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?

 (Exhale)

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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