Does the Science of “Prosocial Behaviour” Smuggle in a Political Prior?

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers’ reliably lively ScienceBlogs province, a recent post offers some incisive treatment of a philosophically arresting debate between Sam Harris and sundry interlocutors, most prominently Sean Carroll. The topic – whether science can answer moral questions, or, more perilously rendered, whether one can, in fact, derive “ought” from “is” – exerts a tidal attraction upon my blogging muscles, but I can resist for now; Myers’ relevance to this entry issues specifically from a choice bit of phraseology in his write-up.

When Harris claims that the discernment of human well-being (and hence of utility-maximizing courses of action) is a purely empirical matter, Myers finds him guilty of “smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.” What I want to explore after the jump is the following possibility:

It may be that the developing body of work in neuroscience and psychology probing various morally charged phenomena has been smuggling in a politically loaded prior under the terminologically neutral guise of the category “prosocial behaviour.”

We could go mining for undeclared sociopolitical contours in many lines of research, but for now, let’s stick to the case of one paper that the Core chewed over for our weekly journal club several moons ago. Hailing from the manicured southern bank of the Charles River, this study (still in its larval “working paper” form) piques curiosity with its provocative title, “The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision-Making.”

It’s no Herculean effort to figure out where Roy Chua and Xi Zou are going with this: prime your participants with images of goods so iced-out that even Carrie Bradshaw would wince as she reaches for her AmEx, and lo! They magically transform into Kenneth Lay act-alikes. Meanwhile, presenting particularly pedestrian possessions prompts people to go right on behaving just as saintly as is natural for your typical Ivy League student. (Ain’t that a Rorschach inkblot of a simile?)

So is this a case of Stanley Milgram meets Bernie Madoff? Maybe not; but we will lose the scent of the really meaty questions if we attempt to unravel the study by its methodological threads. Let’s pretend that Chua and Zou did something entirely watertight here and instead ask: if science enables us to nudge human behaviour in a more “prosocial” direction, who could possibly object to that?

Avarice, by Bruegel

It's easy to think that science can get a handle on a value-laden category like avarice. But is it really that simple?

Here is what I take to be the best case for viewing science’s category of prosocial behaviour as an unmitigated good that stands prior to all political conceptions of what is worth fostering. I should disclaim that I’m arguing this from a very devil’s-advocate kind of place, having been talked down from my initial stance (largely generated by the ravings of my inner Dennis Kucinich) to a rather more measured position by the Core’s own Emily Borgelt, your very sensible co-author on this post.

Here’s the line of argument: no matter what your political or moral ends are, prosocial behaviour furthers them. In the case of the Chua and Zou study, where participants had to imagine themselves in the shoes of a CEO contemplating a very profitable but also socially damaging business plan, we should assume that only morally confused individuals (i.e. those who are factually mistaken about the most effective means for realizing their moral goals) could ever opt for big money with the foreseen consequence of polluting the environment / releasing the buggy software / marketing the violent video game*. Unless, of course, your mind has been hijacked by visions of Rolexes, at which point all bets are off. After all, that kind of decision can only be characterized as selfish thuggery, right? People of all political stripes can agree that we ought to be more circumspect, more judicious, more considerate of others’ well-being when we make such far-reaching decisions.

If that sounded convincing, it did so only because the falsehoods are nicely camouflaged and the word choices were drawn from a misleadingly stacked deck. Here’s Emily’s take:


To start, I love Roland’s introduction of the case for “viewing science’s category of prosocial behaviour as an unmitigated good…” – it’s a delightfully simple idea, isn’t it?  That prosocial behavior exists as a discrete, self-evident – scientific – category.  If that were true, perhaps studies like that of Chua and Zou could observe prosociality, antisociality, and morality by application of these metrics and modulators of moral decision-making.  If only.  When prosocial behaviour is conceptualized and presented this way – as something that just is – it’s tempting to accept with kumbaya-tic complacency.

This assumption about the nature of prosocial behaviour begs to be challenged, however.

No matter what your political or moral ends are, prosocial behaviour furthers them.”

Perhaps.  But this statement cleanly glosses over the fact that “prosocial behaviour” cannot exist independently from political or moral ends; only with that overlay can behaviour be further defined as pro- or anti-social.  For example, Roland’s inner Dennis Kucinich holds a very different notion of what constitutes “prosocial” than my own inner Ayn Rand.  Which of us is morally confused?  This question is certainly not going to be answered by Chua and Zou or Sam Harris (much as the latter would like to believe!), because these approaches necessarily begin with a privileging of some type of behaviour, nicely camouflaged as prosocial.

We have to acknowledge our a priori assumptions in order to avoid the pitfalls of Chua and Zou’s conclusions, which conflate “selfish” and “antisocial” decisions and pass them off as objective, empirical insight into moral decision-making.  Sure, they might tell us something about what a person decides or how a given factor modulates that decision; but they won’t tell us whether a decision is prosocial and certainly not whether a given decision ought to have been made (both require imposition of an external moral framework).

But Emily, says Roland, what if I think that a CEO’s decision to despoil the environment for profit is guaranteed to be verboten under any possible moral framework? Who, after all, could see anything but selfishness and avarice in such a decision, or find the alternative anything other than saintly?

Me is who, Roland.  The presumption of decision-making simplicity made by Chua and Zou and many a Main Street fist-shaker, which undergirds their pro-versus-anti-social construct, is faulty. In the scenarios laid out by Chua and Zou, the CEO’s profitable option is latched loosely to an un-weighted possibility of some undetermined harm.  This possibility must be balanced not only against the potential for profit and self-gain, but also the responsibilities and accountability to others that a CEO shoulders – including external loci of concern such as the job security of an extensive employee network, family members and other dependents, and a demanding consumer base.

Also, let’s not forget that, as a member of society, even a CEO shares in the detriment of any collateral damage and thus has a vested interest in balancing harms.  Chua and Zou (and perhaps even you, Roland) over-simplify and neglect a host of decision-making modulators when damning a CEO’s complex decision as purely profit-driven, selfish and (by a further interpretative quantum leap) antisocial.

Roland and I do wholeheartedly agree about the need for transparency in the analysis and interpretation of studies that purport to derive moral decision-making.  Most importantly, we jointly call for a disclosure (first to self, then to readership) about the moral assumptions underlying question design and conclusions.

Of course, I could then go on to question the utility of such research, but perhaps Roland and I can continue that tug-o’-war in future posts.


Finally, in keeping with our experimental “delinkification” policy, the list of web pages referenced in the post is below! Plus the companion to that stray asterisk by the phrase “violent video game.”

PZ Myers’ coverage of the Harris-Carroll dust-up

Chua and Zou’s paper

*Chua and Zou really lost my (i.e. Roland’s) sympathy here when they implicitly equated marketing a violent video game with releasing flawed software or dumping sludge into estuaries teeming with baby herons. I would direct you to a compelling essay by media maven Henry Jenkins that illustrates why Chua and Zou’s choice struck me as monumentally foolhardy, but that’s a pretty slanted source (however well-lined with citations it may be) so to avoid arguing in bad faith I’ll supplement it with a rather more balanced report from ScienceDaily.

Jenkins’ piece

ScienceDaily article


1 thought on “Does the Science of “Prosocial Behaviour” Smuggle in a Political Prior?

  1. Pingback: Java Video Tutorial 5: Object Oriented Programming

Comments are closed.