What Does Google Search Tell Us About Moral Philosophy/Moral Psychology?

Slate ran a contest called Google Suggest where they asked readers to type in a bit of text into Google’s search engine and see what suggestions the search box gave.  Since the suggestions Google offers reflect popular searches from a timeframe specified only as “recent”, the suggested ways to finish sentences that start with the phrase you gave give clues into what is on people’s minds or what their attitudes are, etc.  Slate’s contest did not just ask you to type in a phrase and see the most popular ways that people end sentences beginning with that phrase but instead took it a step further and asked for contrasting submissions that reflected “dumb” vs. “intelligent” ways of seeking the same basic information.

For example, they typed “how 2″  and got sentence completion suggestions like “how 2 kiss,” “how 2 get pregnant, ” “how 2 grow weed,” and then typed “how might one” and got sentence completion suggestions like “how might one account for the rise of andrew jackson to victory in the election of 1828″ and  “how might one expand upon an argument.”

So the contest was to send in the best example of a contrast between the results from a “dumb” search and those from an “intelligent” one.   And among the winners, this one struck my curiosity the most:

dumb vs. intelligent searches

dumb vs. intelligent searches2
Slate’s interpretation:

It doesn’t neatly divide into “less intelligent” and “more intelligent,” but it’s the best example I received of how one word can make all the difference. Wrong involves love affairs, God, and younger men. Ethics puts us on the plane of animal research, privacy concerns, and cooking the books.

What do you think epitomizes, and then what do you think explains, the contrast between the “Is it wrong” searches and the “Is it ethical” ones? Do you think it’s a hint to something important about moral psychology and moral intuitions?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

    I think the answer is: sociolinguistics!
    We are expected to talk about certain things in certain ways, and everybody – some people to a greater, some to a lesser extent – does switch between sociolects from conversation to conversation. We use some sets of words when talking about linguistics at the university, and others when complaining about an annoying co-worker to another co-worker during a lunch break. English speakers are quite used to thinking (that is, unless they are linguists) that there is little, if any, variety in different “Englishes”, and that it’s a very low-context language — that is, that is requires very little switching between sociolects, if any at all.
    But the thing is, the differences do exist and while the degree of switching varies from individual to individual, they are still statistically significant. Even completely banal words, such as, for instance, “big” and “large” have a very different distribution across registers, with “large” being mostly used in written, formal and/or academic language.
    (This actually has much more to do with what can be big – objects, brothers, and so on — and what can be large – numbers percentages, and so forth — but the differences are still there, and sometimes they are indeed connected to meaning, but more often they are not)

    *takes of linguist!hat*

  • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

    Hahaha. Actually, the above comment is a good illustration of what I was talking about *facepalm*


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