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Monday, November 21, 2011

Gullability and stupid people

I am passionate about the issue of Linguistic Communication (aka testimony) (you can see here my italian blog about it). Many authors tend to think that Liguistic Communication should not be admitted among the instruments of knowledge. But this leads to terrible consequences, since without it our everyday life would just turn out to be impossible. How could we systematically doubt whatever we are told? We know by being told even the most important things in our lives, such as our name and date of birth.
Hence, I tend to favour the Indian shcools such as Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, which admit śabda (linguistic communication) among the means of knowledge (pramāṇas). I am also always interested in reading Western accounts about it. Recentlty, I read the ppt of a talk by Stephen Wright discussing gullability and rational behaviour. Stephen summarises the arguments by Burge about the fact that people are rational beings and that, hence, they lie if they have good reasons to do it and tell the truth if they have good reasons to do it. What happens if they have no good reasons for doing either? All else being equal, they would tell the truth. In fact, telling the truth is better for your reputation and it is better because next time people are more likely to believe you, even if you are lying. Hence, even if you are ready to become a liar, it is convenient for you not to lie whenever you have no good reasons for doing it.

I am happy with the conclusions of this argument (we are entitled to believe what people say as our default attitude), but I am not totally persuaded by its bases. If the entitlement is based on the theory that people behave rationally, then how to face the fact that stupidity is by definition more common than one could imagine and that, hence, there are many many people who behave in a non-rational way. How to answer this objection?

To elaborate: as for "stupidity" I refer to the distinction among human beings drawn by the historian Carlo M. Cipolla (who used to teach economic history at Berkeley) in his famous essay on stupidity. 'According to his graphics, one can distinguish for classes of human beings: those who do good to other people, despite the fact that they might be at the same time harm themselves are "disgraziati" (NAIVE, unwary people), those who do good to other people when this also mean doing good to themselves are INTELLIGENT people ("intelligenti" in the diagram), those who harm other people when this benefits them are CRIMINALS ("banditi") and those who harm other people and themselves at the same time are STUPID ("stupidi"). The last category is, maintains Cipolla, the most dangerous one, since it is unpredictable. One can imagine what the behaviour of a evil person will be (s/he will try to gain as much as possible out of each situation, not caring at all about other people). But who knows how a stupid one will act?
Last, Cipolla maintains that exactly because stupid peope are so "different", non-stupid ones tend to think stupid people do not exist and to interepret their choices as if they were rational. Hence, the real number of stupid people is always underestimated. By definition, every esteem is always an under-esteem.

As for the diagram: the X-axis represents oneself (on the left there is harming oneself, on the right benefitting oneself), the Y-axis represents other people (on the top there is benefitting them, on the bottom harming them).


Sabio Lantz said...

It is hard for me to understand the expression, "people are rational beings". I can't imagine what competing views would be nor how to empirically test the position - so it does not make sense to me.

As you said, we make wrong decisions all the time.

I found a fun link to Cipolla's article on Human Stupidity.

The second basic law states:

"The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."

So that makes for a corollary:
"We must always assume that we ourselves are a stupid person."

elisa freschi said...

Hi Sabio,
it's a pleasure to "meet" you outside Jayarava's blog!
Cipolla's style itself is really hilarious, since he deals with a difficult issue while being at the same time matter-of-fact (thus, the comic effect results from the clash of "scientific" attitude and embarassing topic).
As for whether people are rational beings or not, I see your point, but I genuinely cannot see how to get rid of this basic assumption without getting rid of most of our theories (from the homo economicus onwards). There are meaningful exceptions, but how could we deal with other people, if we could not expect them to be grateful when we are kind to them, and angry when we beat them, etc.?

Sabio Lantz said...

Likewise, nice to meet you.
I am not good with theories of economics, but aren't there theories that challenge the notion that "people are rational".

Perhaps a view that people are "patterned" is more helpful than people are "rational". But then all animals are patterned -- the trick is finding the patterns.

I have 3 dogs -- knowing their patters helps me relate to them in a very fulfilling way. But I think few people would consider any of my dogs as "rational".

elisa freschi said...

yes, you are right, this might worth a trial. But to find general patterns independent of rationality seems really hard. All the thoeries I know about refer to some sort of rationality (be it the search for pleasure —as in Freud— or that for reproductive chances —as in many natural scientists).
Did you find patterns about dogs in general?

Sabio Lantz said...

Maybe we are using words differently. Maybe you are using "rationality" in a technical economic sense. I think of rationality as logical steps from premises.

Dogs have lots of patterns (how they behave when they eat vs when they play vs when they are angry), likewise, so do humans.

I can't imagine that much of my day is filled with logic and intention -- instead it is reflexes -- albeit predictable, patterned reflexes (just like my dogs).

I don't understand why scholars are enamored with "rationality". Animal economies and human economies seem similar with only degrees of complexity differences. So we should be able to use the same terms for both domains.

Jayarava said...

Dear Elisa

It is one thing to be able to have facts at our disposal - we need reason to understand facts. But to make decisions we need to know how to value facts, how to weigh one fact against another and decide which is more important. This we do with emotions and feelings. So decisions are always emotional and rational. I get this idea from neuroscientists especially Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger.

Ironically for the people who won't admit 'testimony' as evidence, the decision to value one form of evidence involves assigning value to different facts, and is there at bottom an appeal to emotions.

Are you familiar with the idea of the Fundamental Attribution Error (or Fallacy)? This is the idea that we are in fact very bad at guessing what motivates other people. We tend to ignore environmental factors in assessing motivations and just impute motive to internal processes: a person does something stupid because they are wicked, when in fact they may be responding to peer pressure.

In any case I would prefer to talk about intelligent, naive, criminal, and stupid behaviour rather than people. We're all capable of all those kinds of actions, even if we have a tendency to one quadrant. Dividing people into simple but rigid categories I would class as a stupid behaviour.

Best Wishes

elisa freschi said...

I agree that it makes sense to speak of stupid/intelligent/… *actions*, insofar as one can be absolutely stupid in a certain field and relatively smart in another. Hence, the scheme has to be timely determined (it depicts the situation at moment t1, people could move across it at a later moment).

Anonymous said...


I read the slides from Stephen Wright and it appears that his theory is based on Burge's paper "Content Preservation." If that's right, then your claim that either of these is basing an argument on the fact that people are rational seems most unfair on either. What Burge argues for (and presumably Wright as well) is the idea that you are entitled to presume people are rational unless you have reason not to. Burge's theory does not seek to establish a statistical point that people are generally rational. So it is not incompatiable with your claim that people are genearlly stupid at all. The result is I cannot see how your objection works.

elisa freschi said...

I am always surprised when I get anonymous comments, most of all when they make intelligent points, such as this one. I have to admit that I have not read Burge's paper (but before writing the post I discussed it per email with Stephen Wright).
My problem with rationality is: if one is *generally* entitled to believe other people *because* they behave rationally (and hence will by rule tell the truth), than what happens if one could prove that many (most?) people behave unpredictably? I see your point about the fact that one might still have as one's default attitude the belief that people behave rationally unless contrary evidences arise. But this works if what is at issue is other people's rationality. What if one considers the particular problem of linguistic communication? In this case, one will not be considering the speaker's rationality and will have in many cases to decide "a priori" whether to believe or not in what is being told. Wright (if I understood it correctly) has Burge say that we are right in believing by default in whatever is said to us, unless contrary evidence.

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