Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Momentary Man

Momentary Man has all the moral virtues. He is a man of exceptional character! He is courageous, kind, fair, open-minded, creative, honest, generous, wise, sympathetic, a good listener. He is gently self-deprecating, witty, a pleasure to be around. He has an egalitarian spirit, free of racist, sexist, classist, and ableist inclinations; he is ready to see and appreciate people for who they are in all their wondrous individuality.

He exists for exactly two seconds.

He was created by a magical act of God, or as a briefly existing future artificial intelligence, or through freak quantum accident. He thinks to himself, "Wow, it's great to be alive!" and then, as suddenly as he came into existence, he is swallowed by void.

What is it to be courageous, after all? Arguably, it's not a matter of actually doing courageous things all the time but rather a matter of being disposed or ready to do courageous things, if the situation calls for it. If danger presented itself, the courageous person would be undaunted, take the risk, face down her fears. To be courageous is not to always be acting courageously; rather it is to be prepared to act courageously if necessary. Of course we all have sufficiently complex lives that courageous action is sometimes required, and then our courage (or lack thereof) manifests itself. But the trait of being courageous, or not, was there or not there in the background of our personalities all along.

Arguably, kindness too, and open-mindedness, and all the rest, are dispositional traits. Virtues concern how you would tend in general to act in the relevant range of circumstances. If so, then Momentary Man can have all the traits I've ascribed to him, even if no situation ever arises in his life that draws out the associated actions.

Two questions:

First, does this merely dispositional approach to virtue seem right? Or do virtuous personality traits require actual manifestation in concrete action to be present in someone? Part of me wants to insist that some concrete action is required for the genuine presence of virtue. One cannot be an extravert on a desert island, no matter how much one would be the life of the party if only there were a party. Momentary Man has no virtues. But then "dispositional" approaches to personality (of the sort I favor) require clarification or modification.

A different part of me wants to say no, Momentary Man does have all these virtues; it's just a shame he cannot exist longer to manifest them.

Second, suppose that Momentary Man does indeed have all these virtues. Is the universe better for Momentary Man's having briefly existed? Is there some intrinsic value in the presence of even unexercised virtue? Or would the world have been just as good without him, or with a vicious version of him (cruel, obnoxious, greedy) who had the same two seconds of conscious experience before blinking out?

Here my inclination is to think the world is richer and better for Momentary Man's having existed. There's something wonderful about his configuration, his potentiality, even if none of his virtues are ever exercised. And if he is brief, well, so are we all.

[Cropped image from from image source]


Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Eric,

Regarding the first question, I tend to think he can have all of those properties. Maybe there is a Boltzmann brain out there with those properties. At least, I don't see why that wouldn't be so (I agree with a dispositional account of those properties).
As for the second question, I think the universe is overall a worse place for having a person like that who would be so sadly confused through no fault of his own. He believed that life was great, but surely, he had memories of a life he didn't have, believed he would almost certainly live for a few more minutes (and days, etc.), etc.
By the way, if he had known about his terrible condition (i.e., that he had only a second or two left to live, that everything he remember was fake, etc.), I think he would not have believed that life was great (if he was mentally human or close to that, only better than actual humans; else, it's hard to make any assessments).

Callan S. said...

I would say no. In terms of human readable format, none of the positive qualities are identifiable. And in terms of some mechanistic, objective identification of many components that'd lead to the traits, that's just not human readable. It's as if he is always smiling - yet also invisible for his two seconds. How would anyone know he is smiling - it's outside of perception? I'd say it's just raw assertion that somehow makes him all those things, perhaps enforced by longing, but it's not terribly sporting to approach a hypothetical that way.

Is the universe better for him having existed? I'd say he died without exerting any of that potential, or even exerting any capacity to simply enjoy his life for his own sake. Seems less to me.

Perhaps the part of you that wants concrete action is in me the more dominant part - the practical actions seem to matter the most to me? And here they are absent.

P.D. Magnus said...

I don't think it makes any sense to say of someone that they are a good listener who just happens to never actually listen to anyone; that's a trait that strikes me as describing actions rather than dispositions. But my worries about Momentary Man extend to the other traits, too.

Influenced by existentialism, I tend think of human character traits as resting uneasily both on dispositions (who you are) and on actions (what you do). A central point of contention between existentialists is whether these two aspects can ever be reconciled. Momentary Man hasn't got time to have any actions, however, so he doesn't even get started being a human being.

An alternate way of getting to a similar conclusion is that dispositions are implicit relations. Given the forces that create Momentary Man from nothing and dissipate him back into it, there aren't any possible contemporaries to whom he might listen. So there is no relation, and he hasn't even got the dispositions.

George Gantz said...

Perhaps you could say virtue is the disposition or intention ---- but the proof is in the doing. Moreover, the physical world will not be changed one iota if Momentary Man has no interaction with this world. While there would be a sense in which the metaphysical or theological balance has been improved - Momentary Man would be an angel in heaven, for example - that may not mean much to most people.

The hypothetical also leaps over some rather deep questions about the nature of personhood. It would seem that a real person needs to have, both for self and others, a sufficient existence through time to become manifest through actions and in relationships. I believe there can be no person without a community of other persons from whom we learn selfhood, language and values (among other things). It is nonsense to extract a person from these necessary foundations.

Unknown said...

I think your also raising a disposition for time...
..is our virtuosity compromised by envying time's limitations...

That Guy Montag said...

Isn't something significant being left out of the picture? It just so happens that while something approximating virtues could conceivably exist, the only way we know of for virtues to currently exist is through a long causal process that at bare minimum seems to take most of 16 to a lifetime of years to slowly develop. This number stretches even further if you include evolutionary history, which you probably should.

Seems to me that this can't be treated as an accidental fact without concealing an important facet of moral virtue that's necessary for our understanding. For example, if we drop this clause about the development of moral virtue, the idea that morality can be independent of material circumstances becomes far more plausibly than it conceivably would be oterwise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks! I'm a bit slammed -- a more thoughtful reply soon!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Angra: I agree that the delusion goes on the negative side of the ledger, as does the tragic brevity of his life. But what do you think if we add this supposition: If Momentary Man could have been taken aside and asked, "would you rather have lived briefly and joyfully in this deluded way or never have existed at all?" he'd say "I'd rather have lived!" Of course, this counterfactual is a bit weird, but hopefully it conveys the idea I have in mind.

Callan: Why should it matter that anyone else know? I agree that practical actions are *more* valuable -- but maybe impractical potentiality still has *some* value?

PD: "Listener" seems like one of the harder ones to justify without actual action. On standard accounts of dispositions, one can briefly have dispositions with no chance to manifest -- e.g., a briefly existing vase in mid-air could still be disposed to shatter if struck, even if there is nothing nearby that would strike it. Are the dispositions we normally regard as part of our personality *not* like that? Maybe that's right. Maybe they're different -- or at least some of them are. I think the strangeness of the Momentary Man example puts some pressure on one standard idea about personality traits and dispositions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

George: So he doesn't mean much to most people -- right! But his existence might still have some intrinsic value? As for whether he is a "person", that's a tricky term. Do we need to settle that question to answer the question about his value?

Guy: Interesting point about whether there might be an implicit commitment in this example to disregarding people's material circumstances in thinking about their morality. Bracketing that issue, I want to say both/and to the temporal question: There's something wonderful about states/dispositions/narratives that endure over long periods, and those are a different sort of thing than anything Momentary Man could possibly have; but brief things also have some value, yes?

Angra Mainyu said...


Interesting alternative.
Personally, I'm inclined to think the universe would still be a worse place overall with him in it (in your original counterfactual scenario), even if his preference would be (in a counterfactual of the counterfactual scenario) that he'd rather have lived. One can think of plenty of scenarios in which good people would say they'd rather have lived, but that does not entail that the universe with them is overall a better place than without them (e.g., they may have been tortured horribly and then their memories erased, or something like that).

That Guy Montag said...

Momentary things might have value, but in my current philosophical obsessions I keep coming across the somewhat frustrating fact that somehow we've got this far into the 21st century, and we still don't seem to have a properly materialist philosophy of science; we have philosophy of science which is broadly materialistic, but that's on the back of assuming a kind of Cartesian picture of science then either quietly refusing to address Cartesian scepticism, or pulling a G.E. Moore. The view that maybe our theory of science itself needs to be materialist, that somehow our view of how science works needs to involve the fact that scientists are material entities enmeshed in a material world, is one that's harder to find than I'd expect (obviously with apologies to Davidson and Quine, but apparently their arguments haven't translated very well to the current generation of philosophers).

This state of affairs as a whole is making me somewhat leery of letting philosophy get too far away from material circumstances because that only seems to confuse us.

Unknown said...

If we can be fearful of something that has never manifested itself, then it seems to me we can be courageous without actually experiencing something where we would hope to act courageously.