Three of the Best Podcasts About Ethics

Anyone can start a podcast, so you can run into everything from the conspiracist muttering into his cousin’s microphone to Barack Obama’s speechwriter talking about politics. The topics are endless, and the quality is variable, but there’s something for everyone.

If you’re looking for podcasts that seriously grapple with ideas in ethics and morality, then here are three of the best ones out there.

  • Very Bad Wizards

    This one is brought to you by Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and Dave Pizarro, a social psychologist at Cornell who studies morality. Of the three podcasts listed here, this one is the most entertaining, and maybe even the most informative. Tamler and Dave are funny, and irreverent at times, but they also have nuanced conversations. Each episode revolves around an article or two in moral philosophy or moral psychology. There’s an occasional guest, but typically it’s just the two of them disagreeing with each other.

  • Waking Up

    If you like longform interviews with scholarly people, then you’ll like Waking Up, a podcast by the neuroscientist and independent scholar Sam Harris. While the topics aren’t confined to ethics, there is almost always an ethical component to the discussion. It’s clear that Sam likes examining ethical issues. He even wrote a book called The Moral Landscape, where he argues that the is-ought gap and the naturalistic fallacy need not worry anyone because science can answer questions about morality. I’m not convinced, but Sam’s book is still worth reading, and his podcast is worth listening to. He’s thoughtful and systematic when approaching ideas, and you can learn a lot from him and his guests.

  • The Partially Examined Life

    The Partially Examined Life is a podcast “by some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” Mark Linsenmayer, Seth Paskin, and Wes Alwan all went to graduate school in philosophy but called it quits before finishing their PhDs. Now they, along with Mark’s brother-in-law Dylan Casey, philosophize on their podcast. The show covers philosophy broadly, but a good bit of the episodes are devoted to moral philosophy. In each episode, the guys have an informal but serious discussion of a philosophical text, sometimes with a guest. You can follow along and learn without reading the text, but you’ll get much more out of the episodes if you do the reading, which they link to in the show notes, beforehand.

These podcasters aren’t unknown to each other. Tamler appeared on The Partially Examined Life to discuss free will and moral responsibility, and he frequently jokes about needing to surpass them in the iTunes rankings. Dave announced that he’ll be joining them soon. Sam has thrice been on Very Bad Wizards, and Tamler and Dave were very recently Sam’s guest on Waking Up.

All three of the podcasts have been running for several years, so there are plenty of places to jump in. Take a break from Radiolab and This American Life and check them out.

The Knobe Effect and the Intentionality of Side Effects

Imagine that the chairman of a company decides to implement an initiative that will reap profits for his company but will also have a particular side effect. The chairman knows the side effect will occur, but he couldn’t care less. Making money is his only reason for making his decision.

The chairman goes forward with the initiative, his company makes a lot of money, and the side effect occurs as anticipated.

Did the chairman bring about the side effect intentionally? Don’t answer yet.

In a famous 2003 experiment, the philosopher Joshua Knobe showed that people’s judgments about whether a side effect is intentional or not depend on what the side effect is. He randomly assigned subjects to read one of two scenarios, which were the same as the one above, except the actual side effects of the chairman’s decision were presented. In the first scenario, the initiative harms the environment. In the second, it helps the environment.

Of the subjects who read the scenario in which the initiative harmed the environment, 82% said the chairman intentionally brought about the harm. Subjects made the opposite judgment in the other condition. Asked whether the chairman intentionally helped the environment by undertaking the initiative, 77% said that he didn’t.

So, there is an asymmetry in the way we ascribe intentionality to side effects – now known as the “Knobe Effect” or the “Side Effect Effect” – and this study suggests that it stems from our moral evaluations of those side effects. As Knobe concluded in the 2003 study, people “seem considerably more willing to say that a side-effect was brought about intentionally when they regard that side-effect as bad than when they regard it as good.”

But subsequent research by Knobe and others has shown that it’s not that simple. Sometimes people judge good side effects, such as when an action violates an unjust Nazi law, as intentional and bad side effects, like complying with the Nazi law, as not intentional. Richard Holton argues that it is whether a norm is knowingly violated, and not necessarily whether a side effect is morally good or bad, that influences people’s judgments of intentionality.

You probably would’ve struggled to say whether the chairman intended the “particular side effect” because there was nothing to guide your intuitions. If there were, though, you likely would’ve exemplified the Knobe Effect.