A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The myth of knowledge... and ethics

Lee Rudolph, a topologist I have collaborate with on emotion perception, emailed an inquiry relevant to discussion my blog's continued discussion of the myth of knowledge... in this case knowledge regarding ethics. Recall that they myth of knowledge holds that there is a tight connection between "having learned about", "being able to articulate", "demonstrating capacity for doing", and "doing in the moment". I'm modifying what is below from an email Lee wrote to the K-group (or Kitchen group), an large international research group which centers... for the moment... around activities at Clark University. It is about a good, old-fashioned financial scandal (though it has the scent of some of psychology's recent scandals).
----- Lee said:

I noticed something yesterday that I want to bring to *some*one's attention. The impetus of my observation was this article in the Boston Globe: "Insider trading suspect was model ethics student." Fleshed out a bit, this is the story.
  1.  In college, graduate school, and intra- and post-graduate work, Mr. Martoma "had very good training in ethics" (quoting "a Dartmouth College religion professor who direct's the school's Ethics Institute", "became part of a case study about ethics and Alzheimer's disease" at the NIH, went to Stanford University Graduate School of Business with a recommendation letter from his former professor (at Duke) in "ethics and policymaking" (for whom later became "chief teaching assistant for the class") which said in part that Martoma was "wonderfully fair-minded" and that "No one has contributed more to our class discussions of Sissela Bok's 'Lying,' nor was anyone in our class as acute on the issues of moral capacity raised by Camus' 'The Plague'". 
  2. After getting his MBA, Martoma beganworking in finance. From 2006 to 2010, he worked "first as an analyst and then as a hedge fund portfolio manager specializing in the health care sector." During that period (according to Federal prosecutors) Martoma began collaborating with a UMich medical professor, who "leaked Martoma confidential information. [...] With the secret data, Martoma caused other investment advisers to at first buy shares in the drug companies, then ditch them and place financial bets against the companies when he found out before the public that the drug trial's final outcome was negative." The total value of these deals was a quarter of a billion dollars. 
My observation, based on this story as reported, is this: apparently many people are finding it surprising that someone who has STUDIED ethics thoroughly may nonetheless ACT in ways that those people consider clearly unethical. (Of course, Mr. Martoma's defense lawyer doesn't see anything clear about it, at all.)

But why should this be surprising? Are ethics courses at universities supposed to be indoctrinations, rather than--like courses on other topics--investigations? Philosophy departments teach both ethics courses and esthetics courses: is it expected that any *particular* "esthetic" be inculcated by the course on esthetics? Or is it understood that, upon sufficient investigation of ethical issues, *everyone* of sufficient intelligence will agree on at least the core principals of ethical behavior, and strive to act upon them?


Taking a behaviorist stance, James Cordova (who researches "third-generation-behaviorist family therapy") replied:

In a way, not surprising at all. We can teach about ethics, but we can't teach ethical behavior (something here about choosing the long-term benefit of others over our own short-term benefit). Teaching ethical behavior would require a setting in which we could shape that behavior by its consequences (simple learning theory).

In its stead, we create sanctions for what the community (variable) agrees (variable) is unethical behavior. However, there are rarely contingencies for ethical behavior apart from our empathy for the suffering of others (variable). How do you teach empathy (broadly defined) in an ethics class? This particular fellow sounds like some who is perhaps particularly skilled at adapting to the contingencies of the setting he finds himself in. He excelled in his ethics classes and he excelled in the world of finance. Then he got caught excelling...

Aren't the contingencies of greed fairly predictable?


Lee is entirely right about how the Myth of Knowledge is a necessary part of explaining why people are surprised by this type of result. James illustrates one of the ways in which a behaviorist perspective - sans the myth - could show the supposed discrepancy to unsurprising. Recall the most basic assertion of radical behaviorism, that all questions about psychology are ultimately questions about behavior. This would include questions about a person's morality. If you look at the testimony regarding perpetrator's "ethical nature", it virtually all regards spoken responses in classroom situations. That is, people were willing to vouch for the students ethical status, despite never being in a position to witness him behaving ethically. If so many people didn't seem to doubt it, I would assert it as self-evident that you need to see someone behaving in ethically-charged situations to know if they are ethical. It doesn't matter what they say they will do, or what they tell other people to do, it matters what they actually do.

Sure, the student's instructors might have been in a good position to testify to his ability to "answer questions related to ethics" or his ability to "successfully advise others through ethical dilemmas," but they were in no position to attest to his actual ethics! Unfortunately, if you have been wooed by the myth of knowledge, you lose the ability to tell the difference.


  1. I'm sorry I've been late getting to the "myth of knowledge" party. Instead of commenting on the old thread (where the comment would be more relevant, but even less likely to be read), I'll run the risk of driving this thread off-topic before it even gets a chance to be on-topic, with the following proposed statement (which has just occurred to me) about how acknowledging the falsehood of The Myth of Knowledge should influence one's epistemological stance (supposing one to have one; at the moment, I'm skimming around in the literature of Evolutionary Epistemology in the style of Donald Campbell and Konrad Lorenz, so I am at least pretending to have one). STATEMENT: "knowledge" isn't something you "have"; *knowing* is something (or, rather, several somethings) you *do*.

    Suitable for a bumpersticker? nah, too wordy.

  2. It could get close to a bumper sticker... certainly down to good coffee-mug or t-shirt length. I'd buy one!

    I think as a mathematician this might be easier for you than for many others. My math colleagues at Altoona, at least, are quite dumbfounded by students who claim they knew how to do something on a test even when they got the problems wrong. The students seem quite genuine. Simplifying a bit: The students think that "knowing how to add" means something other than "coming to the right answer when faced with an addition problem."

    The math professors, in contrast, don't see any difference between "knowing math" and "doing math successfully".

  3. Also... I'm not sure what, if anything Lorenz would make of all this. One benefit from doing work with animals is that they cannot talk.

  4. Trying telling that to the Pushme-Pullyu!

    An Oklahoman friend of mine taught me a slogan in her native language: "I can 'splain it to you, but I can't understand it for you." Maybe I should go into the bumper-sticker business after all.

    So, do you guys ever read Donald T. Campbell? The "evolutionary epistemology" literature is vast, and since its interest to me, though piquant, is pretty tangential to what I'm actually trying to *do*, I'm not even trying to figure out what the current state(s) of the art may be. But at least it's a subject with a fairly compact core of original texts, namely, his chapter with that title and the (big but not unmanageable) body of earlier work by others that he assimilated to it for his own purposes.

    Some of what he says (in that chapter) even rings the bell of ecological psychology, to my untrained ear. Here's the second-last paragraph from the second-last section (before the "Summary" section, where he tries (with considerable grace, but not really entirely convincingly) to tie the whole thing back to Popper (in a volume on whose work the chapter was included--though I think most of it had probably been written before that collection was conceived).

    We can also examine utilitarian specificity versus realism in the evolution of knowing. Consider the spatial knowledge of some primitive locomoter animal, perhaps Konrad Lorenz's water shrew [footnote to _Kants Lehre von apriorischen_]. It may have a thirst space it uses when thirsty, a separate hunger space, a separate space for escape from each predator, a mate-finding space, etc. In its utilitarianism, there is a separate space for each utility. In a higher stage of evolution, the hypothesis has emerged that all these spaces are the same, or overlap. The realistic hypothesis of an all-purpose space has developed. There is abundant evidence that white rat, cat, dog, and chimpanzee are at or beyond this stage: that spatial learning achieved in the service of one motive is immediately available for other motives. Along with this goes spatial curiosity, the exploring of novel spaces and objects when all utilitarian motives (thirst, food, sex, safety, etc.) are sated and the exploration has no momentary usefulness. Such disinterested curiosity for "objective", all-possible-purpose spatial knowledge-for-its-own-sake has obvious survival value, even though it may transcend the sum of all specific utilities.

    Actually the paragraph goes on some more, and gets to science and Mach and all that stuff. But my fingers are tired.

  5. Hmmmmm.... sounds like affordance-talk would play well there.

  6. Perception could be based on the education, moral and cultural background of a certain individual.
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