Character Has Spillover Benefits Which Are Rivalrous

The title kind of spoils the punchline, doesn’t it?

Sam W asks if good character is a public good. He says, on the one hand, that the benefits of one’s character are clearly fairly geographically limited in scope. On the other hand, the spillovers from bad character are so excessively negative that perhaps there’s something of a public good from simply getting people above that threshold.

On the other hand, in thinking over the honor vs honoring, he noted:

Thumbnail economic reasoning suggests that the spillover benefits of private type A honor are not captured in its price, suggesting that it should be under-supplied. Whether or not it actually is under-supplied is not a question I believe cannot easily be answered.

Still, the theory strikes me as reasonable. And I believe it strikes ordinary people as reasonable, too. That’s why we have type B honor. We bestow ribbons and medals to Soldiers and Sailors, we erect monuments and statues, we sing songs, tell tales, and speak in awed, hushed tones about those among us who have acted with greatness. This compunction to reward honor, whether intentional or not, compensates the honorable for their private excellence.

Thus there have always existed private mechanisms for provisioning the external benefits of character.

What I want to suggest is that good character has spillover benefits, but that these benefits are rivalrous, and therefore good character is not a public good in the classical Samuelsonian sense.

Consider the reliable man, living in a community suddenly beset by some natural disaster. He can be expected not to get in the way or panic, but also to pitch in in any way he can. As Sam put it, “The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia.” A community of reliable people can pick up more quickly, move beyond a disaster sooner, than a community where reliable people are in the minority.

But the per person contribution is relatively small, and is capable of being misdirected or misspent. Even the reliable man only has a 24 hour day. Even the community of reliable people does not have an expert on every subject, may need to hire civil engineers from outside of their group in order to repair the damage done by a hurricane or earthquake. The expertise, time, and simple muscle that are volunteered in such a situation are scarce goods that need to be allocated carefully.

This is why I prefer an ethic that prioritizes concrete problems with direct feedback over telescopic concerns. The good character of the few is good for the many, but its spillovers ought to be prudently directed.


Is character a public good?

Character is certainly a private good. A lady, gentleman, or other of good character is a blessing to the home; a stalwart friend in times of need; a charitable neighbor upon whom to lean when the waves crash and the wind slashes. Persons of good character are felicitous, virtuous, splendid folk, a boon to the community.

But unless extremely unlikely events collude to test the very fabric of the nation, it is challenging to admit of circumstances in which distant people can reap the benefits of character from afar. My eudaimonia is greater for the character of my neighbors, but hardly budges at all for the character of the citizens of Cincinnati.

To a point anyway. Truly bad character that spills into wide-reaching vice, into broadly-distributed criminal enterprises saps and impurifies my precious peaceful existence, corrodes the tranquility of my domicile. At a minimum level, to an obvious (if not entirely easy to define) point, there is a public interest in sowing and tending the public garden from which character blossoms.

There is a public element to primary education. But it is likely that this element is grossly oversold. Good manners, good citizenship can be learned on the playground, and the case for the public funding (to say nothing of the public provision) of education weakens the closer the student gets to the conditions needed to achieve the self-sufficient pursuit of eudaimonia.

If you are a parent, consider carefully how you help your children achieve greatness of character.

Who We Are Determines Who We Should Be

Chris’ post on personhood and good people struck a chord with me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he once again emphasized the operational nature of the categories we use in these cases, something I find very appealing. For another, it seems as though the various specific topics in philosophy always end up drawing you back to the same questions.

You try to ask a question about ethics, and you end up arriving at questions about human nature, identity, and knowledge.

Most of the books I’ve been reading lately on ethics have felt the need to circle round to questions about human nature and epistemology at some point. Drawing on empirical work done by psychologists in pretty popular at this point; one of the really novel things about Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans for instance is his use of the literature on bereavement.

It seems as though understanding who we are is inextricably linked to the question of who we should be. But I have to wonder whether this is just the nature of the conversation in philosophy. Diving deep into engineering or computer science or chemistry does not usually lead one to questions about human nature and whether we can build an unshakable metaphysical foundation for understanding these topics.

Maybe philosophers are just too easily distracted.

Being a Good Person

“Living a Good Life” is a formidable phrase.  “Being a Good Person” is a gentler way to put it, maybe- the operative words are more obvious to me, anyway. If it’s a lossy translation, I’d at least have to work out why.

The problem with [the phrase] “Being a Good Person” is that its familiarity breeds an unwarranted illusion of clarity, too. What is a person? Why should persons (or, er, “people”) be good? And how?

Kevin Simler at Melting Asphalt recently wrote a great piece on his view of “personhood” that I advocate.

When I think about human social interactions, I often think about specific relationships and the roles that they entail: husband and wife, citizen and representative, superhero and sidekick, BFFs. But today I want to talk about the most generic relationship — the one that exists between any two members of a society. What is the nature of that relationship? As an implicit social contract, what are its expectations and obligations?

I think it makes sense to call this generic social contract “personhood,” and those who abide by it “persons.”


The idea of a “person” that I’m going to use today is most similar to the idea of a “lady” or “gentleman” — without the gender connotations, obviously, but in the same sense of being a label or status earned through proper behavior (which then creates an obligation for others to treat us nicely in return).

There are several reasons that I like this conception of Personhood. Personhood here is transactive and iterative, like the definition of “species” is in my previous post, and reminiscent of the logic of art appreciation in an earlier thread of this blog. It is sufficiently detailed, actionable, and “measurable” (if not precisely). Personhood is metaphysically lean- no magical priors. Personhood is not an essence. Personhood is a social invention that serves a purpose. You can be more or less of a person. Some rituals and games require a mask, or some other exception to the stipulations of personhood. An individual’s personhood can be adjusted, or perceived differently from different parties. Non-human agents may apply for varying degrees of personhood.

If “Good” means adequate or preferable, a Good Person is one whose social interface is nearly always considered appropriate: a human that you’d have difficulty considering as the noisy sack of meat that (s)he is.  To paraphrase another great article by Simler: Through considerate and well-designed interfaces, “good software” tries to convince you that it is more than an application on some complex arrangement of silicon, so that you might trust to interact with it. Through considerate and well-designed behavior (i.e. etiquette), “good people” ought to convince you that they are more than the product of some complex arrangement of carbon, so that you might trust to interact with them.

This is a godless and unflattering view of the civilizing process, but I think that is a merit of this perspective. This view doesn’t disqualify questions of the rules of interaction, but I feel that this view does allow me a level of grounding. Living well is (at least?) living socially and pro-socially.

The Paint-by-Numbers Project of Living

Adam’s right. Life is a project. Luckily for us, it’s not all D.I.Y.. Ordinary people don’t have to re-invent what it means to be a good mother, a good neighbor, a good citizen, a good pet owner. Received wisdom abounds, and even when it’s not particularly reflective, insightful, or deep, we can usually rely on the tests of time to beat the chaff from the wheat.

Usually, anyway. I’d be inclined to say that there should be a strong presumption in favor of adhering to folk wisdom, but that doesn’t mean unenlightened, uncritical devotion. Thoughtful empirical research can actually test whether or not there’s necessarily any truth to aphorisms like “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Where appropriate, we can gently and respectfully lay rubbish ideas to eternal repose.

As I wrote elsewhere today, “[e]xpectations for what it means to not be a jerkwad neighbor emerge from the complex daily interplay we learn along the grand boulevard of eudaimonia. It sure would be nice if we’d replace some of the burnt-out bulbs lighting the way. Bring back virtue ethics.”

Life is a project. Luckily, it’s one we don’t have to work on alone.

The Project of Living

It’s always exciting when a project begins. When we first started posting here, at Sweet Talk, for instance—we had been talking about it for weeks, possibly months. The first week of posting marked the point at which it was more than talk but still largely possibility—who knows what Sweet Talk will become? Who knows what we will learn along the way, and who we will draw into our conversations?

The excitement of starting something new can turn into a sickness for many people. Once a project gets off the ground, the tasks required to keep the thing running on a daily basis are, for the most part, mundane. It’s not as bright and interesting as the launch. And so many people chronically start projects and give them up after losing interest.

This tendency extends well beyond starting blogs or taking online coding classes or starting a novel. Adulterers pursue affairs not just because they enjoy having sex, but because long term relationships can never maintain the intense feeling you have at the beginning, when it seems like your life has just radically changed and all you want to do is spend time with that person.

The excitement of the new is of course a part of a good life, because any part of a good life must be new at some point. But it’s not the most important part; indeed in many ways it is the least important part. Falling in love with possibilities is enduring in the young, but pathetic long before old age. How can loving potential over actual and possibility over accomplishment be anything but pathetic? How can the flowering of new love with someone you hardly know compare to a lifetime shared together?

Solon counselled to count no man’s life as happy until he is dead, for happiness is fragile. A project in progress is fragile, and a project just launched is at its most vulnerable. Count no project as worthy until it is complete.

Eudaimonia is nothing but the project of living well. All projects, relationships, accomplishments and joys are subsumed within it. New starts are a natural part of it, of course, as are situations in which you must cut your losses—with regard to a project or a relationship. In order to complete a worthwhile project we have to start it, and in order to learn what is worthwhile we must make many mistakes and corrections.

It is one thing, however, to have the courage to risk making a mistake and then face them once you do. It’s quite another to ditch things when they get hard and become a serial false-starter out of a form of thrill seeking. Accomplishment is what the wise seriously aim for, and eudaimonia is the accomplishment of living well. This accomplishment is embodied in how we live, as well as in the legacy we leave behind.