could serve the same purpose better by a modification, then we can think about improving it.

The same process is part of what it means to understand a design such as a mathematical formula, according to my interpretation of David Perkins' book "Knowledge as Design". For example, we understand the formula for the area of a parallelogram (and its associated arguments) by finding that the argument for this rule serves the purpose of converting the parallelogram to a rectangle, and we already know how to find the area of a rectangle. Once we discover this connection, we can apply the same principle elsewhere, as Max Wertheimer shows in the first chapter of "Productive thinking". We can transfer the principle to cases where it applies while avoiding transfer to other cases.

Similarly, a law with a "loophole" is an example of a rule that is crafted in a way that fails to serve its purpose. We can fix laws by removing loopholes.

A law that gives rights, such as the right to vote, drive, or own property, to men but not to women does not seem to serve reasonable accounts of the purposes of such rights-granting laws. We have trouble coming up with a purpose that applies to men but not women. Any such purpose seems arbitrary; it could just as well distinguish people with odd and even birthdays. Such a search for purposes is, I think, the sort of reflection that Peter Singer discussed in "The expanding circle".

Thus it is one thing to learn a rule, but it is another to understand the rule in a way that allows us to ask whether it serves its purpose as well as it could, and, if not, what could replace it. It may be rational from the perspective of learning to learn whatever we are taught about what to do and not do, but, if this is all we did, we would cut off the possibility of improving these rules.

Could most deontological rules survive this kind of questioning?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Alternatives to mediation (in data analysis)

The following is not vetted. It is some thoughts inspired by several papers I have dealt with recently. It is also about statistics, a new topic for this blog, but one I will probably write more about.

In some studies we measure several variables, and we are primarily interested in the correlation between two of them, e.g., cognitive style and political ideology. When this correlation is found, we are also interested in what the other variables can tell us about why this happens. For example, we might be interested in things like religiosity, or education. Cognitive style might, for example, affect religiosity, and religion, in turn could affect social conservatism, which is (in some countries) related to religious teaching. Let's call the target variable, political ideology, Y, and the main predictor X, and the other variable M (for "mediator" or "middle"). Assume that X and Y are correlated, and this correlation is what we are trying to explain.

The logic of classical mediation is best understood in terms of simple and partial correlations. For this purpose, partial correlations are equivalent to regressions, since the significance test is the same. If the dependent variable is Y, the predictor is X, and the mediator is M, we need to show that r(X,M) and r(Y,M|X) are both significant. The second is a partial correlation (or regression coefficient, or semi-partial). The first is consistent with the claim that X affects M. The second is consistent with the claim that M affects Y and that this effect is not the result of the correlation of M with X.

Mediation tests are most useful when X is an experimental manipulation. Even then we worry about r(Y,M|X) being an artifact. It could be that the causality is an affect of Y on M rather than an effect of M on Y. Or, Y and M could both be affected by some un-measured fourth variable. We could avoid these problems by experimentally manipulating both X and M. Even then one might argue that the experimental manipulation of M is affecting something different from the M that varies spontaneously in the population or the M that is affected by Y.

More generally, in many tests of mediation, almost anything could cause anything else. Moreover, if X, M, and Y are all influenced by roughly the same causal factors, then M will "mediate" the "effect" of X on Y, or the "effect" of Y on X, if M is just the variable that is most highly correlated with these underlying causes. I have never seen a mediation analysis that attempts to correct for the extent to which the different variables correlate with the causal factors that each is supposed to be sensitive to. This sort of validity coefficient surely affects what counts as a significant mediator and what does not.

Note also that any test of mediation is about variation. It is possible that M does affect Y but that the variation in M is mostly error by the time you remove the common variance between M and X (by partialing).

So what should we do instead? One thing is to look at the simple correlations between X and M and between M and Y. If both are large enough (with "significant" being one criterion of that, but significance depends on sample size, which is irrelevant here), then we would conclude that variation in M is a possible explanation of the correlation between X and Y. It correlates with both of them. If it does not correlate with one of them, and if we have no reason to expect any additional variables that affect M and X or Y in opposite directions (thus obscuring a real correlation), then M could not explain the X Y correlation. (For example, X correlates with sex, but sex does not correlate with some other measure Y. Hence sex is not a possible explanation.)

Here "explaining the correlation" simply means that some source of variation exists that affects X, Y, and M. The fact that M is part of this list tells us something about what that source of variation might be.

Can we say more than this? Consider a stricter criterion. Suppose we regress M on X and Y, and we require that both regression coefficients are present (high enough by some standard). Such a result would seem to rule out the possibility that r(X,M) or r(Y,M) are high simply because X and Y are correlated.  Suppose, for example, r(X,M|Y), the regression coefficient or partial correlation, is zero even though r(X,M) is positive. This would suggest that X does not really have any common source of variation with M.

This does not quite follow. For example, it could be that X and M are affected equally by some set of variables Z, but X is affected by some additional variables that also affect Y. Thus, X and M are redundant measures of some of the factors that affect X, M, and Y. Similarly, it could happen that X and M are affected by exactly the same set of variables, but X is a more reliable measure than M. This could reduce the role of M to zero in a regression model.

However, if we regress M on X and Y and find that both coefficients are high enough, then it is more plausible that M is indeed capturing some of common variance affecting X an Y (compared to the simple correlations of M with X and M with Y).

In general, I do not think we can learn much from anything other than the simple correlations r(X,M) and r(M,Y). If both of these are positive, then whatever M "measures" is a possible source of variation that accounts for the correlation between X and Y. But regression of M on X and Y could also be useful, if both coefficients are positive.

Mediation tests do have some uses. They can be useful as a manipulation check, a way of testing whether an experimental variable did what it was supposed to do. And, if its effect varies across subjects, does the variation help to explain the variation in outcomes.  For example, cognitive therapy for depression (manpulated) changes how people think about the causes of bad events (measured by the Attributional Style Questionnaire), which, in turn, affects their depressive symptoms. The therapy is focused on the thinking, not the symptoms, so this is a manipulation check.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


Many principles of "ethics" are designed to protect autonomy. Regulations concerning human subjects in research take a broad view of what counts as "coercion", to the point of including excessive rewards that make it difficult for potential subjects to refuse. Programs to reduce excessive birth rates were criticized as violations of autonomy, even if they consisted of advertising and TV soap operas (as I discussed in my book "Judgment misguided"). Now, some of the opposition to "nudges" is that they, too, violate autonomy, because they influence people, which is, of course, their purpose.

This concern has always struck me as a little strange, because it seemed to me that well-intended attempts at influence were a drop in the bucket of all the things that influence decisions, including much more blatant and less justifiable attempts by others. Nudges from government are minor influences compared to marketing strategies by corporations, or expectations of families. Philosophically, one might even ask what is left if all these influence are removed. We are all influenced by our culture.

But the drop-in-the-bucket argument is weak at best. If autonomy violations are wrong, then the existence of large amounts of wrongness in the world is no justification for adding more.

A more interesting property of ethical concerns about autonomy violations is that all (or almost all) of the alleged violations are actions. The operating moral principle seems to be that we should not take action to influence the decisions of others, but we need take no action to prevent autonomy violations that already exist. If women in poor countries are being pressured by their husbands and in-laws to have more children than they want, those concerned about excessive undesired births are under no obligation to try to prevent such pressure. Similarly, if advertisers induce people to eat lots of unhealthy food, the operating principle does not oblige is to try to stop them, although it prevents us from trying too hard to nudge them in the other direction.

Thus, the problem with all the existing influences is not that they are a large bucket. Rather, it is that the concern with autonomy arises from a moral principle that distinguishes acts and omissions and is thus not primarily concerned with consequences. That is, it is a deontological rule. If people follow this rule, as compared to one that brings about the best consequences, then it makes things worse.

The stereotype of the Jewish mother is someone who does not hesitate to butt into her children's affairs, or those of other people, for their own good. Perhaps we need more Jewish mothers. They won't always be correct about what is good for other people, but trying to act in this way might have a higher success rate than doing nothing in the name of autonomy, and thus ceding control to those who base their efforts to influence others on their own self-interest or narrow ideology.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Preliminary thoughts on a utilitarian decision analysis of parochial voting

Suppose that you can vote in a referendum on a proposal. You believe that the proposal is good for the whole world, but bad for your particular group. For example, it might be a proposal to accept a trade agreement that would be beneficial on the whole but would hurt your particular business. Or it might reduce global warming but hurt the coal industry, and you live in a coal-producing region. How should you vote? The options are to vote for the proposal, vote against it, or not vote.

Assume that voting has a small cost. You must take the time to do it, and get to the polling place. Let us first consider only this cost and the effects of the proposal itself (regardless of whether you vote for it or not). The probability that your vote will affect these consequences is very small, but not zero. The expected benefit of a vote for one side is the probability times the benefit if your vote matters. It is well known that the expected benefit to you personally is usually not enough to justify the cost of voting, even though the cost is small. If this benefit and the cost of voting are all you care about, then, in terms of these values, you should not vote.

Now add the assumption that you care about other people, not as much as you care about yourself, but some. Clearly, if the proposal can affect enough other people whom you care about, it becomes worth the small cost of voting, in terms of these values. If you care equally about all other people, then (by assumption) you should vote for the proposal, because it is best for the world.

If, on the other hand, you care only about other people in your group, it could be worth your time to vote against the proposal. This conclusion is less likely for two reasons. First, the group is smaller. Second, many members of your group may care about outsiders, enough so that they would prefer the proposal to pass. Your caring about them should consider their altruistic values as well as their self-interested values, and this inclusion would reduce further the value to you of your vote against the proposal. Given these considerations, it is less likely that voting against the proposal would be worth your time, compared to the case in which you care about everyone equally. (You may also care some about the world but more about the members of your group. This would be in-between.)

More generally, though, this analysis suggests that people who care about the world are the ones who are most likely to find voting worthwhile, and these people should vote for the proposal. Those who care only about their group are less likely to find voting worthwhile, but, if they find it worthwhile, they should probably vote against the proposal (unless they think that most members of their group prefer the proposal to pass).

Note that voting against the proposal can be seen as a vote to harm the outsiders. (And not voting at all is a lesser harm, because it has half the effect on the outcome, compared to voting for the proposal.) From most moral perspectives, this harm is difficulty to justify. Thus, we could argue that the sort of parochial values that lead to this vote are ones to be discouraged. They are, in a sense, "evil desires".

Now consider the possibility that the act of voting has positive benefit to the self, as well as a small cost. This is, again, about the behavior of voting and not about the consequences of the adoption or rejection of the proposal. Suppose you get some pleasure out of cheering for your team, or from cheering for humanity.

Note that the pleasure of cheering could possibly be obtained without actually voting. You could, for example, go to political rallies and participate with the crowd in cheering one side or booing the other side. If you did this on the side against the proposal, you could get this pleasure without hurting any outsiders. However, it is possible that the pleasure is greater when you actually vote. This is part of the ritual. In this case, those who are motivated this way are selfish in a way much like those with parochial values. They take pleasure in behaviors that hurt other people, without (by assumption) compensating benefit for anyone else. This too is the sort of desire we have reason to discourage.

Moreover, it is possible (even likely) that the pleasure of acting on behalf of your group is based on a failure to understand or appreciate the more basic argument given above. People may think that supporting their group is the morally correct thing to do, in terms of the consequences of the proposal being adopted or not. If people were convinced that voting for the proposal is better in terms of its consequences, they would take less pleasure in voting against it.

Likewise, if people understood the low expected utility of voting against the proposal for others, even those in their group, they might not get enough pleasure from voting against the proposal to make it worthwhile for them to vote at all.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What citizens may need to understand about democracy

I have been applying for grants that so far I do not get, but I have summarized the idea that I want to test, so I am putting the gist of it here, extracted from the last proposal submitted (in collaboration with David Rand at Yale).

Democracy is a human invention, a "design" that serves certain functions. But citizens do not understand it very well, and, as a result, they often fail collectively to take full advantage of what it can do. Here is what many people don't understand.

Political participation is cost-ineffective in advancing self-interest or the parochial interest of a small group, but is cost-effective in advancing the common good. The small influence that each citizen has over policy outcomes renders political participation nearly useless as a way of advancing self-interest (Downs, 1957). But this small influence is more than compensated by the large number of people potentially affected by these outcomes, if the citizen has sufficient concern for these others (Edlin, Gelman \& Kaplan, 2007, 2008). In terms of self-interest the expected benefit of a vote is proportional to 1/N, where N is the number of voters. But in a utilitarian calculation, which assumes some altruism (concern for others), the benefit of voting must be multiplied by N, assuming that only voters are affected by the outcome.  This multiplication cancels the dilution caused by being one voter among N. And the total benefit can be orders of magnitude larger if we think in terms of effects on those who do not vote, such as children, foreigners, and future people who do not exist. The larger the circle we consider, the more the effect of a vote is magnified, and, therefore, the more worthwhile it is to use ones vote (or other forms of participation) to advance our concerns for the good of others.

Imagine you are faced with a conflict. You believe that a proposal would be good for the world but bad for you. Should you vote for it or against it? Of course it depends on how good it is for the world and how bad it is for you. But even if it is very bad for you it is unlikely to be worth your time to vote against it, because the probability is very low that your vote would matter. On the other side, if it is reasonably good for the world, it would affect many people, and that could make it worthwhile to vote for it, if you care somewhat about all those people.

The same sort of conflict arises between self and nation, or nation and world, or present and future. "Nation" is an in-between case. But a proposal that harms your nation a little but helps the world a lot would still be worth voting for, again because the numbers matter. In many cases what is good for your nation is also good for the world. Nationalism, in which people promote the good of their nation regardless of the harm done to outsiders, is a form of parochialism.

Moreover, because government can coerce people to cooperate (behave in ways that benefit everyone rather than the self alone), the cost of supporting government in doing this, by voting, is much smaller than the cost of cooperating voluntarily. Because of this principle, people often vote to give government the power to make them and others do what they would not be willing to do if left to their own devices. For example, voters sometimes vote for tax increases but almost never donate money to the government.

If citizens around the world understood these arguments, they would still disagree on what constitutes the common good, but surely some of the current malfunctions of democracy could be mitigated.

The idea that government is a design to provide for the common good by solving social dilemmas (or providing public goods) is not widely understood; some people seem to think that government sanctions are never justified (except perhaps for military defense and property protection), or that government is a tool to be used for competition between parochial groups.

The idea that democratic government is a design to serve the common good should not be difficult to understand. Thus, failures of understanding can be attributed to failures of education.

It is apparent to anyone who follows the news that the idea of democracy is not on a smooth path to universal approval and success in bringing about the benefits of good government. The economic successes of some authoritarian countries (such as China) have given many people the idea that democracy is unnecessary, when, in fact, these are probably isolated lucky cases, contradicting the general result. A better understanding of how democracy works could lead at least to a little healthy skepticism about whether such authoritarian governments can continue to produce good results, or, alternatively, whether they will increasingly attempt simply to maintain power, whatever the costs.

Many countries seem unable to switch from authoritarian to democratic system, and this problem is often attributed in part to the necessity of cultural support for the idea of democracy itself. Part of this support may consist of the kind of understanding described here, in particular the idea that the obligation of a citizen is to help advance national interest rather than tribal interest or self-interest. (The potential conflict between national interest and world interest is not at issue here, since the formation of stable democracy in a nation is almost always in the world interest as well.)

Even long-standing and stable democracies seem unable to make democracy work as well as it should, as a result of such problems as polarization and "populism". Part of the substance of polarized conflicts involve understanding of what government can accomplish and why it is needed, and understanding of the limits of parochialism. And populism often involves a different sort of narrowness, namely, excessive attention to immediate effects at the expense of long-term effects.

Increased understanding of democracy could be the low-hanging fruit in attempts to improve the human condition by improving the functioning of government. If it results in changes in civics education, these are relatively inexpensive. Possibly the failures of democracy are the result of misunderstandings of how democracy should work, and correcting these misunderstandings even in a minority of citizens can have substantial effects on outcomes. Note that civics education does not happen only in schools but also in efforts at ``nation building'' through instruction and outreach, and through political communication more generally.


Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2007). Voting as a rational choice: Why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others. Rationality and Society, 19, 293–314.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2008). Vote for charity's sake. The Economists’ Voice, 5, (6), article 6.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The report on torture used by the CIA

An NPR interview  this morning made two interesting points about the recent report on torture by the CIA, the first of which I had thought of myself.  This was that it is possible that some authors of the report, or perhaps just those who summarize it, are engaging in belief overkill. They are saying that the extreme methods of interrogation never did any good. They don't need to say this. They could just say, more cautiously, that the amount of good done was so small as not to justify the use of these methods. Belief overkill is the distortion of beliefs so that all conflict disappears and no arguments oppose the favored conclusion, even if the conflict would be easy to resolve.

The second point, made in passing, was that it may in fact be impossible to find a case in which the extreme methods led the CIA from ignorance to certainty all at once. But intelligence does not work like this. It is all about probabilities. (The interview did not use this term, but it was implied.) If a confession extracted under extreme pressure changed the probability of some conclusion, such as an immanent attack or the presence of a terrorist at some location, the probability may change enough to warrant a change in plans. Such changes could happen if a confession agreed, or disagreed, with other evidence already available.

Given the possibility that probabilities were affected, the difficulty of claiming that these methods "never mattered at all" seems to increase. Again, this claim is not needed. The methods are bad in themselves and in the precedents they set for others.