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Monday, May 26, 2008 -- 4:28 pm

There's something that feels slightly dirty about capitalizing on another person's oversights or lack of imagination. I'm not talking about cheating the disadvantaged, violating a position of trust, or outright dishonest behavior, all of which are despicable. What I'm actually talking about is competitive or adversarial relationships -- besting an opponent, who's at least nominally your equal, in chess, in politics, in litigation, in electronic security matters, for no better reason than that they've been careless. On some level, of course, that is precisely the point, and I achieve the vast majority of my own victories in precisely that way, by investing the time, thought, and level of attention and organization needed to leave no chink in my own armor while uncovering all of my adversaries'. Slow and steady wins the race, provided you start early enough.

Sometimes, though, it gets personal, especially when your adversary is arrogant and unlikable. Some people seem to coast through life on nothing but puffery, bluffing, and intimidation, and when they try to put one over on you, you can tell they're bluffing, and it's sorely tempting to pull out the rug on their precarious position, and drop the usual pretense of politeness. A lapse in manners in this context is probably self-defeating as well as inexcusable. Why show your hand prematurely? As satisfying as it would be to humiliate the arrogant foe (if you can pull that off), it could just as easily backfire if they manage to correct the oversights you've identified in time, and that will make your own job, once easy, now difficult or impossible. You could also end up embarrassing yourself. You could be wrong about one or more of your assumptions, and in fact be doomed to failure, making yourself appear all the more foolish for your premature display. Or, even if you succeed this time around, your adversary could learn enough from the experience, thanks to your boasting, to negate your advantage in future encounters. We should prefer quiet victory over rueful arrogance every time; but the desire for recognition and social gratification is powerful, and encourages unnecessary recklessness.

But when your opponent is particularly arrogant and incompetent, it feels dishonest to go for quiet victory, because you're taking advantage of the irrationality of others. A perfectly rational being would presumably not be making faulty assumptions, jumping to conclusions, confusing correlation with causation, and the like, and so these cognitive advantages would be unavailable to you. As Kant would say, you're not treating others as ends in themselves, or as rational beings, but as objects to be manipulated. This is immoral, per Kant's categorical imperative. That's a far cry from it being illegal, and fiduciary obligations being what they are, it's often compulsory. But Kant's untenable recommendation points out another reason for pointing someone's errors out to them in advance -- an honest and impartial desire to teach, even your enemy, the proper way of doing things. This would be displaying proper respect for their rationality, but an adversary with even a modicum of pride would reject the offer as a display of contempt. That's probably for the best.

Sunday, May 25, 2008 -- 2:04 pm

Another point I picked up from Reason's Human Error was a handy distinction between different kinds of knowledge -- or, more specifically, different kinds of tasks or problem-solving, each with its own resulting categories of errors. Skill-based responses are almost reflexive and largely unconscious -- the sort of activity we can undertake without thinking about it, such as choosing our words when speaking, reading, typing, driving, mixing frozen orange juice, and the like; it seems to be a way of flying on autopilot. Rule-based responses require some thought before we act, but it's simply a matter of running through a checklist, a well-rehearsed protocol, or applying another time-honored rule of thumb; these sorts of responses seem to be triggered when an error or anomaly takes us off autopilot. Knowledge-based responses are what we do when none of our rule-based responses have been successful or seem applicable, and involve rolling up our sleeves and actually thinking through a problem rather than relying on automatic or semi-automatic processes.

There's quite a bit to say on this subject -- most of which I'm probably not qualified to utter (not that that's stopped me before). But what I want to think about at the moment is lapses in moral judgment, because I strongly suspect that Reason's different categories of responses, and the types of errors associated with each category, may have application here. For example, the vast majority of our moral actions are automatic; we don't usually spend a lot of time debating whether steal, kill, lie, and so on. (The opportunity or possibility of doing so may present itself to our imagination in fleeting, slightly terrifying moments, but that's different; we know what the right thing to do is and aren't seriously contemplating doing otherwise.) Somewhat more unusual situations may prompt us to consult rules or sources of authority -- reviewing the ethics rules, for example. But where the ethics rules fail us, we have to resort to basic problem-solving strategies, or hire someone else to do it for us by calling a lawyer. (The lawyer then goes through this same process on our behalf.)

Assuming this comparison is accurate, there seems to be a whole field of inquiry to be explored in terms of diagnosing the types of ethical failures (moral errors) people tend to make and systematically precluding them with procedural safeguards. Perhaps this is what the Most Serene Venetian Republic had in mind with its elaborate mechanisms for electing its Doge. And corporate compliance officers, I suppose, are starting to get into this field as well. In my experience, though, most people aren't intellectually prepared for the possibility that there isn't already a rule-based solution to their problem. Young children seem (or so I hear) to insist on moral absolutes and, when they're a little older, rigid-rule based ways to address ethical problems. It only seems to be once they hit the teenage years (or thereabouts) that they're ready for knowledge-based ethical thinking where they try to reason through things for themselves. And it seems that some people either never internalize the moral absolutes as ethical reflexes, or never get past the rule-based stage to think for themselves on moral questions. When I get asked these sorts of questions, I usually end up trying to start a dialogue to explore different points of view and eliminate possibilities in a more or less methodical fashion. I get a lot of resistance to this from certain clients, who seem to be laboring under the impression that there's already a rule in existence tailor-made to address every situation, and that I'm just wasting time by not giving them the answer they need up front. But as William James observed, a system of morality can never be completely worked out in advance, because it's impossible to anticipate all the competing claims and interests before they arise. In the short term, an axiom-based formal system of deducing internally consistent moral rules is left as an exercise for the reader.