Comparing Ethical and Optical Illusions

I finished off Andrew Oldenquist’s ethics reader Readings in Moral Philosophy. It’s a good collection of many of the baseline arguments that you need to be familiar with in order to understand what people are arguing about when they argue ethical philosophy. It’s got your Plato, your Aristotle, your Hume, Kant, and Mill. Along with this are a set of sermons by Joseph Butler that I wasn’t at all familiar with, and a handful of more-modern bits: G.E. Moore, A.J. Ayer, and Stephen Toulmin.

The excerpts from Plato’s Republic were the liveliest translation I’ve read (Benjamin Jowett’s from ), and I’m happy to report the whole thing is on-line, thanks to The Internet Classics Archive.

One of the things I was keeping an eye out for while I was reading was for indications of the shift from ethical philosophy being seen as a practical pursuit — learning with the goal of becoming a better person — to ethical philosophy being seen as an abstract pursuit of knowledge about what ethical questions mean and how they might be consistently answered.

I didn’t find much of note here, except two quotes that might as well mark either endpoint of this shift. First, Aristotle:

Since the branch of philosophy on which we are at present engaged differs from the others in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good men, for this alone gives the study its practical value — we must apply our minds to the solution of the problems of conduct.

And second, Stephen Edelston Toulmin:

To show that you ought to choose certain actions is one thing: to make you want to do what you ought to do is another, and not a philosopher’s task.

Not precisely on-point, but characteristic of the spirit of recent ethical philosophy, which seems to want to defer all of the ethical action until all of the loose ends have been tied up in ethical theory.

Which is a shame, because it seems to me that this would be an especially fruitful time to develop a practical discipline of ethics. While some of the great human weaknesses and temptations have been known and discussed for ages, we have never had such precise investigation of ethical blind spots and illusions as we have today.

Let me give an example of what I mean. The illustration below is an optical illusion. The parallelograms marked “A” and “B” are the exact same color, although one looks like a “light” parallelogram and one looks like a “dark” parallelogram.

In this optical illusion, the parallelograms marked “A” and “B” are the exact same color, although one looks like a “light” parallelogram and one looks like a “dark” parallelogram.

The illustration plays with our expectations about shadows and light and such to fool us. Parts of the illustration that aren’t directly part of the comparison between the two parallelograms, that aren’t really relevant to the decision of whether or not they are of the same color, influence our perception. Here’s an illustration that makes it clearer, if you don’t believe me that the parallelograms are the same color:

This illustration exposes the optical illusion by coloring in the space between the parallelograms marked “A” and “B” with a field of color that is the same color as both of those parallelograms.

We have similar illusions that confuse our sense of right and wrong. Compare the optical illusion above to the ethical illusion I mentioned :

In the 1970s, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling used to put some questions to his students at Harvard when he wanted to show how people’s ethical preferences on public policy can be turned around. Suppose, he said, that you were designing a tax code and wanted to provide a credit — a rebate, in effect — for couples with children. (I’m simplifying a bit.) In a progressive tax system such as ours, we try to ease the burden on the less well off, so it might make sense to adjust the child credit accordingly. Would it be fair, do you think, to give poor parents a bigger credit than rich parents? Schelling’s students were inclined to think so. If the credit was going to vary with income, it seemed fair to award struggling families the bigger tax break. It would certainly be unfair, they agreed, for richer families to get a bigger one.

Then Schelling asked his students to think about things in a different way. Instead of giving families with children a credit, you’d impose a surcharge on couples with no children. Now then: Would it be fair to make the childless rich pay a bigger surcharge than the childless poor? Schelling’s students thought so.

But — hang on a sec — a bonus for those who have a child amounts to a penalty for those who don’t have one. (Saying that those with children should be taxed less than the childless is another way of saying that the childless should be taxed more than those with children.) So when poor parents receive a smaller credit than rich ones, that is, in effect, the same as the childless poor paying a smaller surcharge than the childless rich. To many, the first deal sounds unfair and the second sounds fair — but they’re the very same tax scheme.

Here’s another follow-up illustration for the skeptical. Note that plan #1 and plan #2 have exactly the same results (everybody pays the same amount of tax, and the government gets the same amount of revenue). In plan #1, the poor family with kids gets a bigger tax credit than the rich family with kids (that sounds fair); in plan #2 the rich family is hit with a smaller penalty for childlessness than the poor family is (that’s unfair!):

Plan #1 (the “fair” plan)
household incometaxcredittotal owed
Government ends up with:$235
Poor family with kids $500$50−$40$10
Poor family without kids $500$50−$0$50
Rich family with kids $1000$100−$25$75
Rich family without kids $1000$100−$0$100

Plan #2 (the “unfair” plan)
household incometaxsurchargetotal owed
Government ends up with:$235
Poor family with kids $500$10+$0$10
Poor family without kids $500$10+$40$50
Rich family with kids $1000$75+$0$75
Rich family without kids $1000$75+$25$100

Here again, two outcomes that are identical in the real world are perceived as starkly different — one is fair, the other unfair — based not on any characteristic of the outcomes themselves but only on expectations and descriptions that, in a similar way to the green cylinder in the optical illusion, overshadow the facts of the case. The “government” in this example can transform an “unfair” tax system into a “fair” one, or vice versa, just by describing it differently.

The science of manipulating people by identifying and then exploiting these conceptual flaws (which crop up not only in optical and ethical illusions, but in all sorts of assessments of what is really going on around us and what is in our best interests) has been running far ahead of any efforts to teach people any sort of self-defense. I don’t see why we shouldn’t start trying to catch up.