This is a linkpost for https://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/MoralMediocrity.htm

Abstract

Most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers, not especially better, not especially worse. We do not aim to be good, or non-bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of our peers, then calibrate toward so-so. This is a somewhat bad way to be, but it's not a terribly bad way to be. We are somewhat morally criticizable for having low moral ambitions. Typical arguments defending the moral acceptability of low moral ambitions - the So-What-If-I'm-Not-a-Saint Excuse, the Fairness Argument, the Happy Coincidence Defense, and the claim that you're already in The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot - do not withstand critical scrutiny.

This isn't directly relevant to effective altruism, but I thought it might be of interest to some people in the community.

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The evidence cited (people's behaviour is influenced by the behaviour of their peers) doesn't offer any evidence in favour of the "moral mediocrity thesis" (people aim to be morally mediocre).

I find the "slightly better than average" thesis more likely: people regard themselves as better than average morally (as they do in other domains, but even more strongly). And this view has actual empirical support e.g. Tappin and McKay (2017).

Not to be pedantic, but

  • "People behave morally mediocre" and "People regard themselves as morally mediocre" are two different types of claims. I take Schwitzgebel as claiming the former, and I think he agrees with you that people regard themselves as slightly above average (e.g. section 6 titled "Aiming for a B+").
  • He also agrees with you that the evidence is unsatisfactory in many ways (see section 4 titled " The Gap Between the Evidence Above and the Thesis That Most People Aim for Moral Mediocrity"). Granted, he doesn't make the specific point that you do, but I think it's pretty safe to assume what he's assuming: people adjust towards the behavior of their peers (i.e. they regress towards the mean). It could be true that people could are influenced in other ways (if they see others behaving poorly, they want to behave better), but I don't think the evidence points towards that.

The first two sentences of his article "Aiming For Moral Mediocrity" are:

I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is: Most people aim to be morally mediocre. [I'm including this as a general reference for other readers, since you seem to have read the article yourself]

I take the fact that people systematically evaluate themselves as being significantly (morally) better than average, as strong evidence against the claim that people are aiming to be morally mediocre. If people systematically believed themselves to be better than average and were aiming for mediocrity, then they could (and would) save themselves effort and reduce their moral behaviour until they no longer thought themselves to be above average.

Note that the evidence Schwitzgebel cites for his empirical thesis doesn't show that "People behave morally mediocre" any more than it shows that people aim to be morally mediocre: it shows people's behaviour goes up or down when you tell them that a reference class is behaving much better or worse, but not that most people's behaviour is anywhere near the mediocre reference point. For example, in Cialdini et al (2006), 5% of people took wood from a forest when told that "the vast majority of people did not" and 7.92% did when told that "many past visitors" had (which was not a significant difference, as it happened). Unfortunately, the reference points "vast majority" and "many" are vague, but it doesn't suggest that most people are behaving anywhere near the mediocre reference point.

I recognise that Schwitzgebel acknowledges this "gap" between his evidence and his thesis in section 4, but I think he fails to appreciate that extent of the gap (near total) or that the evidence he cites can actually be seen as evidence against his thesis if we infer on the basis of these results that most people don't seem to be acting in line with the mediocre reference point.


In the "aiming for a B+" section you cite he actually seems to shift quite a bit to be more in line with my claim.

Here he suggests that "B+ probably isn’t low enough to be mediocre, exactly. B+ is good. It’s just not excellent. Maybe, really, instead of aiming for mediocrity, most people aim for something like B+ – a bit above mediocre, but shy of excellent." This is in line with my claim, that people take themselves to be above average morally and aim to keep sailing along at that level, but quite different from his claim previously that people "calibrate toward approximately the moral middle" and aim to be "so-so."

He reconciles this with the claim that people think of themselves and aim for above average (and "good") "most people who think they are aiming for B+ are in fact aiming lower." His passage doesn't make entirely clear what he means by that.

In the first instance he seems to suggest that people's beliefs are just mistaken about where they are really aiming (he gives the example of a student who professes to aim for a B+, but won't work harder if they get a C). But I don't see any reason to think that people are systematically mistaken about what moral standard they are really aiming at.

However, in a later passage he says "when I say that people aim for mediocrity, I mean not that they aim for mediocrity-by-their-own rationalized-self-flattering-standards. I mean that they are calibrating toward what is actually mediocre." Elsewhere he also says "It is also important here to use objective moral standards rather than people’s own moral standards." It's slightly unclear to me whether he means to refer to what is mediocre according to objective descriptive standards of how people actually behave, or according to objective normative standards i.e. what (Schwitzgebel thinks) is actually morally mediocre. If it's the former, we are back to the claim that although people think they are morally good and think they are aiming for morally good behaviour (according to their standards), they actually aim their behaviour towards median behaviour in their reference class (which I don't think we have any evidence for). If it's the latter then it's just the claim that the level of behaviour that most people actually end up approximating is mediocre (according to Schwitzgebel), which isn't a very interesting thesis to me.

This was a good comment and very clarifying. I agree with most of what you say about the evidence – Schwitzgebel seems to be misinterpreting the evidence (and I think I was also initially).

Just to be extra charitable to Schwitzgebel, however, I think we can assume his central claim is basically intelligible (even if it’s not supported by the evidence), and he’s just using some words in an inconsistent way. Some of the confusion in your comment may be caused by this inconsistency.

In most of his piece, by “aiming to be mediocre”, Schwitzgebel means that people’s behavior regresses to the actual moral middle of a reference class, even though they believe the moral middle is even lower. Imagine there’s a target where the bullseye is 5 feet above the ground, but some archer’s eyesight is off so they think it’s 3 feet above the ground. You could say that subjectively they’re aiming for the target, but objectively they're aiming below the target. When you write:

If people systematically believed themselves to be better than average and were aiming for mediocrity, then they could (and would) save themselves effort and reduce their moral behaviour until they no longer thought themselves to be above average.

You’re understanding “aim” in the subjective sense, whereas Schwitzgebel usually understands it in the objective sense. Someone might believe themselves to be better than average (they believe they're aiming at the target), but are objectively aiming for mediocrity (they’re actually aiming below the target).

The problem is that he starts using “aim” in the subjective sense in the “aiming for a B+” section. It is literally not possible that a person is both aiming for a B+ and aiming for a C+. It is, however, possible that they are subjectively aiming for a B+, but objectively aiming for a C+.

In most of his piece, by “aiming to be mediocre”, Schwitzgebel means that people’s behavior regresses to the actual moral middle of a reference class, even though they believe the moral middle is even lower.

This skirts close to a tautology. People's average moral behavior equals people's average moral behavior. The output that people's moral processes actually produce is the observed distribution of moral behavior.

The "aiming" part of Schwitzgebel's hypothesis that people aim for moral mediocrity gives it empirical content. It gets harder to pick out the empirical content when interpreting aim in the objective sense.

This is fair. I was trying to salvage his argument without running into the problems mentioned in the above comment, but if he means "aim" objectively, then its tautologically true that people aim to be morally average, and if he means "aim" subjectively, then it contradicts the claim that most people subjectively aim to be slightly above average (which is what he seems to say in the B+ section).

The options are: (1) his central claim is uninteresting (2) his central claim is wrong (3) I'm misunderstanding his central claim. And I normally would feel like I should play it safe and default to (3), but it's probably (2).

Another theory in roughly the same space is:

Nisan’s moral balance model suggests that people compute a personal moral balance based on their actions that are morally relevant within a given timeframe, and do not go below their minimum.