Against worrying about what kind of person would do that

Scott Alexander is on a virtue ethics kick at his blog. One comment that really stuck at me:

I haven’t read MacIntyre, so I don’t know how good his arguments are, or how close his understanding of virtue ethics is to mine. Nevertheless, it’s strange that the notion of virtue ethics causes such confusion, when in fact this is the only kind of ethics that people normally use in practice and that matters in real life. (This of course applies to the self-professed deontologists and utilitarians as well.)

Debates over abstract deontological maxims and utilitarian calculations may be a fun diversion, and they’re often useful as a signaling device or in service of politicking, lawyering, and ideological warfare. Yet in reality, practically everyone always makes personally relevant moral judgments and decisions based on a different question, namely: what kind of person would act that way? In other words, when it comes to moral questions that really matter for them personally, people judge character and virtue, not deontological maxims and utilitarian scales.

This is by no means a mere artifact of bias, ignorance, or rationalizations of self-interest (although of course all these factors are always present). Rather, it is simply inevitable for the members of a highly intelligent, social, and predatory species. Thus it’s unsurprising that people who try to base morality on some utilitarian or deontological abstraction will inevitably fall back on their instinctive virtue ethics in real-life situations where their theoretically favored approach contradicts it.

Disclaimer: I don’t know how representative this comment is of virtue ethics, so don’t take anything I’m about to say as necessarily true of virtue ethics in general. But…

I don’t doubt that this is a very common way to make moral evaluations, but it seems like a really bad one and it’s not how I try to live my life. Scott responded citing the example of Pope Francis, but I’ve got what I think is an even better example, in part because I don’t have any obvious moral disagreements with her over abortion or homosexuality or whatever: Lady Gaga.

On Facebook today, I saw a story about Lady Gaga paying for a fan’s surgery. My first reaction to this story is that Lady Gaga is clearly a wonderful person. This reaction has stayed with me, to the point that I feel bad using her as an example here. But a split second after I had the thought that Lady Gaga is clearly a wonderful person, I thought: she could have done more good donating that money to a charity dedicated to fighting malaria or other problems that plague poor countries.

Even though I’ve long been a fan of projects like GiveWell, on this the utility-calculating part of my brain is fighting really hard against the person-wonderfulness rating part of my brain. “Sure,” the latter part says:

Donating to fight malaria is wonderful, but paying for a fan’s surgery is also wonderful. It would be extra-wonderful to do both. But refusing to ever do things like pay for a fan’s surgery so you can give the absolute maximum amount of money to fighting malaria wouldn’t be very wonderful at all. Doing that doesn’t make you good, it makes you a weirdo.

To which the utility-calculating part of my brain has to go, “nope, sorry.”

I’m sympathetic to criticisms of consequentialism of the “sometimes it’s wrong to hurt someone even if the benefit to others is much greater” variety. But it seems like if what’s stopping you from just maximizing utility is your ideas about how wonderful people behave (and nothing else), maximizing utility should win. Maybe if you really wanted to, you could avoid such conflicts by incorporating “tries to actually do as much good as possible rather than behaving like a stereotype of a good person,” but ultimately that’s kind of the same thing.

And asking yourself “what kind of person would act that way?” when the behavior you’re contemplating isn’t hurting anyone (including indirectly, since even consequentialists have to worry about bad habits), that sounds suspicious. Frankly, it sounds like putting how other people will think of you (if they found out) over other people’s well-being.

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