Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Utilitarian ethical reasoning in visualization and infographics

Four broad themes dominate my reading list* in the past year, besides the expected ones (visualization, graphics, etc.): Morality, statistics, epistemology, and the core principles of journalism. Taking a look at that list will give you a clue of what I'm thinking and writing about nowadays. I had plans to post something this week about David J. Hand, whose books you should get if you're interested in data and visualization (here's a good interview with him,) but then I opened Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene.

Last night I went to bed way after midnight because of it. I just couldn't stop reading. The book starts slow. Its first chapters will sound familiar if you've taken a look at Thinking: Fast and Slow and other works on heuristics, cognitive biases, and evolutionary psychology**. But suddenly, around page 100, the book mutates into something different. It becomes a vigorous defense of utilitarianism, which Greene calls "deep pragmatism." I'm quoting from that interview, which doesn't delve into the details of the book, unfortunately:
There is a philosophy that accords with this, and that philosophy has a terrible name; it's known as utilitarianism. The idea behind utilitarianism is that what really matters is the quality of people's lives—people's suffering, people's happiness—how their experience ultimately goes. The other idea is that we should be impartial; it essentially incorporates the Golden Rule. It says that one person's well-being is not ultimately any more important than anybody else's. You put those two ideas together, and what you basically get is a solution—a philosophical solution to the problems of the modern world, which is: Our global philosophy should be that we should try to make the world as happy as possible. But this has a lot of counterintuitive implications, and philosophers have spent the last century going through all of the ways in which this seems to get things wrong.
More info: 1, 2, 3.

Greene's thoughts relate to what Sam Harris said in The Moral Landscape, a book that caused controversy among moral philosophers and scientists alike. Despite the many refutations I've encountered, though, I still find Harris' arguments convincing —not surprisingly, I guess; I've always enjoyed reading Peter Singer and other utilitarians and consequentialists. I can say the same about Greene's.

How is this all connected to visualization and infographics? Well, it has nothing to do with their technical aspects. But it certainly is related to how we think about the ethics of visualization: Is it better to be guided by some core a priori principles ("don't lie," for instance; this is what deontological ethics are about) or by a fuzzy notion of "virtue"? Or should we base our decisions on what we believe —or know— about the consequences of what we do ("don't lie because that will lead people astray")? Remember Mike Monteiro? Watch that talk again, if you have the chance.

* Notice the warning I've included in that page. It applies to most links in this website: "IMPORTANT: All links below are "affiliate" links to Amazon.com. That means that I'm paid a small amount of money for the books you buy after clicking on them. I don't get any cash directly from Amazon, though, but gift cards that I use to buy more books. The average monthly payment I got last year was around $75."

**There are tons of them, besides Thinking, Fast and Slow, and some are really good: The Invisible Gorilla, Incognito, Kludge, Brain Bugs, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, The Unpersuadables (which I finished a couple of days ago,) etc. If you're a journalist or a designer, you should read at least a couple of them. You won't be the same person after you do so.