Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation (2) – Doing More Than You Know You Can

As mentioned in the previous post, supererogation means going above and beyond. In moral philosophy it is often applied to acts that are good and praiseworthy, but not required. So anyone not doing these acts could not be criticised from a moral point of view. But when people do them, we are nonetheless pleased and think they deserve special merit.

[Previously, I discussed how it relates to the principle from moral philosophy that “ought implies can.” I wrote about the fact that the unequal distribution of what people can do, means there is also an unequal distribution of what they ought to do. This opens up some space for a discussion about whether some supererogation stems from that unequal distribution.]

In fact the principle that “ought implies can” relates to supererogation in another way as well: It is not always clearcut and obvious in advance what someone can. Two people with similar abilities may therefore take different actions, based not so much on a different assessment of what they can do, but based on differing ideas about what to do when they are not entirely sure whether they can or can’t do it. One person may take on the relevant ought on the basis that he possibly can, another may not, on the basis that maybe he cannot.

I recently read Michael Lewis’ fascinating book The Undoing Project about psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who founded the field of behaviourist economics. It contains this episode:

“By late 1956, Amos was not merely a platoon commander but a recipient of one of the Israeli army’s highest awards for bravery. During a training exercise in front of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, one of his soldiers was assigned to clear a barbed wire fence with a bangalore torpedo. From the moment he pulled the string to activate the fuse, the solider had twenty seconds to run for cover. The soldier pushed the torpedo under the fence, yanked the string, fainted, and collapsed on top of the explosive. Amos’s commanding officer shouted for everyone to stay put—and leave the unconscious soldier to die. Amos ignored him and sprinted from behind the wall that served as cover for his unit, grabbed the soldier, picked him up, hauled him ten yards, tossed him on the ground, and threw himself on top of him. The shrapnel from the explosion remained in Amos for the rest of his life. The Israeli army did not bestow honors for bravery lightly. As he handed Amos his award, Moshe Dayan, who had watched the entire episode, said, “You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won’t get away with it again.” Occasionally, people who watched Amos in action sensed that he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,” recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.” At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.”

Clearly, Tversky was able to pull off this feat (even though taking some shrapnel in the process). Equally clearly, no one knew for sure in advance that it could be done. In fact, people must have thought that it couldn’t. The commanding officer would not have given the order to stay put if he had thought that it was possible to rescue the collapsed soldier. The act in question, was called, even after its successful conclusion, “stupid” and “gung ho.” It was also praised as “brave” and given the highest award for bravery. If it had been only foolish and suicidal, it could not have been called brave. But if it had been just brave and good, it could not have been called stupid.

What is in play, perhaps, is Tversky’s perhaps unusual decision that he ought to rescue the soldier, even though he couldn’t be sure that he could.

This example also sheds some light on the vagueness of the principle “ought implies can.” It is not entirely clear, for example, what constitutes “can.” Most people would probably not think that doing something while losing one’s life, would constitute the kind of “can” that would be implied by an “ought.” What about doing something that carried the risk of losing one’s life? Or doing something that meant having shrapnel in one’s body for life?

None of the other soldiers could be criticised for obeying their commanding officers instruction. And yet, had everyone acted on it, a life would have been lost unnecessarily. The difference between Tversky and his fellow soldiers was unlikely to be that Tversky was the only one who had the ability to rescue the collapsed soldier. It’s more likely that he was more prepared to think “I ought to do this,” without knowing whether he would be able to do so unscathed. Or that he was more prepared to take on the risk of damage to himself in shouldering an “ought.”

[Let’s leave aside for now the fact that it was Tversky’s life work to show that human beings are ill equipped to make rational assessments of costs and benefits to ourselves. And let’s leave aside also the separate debate in ethics about how many thoughts one ought to have in this kind of situation.]

Supererogatory acts are not necessarily reliant on physical ability alone. They may, for example, also include finding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us grievously. In that case too, forgiveness may be a process that someone enters into without knowing whether they can do it. They may not know whether ultimately they will truly be able not only to say that they have forgiven, but also feel it for themselves. Or they may not be sure in advance that forgiving wouldn’t mean trading off too much of their own personality or what is important to them. Nonetheless, some people might set off on the journey of forgiveness under those circumstances. Others may not. The latter shouldn’t come in for criticism. The former are making a supererogatory effort.

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Determinism 3 – Who Is The Illusionist?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. It starts here.]

So assuming for a moment that we are determined creatures in a determinist universe, why would we persist in the assumption that we have free will? As the thought experiment suggests, clearly it wouldn’t be enough for us to just become convinced by the weight of evidence that we can’t have free will. We would still have the same experience of ourselves as people who have choices and make choices. Anything that would count as evidence for determinism, any argument that would have a chance of leading to a proof that we don’t have free will, would still be something that we would grasp only intellectually. I doubt that it could overturn our felt subjective experience in a moment. Any argument about free will and determinism – to be meaningful – would have to make sense of the way it feels to us to live our lives.

There is a slogan that free will is an illusion. But how does it come about? Who is the evil illusionist? If there is an illusion, then I’d say that we are each our own illusionist.

There are a number of faulty modes of thinking that are apparently systemic in the way we think. They are not the matter of anecdotal slip-ups but of series scientific study and behaviourist economics. They are the subjects of recent best-sellers, for example Thinking, Fast and Slow by Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman or The Art of Clear Thinking by Swiss author Rolf Dobelli (to whom I owe the descriptions below). There is not just one, but there are three such systemic patterns of faulty thinking that could be involved in creating the free will illusion:

  • Overconfidence Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate our knowledge, our understanding of a situation and our abilities. Economics experts massively over-estimate their ability to forecast market performance. According to Dobelli, 84% of French men say that they are better than average lovers (the relevant interpretation of average would only allow for 50% to be better than average) and the same effect can be observed if you ask people to rate themselves as drivers. Why is this relevant to free will? We may be systematically over-rating the extent to which we know what has contributed to our behaviour and our actions. We may also be over-confident in our ability to choose what goes on in our life? (Do you think you are more in contol of your actions than the average person, or less?)
  • Illusion of Control: This is the tendency to believe that we exercise control or influence over things over which we have no power whatsoever. It was observed in experiments where people were in a room with two light switches and a lamp that was either on or off. The experimenters decided to what extent the light was correlated to the switches. But people thought that they were influencing the lamp by manipulating the switches even where it switched on or off completely randomly. If this illusion is in place in our lives generally, it is quite easy to see how it could add up to giving us the feeling that we are in control of things that are really just happening while we are just flicking unconnected switches.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the tendency to look for a person behind events. A chief executive gets blamed for the bad performance of a business, or praised for its success, when in fact there are macro-economic forces and wider trends in place. The manager gets sacked if a football team doesn’t do well. Dobelli also gets upset when, as an author of novels, he gets asked to what extent his work is autobiographical. Why would readers assume that it has to be at all, when it is really about plot and language? (Though as far as I can tell, Donelli wrote a book called Thirty-five – a midlife story at the age of thirty-five which to be fair could lead his readers to think that it was a little bit autobiographical). Dobelli explains our tendency to look for people in charge of events from our evolutionary history where we are quite simply completely reliant on other people and therefore have to understand who is up to what. And so, he says, we think about people for about 90% of the time and only spend 10% thinking about the situational context. Freedom of the will could then be the fundamental attribution error of fundamental attribution errors. It could cause us to see ourselves as the people behind events in our lives, when in fact the wider environment is far more of a causal factor. It could also lead us to judge others to be more in charge of what they are doing and how it impacts on us than they really are.

When it comes to really difficult problems like free will and determinism it is helpful to be a like the fox and not too much of a hedgehog. We shouldn’t look for a single big explanation, but for a number of factors and perspectives that might contribute. Our cognitive biasses might just be some of the pieces of this puzzle.

[The next post in this series is here.]