Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Bait-and-Switch Blurring of Moral and Prudential in the World of Chutes and Ladders

Chutes and Ladders, if you didn't know, isn't just a game of chance. It's a game of virtue. At the bottom of each ladder a virtuous action is depicted, and at the top we see its reward. Above each chute is a vice, at the bottom natural punishment. The world of Chutes and Ladders is the world of perfect immanent justice! Virtue always pays and vice is always punished, and always through natural mechanisms rather than by the action of any outside authority, much less divine authority.

Here's a picture of my board at home:

One striking thing: What 21st-century Anglophone philosophers would normally call "prudential" virtues and what 21st-century Anglophone philosophers would normally call "moral" virtues are treated exactly on par, as though they were entirely the same sort of thing.

In square 1, Elmo plants seeds. (Prudential!) Laddering to square 38, he reaps his bouquet. In square 9, Ernie helps Bert carry Bert's books. (Moral!) Laddering to square 31, we see Ernie and Bert enjoying soccer together. In square 64 Bert is running without looking (prudential) and he slips on a banana peel, chuting down to square 60. In square 16, Zoe teasingly hides Elmo's alphabet block from him (moral), and she chutes down to square 6, losing the pleasure of Elmo's company.

It's my first-grade daughter's favorite game right now (though she seems to like it even more when we play it upside down, celebrating vice).

Consider the Boy Scout code: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Wait, "clean"? Or the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. My sense is that cross-culturally and historically long term prudential self-interest and short- and long-term moral duty tend to be lumped together into the category of virtues, not sharply distinguished, all primarily opposed to short-term self-interest.

It's a nice fantasy, the fantasy of mainstream moral educators across history -- that we live in a Chutes-and-Ladders world. And in tales and games you don't even need to do the long-term waiting bit: just ladder right up! I see why my daughter enjoys it. But does it make for a good moral education? Maybe so. One would hope there's wisdom embodied in the Chutes-and-Ladders moral tradition.

One possibility is that it's a bait-and-switch. That's how I'm inclined to read the early Confucian tradition (Mencius, Xunzi, though if so it's below the surface of the texts). The Chutes-and-Ladders world is offered as a kind of hopeful lie, to lure people onto the path of valuing morality as a means to attain long-term self-interest. But once one goes far enough down this path, though the lie becomes obvious, simultaneously the means starts to become an end valued for its own sake, even overriding the long-term selfish goals that originally motivated it. We come, eventually, to help Bert with his books even when it chutes us down rather than ladders us up.

After all, we see the same thing with pursuit of money, don't we?

Update 6:38: As my 14-year-old son points out, one other feature of Chutes and Ladders is that there's no free will. It's all chance whether you end up being virtuous. So in that sense, justice is absent (note March 21: though maybe though it's chance relative to the player, that chance represents the free will of the pawn).

Update March 21: As several people at New APPS have pointed out, Chutes and Ladders originated in ancient India as Snakes and Ladders. According to this site, the original virtues were faith, reliability, generosity, knowledge, asceticism; the original vices disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, debt, rage, greed, pride, murder, and lust. (A lot more snakes than ladders in India than on Sesame Street!)


Brandon said...

This seems to be conflating two different claims:

(1) Prudential virtues and moral virtues are the same kind of thing.

(2) Virtue always pays and vice is always punished.

They are very different, though. (1) is explicitly advocated by moral philosophers who do not accept (2). David Hume is an obvious example who comes to mind, given your point about 'clean' in the Boy Scout Code; he explicitly argues that there is no rational way to make a distinction of kind between the virtue of cleanliness and the sorts of virtues you are classifying as moral virtues. On his position, by trying to make the distinction you are simply building a verbal maze of perplexity and error (ECPM Section VIII, 215):

Among the other virtues, we may also give Cleanliness a place; since it naturally renders us agreeable to others, and is no inconsiderable source of love and affection. No one will deny, that a negligence in this particular is a fault; and as faults are nothing but smaller vices, and this fault can have no other origin than the uneasy sensation which it excites in others; we may, in this instance, seemingly so trivial, clearly discover the origin of moral distinctions, about which the learned have involved themselves in such mazes of perplexity and error.

But it's very implausible to attribute to Hume the view that vice is always punished or virtue always rewarded, beyond virtue being the sort of thing we are inclined to approve and vice being the sort of thing we are inclined to disapprove. (It's also very implausible to suggest that 'prudential' virtues always succeed, which seems to be what (2) would require even in the prudential case.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brandon: I agree the claims are different. I'm sorry if I wasn't as clear about that as I should have been in the post! In the Chutes & Ladders world, *both* claims are true.

Teed Rockwell said...

The problem with your interpretation is that there is no skill whatsoever in the game. Seeing as morality requires the concepts of credit or blame, how can it be seen as depicted in this game?

Scott Bakker said...

What if you don't believe the Aftergame?

Callan S. said...


(though she seems to like it even more when we play it upside down, celebrating vice).

Oh dear.

Like some early version of grand theft auto (the video game...okay, you knew it was a video game, but I had to be sure...!)

We come, eventually, to help Bert with his books even when it chutes us down rather than ladders us up.

We come to eventually euthanase a prisoner, even if he didn't do the murder/it's ambiguous whether he did, because someone needs to get euthanased? Because that's just what you do?

Losing the selfish long term goal seems to lead to even greater madness to me. It's losing the compass to actions, so when someone goes way off the trail, they aint coming back in a hurry.

After all, we see the same thing with pursuit of money, don't we?

No? Who's earning money for no particular selfish reason? Okay, send me some! Seriously! :)

Prudential and Moral in a way seem to be things that have forgotten their other half. The moral forgets it's prudential half. Even the apparently prudential of 'cleanliness' - well, why didn't 'thrift' end up as prudential? Cleanliness avoids unpleasant encounters for others - isn't that a nice, perhaps moral thing to do? As well as reducing the spread of desease, which is again fairly moral.

The prudential is simply forgetting it's moral counterpart.

The link is probably in how 'moral' tends to tell you what NOT to do, while prudential does tell you what to actually do.

I miss prudential - so many scolds these days. So many subtractions from what you are to do - what are you allowed to actually do. What is okay?

Seems more profitable for folk if they remain scolds and never advocate any action, since it might profit them later to scold any particular action as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Teed: Although I didn't see this clearly at the time I posted it, I now think that the idea is that although the *player* does not make moral choices, the *pawn* is represented as having done so, in the fiction. The die roll represents (depending on your metaphysics) the pawn's free will or the pawn's predetermined choices.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: The beautiful thing about immanent justice: no Aftergame required!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I'm not sure I agree with your way of separating moral from prudential in terms of positive and negative: Both are both, e.g., DO exercise, DON'T smoke. The money point is that the accumulation of money comes to seem rewarding in itself, rather than merely as a means. At least, I think that's a part of most people's psychology of money.

Callan S. said...

Perhaps it's a long draw of the bow, but perhaps that's part of why giving up smoking is hard - the prudential is framed in a way that does not sit with the psychology of prudentialism? Perhaps if it was framed as 'avoid lung cancer agents' it might go better? And avoidance is an active element.

I mean people probably imagine themelves in a hospital like in the adverts, their lungs in that dread state, like in the adverts - is it really about 'Don't smoke?'. I know a guy who has one of those nicotine inhaler thingies - he basically smokes, just without the cancer stuff (always freaks me out that were in a games club and he puffs away smell, nothing! Surreal!). He's not just trying to not smoke.

But I agree it's typically framed as 'Don't smoke'. And if you're saying a particular demographic can fall into collecting money for the sake of money, I agree it can turn out that way. But even there, what about this - what if its simply a matter of what they can report about why they are collecting money. Ie, their self monitoring/concious state would maybe say it's just because money is good. But what if another part of them fears huge medical bills or bankruptcy or stupid relatives ransomed in the third world? All quite prudent concerns in a way.

IanOlasov said...

The line between moral and prudential is also often blurred in conversation. When I say that someone spent more money than they should have on a kitchen appliance, for example, it's often impossible to tell whether I mean that they spent more than is good for them, or more than their budget allows, or that the purchase was wasteful or rash or something along those lines. I suspect this is because I didn't determinately mean either one of these things. Ditto appeals to heaven and hell.

See also Read's "Morality and the Concept of the Person among the Gahuku-Gama":

"Among the Gahuku-Gama, people do not normally appeal to abstract principles but rather emphasize the practical consequences of moral deviation. Instead of saying it is 'good' or 'right' to help others, they state quite simply that 'if you don't help others, others won't help you...' They frequently express moral statements as universals on the pattern of 'help others so they will help you,' or 'give food to those who visit you so they will think well of you.'"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Yeah, I can see some merit in that view; these issues are complex!

IanOlasov: Thanks for that! I agree, and I'll check out the Read.