Moral Carryover

Image taken from Syatt Fitness

The rational toolkit of the reflexive radical naturalist should be open, display content-wise heterogeneity (consisting of both prescriptions represented linguistically and nonverbal habits) and embrace a dose of pragmatism as a meta-epistemic value. It is unlikely that robust and psychologically realistic rationality can be characterized by an elegant set of principles - a neat list of behavioral or cognitive prescriptions, a naturalistic counterpart to the Ten Commandments. For reality is messy.

Several heuristics, rules of thumb and regulatory principles appear to have robust cross-domain applicability over different normative fields. One of my favorites is the Pareto Principle which thrives in areas as diverse as management science, economics, software engineering and personal development. The statistical distribution behind the Pareto Principle is so widespread that I believe this regularity hints at a thermodynamical foundation for these phenomena.

Another interesting concept found in sports science, particularly as it relates to strength training, is "carryover".

'Carryover' in this context is informally used to name a property of motor patterns to readily "transfer" increases in performance onto other distinct motor patterns (with some shared structure) when trained. 'Carryover' also names the very gains or increases of performance enabled in this process.

Very briefly, "carryover" is the n-ary property of a given motor pattern {x}_{1} to enhance the performance of one or more different motor patterns {x}_{2},...,{x}_{n} through the realization of x_{1}. For instance, heavy unilateral dumbbell rows by increasing grip strength are said to deliver carryover to deadlifts, i.e., to enhance your global performance in deadlifts. Thus carryover is a relation of causation found in a given network of motor patterns.

I believe this concept has a natural application in practical ethics. Assume an agent-based account; what behavioral patterns are most conducive to the global enhancement of moral character? To answer this, we will need some theoretical understanding of moral character and virtues.

A Network Of Virtues

One of the chief ideas discussed in virtue-based accounts which is of relevance here is the thesis of the unity of virtues. This has been framed in many ways with varying restraint by different authors since the revival of virtue ethics over the last decades.

One such way, which allegedly can be read quite directly from the dialogues of Socrates, is through logical entailment, by the thesis of the mutual entailment of virtues [1].

Take 'C' and 'J' as the Socratic virtues of courage and justice and 'x' as an arbitrary moral agent. Consider 'Cx' the proposition "x is courageous" and 'Jx' the proposition "x is just". The thesis of mutual entailment states that both \forall x (Jx \to Cx) and \forall x (Cx \to Jx) are theorems in our formal system. This viewpoint of the unity of virtues can be summed by the saying "if you have one, you have them all". This is a quite strong constraint that is nowadays rejected by most virtue ethicists.

For moral carryover, we need something weaker. We need to secure a relational causal structure. This can be represented as a connected graph, in a graph-theoretical sense. All but one of the vertices is a virtue to be exercised, each path is a causal relation. One central node will be the agent's character. We may call this bland virtue causal holism.

Feedback is typically modeled in terms of systems of differential equations. But the procedures of calculus assume that we are dealing with quantitative data, and I find it highly doubtful that the psychological traits that embody traits like honesty or courage have this structure.

For now, I will simply have to assume that there exists an appropriate conception of ordinal feedback to model how a network of virtues may evolve through habitual repetition - I can think of some simple qualitative methods from the time I used to work with Soft OR, many years ago. Given this sketchy graph-theoretical framework, the question thus is this; which individual node would contribute the greatest feedback, i.e., deliver the greatest moral carryover, to global character?

A potential interesting proposal comes from the work of moral and political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Under a conventional reading of MacIntyre, there is something special about honesty, courage and justice, three of the four Socratic virtues. It is as if the very grammar, in a Wittgensteinian sense, of many human social activities presuppose something like honesty, courage and justice for its proper functioning.

These virtues are thus prime candidates for moral carryover. I will develop this argument in greater detail in the next section.

Practices In the Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre

In order to advance, I will have to say something about what constitutes a practice, a central term of art from the philosophy of MacIntyre. For this task, I have learned quite a bit from the scholarship of Christopher Stephen Lutz [2].

Practices are a class of human behaviors. Practices are goal-oriented social activities with standards of performance and execution that are external from the agent enacting the practice. One could even risk a comparison with John Searle's theory of social institutions. It would seem that that under the terms of the former, practices just are human social institutions; they are intentional, collective, functional, agentive and status-conferring. Searlean social facts would the truthmakers of statements about practices. MacIntyre, however, explicitly distinguishes practices from institutions [3]; practices require institutions. Institutions are the social enforcers of the rules of the practice - one of the reasons they exist is to police practitioners, to make sure they are playing by the rules. Institutions set up the events where the abilities of the practitioners are put to test. Institutions are also the gatherers and backers of the external goods of the practices (as I will elaborate more later). While consortiums, federations and companies are paramount examples of institutions, these need to be seen as sophisticated developments of what institutions may become - an institution can exist more loosely as an embodied network of agreements, without formal treasury, committees or special buildings. What practices demand is at least a tacit endorsement of this social structure that is implied by them.

Now for an example; take the behaviors involved in barbell strength training. The behavior you may enact by casually and aimlessly lifting heavy stuff from the floor (or from the rack, etc) is not a practice in MacIntyre's sense, for it is lacking the appropriate teleology that frames some behavior into standards of excellence. But the sport of powerlifting is a practice, or better, a family of closely related practices which are organized and promoted in our world by different organizations at the regional, national and international levels.

Professional sports are prototypical examples of human activities with strict standards of performance and benchmarks of excellence, both of which are carefully regulated and recorded by organized international federations. For instance, a valid bench press movement for the International Powerlifting Federation requires the athlete to have his feet flat on the floor. In the International Powerlifting League, the athlete may bench from his heels up. These different constraints promote different standards of what counts as a good bench press movement.

For an example of a benchmark of excellence, as of the day I'm writing, the male open bench press record in the 93kg category for the bench press (in a single lift competition) in the IPF is 318,5kg. This sets the current maximal standard for all equipped male benchers in this weight category for this federation.

Practices and their standards are dynamic and evolve through history inside traditions. Records get broken, more impressive masterpieces get crafted, other neighboring practices indirectly enhance the performance of the practitioners (such as the relationship between sports nutrition and professional sports) and the rules may change. Some practices, like the game of chess, one of MacIntyre's favorite examples, are very robust and have been largely invariant rule-wise across time (chess has remained largely changeless since the first half of the XIX century). It is usual for current practitioners that are conscious of its history of their practice to emulate the feats of the best experts while pursuing excellence of achievement.

Practices, being behaviors, are processes - and processes produce something [4]. Practices reliably produce certain goods. In MacIntyre's framework, there are goods which are external to the practices and goods which are internal to the practices. These categories are quite intuitive and I am fond of them because they can't be neatly fitted into traditional distinctions between the "subjective" and the "objective".

For instance, the external goods of powerlifting involve the pleasures coming from the victories of competitive athletic achievements, the wealth in prizes and sponsorships and the increases in social status due to public recognition.

The internal goods of a practice consist of getting good at the practice, i.e., the development of the abilities and skills that are conducive to good practice.

There exists an important dissonance between a practice and the internal and external goods of the practice; and that is the fact that it is possible to acquire the external goods of the practice irrespective of the acquisition of the internal goods of the practice - for instance, by deception, theft and fraud.

As an example, getting good at powerlifting in an avowed drug-free federation presupposes not using anabolic steroids to aid athletic performance. But powerlifter from a tested federation may nonetheless reach a victory in an official meet and reap the external goods of this practice due to the the leverage received by the use of an illegal substance. In that, he has not acquired the internal goods of the practice, for getting good at powerlifting naturally is distinct from getting good at powerlifting geared, that is, both practices impose different standards of excellence (and that is the point behind the existence of tested and untested powerlifting federations).

One may object that the geared professional athlete has become skillful at something through diligent training. That is true. In fact, a geared athlete, being able to train on average with higher intensity and frequency due to the anti-inflammatory and injury-recovering properties of some substances, has the opportunity to train more often than a natural athlete. But that is not the point. The point is that getting good at a certain practice, acquiring its internal goods, involves practicing in a certain way, playing by the rules of the practice, diligently following the standards that have been set.

For many, prohibitions sanctioned by the rules degenerates into simply "not getting caught". Institutions whose organizers consciously deliver external goods - the triad of wealth, power and fame - to practitioners that knowingly do not play by the enforced rules become corrupt. This is rampant in professional sports.

It should now be clear that in this framework, the link between a practice and its internal goods is ethical. And the traits that enable us to acquire the internal goods of a practice are goods themselves with a very special standing - they are the virtues. Without virtue, a practice may degenerate into a mere means to acquire external goods.

The Three Cardinal Virtues in MacIntyre's Philosophy

In After Virtue [5], MacIntyre writes:

It belongs to the concept of a practice as I have outlined it - and as we are all familiar with it already in our actual lives, whether we are painters or physicists or quarterbacks or indeed just lovers of good painting or first-rate experiments or a well-thrown pass, that its goods can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the way; and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies and to reply with the same carefulness for the facts. In other words we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage and honesty.

Under my reading, the case for these three virtues to be preconditions of well-functioning practices seems to be almost analytical.

Getting good at a practice requires you to be honest concerning the current level of your ability and skill and the level demanded by the entrenched standards of excellence of the practice, i.e., how you may truly reach somewhere closer to "there" coming from "here".

Justice is important in assessing the different levels of ability of the practitioners according to the standards of the practice and nothing else - other idiosyncratic criteria not contingent to these standards are irrelevante. For instance, while sharing external goods a measure of fairness is explicit, i.e. one must ideally get the wealth, power and fame one truly deserves.

For MacIntyre, the inherent connection of a practice with courage in the text that follows the above quotation is a bit more abstract; it is related with maintaining the existence of a practice in a given community. For a practice cannot survive without people doing the practice - and doing it the right way. In order to make the practice survive and thrive, one must care about the people doing the activity and the shared goals which are collectively honored. Taking this seriously means that one is expected to risk himself against threats that may appear for the community, both from the inside and the outside. In that, courage also appears to assume compassion and love for the members of a community.

I see courage as being crucially important in a more directly way; getting good at a practice is inherently risky - it's a continuous exercise in overcoming adversity. Conquering imminent fears of failure and vanquishing probable demotivation require courage.

When I reflect more deeply more about this, it becomes clear that all these virtues are actually intimately intertwined; for instance, a fair assessment of ability or skill, a prototypical just judgement, requires truthfulness about the information assessed and courage to face truths that can be personally undesirable.

Examining Moral Carryover

Given bland virtue causal holism and the MacIntyrean framework I've introduced, what may we tentatively conclude?

First, if these sketchy considerations are correct, behavior directed to the internal goods of a practice is intrinsically ethical. Second, ethical behavior assumes honesty, courage and justice. Third, these traits subsist in a synergistic relational causal structure.

How may we connect this to moral character in general? For that, I will have to hastily add additional considerations on what constitutes being a good man under this framework. Being a good man is formally no different than being a good athlete or a good artist for the moral life is itself a practice - albeit the most important of practices. Living well has its own standards of excellence informed according to a tradition. That said, one can only acquire the goods internal to the practice of good life by being honest, courageous and just plus any additional virtues prescribed by a given conception of a good life.

If this is all there is, then it would appear to be the case that performing any practice yearning for excellence, aiming for its internal goods, would deliver moral carryover to being good.

Unfortunately, things are not so simple. For instance, one must face the challenges of situationist moral psychology and its skepticism on the existence of robust moral character. For something relevant, a crude version of a thesis originated out of this research program can be described like this; by default, what we call a 'virtue' has an indexical character, is contextually contingent to different practices or domains of social experience and its exercise can go on without much carryover to other practices in other contexts. One can be truthful to his friends at work but a deceiver to his children at home., one can be brave at the gym and a coward at the living room, etc. It is psychologically plausible to have moral excellences which are unequally distributed across the different roles one may have life.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy, from a panorama by Franz von Matsch.

The primary answer to this situationist attack on virtue ethics, which acquired quite some steam at the turn of the last century [6], has been anticipated by MacIntyre nearly 35 years ago; these simply are not examples of virtues. To possess a virtue mandates that one exercises it cross-situationally in a robust fashion. MacIntyre writes, with his customary reverence for the Greek Heroic Age, that "Hector exhibited one and the same courage in his parting from Andromache and on the battlefield with Achilles". In my reading, I find that this contention is compelled by a theoretical presupposition of an account of the self and agency where unification, regularity and behavioral homogeneity are normative, but I shall not develop this for now.

To finish off, again without decisive results, if I had to bet, I'd say there may be something special about the virtue of honesty. Honesty is both a prototypical moral and an epistemic virtue; honesty connects human action with truth and grounds language in reality. It is the ultimate arbiter behind all the tales we willfully tell others - and ourselves.

Edit: logical mistakes have been corrected by my brilliant friend Dante Cardoso de Almeida.

[1] R. M. Adams, A theory of virtue: excellence in being for the good, Clarendon Press, 2006.
author = {Adams, Robert M.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034276},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Clarendon Press},
title = {A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good},
year = {2006}
[2] C. S. Lutz, Tradition in the ethics of alasdair macintyre: relativism, thomism, and philosophy, Lexington Books, 2004.
author = {Lutz, Christopher S.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034275},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Lexington Books},
title = {Tradition in the Ethics of Alasdair Macintyre: Relativism, Thomism, and Philosophy},
year = {2004}
[3] K. Knight, "Practices: the aristotelian concept," Analyse & kritik, vol. 30, iss. 2, pp. 317-329, 2008.
author = {Knight, Kelvin},
citeulike-article-id = {14034326},
journal = {Analyse \& Kritik},
number = {2},
pages = {317--329},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:58:28},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Lucius \& Lucius Verlagsgesellschaft Mbh},
title = {Practices: The Aristotelian Concept},
volume = {30},
year = {2008}
[4] F. Dretske, Explaining behavior: reasons in a world of causes, The MIT Press, 1988.
author = {Dretske, Fred},
citeulike-article-id = {12534922},
month = apr,
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:13},
priority = {2},
publisher = {The MIT Press},
title = {Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes},
year = {1988}
[5] A. MacIntyre, After virtue: a study in moral theory, Duckworth, 1981.
author = {MacIntyre, Alasdair},
citeulike-article-id = {12534836},
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:11},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Duckworth},
title = {After virtue: a study in moral theory},
year = {1981}
[6] N. E. Snow, Virtue as social intelligence: an empirically grounded theory, Routledge, 2010.
author = {Snow, Nancy E.},
citeulike-article-id = {14034274},
posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:23},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Routledge},
title = {Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory},
year = {2010}