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. []

Naming this blog “ready-to-hand”: Heidegger, Husserl, folk psychology, and HCI

The name of this blog, Ready-to-hand, is a translation of Heidegger’s term zuhanden, though interpreting Heidegger’s philosophy is not specifically a major interest of mine nor a focus here. Much has been made of the significance of phenomenology, most often Heidegger, for human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design (e.g., Winograd & Flores 1985, Dourish 2001). And I am generally pretty sympathetic to phenomenology as one inspiration for HCI research. I want to just note a bit about the term zuhanden and my choice of it in a larger context — of phenomenology, HCI, and a current research interest of mine: cues for assuming the intentional stance toward systems (more on this below).

The Lifeworld and ready-to-hand

Heidegger was a student of Edmund Husserl, and Heidegger’s Being and Time was to be dedicated to Husserl.1 There is really no question of the huge influence of Husserl on Heidegger.

My major introduction to both Husserl and Heidegger was from Prof. Dagfinn Føllesdal. Føllesdal (1979) details the relationship between their philosophies. He argues for the value of seeing much of Heidegger’s philosophy “as a translation of Husserl’s”:

The key to this puzzle, and also, I think, the key to understanding what goes on in Heidegger’s philosophy, is that Heidegger’s philosophy is basically isomorphic to that of Husserl. Where Husserl speaks of the ego, Heidegger speaks of Dasein, where Husserl speaks of the noema, Heidegger speaks of the structure of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world and so on. Husserl also observed this. Several places in his copy of Being and Time Husserl wrote in the margin that Heidegger was just translating Husserl’s phenomenology into another terminology. Thus, for example, on page 13 Husserl wrote: “Heidegger transposes or transforms the constitutive phenomenological clarification of all realms of entities and universals, the total region World into the anthropological. The problematic is translation, to the ego corresponds Dasein etc. Thereby everything becomes deep-soundingly unclear, and philosophically it loses its value.” Similarly, on page 62, Husserl remarks: “What is said here is my own theory, but without a deeper justification.” (p. 369, my emphasis)

Heidegger and his terms have certainly been more popular and in wider use since then.

Føllesdal also highlights where the two philosophers diverge.2 In particular, Heidegger gives a central role to the role of the body and action in constituting the world. While in his publications Husserl stuck to a focus on how perception constitutes the Lifeworld, Heidegger uses many examples from action.3 Our action in the world, including our skillfulness in action constitutes those objects we interact with for us.

Heidegger contrasts two modes of being (in addition to our own mode — being-in-the-world): present-at-hand and ready-to-hand (or alternatively, the occurant and the available (Dreyfus 1990)). The former is the mode of being consideration of an object as a physical thing present to us — or occurant, and Heidegger argues it constitutes the narrow focus of previous philosophical explorations of being. The latter is the stuff of every skilled action — available for action: the object becomes equipment, which can often be transparent in action, such that it becomes an extension of our body.

J.J. Gibson expresses this view in his proposal of an ecological psychology (in which perception and action are closely linked):

When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or a part of the user’s own body, and thus is no longer a part of the environment of the user. […] This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of “objective” and “subjective” is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape this philosophical dichotomy. (1979, p. 41)

While there may be troubles ahead for this view, I think the passage captures well something we all can understand: when we use scissors, we feel the paper cutting; and when a blind person uses a cane to feel in front of them, they can directly perceive the layout of the surface in front of them.

Transparency, abstraction, opacity, intentionality

Research and design in HCI has sought at times to achieve this transparency, sometimes by drawing on our rich knowledge of and skill with the ordinary physical and social world. Metaphor in HCI (e.g., the desktop metaphor) can be seen as one widespread attempt at this (cf. Blackwell 2006). This kind of transparency does not throw abstraction out of the picture. Rather the two go hand-in-hand: the specific physical properties of the present-at-hand are abstracted away, with quickly perceived affordances for action in their place.

But other kinds of abstraction are in play in HCI as well. Interactive technologies can function as social actors and agents– with particular cues eliciting social responses that are normally applied to other people (Nass and Moon 2000, Fogg 2002). One kind of social response, not yet as widely considered in the HCI literature, is assuming the intentional stance — explanation in terms of beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc. — towards the system. This is a powerful, flexible, and easy predictive and explanatory strategy often also called folk psychology (Dennett 1987), which may be a tacit theory or a means of simulating other minds. We can explain other people based on what they believe and desire.

But we can also do the same for other things. To use one of Dennett’s classic examples, we can do the same for a thermostat: why did it turn the heat on? It wanted to keep the house at some level of warmth, it believed that it was becoming colder than desired, and it believed that it could make it warmer by turning on the heat. While in the case of the thermostat, this strategy doesn’t hide much complexity (we could explain it with other strategies without much trouble), it can be hugely useful when the system in question is complex or otherwise opaque to other kinds of description (e.g., it is a black box).

We might think then that perceived complexity and opacity should both be cues for adopting the intentional stance. But if the previous research on social responses to computers (not to mention the broader literature on heuristics and mindlessness) has taught us anything, it is that made objects such as computers can evoke unexpected responses through other simplier cues. Some big remaining questions that I hope to take up in future posts and research:

  • What are these cues, both features of the system and situational factors?
  • How can designers influence people to interpret and explain systems using folk psychology?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of evoking the intentional stance in users?
  • How should we measure the use of the intentional stance?
  • How is assuming the intentional stance towards a thing different (or the same) as it having being-in-the-world as its mode of being?


Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact., 13(4), 490-530.
Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press.
Dourish, P. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Dreyfus, H. L. (1990). Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. MIT Press.
Fogg, B.J. (2002). Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.
Føllesdal, D. (1979). Husserl and Heidegger on the role of actions in the constitution of the world. In E. Saarinen, R. Hilpinen, I. Niiniluoto and M. Provence Hintikka, eds., Essays in Honour of Jaakko Hintikka, Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel, 365-378.
Nass, C., and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1985). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Ablex Publishing Corp.
  1. But Husserl was Jewish, and Heidegger was himself a member of the Nazi party, so this did not happen in the first printing. []
  2. Dreyfus (1990) is an alternative view that takes the divergence as quite radical; he sees Føllesdal as hugely underestimating the originality of Heidegger’s thought. Instead Dreyfus characterizes Husserl as formulating so clearly the Cartesian worldview that Heidegger recognized its failings and was thus able to radically and successfully critique it. []
  3. It is worth noting that Husserl actually wrote about this as well, but in manuscripts, which Heidegger read years before writing Being and Time. []

Expert users: agreement in focus from two threads of human-computer interaction research

Much of current human-computer interaction (HCI) research focuses on novice users in “walk-up and use” scenarios. I can think of three major causes for this:

  1. A general shift from examining non-discretionary use to discretionary use
  2. How much easier it is to find (and not train) study participants unfamiliar with a system than experts (especially with a system that is only a prototype)
  3. The push from practitioners in the direction, especially with the advent of the Web, where new users just show up at your site, often deep-linked

This focus sometimes comes in for criticism, especially when #2 is taken as a main cause of the choice.

On the other hand, some research threads in HCI continue to focus on expert use. As I’ve been reading a lot of research on both human performance modeling and situated & embodied approaches to HCI, it has been interesting to note that both instead have (comparatively) a much bigger focus on the performance and experience of expert and skilled use.

Grudin’s “Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction” does a good job of explaining the human performance modeling (HPM) side of this. HPM owes a lot to human factors historically, and while The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction successfully brought engineering-oriented cognitive psychology to the field, it was human factors, said Stuart Card, “that we were trying to improve” (Grudin 2005, p. 7). And the focus of human factors, which arose from maximizing productivity in industrial settings like factories, has been non-discretionary use. Fundamentally, it is hard for HPM to exist without a focus on expert use because many of the differences — and thus research contributions through new interaction techniques — can only be identified and are only important for use by experts or at least trained users. Grudin notes:

A leading modeler discouraged publication of a 1984 study of a repetitive task that showed people preferred a pleasant but slower interaction technique—a result significant for discretionary use, but not for modeling aimed at maximizing performance.

Situated action and embodied interaction approaches to HCI, which Harrison, Tatar, and Senger (2007) have called the “third paradigm of HCI”, are a bit different story. While HPM research, like a good amount in traditional cognitive science generally, contributes to science and design by assimilating people to information processors with actuators, situated and embodied interaction research borrows a fundamental concern of ethnomethodology, focusing on how people actively make behaviors intelligible by assimilating them to social and rational action.

There are at least three ways this motivates the study of skilled and expert users:

  1. Along with this research topic comes a methodological concern for studying behavior in context with the people who really do it. For example, to study publishing systems and technology, the existing practices of people working in such a setting of interest are of critical importance.
  2. These approaches emphasize the skills we all have and the value of drawing on them for design. For example, Dourish (2001) emphasizes the skills with which we all navigate the physical and social world as a resource for design. This is not unrelated to the first way.
  3. These approaches, like and through their relationships to the participatory design movement, have a political, social, and ethical interest in empowering those who will be impacted by technology, especially when otherwise its design — and the decision to adopt it — would be out of their control. Non-discretionary use in institutions is the paradigm prompting situation for this.

I don’t have a broad conclusion to make. Rather, I just find it of note and interesting that these two very different threads in HCI research stand out from much other work as similar in this regard. Some of my current research is connecting these two threads, so expect more on their relationship.

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Grudin, J. (2005). Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction. IEEE Ann. Hist. Comput. 27, 4 (Oct. 2005), 46-62.
Harrison, S., Tatar, D., and Senger, P. (2007). The Three Paradigms of HCI. Extended Abstracts CHI 2007.