top of page
  • npglazer

Domain dependent virtue and vice

It seems to me that people often think of others as either a virtuous person or a person who is full of vice. What do I mean by this? In psychology there is a well known cognitive bias known as the "halo effect" that is defined as "The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character. Essentially your overall impression of a person ('He is nice!') impacts your evaluations of that persons specific traits ("He is also smart!'). Perceptions of a single trait can carry over to how people perceive other aspects of that person." I think the opposite can take place in which a type of "devil effect" happens, and if we notice a person has one bad characteristic we might possible think their whole personality is immoral or bad.

For example lets take a look at the plight of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong had cancer, which he beat, but he cheated his way into winning the Tour de France seven times. Also, though, nearly every person on the Tour de France who was competing was also cheating. So no matter who won those seven years, it was almost guaranteed to be a cheater, because of the competitive advantage cheating gives you. Overall I think Armstrong is a very dishonest person, but so was everyone else in the Tour de France those years.

Does this mean Armstrong didn't work very hard though as a cyclist? No, not at all. I am sure he worked very hard to become a world champion cyclist just like Barry Bonds, who used steroids in baseball, also worked very hard to become a great baseball player. So in one sense Armstrong and Bonds are very vice ridden people because of the cheating but in another sense they are virtuous individuals because of the hard work they put in towards their sports. Bill Clinton could be another example of this dichotomy, between the "halo effect" and "devil effect," because he cheated on his wife in very unethical ways, but he also worked his way up from being poor in America to become the president of the United States. I even have a family member I know quite well, who is a very active person and works quite hard at his many projects but is often an unsympathetic and sometimes even cruel person.

So what is the philosophical point of this blog post? Well people have a tendency to think of others through the "halo effect" or "devil effect," as either saints or sinners, or virtuous or full of vice like people. I think though being a saint or sinner is often a domain dependent endeavor. In one domain Woody Allen is a genius (screenplay writer), and in another domain he has questionable sexual morals (father). In one domain Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and in another he is a unrepentant nefarious Nazi. Even Martin Luther King Jr., in one domain was immoral for having many affairs on his wife, but was also the greatest America civil rights leader of the 20th century likely.

So when thinking of people its best to not fall prey to the cognitive bias known as the "halo effect" or its counterpart the "devil effect." It might seem like an obvious truism or a cliche but people really are a complicated mixture of virtuous and more vice like tendencies and when making an assessment on what type of person an individual is, its helpful to ask what domain do you plan on judging them in. Ultimately although we are all a mixture of good and bad impulses, maybe as Nelson Mandela said succinctly, "a saint is just a sinner who keeps on trying." Thank you.

187 views0 comments


bottom of page