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Spatial proximity, physical contact and personal force in four different social settings – Experimental Philosophy research

Il mio nuovo paper frutto di una ricerca condotta per il corso di Experimental” target=”_blank”>


From the conclusive paragraph:

I premise that, in the vein of Sytsma and Livengood, I don’t assert that my results prove the undeniable validity of my hypotheses, rather I merely claim that my results provide some evidence for the hypotheses.
Concerning 1a and 2a my hypothesis was that the digital devices encourage people to feel less responsible for what they do and what they write. 1a and 2a’s data show that spatial proximity affects responsibility more than personal force and physical contact (evidence is particularly provided by the comparison between 2-1a and 3-1a). Comparing Opt1-1a to Opt1-2a it is quite evident that participants are more likely to take an action involving a high degree of physical contact when they are not directly involved and they feel less responsible in the less personal case. Participants are also more likely to take an action involving a lower degree of physical contact and a lower degree of spatial proximity when they are directly involved (both of these statements undercut the importance of personal force in responsibility). Moreover, both in 1a and 2a the hand-writing letter case and the digital device case got similar results. Thus, I conclude that my hypothesis was incorrect and that participants feel less responsible not because they are using a digital device, but because of the lack of spatial proximity between them and the “victim”. In other words, spatial proximity seems to affect responsibility so much more than personal force.
In the 1b case I wanted to test the same 1a-2a’s hypothesis. However, 1b’s results are contradictory: the higher is the spatial proximity, the more participants are likely to take risky actions against someone, but the less responsible they feel.
As I wrote in 1b’s discussion, 1b’s results might be biased by a lack of clarity between responsibility-questions and what-would-you-do questions. But, if I considered only the answers to the what-would-you-do questions the results would be in line with 1a and 2a’s cases, providing again more evidence in favour of the relevance of spatial proximity: the more is the distance, the easier is for users writing their answer.
In Greene’s vein, for the case 1c, my hypothesis was that most of subjects are more likely to be deontologists rather than consequentialist. In short, my hypothesis was that, if meat were not sold in supermarket and participants had to kill animals by themselves, they would be less likely to eat meat.
1c’s results provide evidence for my hypothesis and, what is more, answers concerning what participants would do and answers concerning how responsible participants would feel are coherent (so this makes the results more reliable). 1c’s data clearly show that physical contact and spatial proximity affect both responsibility and willing to take the action more than personal force. However, the 3c and 4c cases got similar results, so that we cannot really estimate whether the higher level of personal force of the former really made any relevant difference.
Comparing all the results, it can be said that spatial proximity affects responsibility and willing to take an action more than personal force and physical contact. This is a finding with huge impact for our digitalized society. According to data, a high spatial distance between the agent and the victim makes the agent feel less responsible. What could a plausible explanation of this be? Which conclusions can be drawn from this experimental inquiry? Are we entitled to infer normative judgments from it?
Concerning the first question it might be that our mind is still accustomed to a “non-internettian” concept of space: for much of human history the space was mostly the physical one. Before the advent of internet and the digitalization of society, there was an enormous difference whether someone or something were here and now or somewhere else. Most of human beings could very hardly have any sort of influence or control over someone or something located far away. The only agents entitled to do so were governments and powerful people (with enormous technical limitations). However, in a digital society the “old” concept of space the mind is accustomed to is inadequate. For the first time in human history everyone (not only powerful people or governments) can influence or control something else or someone else, so that today there might be no difference whether some or something is here or there. But the human mind still behaves as if there were no possibility to really affect something or someone distant. Will the human mind develop and get used to a more “internettian” idea of space in the future?
Concerning the second question, I firmly believe that ethics is an important part of philosophical enquiry still today and, thus, philosophers should not just conduct descriptive analyses but also explicitly express their judgments and their perplexities over the world they are problematizing. For instance, if it had come out that people on social network behave less responsibly because of the lack of personal force involved in the actions on the digital platforms, we would have been entitled to suggest a changing in the way the software is designed. Pace social networks, my result about the relevance of spatial proximity (and the irrelevance of personal force) does suggest that people would probably behave less responsibly even though social networks’ interfaces were not as immediate and automatic as they actually are. Notwithstanding, this does not completely absolve social networks from the irresponsible behaviours of their users. In fact, there could be many other factors that affect users’ behaviours (and that I have left out of my experiments) and they could be equally related to the way social network are designed. Additionally, what users might write or post is not the only source of concern. Social networks’ policies about data and content management, advertisement, privacy settings and censorship are, in fact, equally problematic.
Furthermore, the finding about the relevance of spatial proximity has important implications in the ethics of consumption (not only in meat consumption, but in the relation between consumer and product in general). The finding that the spatial distance is determining in making people feel less guilty for killing an animal can, in fact, be used as an argument not only to make people more aware of what they eat and why they eat, but also to make people more aware of the origin of what they are buying. It can be easily imagined that the same mechanism that absolve meat-consumers from the responsibility for the animals, it absolves tech-companies’ customers from the responsibility for the exploitation of children in Congo for the extraction of “coltan”. In the light of the results, it can be assumed that if the “coltan” mines were located in the same cities where the above-mentioned customers live, the sales of those products would drastically fall down. Furthermore, it would be interesting to give an account of why, according to both mine and Greene’s results, most of the individuals adopt a deontologist ethics in their everyday decisions, instead of a consequentialist one. Could the Christian-deontological background of the west culture has to do with it? If so, it should be proven that individuals from distant cultures are more likely to give different answers to the Trolley problem and to the “meat consumption problem”. This is certainly a subject worthy of further investigation and discussion and many others interesting implications can be found.

Matteo Iammarrone.