All posts by davidjfrost

Science Proves Rich People are Immoral, and Why

Folks at Vox (“Rich People are Jerks, Explained“) have written up two domains of scientific research about wealthy Americans.

One area of research shows that the preferences of the wealthy are more influential on politics, actual governance and policy than the preferences of non-wealthy people. Here’s a link to the main academic paper Vox used as a source, which says, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Also, the preferences of the wealthy do not align with the preferences of the non-wealthy and are by and large self-serving, rarely directed at the welfare of others, only the wealthy themselves.

The second area of research is represented by Paul Piff, about whom I wrote before at Medium with respect to Affluenza. One of Piff’s papers, “Higher Social Class Predicts Unethical Behavior,” set up experiments where people who were wealthy or made to feel wealthy in the ecology of the experiment behaved more anti-socially than controls. Lisa Miller in the New York Times Magazine summarized Piff’s findings this way:

[The paper] showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.

“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff said to Miller, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

As I wrote at Medium:

Piff theorizes that low-status people cultivate empathy and pro-social behavior because they figure they may require the help of others in the community in the future. High-status individuals are more insulated from needing the help of others and so do not place a premium on empathy or pro-social behavior. They can afford to flout the norms of the community, while low-status individuals cannot for fear of losing the benefits of the collective.

That’s just a theory. I’m not confident that it’s totally correct. And it’s also not clear that being rich makes you a jerk or being a jerk makes you rich. But there is a correlation found in these studies between anti-social behavior and out-sized wealth.


“Girls and Philosophy” at

I’ve been looking for any book reviews out there of “Girls and Philosophy.” The first one I’ve found was at well before the book hit the stores.

The Salon writer, Anna Silman, interviews the editors (she calls them the “authors”) about the characters’ existentialism and more.

There’s an essay in the book where the author talks about Jessa being an existentialist. How would you classify the other girls, philosophically?

Rachel: Well, I mean, I guess I think almost all of them are existentialists.

Richard: Jessa’s sort of well on her way to being kind of a Nietzschean Übermensch in a broad sort of way.

Rachel: I think the show is about authenticity, which is why the fact that the characters are really flawed isn’t problematic for me in terms of feminist appeal or anything else. Because it’s about people being who they are, even if that sometimes isn’t a great way to be. But I think they’re all pretty existential.

At Psychology is Intruding on Philosophy’s Turf

Suppose we learn that a moral judgment we thought reasonable has an origin in merely adaptive emotions? Is that moral judgment now debunked?

Perhaps you only care for your loved ones because they incite higher levels of oxytocin in your body. This article I just published considers this question by thinking about the famous “trolley problem.”

Imagine there’s a runaway trolley that is definitely going to kill five people who are working on the tracks. You have the power to pull a switch that would divert the trolley to another track, where it would definitely kill only one person who is working there. What would you do?

Now imagine the same runaway trolley that would definitely kill five people, but in this scenario, you are standing next to an obscenely obese man on a footbridge overlooking the tracks. The only way to save the five people would be to push him off the footbridge onto the tracks. His heavy body would stop the trolley and save the five, but he would certainly die as a result. What would you do? Most people pull the switch but judge that pushing the obese man is impermissible.

Why is there this asymmetry? After all, it’s a one-for-five sacrifice in each case. What makes the difference? Philosophers have argued for a variety of principles that would license the standard judgments on these two cases. But recently psychologist Joshua Greene argues that we ought to judge differently. We ought to push the obese man. In explaining why, this article shows that the role of emotion in moral judgment does not subtract from the role of reason in moral judgment.

There is still a role for philosophy in making correct moral judgments.

Read the whole article, which is much longer, at Medium.

Harvard Business Review Lauds Philosophical Counseling for CEOs

It’s been called “Therapy for the Sane.” It’s definitely therapeutic. But you don’t have to be suffering from any mental illness to benefit. Consider the kinds of questions the following philosophers would counsel you to ask of yourself:

Socrates: What is the most challenging question someone could ask me about my current approach?

Aristotle: What character virtues are most important to me and how will I express them?

Nietzsche: How will I direct my “will to power,” manage my self-interest, and act in accordance with my chosen values?

Existentialists (e.g., Sartre): How will I take full responsibility for my choices and the outcomes to which they lead?

David Brendel, writing at the Harvard Business Review, lauds his professional services as a Philosophical Counselor.

This is no academic exercise, but should have “cash value” in the real world… Like “mindfulness” activities, self-reflection requires time and effort… It requires the leader to think rigorously about profound philosophical issues like value and purpose. The reward of self-reflection is what Aristotle called phronesis (“practical wisdom”). Contemplating timeless philosophical values can fuel timely behavior changes in the service of growth and lasting success.

Adorno and Benjamin in the New Yorker

Alex Ross of the New Yorker writes:

Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno).

Well, this present day Web designer recently wrote about Adorno too. My chapter on what Adorno, a great critic of “the culture industry,” would have thought of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls is coming out in December. The book is called, “Girls and Philosophy” and it’s in the popular culture and philosophy series at Open Court Publishing.

Leibniz Stepped into a Mill and Saw a Thought, Continued

Earlier I remarked on Neuroskeptic’s coverage of some new scientific research into consciousness.

I’ve been wanting to think and write about the significance of this experiment a bit more.

In some sense, what we are talking about is how a scientist or technician — who is, as we say, “outside” my mind — can know what experience I am having “inside” my mind.

For a long time in philosophy as well as experimental psychology, it has been held (with plenty of dissenters) that experience is private. No matter what look or expression is on my face, you can’t really know what I am thinking. Similarly, no matter what visual stimuli you present me with, you can have no knowledge of what my experience “of” it will be like. So if I present you with an orange stimuli, it may very well be, that for all we know, that you experience it as I would experience another color, say, purple.

Descartes was making the same basic point, I think, when said that as far as he himself knows he “may be in the Matrix.” Remember philosophy class? There are no markers in experience by which to determinately settle the question whether we are experiencing reality or experiencing a dream. This is what we discover when we make, “an inquiry into human understanding,” as later thinkers will put it. There’s just something about being a mind that separates it from the world of “beings” or “Being.”

If you look straight ahead and see the white board at the front of the classroom, it may seem to you like you are seeing the whiteboard. But are you really? Couldn’t you be having a very real-like dream in which you experience being in this classroom, looking straight ahead and having the experience as if of seeing the whiteboard?

After all, have you ever had a dream that seemed real? That’s Morpheus’ actual question he puts to Neo in The Matrix film. In that real-seeming dream, you thought every thing you saw was real. That’s what “seeming real” means. But it turns out it wasn’t. Right now seems real. But maybe it too is not.

What’s to say that now won’t be like the last time and later turn out to be a false or non-veridical experience?

Again: right now as you sit in the classroom, your experience of the white board seems real. And last night your dream that you were in the classroom and seeing the white board seemed real. Shouldn’t we — or let’s say “you” — admit that there a no markers in your experience right now that show it to be real and not just a very real-seeming dream?

If you answer that “No I won’t admit that” or equivalently “There are indeed markers to differentiate dreams from reality” then you are basically going back on our shared basic assumption which is that “once we had a dream that seemed real.” That is to say, if you have ever had a dream that seemed real, then maybe now is a dream too since it seems real too. And there’s no knowing which is the case from one experience to the next.

As anyone who has read Descartes carefully knows, it’s not actually about dreaming per se. The real mover here is the “demon” who, as far as we know, could go around making the world seem a certain way to us, when in fact, it is different.

There seems to be a gap between our minds and the world. A gap that would allow something or someone to come between us and the world and manipulate our experience of it or in reaction to it as stimulus.

This is not a practical thought. It is highly impractical to think this way (as Descartes realized). He said don’t do this all the time, just once a year or so. And don’t act on (or “be practical about”) anything you discover while having this deep metaphysical-skeptical thought.

As many students might point out in philosophy class, even if all these people I see before me are really just part of a dream, that does not license me to treat them as if they were anything else at all. I can’t just turn around and kill them because I “realize” or “think” that they aren’t (or better, “might not be”) real. A dream-policeman would still dream-arrest me and I would still go to dream-jail.

Anyway, before moving on let’s talk a moment more about how this Cartesian picture is supposedly out of favor today. Vestiges of it lurk everywhere. But contemporary naturalism asserts (wouldn’t it?) that we are physically similar enough that the stimuli out there causes in me a certain reaction (or experience) and the same stimuli would cause the same reaction (or experience) in you. For example, our rods and cones and so on are similar enough that we can know (according to the naturalist paradigm) that experience of an orange stimulus is an experience as if of an orange stimulus and never a purple one.

And somewhat more behavioristically, but not wrong for that, any facial expression I am making or behavior I am performing can reliably be taken to reflect my “inner” states. Now of course there is such a thing as “acting” and “faking it.” But that’s not to the point. The point of naturalism is that there is not this unbridgeable gap or gulf between Mind and Being in every last case. If we knew more (or if our science were further advanced) we could in principle trace the causal path from the world to my experience. And this causal path would be deterministic and necessary such that nerve stimulus of XYZ kind always produces or causes experience of a certain ABC kind.

So the naturalist wants to say that there is no divide between Mind and World of the kind we’ve been discussing. Indeed, they deny Cartesian dualism, by saying that the mind (or my experience) is itself some physical event, something with the same substantial being as what Descartes (and many of us) had been calling “the outside world” of beings and Being. There are not two types of Being, Mind and World; there’s just physical stuff arranged in more or less complicated ways such that some physical, complex arrangements are themselves experiences. Experiences cannot be irreducibly mental or private or separated from the world by a gap. They must be physical.

We do not yet understand how this could be so. But it’s part of naturalism. I suppose we could call it a “constitutive assumption.” Fine, it is a constitutive assumption — which is not yet definitively proven — that the mental is physical. But that it is not yet definitively proven is part of the theory. Naturalism is assuming it. It’s making a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one. It’s not saying we “know,” epistemologically speaking, that all mental events are physical events — or even understand what such a claim would mean — it is just assuming that it is so.

I hear you say: “WTF?” Okay, let me explain “metaphysical” and “epistemological.” Something is metaphysically the case (i.e., something is real) if it is indeed the case even if it’s being that way could not at the moment be explained by our best epistemologies, namely the hard and soft sciences. So, “metaphysical” means how things really are and “epistemological” are how we know them to be (from our perspective).

The metaphysical and epistemological come back together in a thought experiment. Just imagine that we knew (epistemologically) everything there was to know. At that moment (if it were possible) then a fact would be metaphysically and epistemologically speaking the same. It would be metaphysically X-way and epistemologically X-way too. Thus, according to this way of speaking, the way things really are… the way things are in themselves… or, finally, the way things are outside of all our ways of knowing them is how they are “metaphysically,” as we say. On this account, the thought experiment is slightly off base, in the sense that our epistemologies only ever approach asymptotically the way things are metaphysically speaking. Interesting to think about, but enough for now.

Anyway, the constitutive claim of naturalism is a metaphysical claim that everything is physical or material or natural (not supernatural).

Let’s get back to the recent experiment which is ostensibly my topic. The experiment seems like it is going to undermine any remaining dualist assumptions that may continue to lurk in our self-understanding. Recall that Leibniz said in a dualist moment that if a human were to shrink him or herself down and walk into the brain as if into a mill, all he or she would see would be brain stuff or analogously gears and pulleys and so on. But nowhere would he or she see a thought or a mental event or a mind.

The metaphysical assumption constitutive of naturalism about the mind is that it should be possible one day (at least in principle) to know what someone is thinking just off on the basis of the physical arrangement of their brain. It should be possible in principle to shrink down and walk into the brain and see which neurons are which thoughts.

Well, a hopeful upshot of the experiment above is that from knowledge of the state of the brain we could have knowledge of the state of the mind. Remember: the dualist assumption is that you cannot.

So this experiment militates against dualism.

Cool, huh?

Do We Like TV Shows Because They Are Good or Are They Good Because We Like Them?

When we like a TV show, why do we like it? What is it about a TV show or any media content that makes it good?

Perhaps you don’t care. “It’s enough that I like it,” you say. “I don’t need to know more than that.”

That may be fine for you. But media content creators and executive producers (the money people) desperately want to know what makes us like TV shows. They want to know what makes media content good, so they can make more content like that.

It’s also an interesting philosophical question. It’s about aesthetics, or the study of the beautiful. Essentially, it’s a question about value and what is valuable or good and why.

Theories in this ballpark have been put forth by academics in mass communication, sociology, psychology, etc. And popular culture critics take stabs at it too.

Today let me discuss just one such theory. The so-called “disposition theory,” attributable to Dolf Zillmann among others, says that the appeal of a TV show depends on the viewer’s emotional attitude (or “disposition”) to the characters as well as what happens to or befalls the characters or what the characters actively choose to do.

In other words: Do we like the characters? What actions do they undertake? And if those actions are morally good or morally bad, are they rewarded or punished?

That’s very general. It gets more specific.

A TV show in which a main character is likeable will appeal to viewers if the character acts morally and is rewarded within the plot. If the character acts immorally and is rewarded in the plot, viewers will find the show less appealing.

There are other permutations, according to a paper by Tamborini et al, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” in the journal Mass Communication and Society from 2013. If a character who acts morally is not rewarded but rather suffers unjust punishment, then the show will be less appealing to viewers. And, finally, if an immoral character is justly punished, viewers find the show more appealing.

In short, viewers want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished in the fictional, narrative media content they consume. And they don’t like it flipped where the good are punished and the bad rewarded.

A theory should make predictions. And the disposition theory of media appeal does make predictions which can then be tested to see if they came out true.

The paper, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” provides data from surveys, but I will discuss it another day. Today I want to get philosophical.

It may all be fine and good to see what people self-report as liking and disliking among a variety of types of media content on offer. But I want to ask some philosophical questions, or at least questions that a good student in a critical thinking class should appreciate as going unasked in Tamborini et al.’s paper in the disposition theory school of thought.

First, let’s notice that the whole exercise is non-normative. It is descriptive, sure, but not prescriptive. I mean, the data is a description of what types of media content viewers do indeed profess to like in that specific experimental ecology. But what it doesn’t do is make a proposal about what we should like in a TV show. There’s no claim that a TV show must have such and such properties to qualify as good or beautiful or moving or valuable. Philosophers might wonder what a bunch of data on people’s preferences has to do with what is actually good or valuable in fact. After all, those people represented in the data could be wrong or have bad taste or not know what they are talking about.

There are a number of ways to object to what I am saying. One, you could say that the project of disposition theory was never meant to be normative. It aims only at description. I’ll admit that’s probably true. But notice it leaves my position intact because we are agreeing, disposition theory is non-normative.

Then it will come down to what is “interesting.” You may want to possess a descriptive theory of media content appeal, while I may want to possess a normative or prescriptive theory of media content appeal. That is, a theory of what makes good TV shows, even if the majority doesn’t like them.

This last thought that something might be good even if only a minority think so, brings us back to a second way to object to what I am saying. That is, you might challenge the whole distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. What is good is just what everybody (or a majority) says is good, you might say; whereas I’ve been saying that what is good is whatever meets a certain criteria, the criteria of goodness or the good.

That is, I’m interested in what makes something good. For the moment, I’m not going to be satisfied that what makes something good is simply people agree in liking it and calling it good. I want to know what it is intrinsically about the thing that makes it good, or, if you prefer, that makes people like it.

After all, I think we would all agree, it’s “people say something is good because it is good.” It’s not “something is good because people say that it is.” (For those of you who are interested in this tongue-twisting brain teaser, it’s generally called “The Euthyphro Question” after a Socratic dialogue by Plato. If you want to learn more, look up what I’ve written on the Euthyphro question and ask yourself, “Is the good thing good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it’s good?”)

Anyway, I think Tamborini et al. need to think about how they would answer the Euthyphro question. Only one answer leaves their work as interesting and it’s not my answer.

A second critical thinking or philosophical point I want to make is this: The deep and wide appeal of “anti-heroes” on TV and media content generally is a counterexample to the disposition theory. After all, anti-heroes are those characters who are not “likeable” and/or don’t always do the morally right thing, and yet we root for them. Disposition theory would predict that if a TV show featured a character who was an anti-hero then that character would be doing immoral things and viewers would only find the show appealing if that character was punished in the end.

But that is just simply not what happens. Viewers absolutely love TV shows in which an anti-hero does immoral things, and the appeal does not turn on rewards or punishments the character gets. So, to explain the appeal of media content with anti-heroes, such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and arguably Seinfeld, Louie, and Girls, you’d need a different theory than disposition theory.

We need to separate a few things that disposition theory collapses all together. We need to separate a character being likeable from a character being moral. Tamborini et al.’s paper equates them. But it’s conceptually possible to “like” or have an emotional investment in a character who acts immorally. And there is almost certainly empirical data to be discovered that people do in fact “like” immoral characters, such as Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Equating them will be confusing (and bad science) if it’s the liking of the characters and not their moral or immoral behaviors that causes us to find shows appealing or not.

(Also, it’s probably possible to not like a character while still having some kind of investment and in any case still come out appreciating the show.)

There’s more to say about Tamborini et al.’s paper such as the discussion about there being distinct moral judgment groups who would therefore like different media content according to the paper’s theory. Different people find different things immoral or moral, so they’re going to like or be well disposed to different characters and the media content’s appeal is going to depend on whether those whom you happen to like are rewarded or not.

And there might be other topics I could discuss.

But my present concern is with the psychology of the appeal of TV shows that feature anti-heroes. So some future posts are going to be about that as a problem for disposition theory and as an interesting matter in and of itself.

You need to get your theory of human nature and/or human psychology right in order for your explanations of why something appeals to us to be any good. “Blah blah blah appeals to us because we are such and so,” isn’t any good if we aren’t actually such and so psychologically speaking.

The Psychological Effects of Watching Immoral or Bad Characters on TV

HBOGirlsThumbAssistant Professor Elizabeth Cohen at Scientific American says:

According to [Zillman’s] affective disposition theory, people enjoy entertainment when characters that they identify as the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” get the justice they deserve.

And yet for a long time, we the audience have apparently enjoyed watching characters on TV do bad/immoral things and even root for them in some sense. It cannot be said that we watched The Sopranos just waiting for Tony’s comeuppance. Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, Dexter (and I have argued Girls) are shows where our watching has little to do with justice for the anti-heroes at the heart of their stories.

Cohen explains that Zillman’s original hypothesis in its details is more or less out of favor, even with his own school of thought:

Zillmann’s intellectual progeny question the premise that feeling good is the only reason we watch entertaining television. We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy [i.e., overflowing with pleasure-DF], but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Oliver is working with a very useful distinction that goes under the description of “hedonic happiness versus eudaimonic happiness”. There are two kinds of “happiness” that can be easily confused. Hedonic just means happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with strict pleasure. Eudaimonia has to do with happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with meaningfulness and purpose in life.

My title of this blog post suggests I am interested in the effects on a person’s mental states (his or her psychology) when he or she watches anti-heroes on TV. According to Zillman, the effect would be a kind of hedonic pleasure we get from seeing justice dispensed upon their deserving heads. But that doesn’t seem to capture what’s going on in lots of recent TV shows in which, yes, the season finale of the show’s final season might resolve into questions about justice, but in which the rest of the earlier episodes are not about dispensing justice and therefore do not trigger any supposed hedonic pleasure that would go with seeing it meted out.

For these other shows, it seems to make more sense to say, as Oliver does, that watching dramatic stories (whether justice prevails or not) provides eudaimonic happiness (let’s be careful not to confuse things by calling it “pleasure”) insofar as stories are realistic or at least relevant to our lives in the sense that they give us the opportunity to think (and more likely feel) our way through issues that once thought or felt through provide meaningfulness and understanding and purpose in life.