Epistemic Life is Unfair!

So you are considering quitting your secure middle class job and going to Tahiti to become a painter. You have a strong hunch that once you go there, you’ll flourish as an artist and produce truly great work. Let’s take morality out of the equation: you are not deserting dependents. You are just considering a high risk of bankruptcy and, just as bad as far you are concerned, ridicule. If you go to Tahiti, are you being rational in so doing?

Bernard Williams suggests that there is no fact of the matter until you have already gone to Tahiti and succeeded or failed. That is, in some respects, a truly scary idea. I have proposed an idea which is not as scary, but might be, to some philosophers, more annoying: there is a fact of the matter, but you, the agent in the story, can’t know it – not before you succeed or fail and, in many circumstances, not afterwards either. When I say you can’t know it, I do mean to imply that no theory of rationality can guide you into this kind of knowledge. This, however, does not mean that there can’t be a good theory of whether, given that certain beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. are in your head, you would be rational or not in going to Tahiti. If I know what’s in your mind – perhaps because I am an omniscient narrator and I made you up – then I do, given the right theory, know before you leave the house whether or not you are being rational. Since you are not akratic in this story, the more precise question is likely whether your action is based on an irrational belief about your talent or the chances that the journey to Tahiti would help.

A rule that tells you not to start a career as a painter unless you are reasonably convinced that you are a great painter, says Williams, would be pretty much unusable. To continue his thought: it would be unusable because being “reasonably convinced” is indistinguishable, in terms of how it feels to the agent, from being unreasonably convinced. Even the best artists are not reliable or rational witnesses to the quality of works they produce, and being convinced of your greatness through wishful thinking – perhaps intertwined with some midlife crisis and being sick of your job – does not always feel any different from being convinced rationally. It is in the nature of epistemic irrationality – for the moment, let’s stick to epistemic irrationality –  that there are limits on your ability to know if you are irrational or not, to the point that sometimes it’s simply impossible for you to know it. Think about the sort of irrationality originated by depression or anxiety or insecurity, the sort originated by intoxication or sleep deprivation, the sort originated in schizophrenia. Take depression as an example:

Tristan: I am a terrible person.

You: Why?

Tristan: I forgot to buy milk today.

You: That doesn’t make you a horrible person.

Tristan: You are just saying it to be nice.

You: My roommate also forgot to buy milk yesterday. Does it mean she is a terrible person?

Tristan: No!

You: well, then –

Tristan: I don’t know your roommate. She is probably just fine. But given all I know about myself, forgetting the milk is just a symptom of how horrible a person I am.

You: What you know about yourself? Like what?

Tristan: I used a horrible mixed metaphor in pro-seminar today. It was embarrassing. I am clearly wasting the money of the people paying for my fellowship. I should stop committing this crime.

You: You are a really good student. All your teachers say so.

Tristan: They are wrong. No, seriously, I have given a lot of thought to that.

You can argue till the cows come home, but Tristan is, as far as he can tell, “reasonably convinced” that he is an all- around horrible person and a failure at all he does. He has thought about it a lot. Advice along the line of “do not quit the program unless you are reasonably convinced that you are not a good student” would be wasted on him.

There are, to be sure, some heuristics that improve the chances of a moderately irrational person to diagnose herself. A lovely eastern European saying I was taught as a child was “if three people say you are drunk, go to sleep!”. I am sure the saying has rescued some people who knew it from major debacles. It also failed to rescue many others who knew it: perhaps they were so drunk they could no longer count to three, or perhaps they were merely tipsy enough to think “Oh, yes, three people say I’m drunk, sure, but Yuan and Liz always agree with each other, so they really should count as the same person, right?”. So basically I’m saying that no putative “rational agent’s manual” can be expected to guarantee its follower rational belief (and thus, action based on rational belief) because it cannot guarantee that the agent won’t be drunk, or depressed, or any number of things that can sneak on you, at the time she consults the manual.

So, I’m worried about the claim that all epistemic norms need to be “follow-able” or that when they are unfollow-able to one, one is not to be charged with irrationality for not, well, following them. One reason I decline to adopt the bright shiny new expression “epistemically blameworthy” in place of the dry-as-dust, old-style expression “epistemically irrational” is that it obscures an unfortunate Williams-esque fact: epistemic life is unfair. Epistemic irrationality is both a failure to respond to reasons and a predicament that can be forced on one – say by putting a drug in one’s coffee or by taking away the prescription drug one usually puts in one’s coffee. We feel compassion for Tristan and do not, hopefully, “blame” him for anything, as his condition is “not his fault”, but we do treat the reasoning implied in “I forgot to buy milk so I’m a terrible person” as flawed and as a symptom of irrationality.

Some would find it disturbing – not just annoying – to think that unfairness is implied by epistemic norms. But should it really be so disturbing? It shouldn’t be remotely as disturbing as a suggestion that unfairness is implied by moral norms. The connection between fairness and morality is pre-theoretical and intuitive, at least in the sense that people would agree that being fair is part of being moral, an unfair action is immoral, and fairness is particularly important when it comes to punishment and other actions related to blame, as in moral blame. It “just seems” unfair to say that something is ever both (morally) blameworthy and a predicament that isn’t the agent’s doing (“not her fault”) and you don’t need to be a philosopher to think that.  On the other hand, the idea that it is always unfair to say that something is both epistemically irrational and not the agent’s doing is an idea rarely spotted in the wild, a postulate of (only some) sophisticated theories of normativity that require that epistemology and ethics be similar, analogous, with isomorphic components: blame here and blame there. Non-Philosophers would raise their eyebrows at the sentence “it’s not her fault she is blameworthy” but “it’s not his fault that he is irrational” would seems fine to them. The asymmetry that bothers some theorists won’t normally be an issue for them. Judgments of irrationality can be “fair” or “unfair” in the sense of “accurate” or “inaccurate”, or in the sense of “biased” or “unbiased”, but when we say Tristan is irrational, even though he didn’t bring his depression about, we are not unfair – we just are just pointing out that life is.

P.S I think one complication is that one ultimately needs to distinguish rationality from intelligence, and drugs that promote/impair one of them or the other. A 13 year old is mostly smarter than a 10 year old, but less rational. See: https://theviewfromtheowlsroost.com/2017/08/13/raw-reflections-on-rationality-and-intelligence-plus-two-cat-pictures/

P.P.S Can “epistemically blameworthy” be a good title for a person who neglects to google, go the library, or deliberate long enough as she tries to figure something out? After all she neglected to do something what we under her control. Well, I can see the why one might want to use the term this way, but I think deep down the problem with her is that she is practically irrational in her search for knowledge. See: https://theviewfromtheowlsroost.com/2017/10/29/epistemology-and-sandwiches/

Notes from a Character

When was the last time you tried to get rid of one habit you had that you didn’t like? How easy was that?

That’s normally my first response when they ask me whether I think we can change our characters intentionally, through trying. I don’t know why this question is so often addressed to me. Perhaps it’s because people think I’m a virtue ethicist. Maybe it’s because I have gone through a more thorough intentional change in my character than most people I know have. Those of us who successfully made such a change, perhaps even more than those who tried and failed, know that many philosophers speak about “cultivating” our characters or “managing” our characters in too casual a way. Intentionally changing character is hard. It’s God damn hard. It’s @#$%&! hard.

My name is Nomy and I’m too candid. However, I am, it seems, employable (even interview-able! If you are also too candid, you know that can be much harder). I also have great friends. These things weren’t true back when I was a teenager capable of telling a person that he is ugly without feeling anger at him or expecting him to be insulted. Mine was a case of grand social incompetence that today would have gotten me diagnosed as “on the spectrum” very quickly (erroneously, I hasten to add. My problem was bad upbringing, in a broad neo-Aristotelian sense). Every step of the many years long journey from there to minimal practical wisdom was the result of gargantuan effort. It sounds like I’m bragging, and in a way I am, but what I want to get across most of all is the frustrating difficulty of it, the fumbling, the repeated not-even-close failures, the times you think you have finally become an agreeable human only to discover that you once more offended someone that you hadn’t the slightest desire to hurt, or that yet another person said “ah, her? we thought she might be difficult” – without you having any idea why. It was exhausting – and we’re talking getting from utterly clueless to merely too candid; we are not talking becoming a person worthy of raising a flag with a red maple leaf on it, say, or the kind of diplomatic person that a woman is still (unfairly) expected to be.

So, intentional character change: possible but insanely hard, requires help from others, isn’t just a matter of practice through repeated action, and should not be talked about lightly, as in suggesting that every time a person is blameworthy for an akratic action what they are really blameworthy for is not having, some years earlier, done the obvious thing and gone to character school, where remedial courses are always available for free. But sometimes people ask me about whether my (and Schroeder’s) view allows for people intentionally becoming more virtuous. For Tim and me, to be virtuous is to have good will – want the right things, de re – and not to want to wrong things, de re.  If you don’t like desires, you can have a pretty similar view involving concerns or cares otherwise interpreted. Your intrinsic desire situation likely matters not only to your patterns of behavior but to your cognition as well (e.g if you want humans not to suffer, you are more likely to notice the sad person standing in the corner; if you want equality, you are more likely to notice that a movie is racist), but nobody, strictly speaking, is morally virtuous just because of a cognitive talent or morally vicious just because of a cognitive fault. Being capable of noticing the sad person in the corner because you’re an observant novelist scores you no moral points, and being incapable of noticing racism in a movie because you came from far away and don’t get the cultural references does not lose you any). By this measure, it is likely that I did not become more virtuous than I used to be. My quality of will didn’t change – my cognitions and habits did. So, in the strict Arpaly/Schroeder sense…. Is it possible to change from a not-so-virtuous person into a virtuous one, intentionally?

Seems like that would be impossible, paradoxical, self-defeating. The virtuous person is defined by the things she intrinsically desires, or if you prefer, what she cares about. She desires, let’s say, that humans be safe from suffering, that people be treated equally, that she doesn’t lie – the details would vary depending on what the best normative theory tells us morality is about. Simply acting out of a desire to be virtuous (de dicto) is not virtuous. In fact, even acting out of a desire to be virtuous de re is not virtuous: the right reason to save a person from a fire is that he not suffer or die, it’s not that you, the agent, be compassionate, and thus the virtuous person would act out of a desire to prevent suffering or death, not out of a desire to have the virtue of compassion. Self-defeating, right?

Except not really. Peter Railton pointed out that this kind of thing looks paradoxical in theory only if we ignore the various ways in which we can act upon ourselves in practice (his examples: the hedonist who decides he needs non-selfish desires in order to be happy, the ambitious tennis player who needs a bit less focus on winning, a bit more love of the game in order to win). Imagine a person who wants to be virtuous, who roughly knows (or has true beliefs regarding) what virtue is about (some other time about the person who doesn’t), but does not have the desires or cares of the virtuous person. More realistically, she has some of them, to some extent, but she falls short of what we are willing to call virtue. At first, her actions will not be expressions of virtue, but intrinsic desires do change, however slowly or gradually. They often spontaneously develop out of a more derivative form of desire: you want to learn philosophy in order to do well in law school, and by the end of the course you want it intrinsically. You start playing baseball to please your parents and find yourself continuing to do it long after they have died. If virtue is about desires or cares, it stands to reason that sometimes you can start out volunteering at a homeless shelter because you get a warm and fuzzy feeling from thinking of yourself as virtuous, or even because you get a warm and fuzzy feeling about others believing that you are virtuous, and then find yourself attracted instead to the grateful looks of some of the people in the shelter, and who knows, as the makeup of your motives shifts, find yourself moved to help when nobody is there to praise you. In ancient Jewish sources, much importance is attributed to studying the Torah for its own sake, the only praiseworthy way to do it. However, the advice for the person who cannot muster such pious motivation is to start by mustering ulterior motives and the intrinsic ones will “come”. I like this attitude. It doesn’t always work, oh no, but it strikes me as more likely to work than the practice of scrutinizing people’s motives – oneself or others – and verbally skewering them if one suspects any “virtue signaling” in the mix. Incidentally, Thomas Hill has a great article on how even Kant, the guy who brought us moral worth, didn’t like the scrutinizing thing – and he didn’t even believe in mixed motives!

So, granted: hard as it to intentionally acquire or ditch habits of thought or action, it seems even harder to intentionally acquire or ditch an intrinsic desire. Ever tried making yourself a lover of movies when you totally aren’t one, or getting rid of that desire to be tall? But there is no paradox involved, merely an “empirical” difficulty. Such difficulties can be tragic enough, but there is no need to deny that sometimes people intentionally become somewhat more virtuous than they were before. Not by sheer act of will, but by such things as hanging out with virtuous people and have it rub off on you, finding optimistic types who “believe in you” and seeing if you will automatically rise to meet their expectations, following the Talmudic advice to start from exciting ulterior motives and hope for the best, reading and watching memorable and vivid representations of the point of view of those whom your actions affect. Prosaic takes on human nature, which take moral motivation to be similar to philosophy-studying motivation or baseball-playing motivation or whatever, can be depressing, but they can be rather comforting on those occasions in which prosaic methods work. I can’t pretend any other kind of method worked for me.

Raw Reflections on Virtue, Blame and Baseball

In a much argued-about verse in the Hebrew Bible, we are told that Noah was a righteous man and “perfect in his generations” or “blameless among his contemporaries” or something like that (I grew up on the Hebrew, and so I can say: the weirdness is in the original). The verse has been treated as an interpretative riddle because it’s not clear what being “blameless among one’s contemporaries” amounts to. Was the guy really a righteous person (as is suggested by the subsequent text telling us that he walked with God) or was he a righteous person only by comparison to his contemporaries, who were dreadful enough to bring a flood on themselves?

My friend Tim Schroeder would probably have suggested that, given his time, Noah must have had had an excellent Value Over Replacement Moral Agent. It’s kinda like Value Over Replacement Player. Here’s how Wikipedia explains the concept of Value Over Replacement Player:

In baseballvalue over replacement player (or VORP) is a statistic (…) that demonstrates how much a hitter contributes offensively or how much a pitcher contributes to his team in comparison to a fictitious “replacement player” (…) A replacement player performs at “replacement level,” which is the level of performance an average team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, also known as “freely available talent.”

Tim and I have been toying with the idea that while rightness, wrongness and permissibility of actions are not the sort of things that depend on what your contemporaries are doing, ordinary judgments of the virtue of particular people (“she’s a really good person”, “he’s a jerk”, and so on) are really about something akin to a person’s Value Over Replacement Moral Agent or VORMA. The amount of blame one deserves for a wrong action or credit for a right action also seems to be at least partially a matter of VORMA. Thus a modest person who is thanked profusely for his good action might wave it off by saying “come on, anyone would have done this in my place”, while a defensive person blamed emphatically for her bad action might protest that “I’m no worse than the next person”. Both statements allude to a comparison to a sort of moral “replacement player” – an agent who would, morally speaking, perform at “replacement level”, the level we would expect from a random stranger, or, more likely, a random stranger in a similar time, place, context – whom we would regard as neither morally good nor morally bad.

I have been reading a cool paper by Gideon Rosen on doing wrong things under duress. A person who commits a crime under a credible threat of being shot if she refuses to commit it seems to be excused for blame, Rosen says, even if, as Aristotle would have it, the person acted freely, or, as contemporary agency theorist would have it, the person acted autonomously. The person who commits a crime so as not to be killed is not necessarily acting under conditions of reduced agency, so where is the excuse from? Rosen thinks, like I do, that excuses are about quality of will, and argues that the person who acts immorally under (bad enough) duress does not, roughly, show a great enough lack of moral concern to justify our blaming her in the Scanlonian sense of the “blame” – that is, socially distancing ourselves from her. Simply falling short of the ideal of having enough moral concern to never do anything wrong does not justify such distancing.

Without getting into the details or Rosen’s view, I would not be surprised if this has something to do with VORMA as well. Even in cases in which a person who commits a crime to avoid being killed acts wrongly, and I agree with Rosen there are many such cases, the wrongdoer does not usually show negative VORMA. If I were to shun the wrongdoer, I would arguably be inconsistent in so far as I do not shun, well, typical humanity, who would have acted the same way.  I suspect that even if I happened to be unusually courageous, a major league moral agent, and escape my own criteria for shunning, there would still be something very problematic about shunning typical humanity.

VORMA might also explain the ambivalence we feel towards some people whom it is not utterly crazy to describe as “perfect in their generations” or “blameless among their contemporaries”, like Noah. “My grandfather was a really, really good person!”, says your friend. She forgets, when she says it, that she thinks her grandfather was sexist in various ways – though, to be sure, a lot less so than his neighbors. Heck, she forgets that by her own standards, eating meat is immoral, and her grandfather sure had a lot of it. But unlike the Replacement Player in baseball, who is clearly defined in terms of average performance of players you would find in second tier professional teams, our choice of pool of imagined Replacement Moral Agents seems inevitably sensitive to pragmatics and contexts. Your friend’s grandfather had magnificent VORMA if all the bad things he did were done by almost everyone in his demographics and time period and if he often acted well where almost none of them would have. While we might have useful ideals of virtuous people who always do the right thing, the phrase “wonderful person” when applied to a real human might normally mean something more analogous to a star baseball player. As we know, such players get it wrong a lot of the time!

PS Eric Schwitzgebel has very interesting related work about how we want “a grade of B” in morality.

PSS for why I don’t think the grandfather is simply excused from his sexism by moral ignorance, see my paper “Huckleberry Finn Revisited”.

Kantianism vs Cute Things

“We love everything over which we have a decisive superiority, so we can toy with it, while it has a pleasant cheerfulness about it: little dogs, birds, grandchildren”.

Immanuel Kant

I don’t normally argue for or against Kant, recognizing that figuring out exactly what he means takes expertise I don’t have. I normally argue with contemporary Kantians, because if I don’t get what they mean, I can email them and ask, or they can tell me I’m wrong in Q&A. Yet I can’t resist the quote above. It is, of course, offensive to grandparents everywhere, and to anyone who has ever valued the love of a grandparent. See, your grandparents “loved” you because you were so small and weak and they could toy with you and relish being on the right side of the power imbalance between you. It doesn’t sound like love to me. It sounds like some kind of chaste perversion.

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The Problem With Imagining (2): Simulation, Tragedy and Farce

When you try to understand a person, you imagine yourself in her situation, and some psychologists call it “simulation”. I tentatively use the term “Runaway Simulation” to describe the countless cases when a reasonable working assumption – “the other person thinks and feels the way I would have thought and felt if I were in their situation” – morphs into a stubborn belief that persists despite loads of glaring counter-evidence.

Sometimes it’s nearly harmless: you love looking at pictures of your children and can’t imagine anyone could fail to enjoy pictures of your children, so you post too many baby pictures on Facebook. You are a ravenous person and so you doubt anyone, however generally honest, who claims to be full after a salad. You are an organized person and you ask someone like me for her flight itinerary six month in advance, despite your experience with her disorderly lifestyle. But things can get trickier. You meet a person who claims not to want children, and you can’t imagine not wanting children, so you come up with some other explanation for her having no children and claiming she doesn’t want them. Perhaps she had a bad mother and is afraid she might be a bad one too? Perhaps she is afraid of commitment in general? Perhaps her romantic partner is wrong for her, and not wanting children is her unconscious’s way to tell her the relationship isn’t working? You violate Ockham’s Razor like nobody’s business, because the best explanation is under your nose: she just doesn’t want children. This however you can’t imagine, and we humans trust our imaginations a lot. Like a twisted Holmes, you accept an improbable story because the alternative seems impossible, and some profound misunderstandings begin that way.

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Motivation Without Charm

O Duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?

 That’s Ogden Nash. Now Kant:

Duty! Sublime and mighty name that embraces nothing charming or insinuating but requires submission, and yet does not seek to move the will by threatening anything that would arouse natural aversion or terror in the mind but only holds forth a law that of itself finds entry into the mind and yet gains reluctant reverence (though not always obedience), a law before which all inclinations are dumb, even though they secretly work against it; what origin is there worthy of you, and where is to be found the root of your noble descent which proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations, descent from which is the indispensable condition of that worth which human beings alone can give themselves?


Kant appeals powerfully to the sense that doing the right thing often feels different from doing something you want to do. The Neo-Humean – as in one who thinks moral motivation, like other important motivation, is based on desire – is often asked: if, as a good person, you do right because you want to do right– (de dicto or de re, doesn’t matter for the moment) – why doesn’t doing right because you want to do right feel like going to the beach because you want to go to the beach?

Fair question. Let me have a go.

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