Blameworthy Attitudes

Blameworthy Attitudes

I like to believe that people are more than the sum of their parts. A single character trait, a single behavior or interaction, and a single virtue or vice is rarely enough to form a comprehensive view of who a person is. Additionally, people become who they are as a result of many complex forces, some of which they have control over and others which they don’t have control over. For this reason, I generally try to reserve judgement, and apply the same thinking that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his book Meditations, “When thou art offended at any man’s fault, turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself.”
With this mindset I generally try not to focus on the errors and flaws of others, but to see that I would likely behave the same way if I were under the same pressures and in the same circumstance. I try to remove blame from others, and recognize how our faults arise within us and why. But leaning into this mindset too much can hide the fact that people truly are blameworthy for some vices.
In his book Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam examines epistemic vices and considers how our attitudes, behaviors, and habits can form epistemic vices which reflect back onto us. Cassam differentiates between vices that we are responsible for acquiring and vices we are responsible for changing, and considers the ways we should think about blame and criticism. He writes, “if S’s attitude is in character, an expression of the kid of person that S is, then his bad attitude can hardly fail to reflect badly on him. Criticizing his attitude is a way of criticizing him since attitude is not something separate from him.”
I tend to pull things apart and consider the component pieces separately. I do this with people, and as I wrote about at the outset of this post, I generally think that the complete picture of the individual is greater than the sum of component pieces. My habit of seeing the world as Aurelius encourages leads me to discount the blame and responsibility that I attach to an individual based on a bad trait. But Cassam argues that this isn’t really possible. A bad attitude or an epistemic vice doesn’t exist on its own in the real world. Our behaviors, characters, and habits are not real, they are manifestations of each of us. Unlike a computer program, a car, or a shoe, they cannot be criticized separately from a person.
Therefore, criticizing a person’s beliefs, habits, or vices is necessarily a criticism of the person. Even if we make the criticism obliquely, as I try to do, we still are critical of the individual. Turning this around, we can also see that we cannot separate our own vices from who we are as people. Just as we cannot excuse another person’s inconsistent and poor behaviors or attitudes, we cannot explain ours without accepting criticism. The criticism of a vice is a criticism of the person, whether it is ourselves or others. The blame lies with us for the vices we hold.
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.
How We Chose to Measure Risk

How We Chose to Measure Risk

Risk is a tricky thing to think about, and how we chose to measure and communicate risk can make it even more challenging to comprehend. Our brains like to categorize things, and categorization is easiest when the categories are binary or represent three or fewer distinct possibilities. Once you start adding options and different possible outcomes, decisions quickly become overwhelmingly complex, and our minds have trouble sorting through the possibilities. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the challenges of thinking about risk, and highlights another level of complexity in thinking about risk: what measurements we are going to use to communicate and judge risk.

 

Humans are pretty good at estimating coin flips – that is to say that our brains do ok with binary 50-50 outcomes (although as Kahneman shows in his book this can still trip us up from time to time). Once we have to start thinking about complex statistics, like how many people will die from cancer caused by smoking if they smoke X number of packs of cigarettes per month for X number of years, our brains start to have trouble keeping up. However, there is an additional decision that needs to be layered on top statistics such as cigarette related death statistics before we can begin to understand them. That decision is how we are going to report the death statistics.  Will we chose to report deaths per thousand smokers? Will we chose to report the number of packs smoked for a number of years? Will we just chose to report deaths among all smokers, regardless as to whether they smoked one pack per month or one pack before lunch every day?

 

Kahneman writes, “the evaluation of the risk depends on the choice of a measure – with the obvious possibility that the choice may have been guided by a preference for one outcome or another.”

 

Political decisions cannot be escaped, even when we are trying to make objective and scientific statements about risk. If we want to convey that something is dangerous, we might chose to report overall death numbers across the country. Those death numbers might sound like a large number, even though they may represent a very small fraction of incidents. In our lives today, this may be done with COVID-19 deaths, voter fraud instances, or wildfire burn acreage. Our brains will have a hard time comprehending risk in each of these areas, and adding the complexity of how that risk is calculated, measured, and reported can make virtually impossible for any of us to comprehend risk. Clear and accurate risk reporting is vital for helping us understand important risks in our lives and in society, but the entire process can be derailed if we chose measures that don’t accurately reflect risk or that muddy the waters of exactly what the risk is.
The Availability Heuristic

The Science of Availability

Which presidential candidate is doing more advertising this year? Which college football team has been the most dominant over the last five years? Who has had the most songs on the Hot 100 over the last five years? You can probably come up with an intuitive answer to (at least one of) these questions even if you don’t follow politics, college football, or pop music very closely. But what you are doing when you come up with an intuitive answer isn’t really answering the question, but instead relying on substitution and the availability heuristic.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind.” So if you recently saw a few ads from the Trump Campaign, then your mind would probably intuit that his campaign is doing more advertising. If you remember that LSU won the college football national championship last year, then you might have answered LSU, but also if you see lots of people wearing Alabama hats on a regular basis, you might answer Alabama. And if you recently heard a Taylor Swift song, then your intuitive guess might be that she has had the most top 100 hits.

 

Kahneman continues, “The availability heuristic, like other heuristics of judgment, substitutes one question for another: you wish to estimate the size of a category or the frequency of an event, but you report an impression of the ease with which instances come to mind.” When we are asked to guess how often an event happens or what percent of a category fits a certain characteristic, our brains flip back through short-term memory for examples that match what we are looking for. The easier it is to remember an example the more weight we give to it.

 

I don’t really know who is doing more advertising, but I do know that I have seen a lot of Trump ads on YouTube, so it intuitively felt that he was doing more advertising, even though I might have just picked one channel where his ads were more salient. Overall, he may be doing less than the Biden campaign. Similarly, I didn’t initially remember that LSU won the national championship last year, but I did see someone wearing an Alabama sweatshirt recently, and that team came to mind quickly when thinking of dominant football programs. I also don’t have a clue who has had the most top 100 hits in the last 5 years, but people in my orbit on Twitter frequently post things relating to Taylor Swift, so her name came to mind easily when guessing for the top 100 hits. I wasn’t doing any deep thinking, I was just scratching the surface of my memory for an easy answer.

 

Throughout Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman reveals instances where our thinking appears to be deep and nuanced, but is really quick, intuitive, and prone to errors. In most instances we don’t do any deep calculation or thinking, and just roll with the intuitive answer. But our intuition is often faulty, incomplete, and based on a substitution for the real question we are being asked. This might not have high stakes when it means we are inaccurately estimating divorce rates for celebrities (an example from the book), but it can have high stakes in other decision-making areas. If we are looking to buy a home and are concerned about flood risk, we will incorrectly weight the risk of a flood at a property if there were a lot of news stories about hurricane flooding from a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. This could influence where we chose to live and whether we pay for expensive insurance or not. Little assumptions and misperceptions can nudge us in critical directions, either positive or negative, and change whether we invest for our futures, fudge our taxes, or buy a new car. Recognizing that our brains make mistakes based on thinking strategies like the availability heuristic can help us in some large decision-making areas, so it is important to understand how our brains work, and where they can go wrong.

Immediate Evaluations

I will be honest with this one. I think President Donald Trump is a despicable human being, a lazy thinker, and too incompetent (not to mention unaware of his incompetence) to serve as President of the United States. As a result of my disliking of the President, I feel that I cannot trust anything he says. This is troubling because I am likely to immediately dismiss his evaluations and policies, assuming that they are wrong and potentially corrupt. I’m not going to blame myself 100% here (the President has done many things to make me and others suspicious of what he says), but I think it is important for me to recognize and acknowledge that I immediately dismiss anything he says and immediately assume that anything he thinks is wrong.

 

The President is such a polarizing individual that he, and my reactions to him, serve as useful examples of how quickly we can make judgments about what other people say. We pick up on direct cues from others and interpret indirect identity cues to begin to make judgments about what others say, before they have even said anything.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes from the book On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, “Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it.”

 

When a friend that we get along with and share similar interests and identities with starts to say something about a sports team that we don’t have strong opinions about, we will probably agree with them in an instinctive manner. At the same time, when our uncle posts on Facebook about how terrible the political party we vote for is, we will likely scroll right by or block his post without actually giving it a second thought. There may not really be a reason to instantly agree with our friend about how good LeBron James is or to debate our uncle about his political philosophy, but we should nevertheless be aware of how quickly we make judgments about what other people think, say, and post on social media.

 

If we occupy a key decision-making role in a company, if we have to make decisions about our child’s education, and if we are thinking about our long-term retirement plans, it would be helpful for us to consider how quickly judgments happen. If we really like our financial adviser, we might instinctively agree with what he says, even if his advice isn’t as well researched and accurate as it should be. If we have had a combative relationship with our college-aged child, we might not be happy to hear that they switched out of a pre-med major, even if we know in our hearts that becoming a doctor might not be a good route for our son or daughter. If we understand how quickly our minds make decisions for us, we can push back and hopefully make better ore informed decisions. We can at least be aware of times when we make a snap judgment and try to seek other sources of information and consider that we might be wrong, and that the advice or decision of another are actually sound.

Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

Judging Others Along Our Journey

Throughout Meditations, the book published after his death containing his writing and personal reflections, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the mind and our thoughts, and how we can use our thoughts to give us guidance.  Two areas that he returns to frequently are our life journey and how we think of our journey, and how we think about the people we interact with along our journey.  While writing Meditations he was continually reminding himself not to be judgmental of others and to remain focused on the positive in his own life.  His spirit is captured in the following quote which merges both of these ideas,

 

“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or, as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”

 

What he is saying is that those who begin to focus more on what those around them are doing begin to lose sight of their own lives and actions. When you continually worry if others are working as hard as you then your own work will suffer. If you focus on the things that other people have, you begin to depreciate the things that you have. These types of comparisons may help drive a capitalistic society today, but just as they were dangerous in the second century, in the 21st century they can detract from your overall life.

 

A better use of time and focus according to aurelius is to look inward and focus on presence.  Avoiding lingering thoughts of a gilded past or glorified thoughts of a potential future, we are better served and can make the most of our time on earth if we can focus on where we are now, and how we can make the most of our current actions.  Living with goals for the future and understanding and learning from the experiences that have shaped us is key, but when the past or future take over in our lives, then our current self becomes a less important afterthought.  Remaining present, and pushing worries about others behind us can allow us to participate in activities we truly enjoy, and to maximize the time in which we actually experience the world.  Aurelius continually encouraged himself and wrote down reminders to remain focused on the present, and to not let jealousy or worry over the actions of others detract from his own life.