Archive for the ‘critical thinking’ Category

Profiting from Customers’ False Beliefs

Is it ethical for a business to profit from its customers’ false beliefs? Or, more to the point, is it ethical to profit from your customers’ beliefs when you think those beliefs are false? What if you encourage those beliefs?

Case in point: a number of businesses have sprung up to take advantage of the fact that a number of fundamentalist Christians believe that May 21, 2011 (i.e., tomorrow) is the day on which “The Rapture” will happen, which will involve the return to earth of Jesus Christ, the rescue of believers, and the start of a process culminating in the destruction of the world in October. Enter the profit-seeking atheists. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, for example, will guarantee (for just $135) to come to a believer’s house, post-rapture, to rescue their pets. Salvation, after all, is for human believers only, so the faithful “know” that atheists and animals will be left behind. (For more details, and more examples, see this item from ABC News: May 21, 2011: Profiting on Doomsday?)

Profiting from this particular set of false (i.e., unsupported) beliefs seems, frankly, pretty innocuous. Those who hold such beliefs are few, and are liable to be mocked by the vast majority of Christians, who scoff at the idea that the exact date of the Rapture can be determined so precisely. When the Rapture ends up not happening (and I realize I’m going out on a limb, there) those who ponied up for the “service” offered by Eternal Earth-Bound Pets will be out $135, but other than that they’ll be no worse for wear. But what about other examples?

Let’s start with a fictional example to test our intuitions. What if I find out that you believe, for whatever reason, and despite the fact that you live far from any indigenous populations of elephants, that your rose garden is in imminent danger of being trampled by elephants. And let’s say you also believe (for whatever reason) that elephants are deterred by he sound of the revving of a Porsche engine. Am I justified in selling you a Porsche that you do not otherwise need, and that perhaps you cannot truly afford? Would that be predatory? Your belief, here, is clearly a crazy belief, and my profiting from your delusion seems not-quite-right. But then, as far as you’re concerned, I’m genuinely helping you. On the other hand, what if the reason you have that delusional belief in the first place is that I’ve convinced you of it?

Next, let’s get back to real-life examples. But let’s look at one that doesn’t revolve around a single event, like Rapture insurance does. What about, for example, selling homeopathy? Now, it’s one thing for a homeopath to prescribe and sell homeopathic treatments. After all, the homeopath presumably believes that such remedies work, in spite of the lack of evidence for that belief. Now, that belief itself might be culpable — if you’re going to sell a product, then ethically you ought to do what you can to make sure it really works — but at least the homeopath is selling in good (if misguided) faith. What about when licensed Pharmacists, people with the training to know perfectly well that homeopathic treatments cannot possibly work, sell them? That happens all the time. Shoppers Drug Mart, for example — Canada’s largest pharmacy chain — sells homeopathic treatments, and all the franchisees of that chain are required to be licensed Pharmacists. That is, they are people whose scientific training tells them that such remedies have zero scientific credibility. So they, too, are profiting from their customers’ false* beliefs — beliefs that they, the sellers, know to be false. Of course, the difference between selling homeopathy and selling Rapture insurance is that in the case of homeopathy, people’s lives really might be at stake.

Information is crucial to the efficient operation of a free market. Asymmetries of information constitute an entire category of situations in which economists will tell you market failures are liable to occur. Knowledge, alas, can never be perfect. So what we instead insist on is that transactions at least be made in good faith. It’s clear that that means the consumer needs to have enough information to know that the product she is about to buy will satisfy her desires; what’s less clear is whether the consumer must also know enough to know whether the product will satisfy her needs.

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*Note: some of you may want to quibble with my use of the word “false” to refer to beliefs in either a) the Rapture or b) homeopathy. You may point out that saying that there’s a lack of evidence for a particular belief isn’t the same as saying that that belief is false. That’s technically true. But when a belief is implausible on the face of it, is unsupported by evidence, and conflicts with a great number of beliefs that are well-supported by evidence, it is entirely reasonable to call it “false.” At least until the Rapture.

Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 3: Fallacies

This is the 3rd in a series of occasional postings on the role of critical thinking in business ethics.Critical thinking is about a) how to construct good arguments, and b) how to spot and avoid bad ones. The focus of this posting will be on the latter. Bad arguments come in many forms, in many shapes and sizes. But some faulty arguments follow patterns of reasoning that are so common that they’ve acquired names. The general term for such named patterns of faulty argumentation is “fallacy”. There are many known fallacies, and textbooks on critical thinking typically devote a chapter to discussing a dozen or more of the most common ones.

Here are just a few examples of fallacies that could hinder good reasoning about Business Ethics.

One common fallacy is known as “the fallacy of composition.” We commit the fallacy of composition any time we assume, without justification, that the characteristics of the parts of a thing are automatically shared by the thing as a whole. A silly example: the fact that each piece of a motorcycle is light enough to lift doesn’t mean that the motorcycle as a whole is light enough to lift. Likewise, the fact that each member of a committee is talented and effective does not mean that the committee as a whole will be talented and effective — group dynamics matter. A business-ethics example follows pretty quickly from that one: from the fact that each member of your organization is ethical and well-intentioned, it does not follow that your organization, as a whole, will always act ethically. Team dynamics and institutional structure matter. That’s not to say that having ethical employees isn’t important. It obviously is. The point is just that you can’t automatically assume that, because you’ve got good employees, the net result of their behaviour will always be ethical. Another important example: from the fact that individual ethical acts don’t always pay, it doesn’t follow that an ethical pattern of behaviour won’t pay off in the long run.

Here are some other standard fallacies with clear relevance to business ethics. I’ll leave it to the reader to think up examples.

  • “Appeal to the Person” (a.k.a. ad hominem attack), which generally involves attacking the person putting forward a point of view, rather than examining the strengths and weaknesses of that person’s argument. It’s important to keep in mind that a well-reasoned argument from someone you don’t like is still a well-reasoned argument.
  • Appeal to Tradition“, which typically means using the fact that “we’ve always done things this way” as a reason for continuing to do things that way. Clearly a recipe for disaster.
  • Appeal to Popularity“, which involves appealing to the fact that a particular point of view or practice is popular as a reason in favour of that view or practice. But being widely-believed is of course a very poor indicator of whether or not a claim is actually true.
  • Straw man” argument, which involves setting up, and then knocking down, a weak or foolish-looking “dummy” version of your opponent’s argument. This is a common rhetorical device. Whenever someone criticizes a particular bit of regulation, for example, it’s easy (but wrong) to paint them as a “rabid free-market neoliberal,” and then to attack that ideology, rather than looking at the substance of their argument.

One of the reasons such fallacies are so dangerous is that they tend to be psychologically appealing. Sometimes they’re appealing because they play to our biases. And sometimes they’re appealing just because they act as short-cuts, letting us take the easy (i.e., lazy) route straight to a simple conclusion, without doing the hard work of actually looking critically at the case at hand. But in business ethics, what we really need are the best answers, not the easiest ones.
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See also Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 2: Argument Analysis

This is the 2nd in a series of postings on the role of critical thinking in business ethics.

(Coincidentally, a story has been in the news recently about how poorly most US college students do at acquiring critical thinking skills during their post-secondary years. See: Study: Students slog through college, but don’t gain much critical thinking.)

One of the absolutely fundamental skills of critical thinking is argument analysis, or the interpretation of argument structure. And the fundamental elements of argument structure are argument premises and conclusions.

In everyday language, the word “argument” means a heated debate. When 2 people are “having an argument,” they’re disagreeing with each other. But the other meaning of the word “argument,” the one with which critical thinking is especially concerned, is this: an “argument” is a series of statements, in which some of those statements (called “premises”) are offereds as support for or reasons to believe another of the statements (called the “conclusion.”) It takes 2 to tango, but it takes just 1 to put forward an argument.

Understanding the structure of an argument is a very good step towards understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Knowing, for example, that a given argument has 3 distinct premises rather than just 1, is clearly pretty fundamental to looking for its weaknesses: the more premises it has, for example, the more possible points of critique. But more fundamental than that, even, is the idea that we simply gain a better appreciation of someone’s point if we can picture — even in a simplified graphical way — the shape of their argument.

Look, for example, at this argument:

The definition of “sustainability” is unclear. Also, sustainability is just one of many important ethical values. So, we should not judge a business entirely by its sustainability ranking.

We can represent this argument graphically, by means of a diagram, as follows:

The arrows in this diagram represent the author’s intended logical “flow” — they can be read as representing the word “therefore.” This argument has 2 premises, each of which lends at least some support to the conclusion. (The fact that there are 2 arrows indicates that there are 2 separate chains of logic here; each premise gives some reason to believe the conclusion.) At this stage all we are doing is sketching the shape of the argument; we are not yet engaging in a critique. But from a critical perspective, this means that if you find fault with one of the premises, the conclusion is still supported — at least to some extent — by the other.

Next, compare that one to this argument:

A tax on dividends means that corporate profits are taxed twice. And taxing the same money twice is unfair. So, a tax on corporate dividends is unfair.

That argument can be diagrammed as follows:

This argument also has 2 premises. But notice that (as implied by the line joining them, and the single arrow flowing from that line to the argument’s conclusion) these 2 premises are working together. They need each other in order to lend support to the argument’s conclusion. This means that a convincing criticism of either one of those premises robs the argument of all of its force. That’s not to say that the conclusion is false; it’s just to say that this argument can’t support the conclusion, if even one of its premises is in doubt.

Now, those are very very simple arguments, and the style of analysis suggested here is not exactly profound. But the simple act of sketching out the shape of an argument — your own or someone else’s — is useful in making clear just how much support the argument does or doesn’t have, and where its critical weak points may be. And agreeing on that is a crucial part of getting debates over business ethics beyond the foot-stomping stage.

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The diagramming method used here is adapted from Lewis Vaughn and Chris MacDonald, The Power of Critical Thinking, 2nd Canadian Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 1

This is the first in an open-ended series I’ll be doing on the role of critical thinking in business ethics. From an academic perspective, “Business Ethics” just is the application of a critical thinking skills to the moral standards that apply to the world of commerce.

It may be useful to start with a definition. Critical thinking is “the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards.”*

In terms of business ethics, this definition has several implications.

The first has to do with the word “systematic.” Thinking critically about ethical standards in business is “systematic” in that it at least sometimes involves the application of distinct procedures and methods. In some cases those procedures and methods might involve very technical tools, such as the tools of formal logic, to assess arguments. In other cases, it will involve looking for certain well-known patterns of reasoning, including the fallacies to which human reason has so often been subject. In other cases still, being systematic will just mean looking carefully at the parts of an argument and at how it is structured, in order better to understand its strengths and weaknesses. The bigger point here is that thinking critically about business ethics means doing something more than looking at an issue and taking a rough stab at an answer. It implies a careful, systematic approach.

The second implication of that definition has to do with the bit about “evaluation” and “formulation” of beliefs. This implies that critical thinking can, and should, be applied in evaluating existing beliefs (your own or others’) as well as to the process of building new beliefs. It also reminds us that beliefs don’t have to just happen to us. We do, of course, inherit many beliefs from our families and churches and cultures more generally. But in other cases, we build new beliefs. And we are responsible for the quality of the beliefs and belief systems we build for ourselves.

The third implication has to do with the words “rational standards.” Those words imply that particular views about business ethics ought to be judged by how well they are supported by good reasons. That is, a commitment to thinking critically about these issues means only believing things that you have good reasons to believe — and not, for example, believing something just because you’re too lazy to examine that belief carefully, or because believing it fits with your worldview, or because “everyone knows it’s true.”

As I tell my students, most people have opinions about ethical issues in the world of business. And having an opinion is a good starting point. But taking business ethics seriously means going beyond merely having an opinion, and thinking critically about whether our opinions are well-supported.

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*Lewis Vaughn and Chris MacDonald, The Power of Critical Thinking, 2nd Canadian Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ethical to Teach a Bogus Therapy?

Needless to say, the industry I myself work in — higher education — is in no way immune from sub-par business ethics. (Those of us involved in the teaching end of higher education don’t like to think of it as a business, but at some level that’s what it is, as long as a fee is being charged.) And what else can I call it but bad ethics, when a university offers courses teaching students to manipulate forces that don’t exist in order to generate effects that don’t happen?

Check out this article, from Common Ground magazine: Integrative energy healing

The Integrative Energy Healing (IEH) Certificate Program at Langara College in Vancouver is actively involved in weaving together the science and research of energy-based healing with its practice. For eight years, this program has worked to offer a three-year certificate program in IEH, which offers an in-depth study of the various Eastern and Western scientific theories underlying energy-based healing. It is also an exploration of the human condition and the practice of different types of energy-based treatments….

Here’s Langara’s page about its Integrative Energy Healing. (And for good measure, here’s the page about its Holistic Healing & Skills program.)

Sounds groovy. The problem: they’re teaching something that doesn’t work. “Energy Healing” is part of a cluster of practices that claims to diagnose and treat illness by examining and modifying energy fields that flow around and through the human body. These practices have been pretty well investigated, and they’re simply baseless. The physical starting points of these practices conflict with fundamental physics, and experiments have proven that they just don’t work. One of the main sources supposedly supporting the value of energy medicine, cited in the article above, is Energy Medicine (Oschman, 2000).
Here’s an article reviewing Oschman’s book: Energy Medicine, reprinted from Skeptic Magazine. The review is pretty devastating.

Of course, it’s not hard to find others who have found Energy “Medicine” at least worth looking at. The Common Ground article cites the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) “formally recognizes and encourages the study of energy therapies.” What the article leaves out is that funding has so far turned up zero in the way of useful therapies, and there have recently been significant calls by scientists for the NIH to stop funding this pseudoscience.

So, what is there to say about a university teaching this stuff? Well, to the extent that students believe they’re learning real health science, they’re being ripped off. And since the practices being taught are part of the enormous alternative medicine industry, students are being taught a set of practices intended to be sold to customers: they’re being taught to sell a bogus product. Oh, and in the process, Langara is cheapening the entire notion of higher education.

A final thought, for those of you not yet convinced that it’s problematic for an institution of higher learning to be teaching a highly-questionable practice like “Energy Healing.” What would our reaction be if a parallel university-based programme were started up with the intention not of teaching students to “heal” patients, but to build bridges? What if, instead of using math and physics to build bridges safely, we taught engineers to simply lay their hands on iron beams to “feel” whether they were strong enough?
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Addendum:
Just a bit of clarification: the story above is about Langara College. But I refer to it throughout as “a university.” Technically, colleges & universities are different kinds of institutions in Canada (they’re provincially regulated & mostly provincially funded, so the details vary). But everything I say above applies to higher education institutions of all kinds.

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