Sunday, 30 January 2011

Moral Reasoning

At work I'm just finishing up a study about moral reasoning. What we've been doing is based on Kholberg's moral reasoning framework. I won't go into too much detail as better explanations of the moral reasoning framework can be found on the Internet. In short form the framework is a model of our our moral reasoning develops, moving through up to a potential of six stages split into three levels.

As wee monsters (aka the very young) we are operating at 'pre-conventional' morality, and have not yet obtained the standard level of moral reasoning. At this stage of moral reasoning we have an 'obedience and punishment' orientation, and move onto 'individualism and exchange'. An example of moral reasoning (as distinct from moral attitudes) at this stage is that of keeping promises on the basis that being known to keep promises allows future exchanges of promises. Someone reasoning at this stage would see nothing wrong with reneging on a promise if they believed that they would not be found out. Moral reasoning at the preconventional level is focused on Personal Interest.

Moving on from the pre-conventional stages most people develop to the, yes you guessed it, the 'conventional' stages. These stages appear to be tradition focused, norm-enforcing, and to a large part culturally-aspected. The value of the reasoning here then is based in part on our cultural laws, norms, and concept of being and the good. Most people end up at the conventional stage, and usually develop to stage 4 (warning hazy recollection of the numbers ahead) around age 14-21. Stage 3 reasoning is focused on positive personal relationships. Stage 4 reasoning is focused on maintaining social order. A worthwhile digression at this point; as development occurs through the stages the theory is that the previous stages are integrated into our reasoning, and are not simply rejected.

Postconventional reasoning focuses on broader and deeper issues. Stage 5 reasoning asks "What is this social order that we're maintaining? What do we want from it? What should it be? How can it serve the people?". Stage 5 reasoning could be argued to be the impetus for democracy (though again I would imagine this is culturally aspected; if citizens were universally content why question the social order?). Stage 6 reasoning focuses on universality and underlying principles. What is the good? How can we achieve it? How do we reason about these things? What principles should we adopt and why?

Postconventional reasoning is what philosophers should be aiming for, indeed what much of philosophy is about (ramble: this framework could plausibly be generalised to a reasoning framework). So far the evidence is on the side of the Philosophers; the DIT test (which is a measure of moral reasoning and Kholbergian-based) uses political scientists and philosophers as the upper anchor for the measure because of their performance on the DIT.

So... how is this topical?

The West, and to an extent the rest of the world through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, can be said to operate a theory of rights as the (or a) underlying principle of determining the good. Rights can be considered as the STOP signs for policy and justice. [Sweeping musing statement that will not be supported alert] Utilitarianism and the Kantian categorical imperative are compelling ways of viewing justice, but are incomplete of themselves and lead to undesirable outcomes if followed dogmatically. (Derek Parfit has a handy phrase, which sadly eludes me at this point, for one example of utilitarianism taken too far.) Rights help inform policy as to what should be supported, but also to prevent utilitarianist policy going to far. Rights of course can be ill-conceived just as they can be well founded.

A conflict of Rights is topical in the news at the moment. What is the most balanced view to take? What is the most right? Should we recognise all of the accorded Rights? Are some of them being 'merely' infringed as opposed to violated? A more worrying question arises; to what extent do the general public recognise that just because you don't like something doesn't mean it isn't right, that supporting the Rights of to ensure a just society involves some degree of 'pain' or 'cost'. What is right isn't the same as what is good for you. This is preconventional moral reasoning and is internally focused. What is right isn't the same as how we've always done it or things that don't offend me or things that don't inconvenience me. Hanging on to the social rules of the past for comfort or to preserve a personally beneficial status quo isn't moral (or at least isn't high up the scale of moral reasoning). Of course it should also be said that we shouldn't abandon the past simply because it is the past, or because something shiny and new has come along, or for some misplaced political correctness, or even to give in to the tyranny of the majority (hence the need for something like Rights). Ideas should be assessed neutrally. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I'd like to write (ramble) more, but I've already thrown up enough views without enough support and I'm overdue a trip to the supermarket.

This blog post was composed to the sound of Metallica being played on banjos. True story.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Uncultured Swine

Elster's Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory criticises functional explanations, and has an interesting summary of scientific explanations. Functional explanations are an 'objective teleology'; they postulate a purpose without a purposive actor. That is, functionalist explanations lack a causative mechanism. A tiger has stripes in order to hide better. We have eyes in order to see. The sun is in the sky so that we can see. In the case of the form of life Darwin provided us with the causal mechanism to explain how traits are gained; random mutation. Heritability and selection pressures then act somewhat like a feedback loop, at which point we can talk with our functionalist hats on.

Elster gives three main types of explanation: the causal, the functional, and the intentional. The sciences use causal explanations (which is part of what makes it science..), and the physical sciences use it exclusively. Biological sciences also use functional explanations, but this is done within the framework of the theory of evolution which provides the causal mechanism, the functional interpretation explains the why based on the utility of the attribute. Elster goes on to say that social sciences' use of intentional explanations, and the 'proper' approach should be causal-intentional, with nary a hint of functionalism.

Elster critiques Marxism for its extensive use of functionalist explanations of (capitalist) society. One part of the text that tickled me was a restatement of Bourdieu's assertion that when intellectuals play around with language and even deliberately violate the rules of grammar, that this is a 'strategy designed to exclude the petty-bourgeois would-be intellectuals'. This is a functionalist explanation that does indeed give a rationale for the observed behaviour (even if not a very good one). Elster suggests that this argument is a 'theoretical analgue of envy - arising when our "factual inability to acquire a good is wrongly interpreted as a positive action against a desire"'. Later Elster goes on to quote poetry from Goethe via Marx, so standing out like an inscrutable rhino grazing in the work canteen are four lines of German poetry in the middle of a Philosophy text. Is Elster trying to exclude me? Is my mild annoyance merely a sign of my envious regard of Elster? Or am I merely an uncultured swine?

Monday, 24 January 2011

January's reading..

Toll The Hounds, book 8 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is my current favourite fantasy series and I'm part way through reading the series again in anticipation of the release of book 10 in February. Large, weighty, rambling, complex, jarring, and endearing. The biggest let down is that I don't know anyone else reading the series, and the series is difficult to get into as the first book isn't as good and can be a bit of a confusing slog at times. It's definitely worth the effort of getting through.

I'm just finishing up Colin Ware's Visual Thinking for Design. This book provides some of the theory and science behind our our visual processing works, and then goes on to provide advice on how to support visual cognitive tasks, sketch prototyping, and various other bits and pieces including a dictionary of visual relationships.

Kymlica's Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction covers utilitarianism, liberal equality, libertarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, citizenship theory, multiculturalism, and feminism. If you're not sure what all of these things are, then this may be the book for you. By providing a grounding in these areas this book has helped to clarify my thinking, and helped me to spot the arguments and underpinnings behind many current political issues.

I'm also growing a little more aware of political issues, and slowly coming around to the notion that as much as I'm not particularly interested in taking part in political life (beyond voting etc) that perhaps I can't rely on others to be. Though the mainstream in the UK is (more or less) moderate and sensible, there are pressure groups and the like that wield disproportionate influence due to their use of the media, organised responses to consultations, etc.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Time Management

One of the spurs for trying to manage my time more effectively and have a learning log was reading "Working Life and Learning", a free course module from the Open University. The material included a list of handy tips on time management:
  1. Delegate
  2. Prioritise tasks
  3. Set Goals
  4. Meet deadlines early
  5. Stay organised (including keeping a to do list)
  6. Find your productive time
  7. Minimise stress
  8. Learn to say No
  9. Reduce the intrusion of technology
All pretty simple stuff really, but going through the list made me realise just how poor I am at time management. On the list the only items that I'm good at are minimising stress, and not being bugged by technology. So, onwards and upwards! I'm going to try and put these into practice, and I've already started by organising my notebooks and such and creating myself a daily to-do list complete with goals and small challenges. And this learning journal of course.

Set Goals is an interesting one. Having goals that make you work, and perhaps stretch you, but are reasonable and within reach has been shown to improve performance. This is quite interesting in terms of running businesses and teams (and how well implemented performance management systems are, or as the case may be aren't). It also ties in with research on creativity, including Csikszentmihayli's concept of Flow. Having tasks that challenge us, take up our capacities, but don't tax us too much helps us to develop, to learn, and get in 'flow' where we can  achieve things more creatively than normal. There is probably a lot to be said here about living the good life, and putting our capabilities to good use, but I'll leave commenting on that for another day*.

* This may be a lie.

Getting started

Are you interested in learning about my two main learning topics of HCI and Philosophy? If so, you should try the following books:
  • The Design of Everyday Thingsby Donald Norman. A good introduction into the hows and whys of making products so that they're actually safe, efficient, and fun to use.
  • Think by Simon Blackburn. An introduction to Philosophy.
Both books are accessible and enjoyable reads. While I'm on the topic, here is a handy-dandy list of useful HCI books that I made earlier.

And so it begins...

This is intended to be a learning log, a means to keep track of interesting things that I learn and help to consolidate my learning. I think I do quite well at learning, but my approach is to stumble or bulldoze my way through it. I don't learn in a clever or systematic way. I probably never will, but I can try to improve.

Hopefully this blog will also help improve my writing style..

So, what am I learning? All kinds of things ideally, but sadly time is limited so I'm sticking to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Philosophy. The first is for my job, the second for ... I forget what for exactly, but I'm studying for a Masters in it. This may raise a question for some of you; if you're all into HCI why don't you have your own funky website? Ha! As if I have time for that. Laziness and sleep deprivation prevails.