Thursday, November 09, 2017

Is It Perfectly Fine to Aim to be Morally Average?

By perfectly fine I mean: not at all morally blameworthy.

By aiming I mean: being ready to calibrate ourselves up or down to hit the target. I would contrast aiming with settling, which does not necessarily involve calibrating down if one is above target. (For example, if you're aiming for a B, then you should work harder if you get a C on the first exam and ease up if you get an A on the first exam. If you're willing to settle for a B, then you won't necessarily ease up if you happen fortunately to be headed toward an A.)

I believe that most people aim to be morally mediocre, even if they don't explicitly conceptualize themselves that way. Most people look at their peers' moral behavior, then calibrate toward so-so, wanting neither to be among the morally best (with the self-sacrifice that seems to involve) nor among the morally worst. But maybe "mediocre" is too loaded a word, with its negative connotations? Maybe it's perfectly fine, not at all blameworthy, to aim for the moral middle?

Here's one reason you might think so:

The Fairness Argument.

Let's assume (of course it's disputable) that being among the morally best, relative to your peers, normally involves substantial self-sacrifice. It's morally better to donate large amounts to worthy charities than to donate small amounts. It's morally better to be generous rather than stingy with one's time in helping colleagues, neighbors, and distant relatives who might not be your favorite people. It's morally better to meet your deadlines than to inconvenience others by running late. It's morally better to have a small carbon footprint than a medium-size or large one. It's morally better not to lie, cheat, and fudge in all the small (and sometimes large) ways that people tend to do.

To be near the moral maximum in every respect would be practically impossible near-sainthood; but we non-saints could still presumably be somewhat better in many of these ways. We just choose not to be better, because we'd rather not make the sacrifices involved. (See The Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot for my discussion of a couple of ways of insisting that you couldn't be morally better than you in fact are.)

Since (by stipulation) most of your peers aren't making the sacrifices necessary for peer-relative moral excellence, it's unfair for you to be blamed for also declining to do so. If the average person in your financial condition gives 3% of their income to charity, then it would be unfair to blame you for not giving more. If your colleagues down the hall cheat, shirk, fib, and flake X amount of the time, it's only fair that you get to do the same. Fairness requires that we demand no more than average moral sacrifice from the average person. Thus, there's nothing wrong with aiming to be only a middling member of the moral community -- approximately as selfish, dishonest, and unreliable as everyone else.

Two Replies to the Fairness Argument.

(1.) Absolute standards. Some actions are morally bad, even if the majority of your peers are doing them. As an extreme example, consider a Nazi death camp guard in 1941, who is somewhat kinder to the inmates and less enthusiastic about killing than the average death camp guard, but who still participates in and benefits from the system. "Hey, at least I'm better than average!" is a poor excuse. More moderately, most people (I believe) regularly exhibit small to moderate degrees of sexism, racism, ableism, and preferential treatment of the conventionally beautiful. Even though most people do this, one remains criticizable for it -- that you're typical or average in your degree of bias is at most a mitigator of blame, not a full excuser from blame. So although some putative norms might become morally optional (or "supererogatory") if most of your peers fail to comply, others don't show that structure. With respect to some norms, aiming for mediocrity is not perfectly fine.

(2.) The seeming-absurdity of trade offs between norm types. Most of us see ourselves as having areas of moral strength and weakness. Maybe you're a warm-hearted fellow, but flakier than average about responding to important emails. Maybe you know you tend to be rude and grumpy to strangers, but you're an unusually active volunteer for good causes in your community. My psychological conjecture is that, in implicitly guiding our own behavior, we tend to treat these tradeoffs as exculpatory or licensing: You forgive yourself for the one in light of the other. You let your excellence in one area justify lowering your aims in another, so that averaging the two, you come out somewhere in the middle. (In these examples, I'm assuming that you didn't spend so much time and energy on the one that the other becomes unfeasible. It's not that you spent hours helping your colleague so that you simply couldn't get to your email.)

Although this is tempting reasoning when you're motivated to see yourself (or someone else) positively, a more neutral judge might tend to find it strange: "It's fine that I insulted that cashier, because this afternoon I'm volunteering for river clean-up." "I'm not criticizable for neglecting Cameron's urgent email because this morning I greeted Monica and Britney kindly, filling the office with good vibes." Although non-consciously or semi-consciously we tend to cut ourselves slack in one area when we think about our excellence in others, when the specifics of such tradeoffs are brought to light, they often don't stand scrutiny.


It's not perfectly fine to aim merely for the moral middle. Your peers tend to be somewhat morally criticizable; and if you aim to be the same, you too are somewhat morally criticizable for doing so. The Fairness Argument doesn't work as a general rule (though it may work in some cases). If you're not aiming for moral excellence, you are somewhat morally blameworthy for your low moral aspirations.

[image source]


Callan S. said...

The morality of pursuing morality? Does that enter a vicious circle pretty fast? The thing done demands more of itself done? Could...morality be selfish?

"Hey, at least I'm better than average!" is a poor excuse.

I think it's pretty good. When a poor man donates a dollar it's worth a lot more than when Bill Gates donates a dollar.

In terms of controlling their lives the death camp guards have a poverty of control. I mean they see humans being killed every day - at a certain level, despite the rhetoric, there is no difference between them and those killed. They cross the line, they'll be killed just as much. It's like manning the ovens for Skynet.

Arnold said...

For this one--we need at least an average understanding of "aim" please...
...Are you saying aim has or is value...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: It seems closer to a virtuous circle or tautology than a vicious circle (though I don't think it's quite a tautology). Being better than average is, I think, *sometimes* a good excuse. But I disagree about death camp guards. In fact it's pretty clear that Germans were never or almost never killed for declining to kill Jews, as long as they expressed their reluctance as cowardice, weakness, or distaste rather than as principled opposition. Germans could beg off if they wanted, without life-threatening repercussions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown: I'm sorry, but I don't think I understand your question!

Arnold said...

Your right--It was "to aim to be" that seemed to have influenced me most when rereading your Post-Question...You meaning of aim is "to try", yes?
...I lean toward Esoteric Philosophy when reading your posts, instead of, this time, your "Labels: ethics, moral psychology"....thanks

Callan S. said...

As long as the death camp guard took social standing damage by claiming cowardice or weakness? And no actual principled resistance or...what would happen? Still sounds like a threat of death, just in Damocles sword form. Hovering and the string thinning with each claim of cowardice, etc. Or maybe it'd just be reduction of quality of life each time (death being the ultimate reduction in quality of life, o/c)

I mean, I don't get why peaceful protests are lauded if smashing terrible systems is moral? Isn't the guard digging his heels in a bit against the regime forming a kind of protest? Sure, he can't actually expout principled opposition (for...undefined reasons. Death?), but within that restriction isn't it a protest?

To me it seems to be stuff like riding at the front of the bus cause your feet hurt that starts to wear down terrible systems.

And virtuous circles...I think I find that idea kinda wondrously terrifying! Kinda like Galadriel, with her 'All shall love me, and despair' speech.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, do you think it might be perfectly fine in another sense, viz., when it is the result of satisficing the competing demands of morality and self-interest? I believe that is the human predicament. Whenever I am doing something solely for my own enjoyment there is something I could probably be doing that would be benefiting others even more. But I typically choose not to, because I don't think acting morally is the only thing that life is about.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Also, where do you place moral decency on the spectrum? Is a morally decent person better than a morally mediocre person?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown: Yes, aiming might be thought of as a kind of trying (except that "trying" sounds a little more conscious and effortful than I think aiming needs to be).

Callan: Have you read Browning's or Goldhagen's books about Police Battalion 101? One thing that I think is evident from those accounts is that Germans were rarely forced into genocidal duty, except by pressures that we in retrospect rightly think are too weak and unthreatening to be fully excusing.

Randy: I agree with your first comment. I wanted, for this post, to bracket the question of whether what is morally "not fine" might still be the most rational choice all things considered. I do think it can be. I'm not so sure about "decency" -- not a word I use a lot, especially not in philosophical contexts, so I haven't really theorized it and don't have strong intuitions about it. What do you have in mind? If it means "not acting impermissibly", I think that aiming for mediocrity does involve sometimes acting morally impermissibly (and if it didn't frequently involve acting impermissibly, then it would be morally fine).

Callan S. said...

I haven't read it, Eric. But I think there have been experiments where there's supposedly a subject hidden in a chamber and the participants are instructed by the scientist to give the subject electric shocks. Eventually they are instructed - merely instructed - to give shocks which are marked as lethal - to greater screams from the subject until the subject goes silent. Most people followed orders.

I just can't believe that human death does not have some effect on other humans and the amount of compliance they give. Because as much as we might want to set aside the nazi away from us as we think of them, there was little to no difference between them and their victims - all human. Only politics made a difference as to who was killed. We're political animals, it's not like they weren't going to notice that at some level.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

I'll be interested to read your further thoughts on this. I've changed my mind a few times about how best to describe the dynamic, but lately I've been inclined to say that the good life is a mean between the extremes of perfect self-interest and perfect morality. I suppose then it would be perfectly fine to say that is the most rational life as well, insofar as we suppose that rationality aims at the good.

I think maybe moral decency is just a shade north of not acting impermissibly, or is perhaps part of the spectrum of moral behavior that begins there, what Kant described as minimal moral decency. I think when we describe people as morally decent we typically ascribe a disposition to perform at least some supererogatory acts.

Anyway, I was mainly just wondering if your account might be aided by something like that. I'm inclined to think that we don't aim at moral mediocrity because in moral matters I think we almost always fall short of our aims. So maybe we aim at moral decency but typically achieve moral mediocrity.

Callan S. said...

And anudda thing! I mean if you left the army without intending to come back, that's classed as desertion - that could get you lined up against a wall and shot by your own countrymen (for all sides in the war, come to think of it). Maybe not a lot of nazis deserted along with not a lot of resistance to the murders? Maybe it's roughly the same thing?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Right, the Milgram experiments. I don't think I have to disagree with anything in your penultimate comment. In your most recent comment, the issue I'm thinking of is not about desertion or not. It's about the availability of alternative duties if one prefers not to be directly involved in genocide.

Randy: Interesting way to think of "decency". One part of my approach to moral mediocrity -- right now, the main thing holding me back from having the paper in circulating shape -- is how exactly to think about the "aiming" question. One person told me he "aims for B+" morality. How ought we think about that kind of case. Two thoughts: Is he really aiming for B+ or kind of hoping B+ happens, and how do we tell the difference? And if you're aiming for B+ is it really more likely that you'll hit around C?

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Yes, that's a tough one. I guess if I am honest I don't really feel like I have tried to achieve a certain level of morality and had to settle for something less. Overall I feel like I'm about as moral a being as I've sincerely tried to be.

If the target is distant and there is relatively little chance of hitting it, you can still be said to aim at it. Someone who buys a Lotto ticket may aim to become a millionaire thereby. So maybe to aim at a moral target is the same. He aims at it if he sincerely reflectively endorses it as a desirable outcome, but that tells us nothing about the sincerity of his commitment to achieving it or his capacity for doing so. Or, maybe by "aims for B+" he really means "strives for."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes. I think one telltale sign is whether you relax downward if you overshoot your target.

The student who "aims for B+" will (normally) allow herself to relax a bit if she gets an A on the first test, will study harder if she gets a C on the first test.

If she doesn't relax on getting an A, then she's not "aiming" for B+ though she might be willing to settle for a B+ if that's what happens.

If she doesn't study harder after getting the C, then she's not so much "aiming" as hoping that the grade will fall in her lap. (Normally.)

Similar for ethics: If you calibrate downward (moral licensing) after being especially good, that reveals where you're aiming.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

That's good.

This relaxing downward phenomenon is something that Kahneman explains in terms of loss aversion. We experience maintaining the same level of effort after overachieving as a loss. I had never thought of it as an explanation of moral licensing.

What calibrating downwards from a specific result that is not already characterized as an under or over achievement is a bit harder to say. If I calibrate downward from P, this may be because I am aiming at something less than P, or it may be because I found it quite easy to achieve P and I expect future opportunities to exceed P with only a little more effort. A little (hyperbolic?) time discounting perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and discussions.

But what about the cases when moral excellence doesn't require any or much sacrifice? For example, although racism could be beneficial to the racist in some circumstances, it is usually an impulse that can be overcome without enduring any hardships. Same thing with sexism, ableism, and perhaps even impulsive "prettyism" -- my coinage for "preferential treatment of the conventionally beautiful". :)