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March 27, 2012


Garret Merriam

I don't think it's fair to say that X-Phi "wholly comprised of administering questionnaires to the philosophically naïve in order to ascertain their philosophic "intuitions"." Granted, much X-Phi work fits this description, but it is not 'wholly' comprised of this. Not to toot my own horn, but since I know my own work best, that's what I'll appeal to. I ran an experiment on the death penalty (which was funded by the Experiment Month Initiative at Yale, but is as yet unpublished) used an experiment to try and demonstrate that abolishing the death penalty might have unintended consequences. Specifically, it might lead to less oversight of wrongful convictions, since death penalty cases attract more attention than life cases do. Ascertaining intuitions didn't really have anything to do with it; I was trying to predict behavior.

I also think some work done with fMRI studies, like the work of Joshua Greene, for example, while perhaps not strictly 'X-Phi' is pretty damn close. Honestly, the only reason I haven't done any fMRI studies is simply because I don't have access to the needed equipment. If I did, I can think of about a half dozen different experiments I'd love to run, and I would certainly consider it X-Phi.


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I would be interested to see your results. Could you post a link to your work?  

Garret Merriam

Here's the poster I presented at the Eastern APA's session on Experiment Month:


It obviously lacks the prose/charm of a full blown paper (which I'm working on), but it should give you the necessary details, data and my interpretation thereof. If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


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Garret, Thanks for the link.  I’m not inclined to dispute your conclusion but  I think it could be argued that you are measuring not—or at least, not just--  the degree of importance or significance  people attach to death penalty vs. life-sentences  but also the amount of urgency people rationally feel about remediating one rather than another compared to your other cases.  There will always be time later to help get that lifer out of jail but maybe not that sick kid or the guy on death row.   Or is urgency in this sense the same thing you call “oversight”? And setting that aside.  I am unclear about what philosophical  or even normative thesis you are advancing here.  Do you take this to be an argument for the death penalty or…?   Here, I think,  my modest proposal would be of use.  How would you have distributed the tokens in your experiment?   How would you have justified your answer?  I hope you address these questions when you write up your results.    

Garret Merriam

Terrance, thanks for your feedback. I think you are right that there are a number of possible explanations for this data. In my write up I talk about urgency and a sense of time constraint as possibly playing a role in the psychology of the subjects. But for my ultimate conclusion, this amounts to the same as importance.

So to my ultimate conclusion: I do think this is an argument for the death penalty, but not an 'all things considered' argument. All things considered, perhaps we should still abolish it. My point is simply that, if my argument is correct, abolishing the death penalty will come at a cost that heretofore no one else seems to have noticed; namely lower exoneration rates for wrongfully convicted people. This happens because of less oversight. So regardless of whether or not people pay less attention to wrongfully convicted people facing life in prison because they care less, or because they simply don't see it as urgent, it amounts to the same: their odds of being freed drop considerably.

As such, while I think your modest proposal is a good one in general, in this case I don't think it would do much for me. The only thing I could say is this: 'if we don't want oversight/exonerations to drop as a result of abolishing the death penalty, we should donate the same amount of tokens to the innocence project, regardless of whether or not the man is on death row or facing life in prison.' But that's not 'the right answer', since it only applies to both surveys taken together, and no one person filled out both surveys. Individually, people could put any amount they want for the innocence project, so long as they wouldn't have put less/more if they had the other condition.


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