Thursday, August 27, 2020

What is "Validity" in Social Science? Validity As a Property of Inferences vs of Claims

If you want to annoy your psychology and social science friends, I have just the trick!  Gather four of them together and ask them to explain exactly what validity is.  Then step back and watch them descend into confusion and contradiction.  Bring snacks.

We use the term all the time, with a truly bewildering array of modifiers: internal validity, construct validity, content validity, external validity, logical validity, statistical conclusion validity, discriminant validity, convergent validity, face validity, criterion validity....  Is there one thing, validity in general, which undergirds all of these uses?  And if so, what does it amount to?  Or is "validity" more of a family resemblance concept?  Are all true statements in some sense valid?  Or is validity more specific than that -- perhaps a matter of appropriate application of method?  Can a study or a conclusion or a method or an instrument be valid even if it's entirely mistaken, as long as proper techniques have been employed?  Oh, and wait, is validity really a property of studies and conclusions and methods and instruments?  They seem so different and to have such different criteria of success!

[image: A Defence of the Validity of the English Ordinations]

I've found surprisingly few general treatments of validity in the social sciences which articulate the concept with the kind of rigor and consistency that would satisfy an analytic philosopher.  One of the best and most influential recent attempts is Shadish, Cook, and Campbell 2002.  I'm going to poke at their treatment with one question in mind: What is validity a property of?

Shadish, Cook, and Campbell begin with a seemingly clear commitment: validity is a property of inferences:

We use the term validity to refer to the approximate truth of an inference.[1]  When we say something is valid, we make a judgment about the extent to which relevant evidence supports the inference as being true or correct (p. 34).

In the next paragraph, they emphasize again that validity is a property of specifically of inferences:

Validity is a property of inferences.  It is not a property of designs or methods, for the same design may contribute to more or less valid inferences under different circumstances....  So it is wrong to say that a randomized experiment is internally valid or has internal validity -- although we may occasionally speak that way for convenience (p. 34).

Characterizing validity as a property of inferences resonates with the use of "validity" in formal logic, where it is also generally treated as a property of deductive inferences (well, more accurately, a property of deductive arguments -- but close enough, if we treat inferences as psychological instantiations of arguments).  In formal logic, an inference or argument is deductively valid if and only if, in virtue of its form, it's impossible for the conclusion of the inference to be false if the premises of the inference are true.  [Okay, fine, maybe it's not that simple, but let's not go there today.]

Consider, for example, modus ponens, the inference form in which "P" and "If P, then Q" serve as premises, and "Q" serves as the conclusion.  (P and Q are propositions.)  Modus ponens is normally viewed as a valid form of inference because under the assumption that the two premises are true, the conclusion must be true.  If it's true that Socrates is a man and also true that If Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal, then it must also be true that Socrates is mortal.

Logicians normally distinguish validity from soundness: An inference is sound if and only if the inference is valid and the premises are true.  An inference can of course be valid without being sound, for example: (P1.) I am wearing three hats.  (P2.) If I am wearing three hats, I am a famous actor.  (C.) Therefore, I am a famous actor.  That's a perfectly valid inference to a perfectly false conclusion (thanks to at least one false premise).

Inferences are not true or false.  They are valid or invalid.  What is true or false are propositions: the premises and the conclusion.  Got it?  Good!  Lovely!  Now let's go back for a closer look at Shadish et al.  This time let's not forget footnote 1.

We use the term validity to refer to the approximate truth of an inference.[1]  When we say something is valid, we make a judgment about the extent to which relevant evidence supports the inference as being true or correct.

[1] We might use the terms knowledge claim or proposition in place of inference here, the former being observable embodiments of inferences.  There are differences implied by each of these terms, but we treat them interchangeably.

Okay, now wait.  Is validity a property of an inference or is it a property of a claim or proposition?  An inference is one thing and a claim is another!  Shadish et al., despite emphasizing that validity is a property of inferences, confusingly add they will treat "inference" and "knowledge claim" interchangeably.  But an inference is not a knowledge claim.  An inference is a process of moving from the hypothesized truth of one or more claims to a conclusion which, if all goes well, is true if the claims are true.

Could we maybe just say that validity is a property of an inference that has a true conclusion at the end, as a result of employing of good methods?  (This would make "validity" in Shadish et al.’s sense closer to "soundness" in the logician’s sense.)  Or differently but relatedly could we say that validity is a property that a claim has when it is both true and the result of methodologically good inference (and where the truth and inference quality are non-accidentally related)?  Or is validity about justification rather than truth -- "the extent to which relevant evidence supports the inference as being true or correct" (italics added).  Justification can of course diverge from the truth, since sometimes evidence strongly supports a proposition that turns out to be false in the end.  Or should we go back to process here, as suggested by the term "correct", since presumably an inference can be correct, in the sense that it is the right inference to make given the evidence, without its conclusion being true?

Oy vey.  I wish I could say that Shadish et al. clarify this all later and use their terms consistently throughout their influential book, but that's not so -- as indeed they hint in their remark, quoted above, about sometimes speaking loosely as though experiments (and not just inferences or claims) can be valid.  Their book is a lovely guide to empirical methods, but by the standards of analytic philosophy their definition of validity is a mess.

But this post isn't just about Shadish et al. (despite their 47,473 citations as of today).  It's about the treatment of validity in psychology and the social sciences in general.  Shadish et al. exemplify a conceptual looseness I see almost everywhere.

As a first-pass corrective on this looseness let me propose the following:

Psychologists' and social scientists' claims about validity, in my judgment, make the most sense on the whole and are simplest to interpret if we treat validity as fundamentally a property of claims or propositions rather than as a property of inferences (or methods or instruments or experiments).  A causal generalization, for example, of the form that events of type A cause events of type B in conditions C is "valid" if and only if events of type A do cause events of type B in conditions C.  To say that a psychological instrument (such as an IQ test) is "valid" is fundamentally matter of saying that the instrument measures what it claims to measure: Validity is a matter of the truth of that claim.  A study is valid if the claims of which it is composed are true (both its claims about its conclusions and its claims about the manner in which its conclusions are supported).  A measure has "face validity" if superficially it looks like the claims that result from applying that measure will be true claims.  Two measures have "discriminant validity" if the following claim is true: They in fact measure different underlying phenomena.

Validity, in the psychologists' and social scientists' sense, is best conceptualized as a property that belongs to claims: the property those claims have when they are true.  Attributions of validity to ontological entities other than claims, such as measures and studies, can all be reinterpreted as commitments to the truth of certain types of claims that are implicitly or explicitly embodied in the application of measures, the publication of studies, the making of inferences, etc.  (That good method has been used to arrive at the claims, I regard as a cancelable implicature.)

Why go this direction?  If we treat "validity" as a matter of the quality of the inference or the degree of justification of the conclusion regardless of whether the conclusion is in fact true, then we will have a plethora of valid inferences and valid conclusions, and by extension valid measures, valid instruments, and valid causal models that are completely mistaken, because science is hard and what you're justified in concluding is often not so.  But that's not how social scientists generally talk: A valid measure is one that is right, one that works, one that measures what it's supposed to measure, not one that we are (perhaps falsely) justified in thinking is right.

I diagnose the confusion as arising from three sources: First, widespread sloppy conceptual practice that uses "valid" loosely as a general term of praise.  Second, a tendency among those who do want to rigorize to notice that the philosophers' logical notion of validity applies to arguments or inferences, and consequently some corresponding pressure to think of it that way in the social sciences too, despite the dominant grain of social science usage running a different direction.  Third, a confusing liberality both about the types of validity and the ontological objects that can be said to have validity, which makes it hard to see the simple core underlying idea behind it all: that validity is nothing but a fancy word for truth.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Philosophy That Closes vs. Philosophy That Opens

Topic X, you might think, admits three viable philosophical positions, A, B, and C.  Since this is philosophy, though, probably you're wrong!  You could be wrong in two different ways: A, B, and C might not all be viable.  Alternatively, some position other than A, B, and C might be viable.  Either way, the claim "The viable options are A, B, and C" is false.

Philosophy that closes aims to avoid the first type of error.  It torpedoes bad positions to better converge on the one correct view of Topic X.  Philosophy that opens aims to avoid the second type of error.  It enlivens previously neglected or underappreciated positions, expanding rather than contracting our sense of the possibilities.

Both types of philosophy are valuable, but philosophy that opens can seem dialectically weaker.  "This is true and that is false!" rings in the mind, in books, and in journal articles much better than "Hey, consider this neglected possibility that might be true."

What do I mean by "viable"?  Something like this: A philosophical position is viable if a typical good reasoner in our philosophical community, informed of the relevant arguments, ought to conclude that it might well be correct.  A remote chance of correctness isn't enough (maybe there's a remote chance that I'm a brain in a vat).  But a viable position needn't be the likeliest one: Several positions might be viable, some more plausible than others.

The viable is of course vague-boundaried and disputable.  The disputability of viability is, in fact, central to how philosophy works.  Philosophers constantly negotiate the boundaries of the viable by aiming to open up or close off various possibilities.

Consider the metaphysics of consciousness.  Most 21st century Anglophone philosophers regard physicalism as a viable option: Consciousness is ultimately a matter of how we are physically configured.  Within physicalism, most or many would probably regard both functionalism (which focuses on abstract organizational structure) and biological accounts (which focus on the specific makeup of the organism and maybe its evolutionary history) as viable.  Maybe you have a preferred position; but you can see how a reasonable interlocutor might arrive at a different conclusion.

But is substance dualism viable -- the idea that we have immaterial souls, irreducible to anything purely physical?  Some philosophers (a distinct minority) favor substance dualism.  Of course, those philosophers find it viable.  Others might disfavor substance dualism while regarding it as still a viable possibility.  Still others think we're warranted in dismissing it entirely.

What about idealism -- the idea that only minds exist, and everything that we think of as material is in fact somehow a configuration of our (and/or God's) minds?  Or panpsychism, the view that consciousness is ubiquitous in the universe, even in simple entities like electrons?  Or consciousness eliminativism, the view that there really are no conscious experiences of any sort at all?

It's easy to read people as closers.  Arguing in favor of Position A seems to implicitly signal that you regard Positions B and C as demonstrably wrong, unless you wave your arms around canceling that implicature.  Even then, readers will often forget your caveats and interpret you as convinced that only A could be true.

I do think that people arguing in defense of commonly accepted positions are often aiming to close off other options.  Dialectically, this makes sense.  There's not much need for the community to hear that Popular Position A is viable.  More interesting and informative would be to learn that Popular Position A is in fact the one correct view that we ought finally to settle on.

However, philosophers arguing for unpopular positions might set their sights lower: not to convince others that substance dualism, or panpsychism, or idealism (or group consciousness, or that we have ethical obligations to plants, or that non-existence is better than existence) is in fact the one correct position that we ought to settle on, but only that the position is viable, possessing important but neglected philosophical virtues (and its competitors perhaps possessing troubling vices), and that we ought to treat it as a live option.  You can argue for this even if you think the underappreciated option is probably not true.  This is the philosophy of opening.

It is rather rare for philosophers to argue that a possibility is viable and ought not be dismissed while explicitly acknowledging that they regard other possibilities as more likely.  But why is it rare?  Why shouldn't we expect that we are are at least as likely to make philosophical errors of omission and close-mindedness as to make philosophical errors of over-inclusion and excessive open-mindedness?  Why shouldn't we focus at least as much on exploring the philosophical possibilities we could be wrongly neglecting as we focus on narrowing down to the one correct view?

What do you love about philosophy?  Some people love the feeling that they have arrived at the one correct view on a topic of profound importance.  Others love the beauty of grand systems.  Still others love the clever back-and-forth of philosophical combat.  But what I love most about philosophy is none of these.  I love philosophy best when it opens my mind – when it reveals ways the world could be, possible approaches to life, lenses through which I might see and value the world, which I might not otherwise have considered.

For me, the greatest philosophical thrill is realizing that something I’d long taken for granted might not be true, that some “obvious” apparent truth is in fact doubtable – not just abstractly and hypothetically doubtable, but really, seriously, in-my-gut doubtable.  The ground shifts beneath me.  Where I’d thought there would be floor, there is instead open space I hadn’t previously seen.  My mind spins in new, unfamiliar directions.  I wonder, and wondrousness seems to coat the world itself.  The world expands, bigger with possibility, more complex, more unfathomable, and weird.



Disjunctive Metaphysics (May 27, 2011)

The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2014)

The Philosophical Overton Window (Jan 20, 2018)

[image source]

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2020

Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the previous ten years. Below is my list for 2020. (For all previous lists, see here.)

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "year's best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list. (In 2020, one of the "year's best" is based on a tentative Table of Contents.)

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(8.) I welcome corrections.

(9.) I confess some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


1. Asimov's (191.5 points) 

2. (174.5) 

3. Clarkesworld (167.5) 

4. Fantasy & Science Fiction (131.5) 

5. Lightspeed (128) 

6. Uncanny (72) (started 2014) 

7. Subterranean (64) (ceased short fiction 2014) 

8. Analog (63.5) 

9. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (51) 

10. Strange Horizons (46) 

11. Interzone (33.5) 

12. Apex (30.5) 

13. Nightmare (25.5) (started 2012) 

14. Fantasy Magazine (17.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter, scheduled to relaunch in November 2020) 

15. Fireside (15) (started 2012) 

16. Slate / Future Tense (11.5) 

17. The Dark (8.5) (started 2013) 

18. The New Yorker (7.5) 

19. McSweeney's (7) 

20t. Black Static (6.5) 

20t. FIYAH (6.5) (started 2017) 

20t. Tin House (6.5) (ceased short fiction 2019) 

23t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (6) 

23t. Shimmer (6) (ceased 2018) 

23t. Sirenia Digest (6) 

26t. Electric Velocipede (5) (ceased 2013) 

26t. GigaNotoSaurus (5) 

28t. Conjunctions (4.5) 

28t. Omni (4.5) (classic popular science magazine, briefly relaunched 2017-2018) 

28t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014) 

31. Boston Review (4) 

32. Postscripts (3.5) (mostly ceased short fiction in 2014, occasional pieces thereafter) 

33t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2.5) (started 2014)

33t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2.5) 

33t. Buzzfeed (2.5) 

33t. Harper's (2.5) 

33t. Kaleidotrope (2.5) 

33t. Matter (2.5) 

33t. Paris Review (2.5) 

33t. Realms of Fantasy (2.5) (ceased 2011) 

41t. Future Science Fiction Digest (2) (started 2018) 

41t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (2) (ceased 2019) 

41t. Mothership Zeta (2) (ran 2015-2017) 

44t. Black Gate (1.5) 

44t. Cosmos (1.5) 

44t. Daily Science Fiction (1.5) 

44t. e-flux journal (1.5) 

44t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012) 

44t. MIT Technology Review (1.5) 

44t. New York Times (1.5) 

44t. Weird Tales (1.5) (off and on throughout period)



(1.) The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Harper's, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy.  Slate and Buzzfeed are popular magazines, and Omni, Cosmos, and MIT Technology Review are popular science magazines, which publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The New York Times is a well-known newspaper with an occasional series of "Op-Eds from the Future". The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. (64.5)
2. Uncanny (53) 
3. Clarkesworld (49.5)
4. Lightspeed (44.5)
5. Asimov's (36.4)
6. F&SF (33)
7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (21)
8. Analog (19)
9t. Apex (15.5)
9t. Nightmare (15.5)
11. Strange Horizons (12.5)
12. Slate / Future Tense (9)
13. Fireside (8)
14. FIYAH (6.5)

The classic "big three" print SF magazines are Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog. The three-year list makes clearer how these classic paid-subscription magazines have been challenged by free online magazines, especially, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed (all founded 2006-2014).

These three-year results also confirm, I think, my decision to use a ten-year window. For example, my impression from chatting with people in the field is that Asimov's is still arguably the most prestigious venue in the mind of the median SF insider, though increasingly challenged by and Clarkesworld -- just what the ten-year results say.

(3.) Looking back on my original 2014 list, I'm struck by these differences:

(a.) More magazines are represented in 2020. Twenty-nine magazines appear on the 2014 list; fifty-one appear now. Now, that's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since my methodology changed in 2015 to include the Locus list and go down to 1.5 points. However, the more comparable 2015 list still only contains forty magazines. Although several magazines have closed since 2014, overall there are now more opportunities to publish in venues that are regularly read by Locus editors and Best-of editors and awards nominators. I credit the rise of online magazines, which are less expensive to publish.

(b.) The falloff between the top-ranked and the mid-ranked magazines is less steep in 2020 than it was in 2014. For example, in 2014, the top ranked magazine (Asimov's) earned 8 times as many points as the tenth ranked magazine (Lightspeed). In 2020, the 1st:10th ratio was only 4 to 1. I'm inclined to credit, again, the rise of free online magazines. The rise of such magazines means that publication outside of the bigger circulation print magazines doesn't doom a story to obscurity. This makes it easier for authors to choose other magazines that they personally like for whatever reason. Another factor might be better communication among authors, allowing authors to find magazines that are a good fit for their stories.

(c.) The relative decline of Asimov's and F&SF. Both are still terrific magazines! But in 2014 they were the two giant gorillas, far ahead of all other contenders: 197 and 146 points respectively, while no other magazine had even a third as many points. F&SF is now 4th. Asimov's is still 1st, but based on the past three years' data, it looks quite possible that or Clarkesworld will soon claim the #1 spot.

(4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

(5.) Check out Nelson Kingfisher's analysis of acceptance rates and response times for most of the magazines above.

(6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

(7.) For fun, I charted the evolution of this ranking over time, from 2014-2020.  The graph below shows the percentage of award nominations and best ofs in the previous ten years for magazines that were in the top ten at any point during the period, excluding magazines that have ceased publication.  Solid lines are the traditional "big 3" print magazines, dashed lines are the four rising free online magazines I noted in (2) above, and dotted lines are others.  (There were some methodological changes during the period, so the values aren't strictly comparable year to year, but close enough.)

[if image doesn't display correctly, click to enlarge and clarify]

[image source]

Thursday, August 06, 2020

It's Not Hard to Be Morally Excellent; You Just Choose Not To Be So

In my chat last week with Ray Briggs and Joshua Landy at Philosophy Talk (on the "ethical jerk"), I mentioned in passing that I think it isn't hard to be morally excellent, if we want to be.  Most of us simply choose not to be.  I've said this in passing in blog posts and published works (e.g., in my article "Aiming for Moral Mediocrity"), but I don't think I've ever made it the central topic of a post.

In this line of thinking, I have been influenced by ancient Chinese Confucianism.

Is goodness really so far away?  If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here (Kongzi, Analects, 7.30, Slingerland, trans., capitalization revised).

"Pick up Mount Tai and leap over the North Sea."  If you say, "I cannot," this is truly not being able.  "Massage the stiff joints of an elderly person."  If you say, "I cannot," this is not acting; it is not a case of not being able.  So Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is not in the category of picking up Mount Tai and leaping over the North Sea.  Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is in the category of massaging the stiff joints of an elderly person." (Mengzi, 1A7, Van Norden, trans., brackets added).

I find it surprising that so many people seem to disagree.  Maybe we're primed to disagree because it's a convenient excuse for our moral mediocrity.  "Gosh," you say, "I do sure wish I could be morally excellent.  But it's so hard!  So see, I'm not really to blame for being morally so-so."

I think most of us can agree that giving time or money to a worthy cause would be morally good.  And most of you, my readers, I assume, are affluent by global standards in the sense that you can afford luxuries like paying $8 for a lunch or subscribing to multiple video or music streaming services.  Even if you really don't have a few spare dollars for a good cause -- or even if you are (conveniently!) suspicious about finding any worthy charities -- unless you are on the very precipice of ruin or spread very thin with caretaking duties, you could probably find some ways to be more helpful to others.  Surely there is some person or organization you know that could really benefit from your help, or from some small or large kindness.

You want to be morally better?  Easy!  Donate some money, skipping a luxury or two if necessary.  Or find a little time to help someone who needs it.  And that's the just the start -- two easy things right off the top of my head that almost anyone can do.  With a little thought, I'm sure you could think of lots of morally good things to do that you aren't doing.

Instead, if you're like most of us, you choose to do other things.  You watch videos or play computer games or scroll through Twitter.  You spend some extra time and money having yourself a delicious instead of a simple lunch.  You save your money for some luxury you want -- a beautiful shirt, a hardback novel, or just the pleasure and security of having a large bank account.  You flake, you run late, you disappoint someone, you don't quite carry your load in something today, because it's not convenient.  You buy products from companies with bad practices, supporting those practices, simply because you like the products better or they're a little less expensive.

What's actually hard?  Well, many people find advanced calculus hard.  They try and try, but they just can't get the knack.  Also, many people find it hard to climb steep boulder faces.  They can't stretch their toes to the right spots, keep their finger grip on the little ridges, and pull themselves up.  I will never scale El Capitan, and no doggedness of will is going to change that.

Morality isn't hard like calculus and rock climbing are hard.  In fact, it's almost the opposite.  Just trying to do it typically gets you at least halfway there!  ("Is goodness really so far away?")  You might try and fail to be helpful; but even if you try, that's already (usually) morally better than not trying at all.  You might try to give money to a good cause and get scammed instead, doing more harm that good -- but that's not so common, I think, and again even the trying is admirable.  It's not that we try and fail to be morally excellent.  Not usually.  It's that we don't try.

Many people find dieting hard.  Dieting is hard in a somewhat different way than rock climbing and advanced calculus.  If you really try not to eat that chocolate bar, it's not going to jump into your mouth.  Gravity won't pull it into you the same way gravity will pull you off the face of El Capitan.  Still, there's something painful about resisting that chocolate bar, as it's calling to you.  And more generally there's something painful about the slow, steady hunger of dieting.  For most of us (not all of us), although we could lose a few pounds if we set to it, in a way that we could not climb El Capitan, there nonetheless a sense in which dieting is difficult.

But morality isn't even hard like dieting is hard -- not usually.  If you're a real miser or if you are genuinely impoverished, donating $25 to save the sight of someone with trachoma might feel as emotionally painful as resisting your favorite dish when you are acutely hungry.  Or if you're bursting with anger at someone, it might be emotionally hard to swallow that anger and act kindly.  But moderate moral improvement doesn't typically require such uncomfortable choices.  Unless your situation is unusual, it wouldn't ache your gut to be more helpful to your elderly parents, or to pause to express appreciation to a secretary, or to drive a somewhat less expensive car and give the money to your favorite good cause.  It might even feel good.

Not being morally excellent is more like choosing not to walk ten miles down the road to the next town (if you are someone with typical walking ability and decent shoes).  You could walk that ten miles.  It would take a few hours, but it wouldn't be difficult.  It's just that you don't want to do it, because you have other priorities for your time and resources.

To be clear: When I say it's not hard to be morally excellent, I'm not thinking of extreme of self-sacrificial sainthood.  Just consider a few of the morally best people you personally know, people you admire for their integrity, their generosity, their kindness.  Just ordinary people, though ones you recognize to be somewhat morally better than you are -- not unreachable saints.  My father-in-law is one such person.  (Or are you already the morally best person you know?)

You could be like those morally excellent ordinary people if you wanted to be, just like you could walk ten miles to the next town a few times a week if you wanted to.  You just choose not to be as morally good as that, because you prefer other things.

You might still want to be morally excellent in the following thin sense.  You'd like to be morally excellent if you could be morally excellent without paying the costs of moral excellence.  This is the same sense of wanting in which the lackadaisical student might want an A, if she could have one with no effort.  Of course all students want As in that sense!  Such half-hearted wanting is cheap.  There's little moral worth in the desiring of free goods and virtues for yourself.  "I'd love to be honest, if I could be so without losing the benefits that come with lying."  Sure, same for all of us.  That's not seriously wanting something.  Serious wanting involves willingness to prioritize that thing over other things you also care about.

It is not hard to be morally excellent.  It's as simple and easy as massaging an elder's joints.  You simply prefer not to.