The bread theory of social improvement

June 29 2009

Bread, by Avxly at Flickr.

I’ve just been listening to a show on Radio 4 that gives a name to something I’ve always been curious about. It’s a principle apparently called ‘Experimental Philosophy’, and while that’s a name I’ve not come across before, the idea ties into something which has fascinated me since university. It boils down to this: the circumstances in which you find yourself are more important in the decisions you make than your personality or moral code.

There are a few semi-comic examples of practical experiments cited on the show, Analysis, that bear this out: a group of theology students were asked to prepare a sermon about the Good Samaritan, and then instructed to go preach it. Half of them were told they were running late for the service, and on the way, all were stopped in the street by someone who needed help.

The ones who were running late didn’t stop, while the people who were on time did. All could be assumed to be of very moral character.

The ‘bread theory’ as I shall dub it in future creative works is a riff on the idea that people who are about to sell their house should do some baking, and that supermarkets should pipe the smell of the ovens to the front door to encourage people to spend. The test this time was asking people who were stood outside a shop whether or not they had change for a dollar. Half of the group were stood in front of a bakers, with the scent of yummy bread wafting over their heads, the others weren’t. Naturally the first group were significantly more willing to help a stranger with change, presumably for the car park.

It’s made clear that no-one is saying we could improve society by pumping food smells into everyone’s home, but the idea is touched on nevertheless.

The radio show moves the argument into ethics, where it starts to become very academic and a way of exploring our moral relativism. The example cited is the Peter Singer argument from Famine, Affluence and Morality: if you dive into a pond to save a drowning child knowing you were going to ruin a pair an expensive pair of shoes, why wouldn’t you sacrifice the same pair of shoes to prevent a child starving in Africa? Looked at objectively, it’s the same question.

Personally, I find the thought experiments less interesting than the practical ones. They touch on too many issues about human behaviour to ever be comfortably resolved: call me a pessimist but I don’t foresee a time that the imperative to live according to that kind of considered morality will ever overtake the desire for material comfort in Western society, and so you have to work with what you have.

The practicality issue, though, that circumstances are a controlling factor in choices is nothing new. I first came across it studying Brecht, who challenged the nineteenth century consensus of Stanislavky, Thomas Hardy et al that character is a fixed notion and said that – and I paraphrase from memory here – faced with the same set of decisions I made today, I wouldn’t make the same choices tomorrow. Because everything, including me, would be slightly different. In a simpler form it’s expressed in modern movies like Sliding Doors or the car crash scene in Benjamin Button.

The most interesting creative experiment along these lines I took part in was a dramatic piece by a friend about an old people’s home. All the characters were cast cross-gender, but played absolutely straight with no reference to the fact other than physical appearance on stage. It worked perfectly, quite intense dialogue about life experiences which we assume are typically ‘male’ or ‘female’ made absolute sense regardless of which sex the actor speaking it was. The defining morality or behaviour of a character was easily transposable.

There’s more to write on this, but it ties in very closely with a story that I’m writing and I’m not sure how it’s going to develop at the moment – and they’re not something I’ve used this blog for yet – so I’ll save it for later.

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