Carlos Danger & Badness

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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22 Comments.

  1. I find a philosophical model of behaviour to be of zero value. This is now in the realms of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, biology, evolution, and any other sciences that can contribute to the understanding of human behaviour. The usual complaint about this supposed ‘scientism’ is that science does not have all the answers. But in contrast philosophy (or theology) has none.

  2. Ron Murphy,

    “I find a philosophical model of behaviour to be of zero value. This is now in the realms of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, biology, evolution, and any other sciences that can contribute to the understanding of human behaviour.”

    You’re just choosing a different narrative. The “science” narrative is as vague and fuzzy as any religious or political creed.

    “The usual complaint about this supposed ‘scientism’ is that science does not have all the answers. But in contrast philosophy (or theology) has none.”

    But maybe the quest for answers is a completely meaningless pursuit in itself.

    ‘scientism’ is something that has evolved out of a failure of the high priests of politics and religion to deliver us to the land of milk and honey. Now it’s the turn of the scientists, in their priestly lab coats.

    Don’t think there is anything new in science worship. The Soviets from the early 20th century termed their system to be ‘scientific socialism’. And now we have technocrats in the west who dictate economic policy on the same basis – as it being science. Instead we’ve been treated to mouthful after mouthful of bitter tasting ideology.

  3. Could you explain why sexting is creepy and pathetic?

  4. Maybe sexting is creepy and pathetic if you’re married and if you’re candidate to be mayor of New York City.

    When you get involved in politics, lots of people dedicate time, energy and money to your electoral campaign and it’s creepy and pathetic to let them down.

    It’s also creepy and pathetic to let your wife down. I understand that married people can fall helplessly in love with someone else, like Anna Karenina and that produces great tragedies, but to destroy your marriage to sext
    is, once again, creepy and pathetic.

  5. I say ‘Hooey to Aristotle’. You’d have better and more consistent luck using his ethics to train your dog than you’d have using it on children, students or employees. The key difference is that some dogs want to be trained.

    Plato has a more effective approach. Once he was asked ‘Why will Kallipolis (his name, by the way) work?’, his esoteric answer was ‘We breed dogs, don’t we?’

  6. You’re just choosing a different narrative. The “science” narrative is as vague and fuzzy as any religious or political creed.

    JMRC,

    Could you please elaborate this statement?
    It sounds pretty inaccurate to me

  7. Mike,

    A good way to apply some philosophical thinking to current problems. But in my opinion, the problem of evil goes deeper than this example.
    Wiener’s actions hurt more himself and his family. The damage to others seems mild
    Evil at its core deeply hurts people, and its cause and cure appear beyond than just philosophical knowledge. Many human beings hurt deeply others in the name of a cause, their god, etc. What type of knowledge did they lack?

  8. Mike,

    If action follows from belief, then what we do is a litmus for what we believed at the time of doing it. This relation between action and belief is a key feature of Plato’s account.

    This is why he denies that instances of “knowing the better but doing the worse” are legitimate; the fact of the action establishes the actual belief, even if it’s contrary to what the person believes they believe.

    Plato’s observation is essentially that we can assent to believing things that we don’t actually believe without realizing that we’re doing this.

    The idea may sound strange, but I defy you to explain how something like implicit bias is possible if it’s not true.

    For example, lets say that when presented with two equal candidates, one male and one female, I tend to select the male. However, I assent to the idea that their gender is irrelevant to their candidacy, and even believe that I believe it. But, I still tend to pick the male, and am even puzzled by that statistic if it’s pointed out.

    This would be a classic example of implicit bias on my part. It’s also very hard to explain unless Plato is right that we can actually believe something without believing that we believe it.

    In the implicit bias example, Plato would say that I actually believe that gender is relevant to their candidacy. Even though I don’t believe that I believe that.

    That’s what’s wrong with these “know the better but do the worse” counterexamples. If Plato is right, they’re not actually counterexamples. However, if he’s wrong, then implicit bias isn’t possible.

    But, implicit bias is clearly possible.

    Therefore, Plato is right.

  9. JJM: “Many human beings hurt deeply others in the name of a cause, their god, etc. What type of knowledge did they lack?”

    The type they lacked would probably be ‘moral knowledge’.

    As to where specifically they lacked knowledge, they either lacked knowledge of what ends were good, or lacked knowledge of what means to those ends were good.

    So, they were either confused about what goal they should pursue, or confused about how to pursue it.

  10. @swallerstein well I agree that cheating is a bad thing…

    but to generalize all sexting as creepy and pathetic speaks volumes about the author’s negative bias towards human sexuality

    and the fact that a politician can’t be seen as a sexual persona speaks volumes about the tragic state of this society, considering that our very existence and entire life cycle is based on attraction, love and sex

  11. Frank Miller:

    I personally don’t care whether a person sexts or not, but a politician assumes a certain responsibility towards the people who support them and who work in their campaign and that responsibility is within the context of a society which condemns married people sexting.

    I don’t live in NYC or even in the U.S., but I assume that the election there involves issues such as education, housing, public transportation and crime, issues which in my opinion are much much more important than the right to sext.

    Within that context, when a politician sexts, knowing that they are likely to be caught and to be eliminated from the campaign, they are priorizing sexting over those key issues (education, housing, public transportation, crime, etc.), which people are counting on them to deal with. Thus, they are letting down those voters and supporters.

    That lack of a sense of priorities is creepy and pathetic.

  12. JJM,

    “You’re just choosing a different narrative. The “science” narrative is as vague and fuzzy as any religious or political creed.
    JMRC,

    Could you please elaborate this statement?
    It sounds pretty inaccurate to me”

    Maybe it’s worse than religious or political creeds. As it doesn’t prescribe anything – the fruits of science may be useful, but useful or used for what science doesn’t say. And usually when it is taken to prescribe some form of political action, it leads to disaster.

    “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings” – as the Atheist campaign slogan goes. Yes, sending men to the moon is an impressive feat, but did “science” really do all that? Ron Murphy might argue there was some neuroscientific reason why men wanted to go to the moon in the first place – but that’s ultimately tautological; science justifying science. And while the science narrative sounds more concrete (a great deal relies on people not knowing much about science – some high priest in a lab coat with his peers and their reviewed papers, possesses the scientifically revealed certainties and it’s enough for them – it’s even better than a religious leader, who few put much faith in these days).

    The “science” narrative is no better or no less vague than the old religious “God made everything”. “science made everything” may be the true statement, but it’s a truth that once stated the what? Should “science” now be exalted to the status of the divine. As the Reverend Richard Dawkins has.

  13. Maybe it’s worse than religious or political creeds. As it doesn’t prescribe anything – the fruits of science may be useful, but useful or used for what science doesn’t say.

    JMRC,

    This statement is inaccurate.

    Prescribe
    a : to lay down as a guide, direction, or rule of action : ordain
    b : to specify with authority

    Science does this all the time. In fact one meaning for prescribe is what doctors do. And what physician do is based on science, at least in the USA
    For example, they prescribe medicines, surgery, vaccinations, and they can predict with reasonable accuracy the possibility of cure. This happens in other disciplines, engineers can prescribe how to make a bridge correctly, how much weight it can tolerate, etc. the examples are countless.
    Science clearly specify what their fruits are and how they must be used.
    Based on these everyday facts your statement is incorrect.

  14. science justifying science. And while the science narrative sounds more concrete (a great deal relies on people not knowing much about science – some high priest in a lab coat with his peers and their reviewed papers, possesses the scientifically revealed certainties and it’s enough for them – it’s even better than a religious leader, who few put much faith in these days).

    This statement is also incorrect. Science relies on observation and empirical evidence to make its predictions.
    The scientist, physician, studies disease at different levels and makes testable predictions about treatment. He tests these predictions and if they are correct, he administers the medicine.
    He does not invoke any special power.

  15. Dregs
    That you for your answer. I believe the discussion about Plato ideas was very interesting. My question is what is moral knowledge? Is it actually possible? What does it mean that we know.
    In the gender bias example, the moral knowledge would be sex, if not relevant to the job should not be a factor. But you can be bias without being aware of it, is that knowledge?
    Or you could think, sex should be a factor. Which represents true knowledge? How do you decide?
    How do we define moral knowledge?
    Thanks in advance

  16. Ron Murphy,

    Philosophy has many answers. Some see that as a problem as well.

  17. Frank Miller,

    In this case, Danger’s sexting is creepy and pathetic because 1) He is married, 2) he is (was) a candidate for mayor, 3) he seems to have been constantly seeking validation in his sexting (thus making it pathetic), 4) he sent pictures of his junk to young women (creepy) and so on.

    Sexting itself need not be creepy or pathetic, I suppose. Not my thing, so I’ll leave that matter to the sexperts.

  18. Dregs,

    I do agree that people can believe something without believing that they believe it. so, we need to distinguish between what people believe they believe and what they actually believe.

    Rationalization, for example, involves a self-deception of a similar sort. A person claims he is motivated by one factor and might believe this, yet he is motivated by another factor that he would deny.

  19. Frank Miller,

    I don’t have a negative bias towards human sexuality. My point is that Wiener’s sexting was pathetic and creepy. This view is consistent with a positive view of human sexuality-as is the view that sexting is generally creepy and pathetic. To use an analogy, a person might have a positive view of writing, yet see Tweeting in a negative light for a variety of legitimate reasons (side note: I am fine with Twitter).

  20. Swallerstein,

    I agree-I don’t care whether Wiener sexted or not. What concerns me is how he handled the matter by a campaign of admitted deceit and, as you said, his apparent priorities. If he had sexted and came clean, then that would have been between him and his wife. However, his own actions made this a matter of public concern.

  21. There appears to be some confusion about science as it applies to matter versus how it applies to the mind. It is more difficult for science to be exact about psychological or moral issues.

    In knowing what is moral, one guide could be the distinction Aristotle makes between Nous as it applies to what is absolute and immutable, as opposed to what is finite and mutable. He defined nous as passive reason and Nous as the immortal aspect of the soul. Adhering to the latter would be moral, but knowing what that might be could be difficult. One guide could be the middle way, a neutral zone where there is neither aversion nor attachment, having the ego calmly use both reason and feeling to access the situation, allowing Nous rather than bias or an egoistic choice to manifest.

    It is fairly obvious that A. Weiner is not in a neutral zone but has an attachment to a behavior that is socially unacceptable and not in the best interest of him, his family, or the city he wants to govern.

  22. JJM,

    The point I’m making, is something that has crept up over time – and has appeared again and again at different points in history and is now back with us again, in all its’ dangerous silliness.

    The Pythagoreans had some impressive maths. They elevated their geometry to the level of religion. While Pythagoras’ Theorem is true – the wishy washy cosmic ideas they had are not. Humans find religion very satisfying and comforting. They will imbue inanimate objects, animate objects and even surprising facts like Pythagoras’ Theorem with religious significance. Because it gives their lives meaning and they desperately need meaning – they don’t need to understand the meaning, just feel that there is some cosmic point to existence – and it’s not just pointless being.

    Once people become devotees of a religion, they will accept without serious question anything that is presented to them by its’ priests. Richard Feynman complained of Cargo Cult Science. And it really does happen. People who are fully credentialed as scientists, working within respect institutions, and what they’re doing is not science. When Feynmann was alive is was psuedoscientific claims over “organic” vegetables – now it’s worse.

    “In fact one meaning for prescribe is what doctors do. And what physician do is based on science, at least in the USA”

    Yes, every religion needs some of its’ holy men to perform healing miracles. The doctor, the man of science, has healed a leper, just like Jesus, so science must be the one true faith.

    If a doctor saves someone’s life with medicine derived from scientific methodology then everything else the doctor does must be scientific, all their decisions have a scientific basis.

    “Science clearly specify what their fruits are and how they must be used.”

    Really. Every year in America, people die from simple infections because they do not have health insurance. Children and adults have died from tooth abscesses, because they couldn’t afford the very basic medical care. What does science have to say about this? And that’s the first world. What about the third world? Millions of African children have died from diarrhea.

    I’ve been reading some of George Gamov’s popular science books recently. In the books he makes claims that are very solid science – but some statements are not. Like the claim the human race is degenerating because we’re not letting children die in childhood – and that in the future the fit an healthy will have to give their entire lives serving the invalid. Of course if Gamov’s claims were anywhere near correct, the Africans would be the healthiest people in the world. They aren’t. Sickle cell anemia offers an immunity to malaria – but it’s hardly what you could call wellness.

    The interesting recent twist is misanthropes who are anti-science have latched on to science to further their neurosis – to give it more than a superstitious dread as basis. I recently had a discussion with one of these dangerous idiots. What he was saying was there was a difference between “manmade” chemicals over “organic” chemicals”. There is absolutely no difference – only a silly religious belief. Next thing he’s accusing me of being an autistic engineer who doesn’t really understand “science”. Not that my science was wrong – it was complete correct – but that my science was autistic fact based, and where his was feelings based. Emotionally Intelligent Science is superior to autistic fact based science.

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