DRMacIver's Notebook

How to be a better person

How to be a better person

In response to my Initial notes towards a manifesto, (joXn?) quite reasonably asked how I would avoid falling afoul of the problem that, contra The Good Place, learning ethics doesn’t actually make one more ethical. Eric Schwitzgebel has a lot of great research on this (see his publications and in particular the section “The Relationship Between Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior”).

Of these, I think Aiming for Moral Mediocrity is perhaps the most important: Schwitzgebel argues that most people probably aim to be about as moral as their peers, and that this is mediocre (neither great, nor terrible) to do, but that most people could manage to be better than they are with no great hardship.

I think Schwitzgebel’s claim is basically right, and the paper is a very good one, with two major caveats:

  1. He is underestimating the hardship, because (I think) he is missing one of the reasons why this happens.
  2. He has fallen afoul of precisely the reason why learning ethics does not make you a better person.

I think there are approximately four reasons why people fail to behave ethically:

  1. They do not care to do the right thing.
  2. They are discouraged from doing the right thing by external factors.
  3. They do not know what the right thing is.
  4. They do not know how to do the right thing.

Behaving ethically is a skillful practice, and most people are either not very good at the skill, not very motivated to practice it, or do not have an environment that enables them to practice it.

Ethicists primarily study what the right thing to do is, but I think for most people this is not the constraint on the skillful practice of ethics.

I will, for the purpose of this post, assume that people care to do the right thing. I think fixing that is a whole different question. This leaves the other three. Given that we know from Schwitzgebel’s work that knowing the right thing to do is also not enough, lets assume for the moment that you, in most practical circumstances if not necessarily in general, know what the right thing to do is. Why don’t you do it?

Well, lets take a look at Schwitzgebel’s theme of Moral Mediocrity: Why do people aim to be morally mediocre?

I propose that there’s a very straightforward reason: Moral Mediocrity is the option that won’t get you punished.

If you behave badly, people will be judgemental towards you. But they will also react badly to you if you are especially moral. It’s not just that you’re not a saint it’s that, in actual practice, we don’t like saints, because they make us feel bad about ourselves.

One of the examples in the paper is vegetarianism. Suppose you were reasonably convinced that, ethically speaking, you should be a vegetarian or vegan. Now, all your interactions with people around you around food come with extra friction. Even if you never say anything judgy about it, it’s impossible for people to not know you’re vegetarian (if they’re sharing meals with you) and many of them will respond defensively or aggressively about it. You’ll experience a constant, albeit low grade, pressure of the people around you trying to drag you back down to their moral level.

You’ll see this with other things too: Someone who is unusually ethical will constantly have people telling them to relax, take things less seriously, etc. Being unusually ethical is weird, and triggers the social obligation to be bad at things in a big way.

This is not, I hasten to add, a moral justification for being morally mediocre. It doesn’t change what you should do. If anything, the tendency of people to norm their behaviour to those around them creates a stronger moral obligation to be good, because it influences others to be good. It is a practical barrier to ethical behaviour, and any theory of ethics that does not teach you to overcome such practical barriers will not result in more ethical behaviour any more than a detailed understanding of thermodynamics will allow you to build an internal combustion engine. A theory of ethics is all very well, but you need a practice of ethics, which is what Schwitzgebel’s paper (along with most theory of ethics) misses: Telling people to behave a particular way tends not to work unless you tell them how to behave that way.

Here’s another practical barrier: If you realise that you are behaving badly, and decide to be better, you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you could always have been better, which is very painful, so you would much rather rationalise your behaviour as just fine the way it is to avoid that pain.

And for another, consider the following scenario: Suppose you decide to be vegetarian, and you’re really good about it for about a month, virtuously resisting the temptation to eat meat, and absolutely hating how bland all your food has become because you don’t know how to cook interesting vegetarian food and the cafeteria where you mostly eat has awful vegetarian food. After about a month, you go out for a meal with some friends, and you look at the incredibly disappointing vegetarian menu and your eyes are drawn to the cheesburger selection… and after that you’re no longer vegetarian.

This actually demonstrates two problems: Firstly, you don’t know how to be vegetarian, and are trying to overcome that limitation with pure willpower rather than treating it as a practical problem you need to solve, and the second is that you don’t understand behaviour change so you tried to go all in on the new behaviour and then gave up as soon as you failed once.

These are the three main practical barriers to overcome: Social norms, emotional difficulties, and missing skills, and all of these are emimently solvable problems that you can learn to overcome, and that you will find personally beneficial to learn to overcome regardless of whether you use them to become more ethical.

More, I think once you have acquired these skills, you will naturally become more ethical (or at least, more in line with your own values): If you can change when you feel like you should, and you feel like you should behave a particular way, then you’ll just do that.

So this is my answer to how I’m intending to avoid this problem: I don’t plan to try to persuade anyone of the rightness of a particular position, I’m just doing my best to convey some fragments of useful prosocial skills, and trusting that as you get better at those skills you’ll become a better person automatically.

Mostly, at least. You’ll probably still be bad occasionally. That’s OK. It’s more fun to be a bit evil from time to time.