Friday, September 06, 2019

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity

New essay, just out!

  • published version: Res Philosophica, 96, 347-368
  • manuscript version

  • Introduction

    I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is: Most people aim to be morally-mediocre. They aim to be about as morally good as their peers -- not especially better, not especially worse. This mediocrity has two aspects. It is peer relative rather than absolute, and it is middling rather than extreme. We do not aim to be good, or non—bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of people we regard as out peers, and we aim to behave broadly within that range. We aim to be neither among the best nor among the worst. We -- most of us -- look around, notice how others are acting, then calibrate toward so—so. The normative thesis is that this a somewhat bad way to be, but it's not a terribly bad way to be. Also, it is a somewhat good Way to be, but it's not a Wonderfully good way to be. It's morally mediocre to aim for moral mediocrity. This might sound like a tautology, but it's not. Someone with stringent normative views might regard it as inexcusably rotten to aim merely for mediocrity in our rotten world. Someone with much less stringent views might think that it's perfectly fine to aim for mediocrity, as long as you avoid being among the Worst. I will argue that aiming for mediocrity is neither perfectly fine nor inexcusably rotten. We're morally blameworthy not to aspire for better, but we also deserve tepid praise for avoiding the swampy bottom.

    Part One defends the view that most of us aim for about the moral middle. Part Two argues that, at least in out culture, having such an aim is not perfectly morally fine, and thus that the somewhat pejorative term mediocre is warranted, capturing in a single word both the empirical peer-relative middlingness and the moderate moral badness.

    Part One: The Empirical Thesis

    2. Following the Moral Crowd

    Robert B. Cialdini and collaborators went to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park (2006). The park had been losing about a ton of petrified wood per month, mostly stolen in small amounts by casual visitors. Cialdini and collaborators posted four different signs intended to discourage theft, rotating their placement at the heads of different paths. Two signs were explicit injunctions: (A) "Please don't remove petrified wood from the park" (with a picture of a visitor stealing wood, crossed by a red circle and bar) and (B) "Please leave petrified wood in the park" (with a picture of a visitor admiring and photographing a piece of wood). Two signs were descriptive: (C) "Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest" with pictures of three visitors taking wood) and (D) "The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest" (with pictures of three visitors admiring and photographing the petrified wood). Cialdini and collaborators then noted how much wood the visitors tookc from the paths headed by the different signs. Rates of theft were lowest (1.7%) when visitors were explicitly enjoined not to take wood (Condition A). Rates of theft were highest (8.0%) when visitors were told that many past visitors have removed wood (Condition C). Being told that many visitors have removed wood might even have increased the rates of theft, which were estimated normally to be 1% to 4% of visitors (Roggenbuck et al. 1997).

    Cialdini and collaborators also found that hotel guests were substantially more likely to reuse towels when a message to "help save the environment" was supplemented with the information that "75% of the guests who stayed in this room (#xxx) participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once" than when the message to help save the environment was supplemented with other types of information or a longer injunction (Goldstein et al. 2008). Similarly, evidence suggests that people are more likely to heed injunctions to reduce household energy usage when shown statistics indicating that they using more energy than their neighbors -- and they may even increase usage when shown statistics that they are using less (Schultz et al. 2007; Allcott 2011; Ayres et al. 2013; Karim et al. 2015). Littering, lying, tax compliance, and suicide appear to be contagious (Cialdini et al. 1990; Gould 2001; Keizer et al. 2011; Haw et al. 2013; Innes and Mitra 2013; Abrutyn and Mueller Z014; Hays and Carver 2014; Kroher and Wolbring, 2015; Maple et al. 2017; Hallsworth et al. 2017; Reyes-Portjllo et al. 2018). In "dictator games" (i.e., in laboratory situations in which randomly chosen participants are given money and told they can either keep it all for themselves or share some with less lucky participants), participants tend to be less generous when they learn that previous participants kept most of the money (Bicchieri and Xiao 2009; Dimant 2015; Mcauliffe et al. 2017).


    To read more about the empirical evidence that people mostly aim for peer-relative moral mediocrity and for my reflections on the ethics of doing so, access the full paper here.


    Anonymous said...

    The empirical evidence does not appear to be about what people aimed at or intended.

    SelfAwarePatterns said...

    This strikes me a very plausible. But I wonder if it has a lot to do with who someone is comparing themselves to. In the cases of the park or hotel, people were invited to compare themselves with other visitors, and so acted accordingly.

    But what if they'd been invited to compare themselves with well known paragons that stood out from their peers? It seems like a lot of the reason we grow up hearing stories about those types of people are to encourage us to compare with them rather than immediate peers.

    George Gantz said...

    Eric - I love the connection you draw between the sociology of moral behavior and the philosophy of ethical standards. However, I think you skipped over an important psychological distinction --- the gap between what people aim for (their cognitive intention) and what they actually achieve (their behavior relative to norms). Is it not more theoretically consistent to say that people will generally aspire to, and aim for, being better than perceived norms? This is the Lake Wobegon phenomenon of Garrison Keeler - everyone thinks they are above average. However, the tricks of cognitive rationalizing and self-licensing serve to undermine those aspirations over time, resulting in average behaviors that are quite mediocre.

    Between the moral concepts, the sociology of moral norms, and the psychological processing that results in behaviors, there seems to be a very active and dynamic process. As you point out, on average we end up somewhat below average - an ironic contradiction, I suppose. But our self-image is still generally above average. Or is it?

    Then there is the issue of human frailty - and the collapse of personal morality in the face of significant temptation. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, like the fire and brimstone preacher who ends up being caught with is pants down (literally). Is such moral collapse on the part of some big enough to affect the averages.

    Perhaps a bit more attention to raising the aspiration of our moral norms and ritualizing their enforcement would be helpful. Religion anyone?

    Howie said...

    Two related points: first you may be confounding morality with social norms and in any point the whole idea that we aim to moral mediocrity just a some great leaders inspire us show that morality is an individually mediated social process. There are tons of social psych experiments from Asch in the fifties on that speak to your conjecture.
    You might explore working with social psychologists to investigate the matter further, not just interpret experiments morally, but have experiments that interpenetrate the two

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    Anon: I'm not sure why you say that. Perhaps I should clarify here (I discuss this in the full length paper), that the claim is about where people actually steer themselves, not how what they explicitly conceptualize themselves as aiming for.

    SelfAware: Yes, that's an interesting idea and perhaps part of the moral developmental and inspirational function of stories about Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, etc.

    George: There is evidence that most people conceive of themselves as above average in broad moral traits like honesty and kindness. I also agree that there's a big slippage between where one thinks one is aiming and where one hits. But the kind of aiming here isn't like shooting at a target in being difficult. For the most part, moral failures are failures of trying. (I'm not a big fan of exculpatory treatments of "weakness of will".) One analogy is to think of undergraduate students who say they are "aiming for B+". Some, of course, really do aim for B+. But many show the following pattern: They hope for a B+, but if they find they are headed toward C+ they do not recalibrate by investing more effort (even if they could do so). Aiming is better revealed by one's steering efforts -- how one steers up or down during the process -- than by what one says to oneself about one's aims.

    Howie: I agree that the literature on social conformity is relevant. Most of Asch's conformity experiments, as far as I'm aware, didn't concern moral conformity specifically, however. I find recent work by Bicchieri and Cialdini especially relevant. Bicchieri is especially careful about the distinction between moral and social norms -- though actually I would draw that distinction in a different place than she does.

    Philosopher Eric said...

    Your data is quite consistent with the theme to my own psychology based models, or that we’re all self interested products of our circumstances. Thus if people are shown that others tend to do “bad” things in a given context, this naturally opens the door for them to do so as well. Why? It’s a matter of equity! “If others cheat then it’s only right for me to also cheat”.

    What the field of psychology needs, I think, is broad general theory which formalizes the self interested nature of the human and all conscious entities. The reason that the field has not yet taken this step, I think, is because any theorists who proposes such a thing (such as myself) may thus be charged with being “immoral”. Apparently there’s a social tool at work here (a “morality paradigm” if you will) which prevents us from objectively acknowledging our self interested nature.

    Itai Bar-Natan said...

    There's something oddly self-affirming about the claim that it's morally mediocre to aim to be morally mediocre. One can picture a morally mediocre individual reflecting on her values and moral conduct, and concluding, "I guess I'm not really striving to be morally excellent, but only mediocre. I guess that's not great, but I'm okay with that." It's not really so self-affirming because the two uses of the word "mediocre" come with different meanings: One is "tries to be as good as your peers" and the other is "not so good, not so bad in an absolute sense".