[ExI] Meta question

Anders anders at aleph.se
Sat Aug 20 20:09:35 UTC 2016

On 2016-08-20 15:14, William Flynn Wallace wrote:
> Did I act morally?  Questionable, certainly.  But given the situation 
> beforehand I don't think that I would have predicted that I'd act like 
> I did.  Far from it.  He really got me angry.  Being angry and 
> combative, or fearful like in combat, can veto all the ethics you 
> learned from Aristotle or just by thinking for year and years.

Aristotle would point out that a courageous man is a man that does not 
let the fear (or anger) get the better of him: whether he consciously 
remember ethics lectures is not interesting, what matters is what he 
does and that he does it well. And that he learns from the experience.

Now, one reason virtue ethics is not super-popular is that it actually 
doesn't give much advice on what you ought to be doing while being 
courageous. The courageous gang member or soldier in the evil overlord's 
army may be just as courageous as the knight or policeman, yet do very 
different things (there are various saves in the virtue ethics 
literature, of course).

> You remember the Kitty Genovese story?  It's about a woman who was 
> killed on a city street while others watched and did nothing, not even 
> call the police.  Psych students told that story said that they would 
> have done something, but many repetitions of that done in experiments 
> on city streets with hidden cameras show that extremely few people do 
> anything to help.
> If a man was sprawled on a street would you assume he was drunk and 
> pass on by?  Just about everybody does.

I remember the lecture about the bystander effect in Psych 101. It 
brought up the Genovese case (which incidentally has been retold so 
often that it no longer looks like the original event - your version is 
more extreme than most). The professor also pointed out that we were now 
all thinking that we would resist the effect since we knew about it, but 
he explained how he - an expert on this effect - had been equally 
paralyzed when a guy got a heart attack at a bus stop. I think he cited 
some of the psych student studies too.

Then he did something useful: he explained how to avoid the effect. If 
you are the victim, point at somebody and say "You in the green shirt. 
Help me/call 911/..." This breaks the symmetry and not only gets the 
appointed one to act, but tends to get the rest of the bystanders to 
help. (There are also other symmetry breakers, like being part of a 
caring profession - they also find that they "must" help).

Note that this is all about applied psychology, which is really what you 
want to use to do applied ethics. Theoretical ethics is more interesting 
to philosophers, but real ethics is more of a branch of psychology and 
sociology. Which is actually the main point of Aristotle!

(Yup, I am totally an Aristotle fanboy. Despite the guy being wrong 
about 90% of everything :-)

Dr Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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