Friday, December 17, 2010

Moral effort

One of my favorite passages in the Analects is the one where Confucius is asked whether one of his students behaved badly and against filial piety when he refused to mourn the deaths of his parents for the prescribed time and in accordance to all the ritual procedures. Confucius responded that only the student himself knew the answer and that the answer depended on his efforts to act rightly in the face of contingent circumstances. I can't remember the exact reference to this passage but if Carl or Jeremy knows I'd appreciate it if they post it in the comments section. D.C. Lau in his introduction to his translation of the Analects says that this passage is one of a few paramount o the understanding of the Analects.

Confucius seems to be making a statement about moral effort and "trying one's best" and its relationship to moral responsibility. I don't see much literature at all in moral responsibility on moral effort. I wonder why because I think it is one of the most illuminating ideas shedding light not only one responsibility conditions but offers the glimpse to a compatibilist analysis of free will.

Here are some implications of what such an analysis might look like in regards to the free will debate. Many incompatibilists think that for us to be free and responsible in our moral actions, we would need to have the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) or the ability to do otherwise. Now some compatibilists have tried to come to a version of how this principle may be possible/coherent and true when determinism is also true. I will make a later post on this from angle but here I will focus on moral effort's contribution.

Moral effort looks at counter-factuals to analyse when someone could have done otherwise. X is responsible for some act a whenever he did a but could have done otherwise had he made more effort to. We judge our own actions and others by this kind of counter-factual all the time. Our own guilt much of the time stems from this feeling that we could have done otherwise had we made more effort but didn't do so causing some great undesirable effect one us or others. Consider that this status is both self reflective and completely made without consideration to the truth of determinism or indeterminism. Moreover, our guilt seems to have propositional content; that is, we can either be true or false regarding our guilt. Certain conditions make it appropriate to feel guilty, others not. Certain mitigating or absolving conditions make it wrong to feel guilty or not guilty when other conditions were in place.

I suggest we do this when we feel or believe that we could have done otherwise had we applied more effort but did not in fact do so. Alternative possibilities were there which we are responsible for because we did not apply more effort to make it obtain. Even if we were to find out that global determinism is true and that we in fact could not have done otherwise, we would likely still feel guilty because our inability to do otherwise says something about our moral character or moral psychological status at that time. That status is worthy of moral blame or not and is subject to normative demands to change.

Your capabilities for certain acts are within a possibility horizon. The possibilities inside are contingent on your efforts and whether or not you choose to do it. What is outside of that horizon, you cannot do not matter how much effort you put in. You are not responsible for anything falling outside.

Consider this scenario using effort to analyse doing otherwise in some other non moral way. Michael Jordan misses a slam dunk in practice. He blames himself for missing it because had he made more effort (to jump higher), he could have made the dunk. That much is obvious. He feels "guilty" and pissed at himself irrespective of the truth of determinism because his guilt is not directed at the belief of some metaphysical reality being true or false but at his own psychological status at the time which he now believes worthy of blame. It displayed indolence and a lack of care for improvement which Jordan loathes and is against his highest values (especially his work ethic and value for the sport). So he is blaming himself for not doing otherwise in some sense but that blame is has nothing to do with doing otherwise in some indeterministic sense but in a counter-factual sense which then directed at his state of mind at some time causing the miss. This state of mind is subject to choice, his values, change through future effort, etc. Notice that determinism/indeterminism is factored out of the equation here. It is elbowed out of considerations.

Notice also that this look is context sensitive. Certain obtaining conditions may make it harder (requiring more effort) than others to do the same action (a nagging ankle sprain, e.g.). But I think that context sensitivity is a desideratum here.

Now consider Danny Devito. He tries to dunk a basketball and misses by several feet. Now he does not blame himself at all (if he is honest with himself) even though he could of as well applied more effort at that time. Why? Because even if the counter-factual was true and he had applied all his little heart could muster, he would have still missed by several feet because he is short and fat, not tall and athletic like Jordan. No matter how much he values basketball and has a committed work ethic, he will never dunk a basketball. He has nothing to blame himself for even if he has these internal qualities of trying his hardest and value for playing basketball.

Our internal sense of our own capacities are prima facie accurate most of the time especially in regards to some matters. Now our accuracy is irrelevant to the truth conditions of whether we could have done otherwise had we applied more effort. One is a epistemic limitation and the other a metaphysical one. The importance for free will will be the metaphysical one while the one relevant for moral considerations will be for epistemic and metaphysical. Free will is irrelevant to whether or not we believe we could have done otherwise; we either have it or we don't. We could be mistaken in believing we have it as some philosophers and many neuroscientists scientists (mistakenly) think. Analogously, Danny Devito have an overblown sense of his own basketball prowess if he feels guilty at missing the dunk the same way Jordan feels. His guilt would be mistaken, misplaced much as someone who though he had killed someone in cold blood later found out that he was hypnotized into thinking so. His guilt stems from a deluded belief. We could be mistaken in believing we don't have it as well. Notice that I have provided with the help of Confucius the truth conditions of doing otherwise (PAP) through a moral effort analysis which may partially provide a complete look at freedom as well.

Implications of this look at moral effort. I would need to flesh out this analysis substantially and still I don't think I would have a complete analysis of free will and moral responsibility because I think these are cluster concepts. there are many things we mean by freedom and being responsible either character wise of for some particular action. But I do think that moral effort explains much of freedom and responsibility in the morally relevant cases. This is especially the case when you consider the fact that we have privileged access to our own capacity to do otherwise had we given more effort. Now sometimes we could be wrong but the fact that we could be genuinely wrong (or right depending on actual particular circumstances of the case) provide the metaphysical criterion for PAP. Morally relevantly, since our own access is privileged, that means we are more accurate in assessing our own case of when we could have done otherwise than other people from a non first person perspective in evaluating us. The possibility of moral inaccuracy in assigning blame, guilt, laudation, etc even in our own evaluations from the first person perspective is unfortunate but may be something we just have to deal with if we are ever going to attempt a just and moral society. Much as physical scientists will always have to deal with inaccuracy in their measurements, that doesn't stop them from getting at the truth and doing scientific work, neither should it stop us from doing moral judgments.

But it does show that in many cases, I think, "big cases" such as serious crimes people commit, which people are generally quick to judge, the only person that really knows that he was really responsible and whether he could have done otherwise is the person that committed it for example. We may not have the privileged access to see what the contingent and relevant contextually sensitive circumstances were such that he really could have done otherwise.

However, in other cases where people, at least in our culture are not quick to judge/condemn/blame (and I think these also morally relevant cases) such as when people have atrocious opinions (racist, sexists or violent, etc) but hold on to them despite given evidence against them doing so (they hold on to them because of prejudice and bias, etc), we should be more judgmental because in these cases, it is more accurate to judge whether someone could have done otherwise. Almost anyone could overcome their own prejudice with some (extra) effort it seems to me unless they have some psychologically weird condition (pathological it would have to be) to be prejudiced and not respond to good reasons to abandon their demonstrably falsified views in the face of counter evidence. Thus for those who believe e.g., that Iraq has WMD and links to al Qaeda despite all the facts against it, they should be blamed and appropriately sanctioned for having such an unjustified belief but our culture is loathe to blame them because (perhaps due to our liberal and post modern sensibilities) we tend to think that everyone has a right (liberal) to their opinions and that everyone's opinions are worth as much as any other's (post modern). But people don't realize how much harm irrational beliefs cause in the world. In this example, I don't think the coalition governments of the US, UK, Australia, etc would have gone to war had public opinion been against it (over 70% of Americans supported the Iraq war at the start according to almost all polls). 1.5 Million Iraqis died so far (and counting) as a result according to some respectable sources. It's reasonable that these people would have changed their views (and I think there is good psychological and sociological evidence to support this) had their friend's, family, media, etc who are not so biased and prejudiced been more condemnatory in demanding epistemic integrity from those who do hold irrational beliefs.

OTOH, in many cases where people are predisposed to blame such as in murder cases etc, we are in many times unsure not only if the person truly did it but what his or her conditions psychological or otherwise were at the time to warrant a just condemnation. He or she might not have been able to do otherwise even with more effort. It might be impossible to make an accurate judgment. Many times, we don't blame someone even if they could have done otherwise had they given more effort because such would have been too onerous on them to ask for such efforts. In such a case, I think it is community-relative whether or not blame is justified. Some communities may require more moral effort to be a part of that community than others and if the equilibrium for moral effort in that society warrants that the individual could have applied a certain degree of moral effort more and had he done so past that community relative benchmark, the desired effect would have been obtained, then that would be a justified case where the community can blame him for his actions (or omission to do something as the case may be). In other cases where no reasonable and normal individual (for that society) is expected to put that much effort in to surpass some threshold the community itself has in place from what is normally and reasonable expected of each other, people might be justifiably loathe to cast the first stone. Individuals may be excused though not exonerated for the action. OTOH, I think when someone tries their best and still cannot help doing something morally required of them (by compulsion perhaps) or omits to doing something required when they have tried their best effort then we would say that this person is exonerated from the act because it "wasn't his fault". He had no other choice, he was forced, etc.

In Confucius's case, he did not judge his student probably because he did not know or know for beyond reasonable doubt to condemn because the extenuating circumstances were not transparent and evident to him. Had the student been in dire financial straights and could not afford to take 3 years off work to mourn in accord with ritual propriety? Might there have been some other thing the student suffered through at the time that Confucius did not know and was not in the position to know which expiated or mitigated blame? Maybe, maybe not. He felt (and perhaps judiciously so) he was not in the right position to know.


  1. is a great site for looking up Analects quotes. The story is Analects 17.20 . I think Confucius might have been a bit sarcastic to the student though. After he leaves the room, Confucius calls him bu-ren in front of the others.

  2. It might have been another passage. The word that Confucius uses to mean "doing one's utmost" according to Lau's translation is Zhong (忠). Today zhong means "loyalty" but not in the classical Chinese apparently.

    Another passage (Analects 4:15) says

    "The Master said, 'Ts'an, there is a single thread binding my way together.'

    Tseng Tzu assented.

    After the Master had gone out, the disciple asked, 'What did he mean?'

    Tseng Tzu said, 'The way of the Master consists in doing one's best and in using oneself as a measure in to gauge others. That is all.'"

    Notice that its interesting that zhong should be used together with Shu (恕 or using oneself as a measure to gauge others). There are two other passages, I believe, that puts them together again. Since moral effort is best assessed from one's own first-person perspective, we seem to be our own best moral judges if we can be honest with ourselves, and in judging others, Confucius seems to be saying that we should judge others according to whether or not they have accomplished the ideal of zhong. Many times, this is quite difficult to attain any sort of real accuracy and sometimes nearly impossible so that Confucius seems to take an inward position to moral assessment so that he is not saying that people like some of his students are not worthy of blame but that only they can really be relatively sure of it. This is a very non judgmental stance. But there are other passages which suggest Confucius was very demanding and critical displaying the morally judgment reactive attitudes towards others. But those instances always seem to be instances where there is more clarity that the instance really was cases of wrongdoing even from an outside non first-person perspective. Such a case is the story of Confucius hitting a student on the head with a cane for being ignorant and flippant in a serious moral matter. It seems to me that being such is much more clear an instance of not doing one's best because almost anyone can muster enough conscientiousness and moral effort to be more serious in grave matters but it is more indeterminate whether people can suffer under the demands of a rigorous, 3 year mourning period.