On Virtue

This post is comprised partly of my own ideas, and partly of the ideas of Scott Alexander. Part of what I am doing here is just explaining my interpretation of his post. It is my first post, and it’s essentially just an experiment. I’d be highly appreciative of feedback and constructive criticism. I’m not 100% sure I’ve completely expressed what I want to, but I think I’ve at least made a reasonable start. In the spirit of writing quickly, I decided not to my doubts hold me back. My point might seem quite obvious/​self-evident, but I do feel emotionally like it’s a point I need to make.

A lot of us have people we look up to, and some people feel inadequate because they can’t replicate the amazing feats that their idols can. Perhaps this post can go some way towards helping people to feel better about themselves relative to those they admire, and to feel more self-worth in general.

Virtue almost certainly doesn’t actually exist. But if we imagine for a moment that we’re living in a world where it does, it is almost certainly directly proportional to effort, and nothing else. Any other model of virtue seems, to me, somewhat incoherent.

The first part of Scott Alexander’s ‘I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup’ really struck a chord with me, and it illustrates quite well the point I want to make. His point is essentially encapsulated in the following extract:

“There are a lot of people who say “I forgive you” when they mean “No harm done”, and a lot of people who say “That was unforgivable” when they mean “That was genuinely really bad”. Whether or not forgiveness is right is a complicated topic I do not want to get in here. But since forgiveness is generally considered a virtue, and one that many want credit for having, I think it’s fair to say you only earn the right to call yourself ‘forgiving’ if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you.

To borrow Chesterton’s example, if you think divorce is a-ok, then you don’t get to “forgive” people their divorces, you merely ignore them. Someone who thinks divorce is abhorrent can “forgive” divorce. You can forgive theft, or murder, or tax evasion, or something you find abhorrent.

I mean, from a utilitarian point of view, you are still doing the correct action of not giving people grief because they’re a divorcee. You can have all the Utility Points you want. All I’m saying is that if you “forgive” something you don’t care about, you don’t earn any Virtue Points.”

This post is about Virtue Points, and (importantly) not about Utility Points. I’ve noticed that I habitually assign people merit in my head, and I suspect almost everyone else does too. This post is about that process.

I want to set aside for the moment whether it’s right to think in terms of people ‘deserving’ things. As I’ve already said, the concept of ‘desert’ is probably best thought of as something instrumentally useful rather than as a fundamental principle of the universe. But to the extent that we assign Virtue Points, I feel like it’s best for everyone if we do it in a way that is fair and makes sense.

As Scott says, in terms of our behaviour, it probably makes sense to praise people at least partly based on the effects of their actions, rather than how much effort they put into them. We shouldn’t just reward pain. But this post isn’t about our outward behaviour—it’s about how we internally process instances of people doing things we consider admirable. It’s about the natural human reaction of ‘Wow, this person really did a good thing, so I’d better mentally assign them some Virtue Points. They deserve good things to come their way as a result of the good thing they themselves have done.’ I think this is a good and useful way to think to some degree, but I also believe we need to be very careful when thinking in this way not to confuse Virtue Points with Utility Points, so as to avoid seriously over- or under-assigning merit.

Let’s take the example of learning a new skill. Developing a skill is often a difficult process, and going through that process usually merits Virtue Points. People who have learned new languages, built muscle, or overcome social anxiety deserve a lot of Virtue Points for doing these things. But I think we should be careful not to internally kid ourselves that these people deserve a lot of Virtue Points for continuing to do these things day-in day-out, once they have made the initial investment in learning the skill.

Sometimes people talk about those who have achieved good things in a way that makes me worry that they’re not internally assigning Virtue Points in a fair, healthy way. For example, my French teacher used to praise me in almost every lesson for being good at French. Sure, maybe I deserved some praise for the continued effort I put into French, but I didn’t need praise for the general skill of being good at learning languages, which is one of the main components of me being good at French. I think that the skill of being good at languages is almost entirely a result of genes and circumstance, and is basically not at all a result of my own effort or suffering. I therefore think I deserve very few Virtue Points for it, if any. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things that I’ve done in my life that were really hard, and that I don’t think anyone gave me Virtue Points for.

Or take Bob, for example. Bob has a job that he loves, working for an EA organisation. He doesn’t have any anxiety disorders, or depression, or any other major health problems. He eats well, exercises, and meditates every day, and has done all these things for years. There are probably a few people in the world with circumstances similar to Bob’s, although given how unusually comfortable his life is, I’d be surprised if there were many.

Now, I think Bob is amazing. But I think this in the sense that what he has accomplished is unusual and good for the world. I would probably praise Bob outwardly, partly out of habit and/​or social pressure, and partly because praising him might encourage him to continue to do similar good actions in the future. But I don’t think that Bob is amazing in the sense that his continued daily activities involve an unusual amount of effort and suffering. I think his life is probably actually quite easy. Those Virtue Points instead should probably go mostly to people who find it near-impossible to get up in the morning but still do it anyway, or single mothers who have to hold down three jobs just to feed their families, or to chickens suffering in factory farms.[1] Bob gets a lot of my Utility Points, but very few of my Virtue Points.

When I’m deciding how many Utility Points I should give you—which hopefully correlates reasonably well with how much I outwardly praise you—I care about the effects of your actions. But when I’m dishing out Virtue Points, I couldn’t care less about things you can do without breaking a sweat. I care about what you do in moments of uncertainty. I care about what you did when you didn’t want to do the right thing. I care about what you did when you felt so confused that you had a very poor grasp on what to do, but knew that you had to do something. I care about whether you did the right thing when doing the right thing took effort.

The fact that someone has learnt a skill is impressive. The fact that they continue to do it is often quite ordinary. Not really impressive at all. We’re not surprised by it.

An important implication of what Scott is saying, and one I want to underline, is that you should be careful of mentally assigning people many Virtue Points for things they probably no longer have to fight for much. And you certainly shouldn’t feel bad about yourself for not doing these same things on a day-to-day basis. What’s amazing about people is the ways that we grow, not the ways we stay the same.

  1. ^

    A lot of this post is about voluntary suffering, but you’ll notice that the suffering of factory-farmed animals is not voluntary. I actually don’t think I make much of a distinction in my head between voluntary and involuntary suffering in terms of deciding what someone ‘deserves’. So I think I give beings who suffer involuntarily something akin to ‘Virtue Points’ as well.