Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Moral Self-Knowledge by Looking at Others' Faces

Our own moral character is largely unknown to us. Lots of jerks think they're just swell. Lots of saints and sweethearts suffer from moral self-doubt. But a formulaic inversion of one's moral self-opinion doesn't work either: Moral pride and moral self-condemnation sometimes fit the facts quite well. I conjecture approximately a zero correlation between people's moral self-opinions and their actual moral character.

Moral self-knowledge is an unruly beast that cannot, I think, be trapped and held still for systematic examination, partly because moral self-examination is itself a moral act, tangled up with the very traits under consideration. The jerk will tend toward a biased self-examination; the sweetheart will be biased in a different way; and the conclusions one habitually reaches, on either side, can reinforce or undercut the very traits self-ascribed. "Oh, I'm such a sweetheart, so much nicer than everyone else around me" is not, in most circumstances, a thought that sits very comfortably on its bearer.

The usual method by which we consider our moral character -- trying an adjective on for size, as it were, and asking, "Is that me? Am I trustworthy? Am I kind? Am I gentle?" -- is, as suggested by both informal observation and psychological research, a method of little probative value. Maybe somewhat better is taking an icy look at objective data about yourself or asking for the frank opinion of someone whose judgment you trust -- but both of those approaches are also seriously flawed.

So here's another approach to add to the stock -- an approach that is also flawed, but which deserves attention because its potential power hasn't yet, I think, been widely enough recognized. Look at the faces of the people around you. Central to our moral character is how we tend to view others nearby. The jerk sees himself as surrounded by fools and losers. The sweetheart vividly appreciates the unique talents and virtues of whomever he's with. The avaricious person sees the people around her as a threat to her resources (time, money, but also possibly space in the subway, position in line, praise from her peers). The person obsessed with social position sees people who vary finely in their relative social standing. Or consider: What do you notice about others' physical appearance? This reveals something morally important about you -- something not directly under your control, a kind of psychological tell.

Or so I think it's reasonable to suppose. I'm open to counterevidence, e.g., by experience sampling beeper methods, combined with some plausible related measures of moral character. But psychological science isn't there yet.

Of course you can game it. You can sit around and work yourself into a blissed-out appreciation of all those wonderful people around you, congratulating yourself on your sage-like moral awesomeness. This is a misfire, especially if there's an implicit (or explicit) comparative dimension to your moral self-assessment as you do this. (If only everyone were as good at me at seeing how wonderful everyone is!) Or you can choose to recall situations, or choose to put yourself in situations, disproportionately suggestive of the type of moral character you'd like to see yourself as having.

But I don't think it's inevitable that we game the method. I find it interestingly revealing (and disappointing) to look at strangers in the store or acquaintances at a party, letting my relatively uncensored assessments of them float up as an indication not of anything about them but rather as an indication of something about me, that I view them that way.

You can also notice things post-hoc: You can catch yourself viewing people in the way characteristic of the jerk, or in the way characteristic of the avaricious person, or of the person focused on status or sexual attractiveness.

It needn't always be negative. Sometimes you can congratulate yourself on being the one person in line who seemed to treat the cashier as a person. Sometimes you can feel good about the fact that you find yourself feeling good about the people around you. But I emphasize the negative for two reasons. First, I suspect that non-depressed people -- perhaps, especially, relatively affluent Western men? -- tend to err toward having too high an opinion of their moral character. Second, there's probably something cognitively or morally unstable, as I've gestured at a couple times above, about using this technique primarily for moral self-congratulation.

[Jeanette McMullin King has reminded me of the poem "The Right Kind of People", which fits nicely with this post.]


Ryder Dain said...

This whole piece immediately brought to mind an old story that Shlomo Carlebach used to tell, about a guy in the woods named "Schwarze Wolf". In it, SW is seen by everyone as the most obnoxious, ugly, and horrendous person they know. The conceit of the story is that SW is actually one of the legendary 36 "tzaddikim" in Jewish folktales. The story's lesson is supposed to be that the closer to moral perfection someone becomes, the better she reflects observers' worst character back at themselves, which is an interesting parallel.

Juan said...

Sorry to be a jerk here (:D) but I want to pick up on a small tidbit in your post. Has it actually been established that depressed people are better at moral self-knowledge? What's the research behind this, if any? It's something I've seen come up in your blog a few times and I'm curious as to where you got it from.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Ryder! Thanks for the tip on the story.

Juan: The locus classic for this is Taylor and Brown 1988, "Illusion and Well-Being". They focus on positive self-assessments generally, not moral ones in particular (though moral ones are included). Not everyone agrees with Taylor and Brown, though. There's a fair bit of literature on positive illusions of this sort and their relation to depression, which you can find by looking at pieces that cite the Taylor and Brown.

Callan S. said...

Not sure - what of those lynch mob victims you posted pictures of awhile ago? What would they have seen in the faces of the mob - and was that actually a reflection of themselves?

Though it still leaves the question of how you see other people when they don't know you're looking at them (though a touch stalkery! lol!)

Though it still leaves a blind where there may be a homosapien present but the person doesn't see another person present at all. An extreme case, but there and worth noting where a system doesn't work because otherwise someone might look at the 'vermin' and see no one and think they are validated by such a test. Or if not validated, normalised.

Juan said...

Thanks for the tip, Eric. The paper made for interesting reading.

Do you think there is any technique, or combination of techniques, that is capable of delivering consistent, more or less accurate moral self-assessments? Assuming Taylor and Brown are on the right track, it seems there's a trade0off between well-being and moral truth about oneself.

Or maybe it's something that's impossible to achieve with our current cognitive structure, in which case we'll have to hope for the kind of technological self modification that people like Bostrom like to talk about.