Do we need philosophy to understand and explain our behaviour?
I am going to make a quick assumption here about your honesty. How come you never engage in something like shoplifting? Surely doing so is to your economic advantage. Is it because it is against the law? Maybe because you are scared of being punished or humiliated? What if you were certain you wouldn’t get caught — would you then choose to do it? Do you actually consciously consider the possibility every time you are in a shop?
Behaviour and choice are two sides of the same coin. Almost all our behaviour is determined by choices we make. Neoclassical economics treats us largely as rational, self-interested, utility maximizing beings — the so-called homo economicus — and seeks to explain how we choose, and hence behave, from that perspective. Not so fast, say psychologists and behavioural economists (the line between the two can be a bit fuzzy). We may like to think we are good at making rational decisions, but we have a few problems with willpower and self-control, quite a bit of our behaviour is a matter of habit or unconscious choice, and on top we bulge with cognitive biases and we fall prey to fallacies. We need those insights to explain our behaviour too.
Do these two approaches together give us all we need to understand people’s behaviour, and improve our decision-making? Not quite. Our choices are sometimes also determined by what we think is right and wrong — our moral intuition. Morality may not play a large part in choosing between a dark red or a beige jumper when we get dressed in the morning, but it creeps in when we are shopping (fair trade sugar or own brand?), want to get out of a visit to the in-laws (tell a white lie, or go anyway?), or indeed between sneaking an item past the attention of the shop assistant… or not.
Is it half a century already?
Questions relating to ethics belong in the domain of philosophy. In the same way that a behavioural economist can get excited by situations where people’s intuitions are not necessarily a good guide to what is best for them, a philosopher’s eyes can light up at the thought of moral dilemmas, where moral intuition is likewise not necessarily a good guide. A classic thought experiment that explores…