A Cautionary Tale

I said that some of the posts here would be advice-type, “Don’t Make My Mistake”-type, and, well…

As far as mistakes go, this one is not so terrible. But still.

My research is about war. More specifically, about the morality of war. I came to this topic through reading just war theory (JWT), and since JWT is a philosophical theory, this meant I read a lot of statements like “most people would agree that…” and “when considering scenario [x], our intuitive response tells us that…”

Having just spent several years learning to be a researcher, my immediate response to these phrases was always “Would they? Do they?” And that’s what my initial idea was: to simply test whether people (“regular people”) agreed with the postulates of JWT, and to find out, if there were conflicting perspectives, which way people’s intuitions actually would, in general and on average, tilt them.

That’s how it all started. Plenty of caveats and misinterpretations and dead ends later, I’ve arrived at the stage of writing up the past 4 years’ worth of work. In the introductory chapters, I need to put into words this inchoate sense (or maybe conviction, if I’m feeling opinionated) that what people think about (the morality of) war and soldiers actually matters. Along the way, I’m making what I thought was an original argument (you can see where this is heading…) about how war and morality relate to each other.

Morality is usually described as a system of psychological adaptations and social rules that has developed to co-ordinate and facilitate group living. My argument about war was that, in short, morality may have developed to also facilitate group killing.

Guess what? That’s exactly the argument Joshua Greene makes, in the first few pages of his book Moral Tribes. The book came out in 2013, so my mistake – on one level – is just to not have read it sooner.

These things are going to happen, of course. Every now and then you’re going to think you thought of something new, and then – scooped! I wouldn’t go too hard on myself for that kind of mishap. But in this case, I knew about Greene’s book more or less as soon as it came out, so it wasn’t “not knowing” that was my mistake.

It was my reason for not reading it, which was a more or less conscious version of “Greene’s work is neuropsych and morality, not really war. I’ve read or skimmed a lot of his work already, there probably won’t be much new in the book. Meh, pop-psych.” Hubris, in other words, and pretty embarrassing to now realize that actually, he does write about war in this book. It does have new things in it. I can use these things to help make my own (un-original, but somewhat different) argument. I wasn’t wrong about the “pop-psych” aspect, but so what? That just makes it easier to read. (Large font! Thorough explanation! Narrative!)

So, here is the Lesson I’ve Learned: If you’re working on a PhD, and one of the big names in your field publishes a book – read it. It will be worth it.


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