It's Not Hard to Be Morally Excellent; You Just Choose Not To Be

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-08-24T06:23:49.072Z · score: 48 (22 votes) · EA · GW · 11 comments

This is a link post for https://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2020/08/its-not-hard-to-be-morally-excellent.html

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11 comments

Originally written by Eric Schwitzgebel. (Even if you include a link in your post, it's good practice to include the author's name so that it comes up in searches.)

I'm crossposting this because I found it interesting, and because I wonder how a forum with an unusual number of morally excellent users (I hope!) might interpret it.

Also, it seems to me like some version of this framing could be useful for EA messaging not so much "you aren't excellent," but "being excellent takes effort and doesn't happen automatically, but could be an achievable goal for you. Some aspects of morality are more about convenience than major sacrifice." (People often seem willing to give up convenience in order to better themselves; many advertisements hinge on this, e.g. for fitness equipment.)

My favorite excerpt:

Just consider a few of the morally best people you personally know, people you admire for their integrity, their generosity, their kindness.  Just ordinary people, though ones you recognize to be somewhat morally better than you are -- not unreachable saints [...]

You could be like those morally excellent ordinary people if you wanted to be, just like you could walk ten miles to the next town a few times a week if you wanted to.  You just choose not to be as morally good as that, because you prefer other things.

The original post

In my chat last week with Ray Briggs and Joshua Landy at Philosophy Talk (on the "ethical jerk"), I mentioned in passing that I think it isn't hard to be morally excellent, if we want to be.  Most of us simply choose not to be.  I've said this in passing in blog posts and published works (e.g., in my article "Aiming for Moral Mediocrity"), but I don't think I've ever made it the central topic of a post.

In this line of thinking, I have been influenced by ancient Chinese Confucianism.

Is goodness really so far away?  If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here (Kongzi, Analects, 7.30, Slingerland, trans., capitalization revised).

"Pick up Mount Tai and leap over the North Sea."  If you say, "I cannot," this is truly not being able.  "Massage the stiff joints of an elderly person."  If you say, "I cannot," this is not acting; it is not a case of not being able.  So Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is not in the category of picking up Mount Tai and leaping over the North Sea.  Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is in the category of massaging the stiff joints of an elderly person." (Mengzi, 1A7, Van Norden, trans., brackets added).

I find it surprising that so many people seem to disagree.  Maybe we're primed to disagree because it's a convenient excuse for our moral mediocrity.  "Gosh," you say, "I do sure wish I could be morally excellent.  But it's so hard!  So see, I'm not really to blame for being morally so-so."

I think most of us can agree that giving time or money to a worthy cause would be morally good.  And most of you, my readers, I assume, are affluent by global standards in the sense that you can afford luxuries like paying $8 for a lunch or subscribing to multiple video or music streaming services.  Even if you really don't have a few spare dollars for a good cause -- or even if you are (conveniently!) suspicious about finding any worthy charities -- unless you are on the very precipice of ruin or spread very thin with caretaking duties, you could probably find some ways to be more helpful to others.  Surely there is some person or organization you know that could really benefit from your help, or from some small or large kindness.

You want to be morally better?  Easy!  Donate some money, skipping a luxury or two if necessary.  Or find a little time to help someone who needs it.  And that's the just the start -- two easy things right off the top of my head that almost anyone can do.  With a little thought, I'm sure you could think of lots of morally good things to do that you aren't doing.

Instead, if you're like most of us, you choose to do other things.  You watch videos or play computer games or scroll through Twitter.  You spend some extra time and money having yourself a delicious instead of a simple lunch.  You save your money for some luxury you want -- a beautiful shirt, a hardback novel, or just the pleasure and security of having a large bank account.  You flake, you run late, you disappoint someone, you don't quite carry your load in something today, because it's not convenient.  You buy products from companies with bad practices, supporting those practices, simply because you like the products better or they're a little less expensive.

What's actually hard?  Well, many people find advanced calculus hard.  They try and try, but they just can't get the knack.  Also, many people find it hard to climb steep boulder faces.  They can't stretch their toes to the right spots, keep their finger grip on the little ridges, and pull themselves up.  I will never scale El Capitan, and no doggedness of will is going to change that.

Morality isn't hard like calculus and rock climbing are hard.  In fact, it's almost the opposite.  Just trying to do it typically gets you at least halfway there!  ("Is goodness really so far away?")  You might try and fail to be helpful; but even if you try, that's already (usually) morally better than not trying at all.  You might try to give money to a good cause and get scammed instead, doing more harm that good -- but that's not so common, I think, and again even the trying is admirable.  It's not that we try and fail to be morally excellent.  Not usually.  It's that we don't try.

Many people find dieting hard.  Dieting is hard in a somewhat different way than rock climbing and advanced calculus.  If you really try not to eat that chocolate bar, it's not going to jump into your mouth.  Gravity won't pull it into you the same way gravity will pull you off the face of El Capitan.  Still, there's something painful about resisting that chocolate bar, as it's calling to you.  And more generally there's something painful about the slow, steady hunger of dieting.  For most of us (not all of us), although we could lose a few pounds if we set to it, in a way that we could not climb El Capitan, there nonetheless a sense in which dieting is difficult.

But morality isn't even hard like dieting is hard -- not usually.  If you're a real miser or if you are genuinely impoverished, donating $25 to save the sight of someone with trachoma might feel as emotionally painful as resisting your favorite dish when you are acutely hungry.  Or if you're bursting with anger at someone, it might be emotionally hard to swallow that anger and act kindly.  But moderate moral improvement doesn't typically require such uncomfortable choices.  Unless your situation is unusual, it wouldn't ache your gut to be more helpful to your elderly parents, or to pause to express appreciation to a secretary, or to drive a somewhat less expensive car and give the money to your favorite good cause.  It might even feel good.

Not being morally excellent is more like choosing not to walk ten miles down the road to the next town (if you are someone with typical walking ability and decent shoes).  You could walk that ten miles.  It would take a few hours, but it wouldn't be difficult.  It's just that you don't want to do it, because you have other priorities for your time and resources.


To be clear: When I say it's not hard to be morally excellent, I'm not thinking of extreme of self-sacrificial sainthood. Just consider a few of the morally best people you personally know, people you admire for their integrity, their generosity, their kindness.  Just ordinary people, though ones you recognize to be somewhat morally better than you are -- not unreachable saints.  My father-in-law is one such person.  (Or are you already the morally best person you know?)

You could be like those morally excellent ordinary people if you wanted to be, just like you could walk ten miles to the next town a few times a week if you wanted to.  You just choose not to be as morally good as that, because you prefer other things.

You might still want to be morally excellent in the following thin sense.  You'd like to be morally excellent if you could be morally excellent without paying the costs of moral excellence.  This is the same sense of wanting in which the lackadaisical student might want an A, if she could have one with no effort.  Of course all students want As in that sense!  Such half-hearted wanting is cheap.  There's little moral worth in the desiring of free goods and virtues for yourself.  "I'd love to be honest, if I could be so without losing the benefits that come with lying."  Sure, same for all of us.  That's not seriously wanting something.  Serious wanting involves willingness to prioritize that thing over other things you also care about.

It is not hard to be morally excellent.  It's as simple and easy as massaging an elder's joints.  You simply prefer not to.

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Khorton · 2020-08-24T23:43:13.878Z · score: 14 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate the challenge this article presents, and it might prompt me to think more deeply about my own morality, but I can't help but feel insulted at the same time.

Moral excellence is MUCH harder than climbing a mountain, dieting, or walking ten miles because morality has no objective measure of success. You know when you've climbed a mountain; you don't know when you've become morally excellent. I still don't know whether I should prioritize kindness and gentleness in my everyday life or taking on a demanding and draining career which makes me more irritable but ultimately saves lives. I'm not sure anyone knows.

comment by Ramiro · 2020-08-25T19:38:43.482Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would agree that moral improvement is "easy", like saving +$100 or running more 100m might be easy, but moral excellence? Yeah, Khorton is totally right.

What I realize is that moral excellence is really hard not because of the reasons most people invoke to justify not striving for that ("selfishness is natural", "it's just signaling"), but because, to extend the comparison with mountain climbing, it's like climbing without never knowing where and when it will end.

Maybe hiking is a better metaphor. It's quite "easy & simple", but... Really, can you climb Aconcagua right now? Without prep? What if there are no maps,compass, GPS? Wouldn't you prefer to do it with others you can count on?

comment by amandastone (amandastone.work@gmail.com) · 2020-08-26T09:39:17.895Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Totally agree with you, Ramiro.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-08-24T19:21:00.167Z · score: 13 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I appreciate what the author is getting at, as presented I think it shows a lack of compassion for how difficult it is to do what one reckons one ought to do.

It's true you can simply "choose" to be good, but this is about as easy as saying all you have to do to do X for a wide variety of things X that don't require special skills is choose to do X, such as wake up early, exercise, eat healthier food when it is readily available, etc.. Despite this, lots of people try to explicitly choose to do these things and fail anyway. What's up?

The issue lies in what it means to choose. Unless you suppose some sort of notion of free will, choosing is actually not that easy to control because there's a lot of complex brain functions essentially competing to get you to doing whatever the next thing you do is, and so "choosing" actually looks a lot more like "setting up a lot of conditions both in the external world and in your mind such that a particular choice happens" rather than some atomic, free-willed choice spontaneously happening. Getting to the point where you can feel like you can simply choose to do the right thing all the time requires a tremendous amount of alignment between different parts of the brain competing to produce your next action.

I think it's best to take this article as a kind of advice. Sometimes it will be that the only thing keeping you from doing what you believe you ought to do is just some minor hold-up where you don't believe you can do it, and accepting that you can do it suddenly means that you can, but most of the time the fruit will not hang so low and instead there will be a lot else to do in order to do what one considers morally best.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-08-24T16:29:50.361Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It could be valuable (for the original author) to put an ask at the end of the post to commit to one long-term change in behaviour to be morally better, e.g. set up a recurring donation or sign a giving pledge. A recurring donation could serve not only as a long-term improvement, but also a recurring reminder of your intention to be better. But maybe a decision that you have to make consciously each time and can't so easily be ignored (if it's automatic) would be a better reminder.

I would guess most people in their daily lives do not make frequent conscious decisions to not be morally excellent (aware that they could be or do better), but if they read something like this post, are asked to commit to some change and refuse, then they are making a conscious decision. (Of course, they could have good reason, maybe they're already spread too thin and exhausted or found a good point that's sustainable, but I doubt most people test their limits like this.)

comment by MathiasKirkBonde · 2020-08-27T15:28:29.558Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not completely certain if I had the right takeaway from your post, so feel free to tell me "that's not at all what I'm saying", but it seems to me you're pushing a sentiment that changing ones behavior is easy.

This is a sentiment I strongly disagree with. I think it's an incredibly unhealthy mindset that does few people any good.

Eating healthy and regular exercise is clearly good for me and within my long term interests and 'easy' to do, yet they are a constant source of struggle within my life. But it is not easy for me to do, if it was I'd be doing it without a second thought.

On the other hand, I never once worried about my weight, whereas my father spent ten years agonizing over 20 kilos. Why didn't my father just snap his fingers and start eating the right number of calories?

Curing cancer by snapping my finger is impossible, so is snapping my finger and changing my brains neurons to find regular exercise and healthy diet easy. We all agree it would be crazy to feel guilt over the former, so why feel guilt about the latter?

Scott Alexander made this point wonderfully in his essay 'Parable of the talents'.

We are all wired differently. What is easy for those you look up to, might be impossibly hard for you. What is easy for you, is be impossibly hard to someone else.

Be better than you were yesterday, that's all anyone can ever ask of you.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-08-27T20:48:53.224Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I reposted this because I thought it was interesting, but I don't agree with everything Schwitzgebel says. I certainly don't do all of the good things that should be "easy" for me to do, morally or otherwise. (I've gained a lot of weight in quarantine, for one.)

If I had to say something I do believe, and which Schwitzgebel's post reminds me of, I'd go for "some kinds of behavior are more amenable to change than we might think." That doesn't make moral behavior change easy, but it does seem to exist in a different category than calculus or rock climbing.

You flake, you run late, you disappoint someone, you don't quite carry your load in something today, because it's not convenient.

There are many ways someone could try to get better at not doing these things, and many of those ways would probably work (unlike ways one might train for El Capitan, if one is an aging academic).

This distinction does seem relevant to me. And I'd guess that many people on this forum have changed their moral behavior for the better at multiple points in their lives; some became vegan, some began to donate more, some just became kinder and more charitable people. 

What is the difference between people who did these things and people who haven't yet? Some of this may come down to circumstances outside of someone's control (e.g. not becoming vegan for health reasons, not donating because it really isn't affordable), but some of it seems to come down to "choosing not to be" in the Schwitzgebelian sense.

I don't think this piece reveals anything too surprising, and there's no single reaction I'd expect every reader to have. But I've found myself being more patient (choosing to be more patient?) since I read it, and I thought there was some truth in the piece.

comment by Denkenberger · 2020-08-30T22:22:15.911Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My philosophy is to earn like upper middle class, live like middle class, and donate like upper class. One can typically accomplish this by roughly maintaining the consumption per person that one has earlier in life (e.g. college or grad school). Sure, there is temptation to have consumption creep as is happening in most of one’s peers, but it is not technically difficult like rock climbing, or nearly as bad as living with hunger on a diet. An exception for this being effective may be if one’s consumption is visible to those who determine how fast one advances in one’s career, and they don’t appreciate one’s choosing of charity.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2020-08-28T00:03:03.448Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

+1 to Parable of the Talents being excellent, especially given EA's relationship to scrupulosity.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-08-24T16:52:46.339Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The comments on the post get into what's required for moral excellence. Is there some justifiable cutoff? Or do we demand moral perfectionism/sainthood? The author wrote:

On moral improvement vs moral excellence: You are right that the examples really concern moral improvement, and I don't clarify what exactly is required for moral excellence. The implicit premise is that a moderate number of such improving moral choices or actions will be sufficient for moral excellence in most cases. This is perhaps implicit in my comparison to walking 10 miles a few times a week. The amount of effort and sacrifice involved in adding that to one's life is probably, for most people, sufficient (I suspect more than sufficient) for moral excellence by father-in-law as oppose to saint standards.

How much is moderate?

I'd propose aiming for continuous improvement, but at what rate? That's arbitrary, too.

comment by Alejandro Sola · 2020-08-28T03:21:42.819Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

In many cases, there is no consensus on what is morally excellent. Some parents believe it is morally excellent to subject their daughters to a cliterectomy; I beg to disagree. My workmate J. believes that hunting is morally neutral; my kids find it abhorrent.

Or there may be a disconnect between what you affirm to be morally excellent and what you feel to be morally excellent. I have a rough idea of how many lives I could save by depriving my kids of a college education and donating the proceeds to GiveWell, and yet I won't do it (and would feel guilty if I did).