Psychology

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Read: Why We Cooperate

While Michael Tomasello cannot give an ultimate answer to the question on why we cooperate his book is an interesting contribution to the ongoing discussion. And thus his book’s form is also more styled as an discussion. In the first part he presents his own research on primates and young human children and his own conclusions. In the second part some additional prominent scientists from the fields of developmental psychology, anthropology, and philosophy are allowed to respond with their opposing views on his interpretations based on their own research.

It is clear that the different authors do not agree on the details but there seems to be some overlap. All in all it is a nice cooperative effort. By allowing opposing views to be voiced the whole endeavor becomes more balanced and the reader gains a more comprehensive picture of the research on human cooperative behavior.

Though I was already more or less aware of the various approaches there was something I did not consciously know so far. Tomasello distinguishes three domains of altruism: goods, services, and information that translate to the actions sharing, helping, and informing. As Tomasello points out, these domains entail different costs and benefits. Therefore I am inclined to adopt this categorization for my own research.

Read: Experiments in Ethics

Experimental philosophy is not as young an academic field as it might seem. Not only do I know philosophers that already relied on (economic) experiments far longer than wikipedia dates the birth of the field, Appiah quite correctly points to a number of ancient and classical philosophers who relied on empirical research. And he points to a number of empirical scientist in psychology, sociology, and economics who without hesitation can be classified as philosophers as well. Indeed, I am quite convinced that all these academic disciplines not only share some of their objectives but have a substantial overlap.

Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics is a remarkable historical and methodological account of morality from the philosopher’s perspective. He offers a balanced view, he never sugarcoats problems with the philosophical methodology and does not shy away from picking to pieces what he thinks is a futile exercise in thought experiments. He advocates a joint approach of the different disciplines to “sustain what’s good in our lives.” He never entertains the illusion that there is a simple answer. In contrast, he candidly admits the complexity of research on morality, what constitutes goodness.

Even though the book – as seems typical for a philosophical treatise – poses more questions than it offers answers I rather enjoyed reading it…

In the end, one of the most important insights that Appiah is offering his readers is in my opinion: “In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

Read: Reason and Rationality

Jon Elster’s inaugural lecture at the College de France is an instructive essay on reason, emotions and their link to rationality. In contrast to most of his other books that are quite heavy tomes (in volume and content), Reason and Rationality is a nice little book that really invites the reader to open it.

I wonder whether his presentation was as well delivered as this little book was written. Maybe I will finally dare to start reading his other contributions that are waiting on my book shelf – some already for several years.

Read: Morals and Markets - An Evolutionary Account of the Modern World

Dan Friedman’s Morals and Markets is a nice complement to the multidisciplinary collection Moral Markets that I read earlier. Friedman provides an historical account of the interdependence of well functioning markets and moral sentiments and thus an evolutionary perspective that is not limited to economics as he also discusses the respective impact on societal structures and vice versa.

Friedman offers a rather balanced discussion of the benefits and perils of a moral society, when markets need morals and when markets are choked by them. Solely the joint discussion of terrorist and religious groups may seem a bit controversial.

Morals and Markets is not an academic textbook. It tells a coherent story by a sequence of (true) anecdotes that is easily accessible to anyone. In fact, it is quite entertaining while still being instructive.

In the end, Friedman argues convincingly that the major challenge will be to realign morals and markets such that they work together and thus help to improve our society.

Read: Moral Markets

Is economics an amoral science? No, though sometimes it seems so. Look at what is taught at most business schools and economics departments and you might certainly get this impression. Indeed, the focus on the rational decision maker – a rather selfish sociopath – in most curricula in business, law and economics may be a cause for the rather unscrupulous behavior that can be observed in the current business world: Greed is good.

The world is not amoral. Even markets are not. Successful economic exchange without trust, reciprocity, honesty and some sense of fairness seems hardly possible. At least if you listen to the diverse team of authors of Moral Markets. And I tend to agree.

Moral Markets is the result of several years of collaborative research and discussion (the list of contributors is rather impressive). It reviews the critical role of social norms in the economy from a diverse set of fields and points of view. The discussion ranges from biology, the animal world and evolutionary arguments to philosophical questions (and answers) and an analysis of our current perception of the economy to the interdependence of social norms and law and of course (economic) behavior. The main message is clear. Without a social conscience we would not be as successful as we were so far. And it is unlikely that we will keep up the pace if we forget the importance of social norms, values and virtues.

Read: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan has to be discussed on two different levels. The first is its topic, the impact of the highly improbable, our failure to recognize the importance of rare events, our belief in exact scientific predictions. The second is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s rhetoric.

Taleb’s style is very entertaining. Unless your are an (financial) economist, statistician or social scientist. Taleb shows very little sympathy for researcher in these fields, up to the point where his rhetoric becomes almost insulting. His criticism is mostly justified. His language not. Thus it is no surprise that it is Taleb and not his work per se that is attacked by those who are affected.

Unfortunately, his rhetoric impedes the necessary impact on the profession. If you feel being under attack your are not likely to embrace the critical message.

Unfortunately for the profession, Taleb is right. His point being most dramatically proven just shortly after his book hit the shelves.

So, the remaining question is: how do we identify real world phenomena where we cannot rely on past experience? Where we do not have something like a random walk but rather have to expect to be confronted with an occasional random jump? That we live in world of many extremes is already nicely illustrated in the book. Yet, not everything is extreme and as Taleb explains himself where to expect extreme events is often rather hard to identify. So, it is no wonder that we are prone to what Taleb calls the ludic fallacy.

I appreciate that he does not offer a simple (and wrong) solution, that he does not try give an universal answer, that he just points us to a problem we should be aware of so that every once in a while we are not too painfully surprised.

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