Do what the virtuous person would do?

In the film The Descendents, George Clooney’s character Matt King wrestles — sometimes comically — with new and old choices involving his family and Hawaii. In one case, King decides he wants to meet a rival, both just to meet him and to give him some news; that is, he (at least explicitly) has generally good reason to meet him. Perhaps he even ought to meet him. When he actually does meet him, he cannot just do these things, he also argues with his rival, etc. King’s unplanned behaviors end up causing his rival considerable trouble.1

This struck me as related to some challenges in formulating what one should do — that is, in the “practical reasoning” side of ethics.

One way of getting practical advice out of virtue ethics is to say that one should do what the virtuous person would do in this situation. On its face, this seems right. But there are also some apparent counterexamples. Consider a short-tempered tennis player who has just lost a match.2 In this situation, the virtuous person would walk over to his opponent, shake his hand, and say something like “Good match.” But if this player does that, he is likely to become enraged and even assault his victorious opponent. So it seems better for him to walk off the court without attempting any of this — even though this is clearly rude.

The simple advice to do what the virtuous person would do in the present situation is, then, either not right or not so simple. It might be right, but not so simple to implement, if part of “the present situation” is one’s own psychological weaknesses. Aspects of the agent’s psychology — including character flaws — seem to license bad behavior and to remove reasons for taking the “best” actions.

King and other characters in The Descendents face this problem, both in the example above and at some other points in the movie. He begins a course of action (at least in part) because this is what the virtuous person would do. But then he is unable to really follow through because he lacks the necessary virtues.3 We might take this as a reminder of the ethical value to being humble — to account for our faults — when reasoning about what we ought to do.4 It is also a reminder of how frustrating this can be, especially when one can imagine (and might actually be able to) following through on doing what the virtuous person would do.

One way to cope with these weaknesses is to leverage other aspects of one’s situation. We can make public commitments to do the virtuous thing. We can change our environment, sometimes by binding our future selves, like Ulysses, from acting on our vices once we’ve begun our (hopefully) virtuous course of action. Perhaps new mobile technologies will be a substantial help here — helping us intervene in our own lives in this way.

  1. Perhaps deserved trouble. But this certainly didn’t play a stated role in the reasoning justifying King’s decision to meet him. []
  2. This example is first used by Gary Watson (“Free Agency”, 1975) and put to this use by Michael Smith in his “Internalism” (1995). Smith introduces it as a clear problem for the “example” model of how what a virtuous person would do matters for what we should each do. []
  3. Another reading of some of these events in The Descendents is that these characters actually want to do the “bad behaviors”, and they (perhaps unconciously) use their good intentions to justify the course of action that leads to the bad behavior. []
  4. Of course, the other side of such humility is being short on self-efficacy. []

Ethical persuasion profiling?

Persuasion profiling — estimating the effects of available influence strategies on an individual and adaptively selecting the strategies to use based on these estimates — sounds a bit scary. For many, ‘persuasion’ is a dirty word and ‘profiling’ generally doesn’t have positive connotations; together they are even worse! So why do we use this label?

In fact, Maurits Kaptein and I use this term, coined by BJ Fogg, precisely because it sounds scary. We see the potential for quite negative consequences of persuasion profiling, so we try to alert our readers to this.1

On the other hand, we also think that, not only is persuasion profiling sometimes beneficial, but there are cases where choosing not to adapt to individual differences in this way might itself be unethical.2 If a company marketing a health intervention knows that there is substantial variety in how people respond to the strategies used in the intervention — such that while the intervention has positive effects on average, it has negative effects for some — it seems like they have two ethical options.

First, they can be honest about this in their marketing, reminding consumers that it doesn’t work for everyone or even trying to market it to people it is more likely to work for. Or they could make this interactive intervention adapt to individuals — by persuasion profiling.

Actually for the first option to really work, the company needs to at least model how these responses vary by observable and marketable-to characteristics (e.g., demographics). And it may be that this won’t be enough if there is too much heterogeneity: even within some demographic buckets, the intervention may have negative effects for a good number of would-be users. On the other hand, by implementing persuasion profiling, the intervention will help more people, and the company will be able to market it more widely — and more ethically.

A simplified example that is somewhat compelling to me at least, but certainly not airtight. In another post, I’ll describe how somewhat foreseeable, but unintended, consequences should also give one pause.

  1. You might say we tried to build in a warning for anyone discussing or promoting this work. []
  2. We argue this in the paper we presented at Persuasive Technology 2010. The text below reprises some of what we said about our “Example 4” in that paper.
    Kaptein, M. & Eckles, D. (2010). Selecting effective means to any end: Futures and ethics of persuasion profiling. Proceedings of Persuasive Technology 2010, Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer. []