Sunday, September 8, 2019

Most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers—not especially better, not especially worse; we notice the typical behavior of our peers, then calibrate toward so-so

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity. Eric Schwitzgebel. Res Philosophica, Volume 96, Issue 3, July 2019, Pages 347-368. DOI: 10.11612/resphil.1806

Abstract: Most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers—not especially better, not especially worse. We do not aim to be good, or non-bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of our peers, then calibrate toward so-so. This is a somewhat bad way to be, but it’s not a terribly bad way to be. We are somewhat morally criticizable for having low moral ambitions. Typical arguments defending the moral acceptability of low moral ambitions—the So-What-If-I’m-Not-a-Saint Excuse, the Fairness Objection, the Happy Coincidence Defense, and the claim that you’re already in The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot—do not survive critical scrutiny.

Part One: The Empirical Thesis

2. Following the Moral Crowd.

Robert B. Cialdini and colloborators went to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park (Cialdini, Demaine, Sagarin, Barrett, Rhoads, and Winter 2006).  The park had been losing about a ton of petrified wood per month, mostly stolen in small amounts by casual visitors.  Cialdini and collaborators posted four different signs intended to discourage theft, rotating their placement at the heads of different paths.  Two signs were explicit injunctions: (A.) “Please don’t remove petrified wood from the park” (with a picture of a visitor stealing wood, crossed by a red circle and bar) and (B.) “Please leave petrified wood in the park” (with a picture of a visitor admiring and photographing a piece of wood).  Two signs were descriptive: (C.) “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest” (with pictures of three visitors taking wood) and (D.) “The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest” (with pictures of three visitors admiring and photographing the petrified wood).  Cialdini and collaborators then noted how much wood the visitors took from the paths headed by the different signs.  Rates of theft were lowest (1.7%) when visitors were explicitly enjoined not to take wood (Condition A).  Rates of theft were highest (8.0%) when visitors were told that many past visitors have removed wood (Condition C).  Being told that many visitors have removed wood might even have increased the rates of theft, which were estimated normally to be 1-4% of visitors (Roggenbuck, Widner, and Stratton 1997).

Part Two: The Normative Thesis

7. The Moral Mediocrity of Being Morally Mediocre.

My normative thesis is that it’s morally mediocre to aim to be morally mediocre.  Or to phrase it in a less tautologous-sounding way: It’s somewhat bad but also somewhat good to try to calibrate yourself so that you behave in ways that are overall morally similar to your peers.

“Mediocre” has a negative connotation in ordinary English.  Not only does it mean somewhere in the ballpark of average or ordinary, but (in contrast with the less loaded word “average”) “mediocre” also implies that the thing in question is somewhat bad.  And yet, the mediocre is not horrible, and being mediocre is compatible with having some redeeming features – with being in some respects good.  Mediocre coffee is good enough for me, most of the time.  Mediocre students mostly pass their classes and get their degrees.  Aiming for moral mediocrity is like aiming to be a moral B-minus student or a donut shop moral drip blend.

The simplest opposing views are that it’s perfectly fine to aim to be about as morally good as your peers and that it is horrible to aim to be about as morally good (or rather, as morally bad) as your peers.

I won’t criticize the latter view at length.  I don’t think many of us regard our peers as morally horrible.  Some people might think that most of humanity is morally horrible, apart from their valued in-group of friends or coreligionists – but then they probably treat that in-group as the peers toward whose behavior they morally calibrate.  Others might think that even their peers, perhaps especially their peers, are morally horrible, on the grounds that there’s something morally horrible about our shared lifestyle, such as its luxuriousness in the face of global poverty.  I will not address such views here.  Still others might just be ordinary curmudgeons who see the worst in people.  This too, is difficult to address directly.  Let me note that people do often lend a helping hand to strangers for no obvious benefit; treat their fellows kindly; share, sacrifice, and maintain deep friendships; and take principled stands against injustice.  Following the moral crowd can be good: When others act with kindness and integrity, that inspires us to do the same.  Attempting to compensate for having acted badly can also be good; the memory of guilt can motivate improvement.  We’re not horrible, only mediocre!

Against the view that it’s perfectly fine to aim to behave about as morally well as your peers, I offer first, your peers.  (I’m assuming that your peers are typically middle- to upper-class members of a mainstream Anglophone culture.  If your peers are Nazi death camp guards or saints in Heaven, the normative assessment might be different.)  They fail to reply to your important emails.  They shirk their duties and neglect their promises.  They are rude and grumpy for no good reason.  They have annoying dogs, loud parties, bad driving habits, and an unjustified sense of entitlement.  They make you wait then concoct some glib excuse.  They form obnoxious opinions on too little information and then vote for horrible things.  More seriously, perhaps, our peers participate in and support institutions and practices that casually ruin people’s lives by denying them reasonable and necessary health care, by cruelly guarding unearned privilege, and by perpetuating exploitative systems.  In all of these small and sometimes large ways, our peers behave badly, and we really ought to try to be better than that.

Second, we are, all of us, shot through with bigotry and bias – bias based on race, sex, disability, beauty, age, class, political opinion, profession, prestige, nationality, and cultural background.  We are not all biased in all respects; but we are all significantly biased in some respects.  The range of biases based on disability in particular is difficult to avoid, since disability is so various and often experienced as saliently annoying to witness or deal with (Corrigan 2014).  Bias toward the conventionally physically beautiful, in matters on which physical beauty ought to have no bearing, is also pervasive and substantial, across a wide range of social measures (Langlois, Kalakanis, Rubenstein, Larson, Hallam, and Smoot 2000).  We ought to aim for better.

Third, even if we aren’t morally horrible for living middle-class lifestyles, history might not judge us so kindly.  Our typical lifestyles harm the environment, by which we collectively contribute to the probable death and immiseration of many millions of future people.  Arguably, also, most of us ought to give much more to charitable causes, local or global, in time or in money, than we do, given our relative privilege and luxury.  And most of us eat meat – which most U.S. ethicists think is morally bad.  We purchase consumer goods from companies we know or ought to know engage in bad practices.  It’s contentious how bad all this is, and my overall argument does not depend essentially on any of the ideas in this paragraph, but if this perspective is even close to correct, every normal middle-class person in our society is morally criticizable for a wide range of actions every day.  (Peter Singer [1972, 1975/2009] is probably the best-known philosophical advocate of this variety of highly morally demanding view.)

It is not, therefore, perfectly fine to aim to be morally mediocre.  I will now consider four lines of reasoning by which you might hope to wiggle out of this somewhat negative conclusion.

8. The So-What-If-I’m-Not-a-Saint Excuse.

People sometimes respond to my moral mediocrity thesis by acknowledging that, yes, they aren’t aiming for sainthood – but that’s not so bad.  Sainthood is such a high standard!  Ordinary people can’t really be blamed for falling short of that.  Philosopher advocates of the So-What-If-I’m-Not-a-Saint Excuse sometimes appeal to Susan Wolf’s (1982) classic argument that it’s reasonable not to want to be morally perfect, with all the sacrifices that moral perfection seems to require.

I’m inclined to agree with Wolf that morality is highly demanding and that when the demands of morality conflict with other deeply held values it’s often reasonable to act immorally (see also Slote 1983; Williams 1985; Foot 2002; Dorsey 2016).  But to use the possibly excessive demands of sainthood as an excuse for being a mediocre member of a blameworthy crowd is to pitch a false dichotomy, as if the only choice were between mediocrity and huge self-sacrifice.  Moral improvement needn’t require crushing yourself.  Most of us could improve quite a bit with no devastating effect on our personalities or life projects.  We could be somewhat more generous with our time, and less grumpy.  We could give more to charity, tweak our lifestyles to better protect the environment, and be a little more reliable in executing our responsibilities.  We could be better neighbors and sons- or daughters-in-law.  We could more vividly speak against injustice.  Of course we could.  None of these things require sainthood or huge sacrifice; and moral improvement doesn’t require that you do all of them.  We could aim for an imperfect-but-excellent A or A-minus, even if we give up on A+.  Among us walk morally admirable non-saints who achieve peer-relative moral excellence without leading bland or miserable lives.  You probably know a few; be more like them.  It is easy to think of ways in which we could act morally better.  We simply prefer not to do these things.

You can self-consciously and reasonably choose moral mediocrity, just like you can self-consciously and reasonably choose to buy mediocre coffee (if the excellent coffee is too expensive) and just like you can self-consciously and reasonably choose to be a mediocre student (“hey, Cs get degrees, I’ve got other priorities!”).  My suggestion is only this: If this speaks to your condition, acknowledge that fact and accept that you are thereby somewhat morally blameworthy.

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