Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Get more sleep and be a better person?

You might think that I am a little obsessed with sleeplessness. Most parents of young children, I reckon, don't get enough sleep, so perhaps I have an excuse. But more support comes from an interesting study in the journal Sleep which tried to measure the effects of sleep deprivation on 'moral judgement'. (You can download the .pdf if you're viewing the page from a domain which has access privileges.) I'm interested in the methods used: participants were asked to answer questions as part of a 'Moral Judgement Task', which involved 40 moral questions, further divided into 'Impersonal' and 'Personal' types. 20 other non-moral questions were also asked. This is how the paper characterises the two types of moral question:
In the present study, Moral Impersonal (MI) dilemmas were those that required the volunteers to judge the appropriateness of various non-personal moral violations in scenarios in which the respondent is presented with a solution to the dilemma that would benefit a larger group by merely deflecting an existing threat of serious bodily harm or death onto another individual or smaller group. In this form of dilemma, the individual performing the action does not directly or personally inflict harm on another, but the course of action described will indirectly bring about serious harm to one party through deflection of an existing threat away from another party.

Moral Personal (MP) dilemmas were similar to the MI dilemmas, except that the moral violation was of a more personal nature in that the course of action initiated by the respondent in the MP dilemmas would directly inflict serious bodily harm or death to a specific identifiable individual in order to reduce the impact of an external threat to another party. The key difference between these 2 types of dilemmas is the degree of personal involvement in producing the harmful consequences; in the MP scenarios, the actor is the “author” of the outcome and directly inflicts the harm, whereas in the MI scenarios the actor merely “edits” the inevitable harm by redirecting an already existing source of harm onto a different victim.
You can see examples of the two types, and also the non-moral scenarios also included in the questionnaire here. They are of the kind familiar from lots of ethical philosophy and of the kind which pop up regularly in Cambridge Admissions interviews. For example, this is a Moral-Impersonal scenario:
You are the late-night watchman in a hospital. Due to an accident in the building next door, there are deadly fumes rising up through the hospital's ventilation system. In a certain room of the hospital are three patients. In another room there is a single patient. If you do nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the three patients and cause their deaths.

The only way to avoid the deaths of these patients is to hit a certain switch, which will cause the fumes to bypass the room containing the three patients. As a result of doing this the fumes will enter the room containing the single patient, causing his death.

Is it appropriate for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the three patients?

And this is a Moral-Personal scenario:

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.

The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.

Is it appropriate for you to push the stranger on to the tracks in order to save the five workmen?

It is a good question whether there is a morally significant difference between these two kinds of cases. It is nevertheless plausible that there is a significant psychological difference between reactions to the two kinds of scenarios, precisely because of the differing degree of direct personal involvement involved, particularly regarding the causing of a harm -- albeit one which might prevent another, greater, harm.

So what effects does sleep deprivation have on the way you answer this sort of question? It's complicated, as you might expect. The headline results are:

1. Sleep deprivation increases the decision-making time for Moral-Personal scenarios relative to Moral-Impersonal and Non-moral scenarios.

2. In general terms, sleep-deprivation tends to increase the likelihood of a participant answering that a proposed course of action (in both types of case) is appropriate.

The researchers, probably rightly, avoid making claims about which course of action for a given scenario is 'correct', so there is no sense in asking whether these results suggest that there is a 'moral decline' associated with the absence of sleep. But, regardless of which course of action is right, it seems to me that since the action suggested, both in the Moral-Impersonal and Moral-Personal cases, tends to be one which is likely either (i) to foster the agent's own interests at the expense of someone else or (ii) to foster the interests of a larger group at the cost of a smaller group or an individual, it does seem that lack of sleep tends to promote an acceptance of broadly consequentialist reasoning (of either egoist or a more agent-neutral kind).

Which raises a further good question: did Bentham and Mill just not get enough sleep?

Also, as Sara reminds me, didn't Margaret Thatcher famously get by as Prime Minister on only four hours of sleep per night? (She certainly claimed to: see this interview from 1989.)


Choppa said...

(I've blogged this at, where it might be a bit easier to read!)

For a quick reminder of the basics Wikipedia's entry served well enough. It's all about duty vs consequences in relation to how we understand ourselves and what we do. The "duty" line (means) is represented by deontology (with Kant in the blue corner) and "consequences" (ends) by consequentialism, (with Bentham in the waxy yellow corner).

Criticism of deontology

Many Act or Case utilitarians offer critiques of deontology as well as Rule Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, an early utilitarian philosopher, criticized deontology on the grounds that it was essentially a dressed-up version of popular morality, and that the unchanging principles that deontologists attribute to natural law or universal reason are really a matter of subjective opinion. John Stuart Mill, who lived in 19th century Britain, argued that deontologists usually fail to specify which principles should take priority when rights and duties conflict, so that deontology cannot offer complete moral guidance.

Shelly Kagan, a current professor of philosophy at Yale University, notes in support of Mill and Bentham that under deontology, individuals are bound by constraints (such as the requirement not to murder), but are also given options (such as the right not to give money to charity, if they do not wish to). His line of attack on deontology is first to show that constraints are invariably immoral, and then to show that options are immoral without constraints.

Another, unrelated critique of deontological ethics comes from aretaic theories, which often maintain that neither consequences nor duties but "character" should be the focal point of ethical theory. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, sought to describe what characteristics a virtuous person would have, and then argued that people should act in accordance with these characteristics.

I'll get back to Aristotle and his virtue (Gk. "arete") later.

Duties and constraints always make me ask "who decided this?" and "who stands to gain by it? (cui bono?)" A less ironic and indirect way of asking "who guards the guardians?". And my next questions are: "have I got to obey you?" and "what will happen to me if I don't?"

The train examples are typically mindless examples of individual ethical guilt-prods, designed to paralyse the unprepared in the same way as military tribunals try and paralyse potential conscientious objectors. "If a Hun was about to slit your mother's throat, what would you do? Hand him a flower?"

I think I would refuse to answer questions like this without a social hat on. Commander-in-Chief, Prime Minister, schoolchild, drunk, local vicar, undertaker, Pope... whatever. It's like the old chestnuts from primary school about being stuck in a sinking balloon and having to jettison a cook, a bus driver, a hunter or a Senior Lecturer. Who are you prepared to kill, you murderer!!?

Nuremburg tried to make this type of decision imperative (a duty) for everyone in war too. No more hiding behind "Befehl ist Befehl" (orders is orders). The UN tried something similar with its conventions. But the optimistic ideals of postwar humbug and dogoodery have since been trampled down by decades of violent violation. Individuals can rarely stand up en masse (so to speak) against the holders of collective power. And there is no constituted single holder of power (or body) in human society today to give even the illusion of potential consensus.

The abstract ideals of various competing factions of humanity (the working class national and international, the bourgeoisie national and international, ethnic groups, states, groups of states, genders of various nationalities, classes and gradations, etc) might have some superficial resemblance, or not, but the concrete aims of these factions are mutually contradictory and often lead to injury or death for the antagonists, especially the weaker party. Like industrial accidents (the massively fatal leaks in Bhopal, for instance, with the owners of Union Carbide pitted against the workers and local residents there). Like the wars directly engendered by the dismantling of the USSR by its bureaucracy (Armenia-Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya etc etc) and less directly too (the Balkanization of Yugoslavia, Iraq etc, Africa). Like the rollback of the welfare state's priorities of a high general level of education, health and social security, which has translated into increased ignorance, disease and social precariousness for millions of unpropertied families throughout Europe, and into increased profits and wealth for thousands of propertied families.

So basically, the effect of your decisions on the lives and welfare of others depends on who you're fighting with, and what position you hold in the your group (faction of humanity). And the "intrinsic" moral value of your decisions depends on the formal or informal moral code that holds in your group, and how this compares with the code(s) of other groups, and the group to which the evaluator belongs and its relationship with your own group.

And the more antagonistic the relationships between the group of the evaluator and the evaluated, the more likely the clash of values is to lead to death and destruction, given the empirical propensity of human groups to organize themselves into armed and combative entities.

Imagine for instance that two people were in a position to affect the outcome of the train incidents exemplified above blog. One with a close relative or friend in one of the threatened groups, the other with an enemy (creditor or boss, say) in the same group. It's easy to imagine the "demons of private interest" that Marx refers to propelling their interventions into violent conflict.

Now what effect might lack of sleep have on any of this? For an individual perhaps just to strip away a veneer of conventional (lip-serving?) respectability? Neutralize the dickering of a confused ego and let the super-ego and the id hammer at each other for the right to decide?

Or maybe group decision-making is a kind of enforced collective insomnia by which deep collective needs are connected up with powerful collective desires, with the kaleidoscopic variety of individual differences cancelled out.

Both Kant and Hegel claimed that there was a single universal moral good that could guide people in their moral decisions. Kant the categorical imperative for all humanity (rigid but optimistic pre-French revolutionary stance), and Hegel the will of the Spirit so fortuitously embodied in the bureaucracy of the Prussian state (dynamic but less optimistic post-revolutionary stance). All other motivations for decisions were demonstrated to be philosophically inadequate. Kierkegaard individualized the Spirit to hold up the ideal of Faith (credo quia absurdum) against Duty (Kant) and Aesthetics (art, the Greeks, Catholicism, god only knows what!). Marx saw the Spirit embodied if you like disparately in the collective decisions and actions of the antagonistic classes into which humanity is divided, and realized that its full flowering (as the active creative potential of a united humanity freed from the fetters and filth of permanent war and want) would only come when the class struggle had resolved itself in accord with the material preconditions laid down by historical development so far and the intellectual and artistic capacity of the materially productive class -- these preconditions and this capacity requiring a cooperative government/management of the whole of humanity in the interests of itself without antagonistic internal divisions. That is, the removal of class divisions in the world consequent on the seizure of power by the working class in more and more states over time. The victory of the bourgeoisie is unthinkable, in that we have seen a world ruled by a victorious bourgeoisie for the past couple of centuries at least, and it is getting progressively more and more feverishly destructive. It's already eaten its own tail, and is on the way to devouring its own belly. A final victory for the bourgeoisie would only lead to the destruction of all humanity as we know it, before any such final victory - which is why it's "unthinkable".

And how does this lead us back to Aristotle?

If we see the "virtuous man" as a collective being, a collective decision-maker, then it's possible to draw up a reasonable list of "good" qualities, get a consensus on them in the collective/group concerned and commit them to general awareness in the form of statutes or a constitution, complete with sanctions for violation. This can be seen in action in revolutionary wars for instance, in such cases as the New Model Army (in England) and the Red Army in 30s China, in which strict orders were issued for the magnanimous treatment of civilians and enemy combatants. As against the atrocities done to these by reactionary armies (such as, for instance, the Swedes in Germany in the 30 Years War).

In this way a reasonable mix of individual and collective behaviours (deontological and consequential) can be codified, subjected to the purifying flame of experience, and refined further until eventually there remains one relatively stable code to which all people are able to relate individually and collectively and by which they feel adequately guided in the decisions and choices they need to make, and which is transparent and instrumental enough to be accessible to necessary modification as circumstances and the development of consensus demand.

And it's nice to think that if we interpret Aristotle in this way, we're corroborating Marx's view of the Greek civilization as the "childhood of mankind".

Choppa said...

I just added the following paragraph in my blog:

It's worth bearing in mind too, that the things you can do without thinking, automatically, are often referred to in terms like "I could do that in my sleep". In other words, behaviours that we have acquired so well, so thoroughly, that they become second nature. We do them without conscious thought. Tying a shoelace, putting on a coat, opening a familiar kind of packaging, negotiating an initially confusing route. So an insomnia test would reveal how deeply a particular set of behaviours, in the present case "moral" responses, have penetrated our being. I know from personal experience how important this depth of knowledge can be from teaching, where the pressures of a classroom full of frustrated and unmotivated teenagers can strip away superficially acquired skills and attitudes and only the "instinctive" gut response is left.