Acquiring Virtues

Acquiring Virtues

In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.
Fluency of Ideas

Fluency of Ideas

Our experiences and narratives are extremely important to consider when we make judgments about the world, however we rarely think deeply about the reasons why we hold the beliefs we do. We rarely pause to consider whether our opinions are biased, whether our limited set of experiences shape the narratives that play in our mind, and how this influences our entire outlook on life. Instead, we rely on the fluency of ideas to judge our thoughts and opinions as accurate.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes about ideas from Cass Sunstein and jurist Timur Kuran explaining their views on fluency, “the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which that idea comes to mind.” It is easy to characterize an entire group of people as hardworking, or lazy, or greedy, or funny based entirely on a single interaction with a single person from that group. We don’t pause to ask if our interaction with one person is really a good reflection of all people who fit the same group as that person, we instead allow the fluency of our past experiences to shape our opinions of all people in that group.

 

And our ideas and the fluency with which those ideas come to mind don’t have to come from our own personal experience. If a claim is repeated often enough, we will have trouble distinguishing it from truth, even if it is absurd and doesn’t have any connection to reality. The idea will come to mind more fluently, and consequently the idea will start to feel true. We don’t have to have direct experience with something if a great marketing campaign has lodge an opinion or slogan in mind that we can quickly recall.

 

If we are in an important decision-making role, it is important that we recognize this fluency bias. The fluency of ideas will drive us toward a set of conclusions that might not be in our best interests. A clever marketing campaign, a trite saying repeated by salient public leaders, or a few extreme yet random personal experiences can bias our judgment. We have to find a way to step back, recognize the narrative at hand, and find reliable data to help us make better decisions, otherwise we might end up judging ideas and making decisions based on faulty reasoning.
As an addendum to this post (originally written on 10/04/2020), this morning I began The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. Early in the introduction, Pinker states that violence in almost all forms is decreasing, despite the fact that for many of us, it feels as though violence is as front and center in our world as ever before. Pinker argues that our subjective experience of out of control violence is in some ways due to the fluency bias that Kahneman describes from Sunstein and Kuran. Pinker writes,

 

“No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.”¬†

 

The fluency effect causes an observation to feel correct, even if it is not reflective of actual trends or rates in reality.