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.

  • MountainTiger

    It seems to me that there is an ends-means question buried here. In daily life, we don’t have much choice but to rely on our habits. In this way, virtue ethics appears obviously useful to me. However, I don’t see how we can determine what ends to pursue by training our habits unless we use a more intellectual framework.

  • Daniel Engblom

    “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.”

    Sounds suspicious, but I immediately thought of our evolutionary roots, that it seems obvious why that thought comes to mind for most people – Because we do try to sell ourselves out there to others, appealing to what we perceive others value.
    That’s different though than the “actual” morality issue you’re talking about, just a side note from me.

  • TaiChi

    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.

    If you believe that maximizing utility is a good thing, then you probably believe that a person who maximizes utility is a good person. But if you believe that, then your example really doesn’t count against the idea of deriving a judgment of right action from a judgment of what counts as a good person; it instead opposes a certain conception of what a good person is.

    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.

    Maybe I miss your point here, but what counts as a good person is one thing, and what people think of as a good person is another. If an ethical theory states that what one ought to do depends on what a good person is, then it’s not fair to criticize it on the grounds that prescriptions derived from the common conception of a good person are erroneous.

    Anyway, I agree with you that the utility maximizer is a good person, and I think Lady Gaga is as well. Neither is refraining from what they ought to do. What ethics demands is not that we should be perfect, that we should embody all the virtues to the nth degree, but that we should avoid the vices.

  • MNb

    “what kind of person would act that way?”
    How does Scott A know that almost all people make their decisions based on this question? Can he refer to any psychological research? No, he knows because

    ” it is simply inevitable for the members of …”
    As we all know adultery is quite common for the members of the same species. When human beings decide to commit it it’s quite unlikely that they make that decision based on virtue ethics. Scott A should read some psychology.
    He makes the same mistake as Edward F: never mind empirical data and thus shows the worst side of philosophy.

    PS: I would also like to know how Scott A applies his analysis to the plundering during the LA riots of 1992 and the night the lights fell out in NYC in 1977 (there are enough European equivalents, no worries).

  • MNb

    As for Lady Gaga: she paying for a fan’s surgery is perfectly explainable by means of utilitarianism. It is not expensive enough that it affects her financial status. What she gets in return, besides feeling good, is a lot of positive publicity. Psychology teaches us that a positive image in the eye of other people is a huge benefit.

    • ACN

      Exactly.

      Public displays of “virtue” or “piety” are almost always parts of a marketing strategy.

      • MNb

        Note that I don’t condemn it; I just see no particular reason to admire it. You see, I don’t think I’m that different from Lady Gaga in my daily life.

  • Peter

    Does it have to be “maximizing utility”? Why can’t increasing utility be a virtue?

  • Laurence

    I care much more about being a kind, generous, honest, etc. person than whether I maximize utility or follow certain rules. But, I’m super sympathetic to virtue ethics after having an entire course on it last semester. I think there are good arguments against the value monism that consequentialism promotes. I also think that partiality is important in morality.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Would you also say you care more about being kind and generous than about making sure as few people as possible die of malaria?

      (I’m tempted to rant, but I’ll just let that rhetorical question hang.)

      • Laurence

        Of course because there is no way that I can make sure that as few people as possible die from malaria. If I were in a better situation, then being kind and generous may perhaps lead to the consequence of attempting to stop as many people as possible from dying of malaria. I don’t see this as an either/or thing. I can care about being a generous person and stopping people dying. In fact, if I am actually kind and generous, then my actions would tend to conform with the stopping people dying from malaria kind of actions. But, I wouldn’t destroy my relationships with people that are important to me because I care about them more. And that’s okay.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

    I tend to see consequential ethics and virtue ethics as two different ways of looking at issues. I suppose one possible way to describe it is akin to rule-utilitarianism, where seeking the greatest good balances following generally beneficial rules against making exceptions which might undermine a beneficial rule if allowed too often. It’s good to tell the truth most of the time so people can trust each other’s communications, but in some cases, there are good reasons to lie, like to save an innocent’s life. From a virtue perspective, it’s good to be an honest person because widespread honesty is generally beneficial, but in some cases, other virtues could override the need to be honest.

    I think both consequentialism and virtue perspectives are components of our instinctive moral reasoning, but if virtue ethics were more instinctively appealing, I’d hesitate to use that as a reason for its superiority. There are bad instincts, bad social mores mistaken for instincts, and so on. I share some concern about inadvertently emphasizing image over substance with a virtue focus. There’s a difference between having a virtuous image and actually enacting virtues that can get lost if you assume social approval is always in alignment with moral reasoning.

    There is one thing that comes to mind with the topic of virtue ethics: Villains with some redeeming qualities, like a villain who keeps his word, avoids harming bystanders, acts out of devoted loyalty to another, respects his subordinates, or whatever while still committing crimes that make him a villain. Sometimes I feel an odd sort of respect for them when I’m watching a show. I think it highlights a risk of going too permissive, though in other ways it demonstrates that the villain can more likely be rehabilitated to work for society’s benefit, and thus may deserve leniency.

  • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

    The Lady Gaga-malaria nets example sort of reminds me of the Repugnant Conclusion. My instinctive response reading your argument was that I don’t want to live in a world where we’re all just in a Stakhanovite pursuit of maximum salaries to spend on efficient charity; a world without what the saccharine bumper stickers call “random acts of kindness” seems like it would be a dystopia–even the beneficiaries of the mosquito nets would, I presume, want some love and whimsy in their lives. This is not a well-formulated objection, I admit, and I suspect it’s wrong. I’m just not sure why it’s wrong, so I’m commenting here to elicit an answer. (I think the obvious utilitarian/consequentialist rejoinder is that of course we can all be nice to each other and have fun during our time off from our money-for-malaria-nets jobs, but I think the deeper worry is that a world without actions’ like Lady Gaga’s is impoverished by being somehow disenchanted–stripped of something essential to a good human life. Not that “disenchantment” is a bad thing in this community, but I’m trying to admit my biases honestly.)

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