Talent Show Poll

Thank you to all 75 voters for taking the Talent Show poll, over there in the right column!

To stay or not to stay, that is the question
Here’s the situation—you’re at your child’s talent show and she’s finished performing. Some folks are leaving after their own kid’s turn, and you consider doing the same.

I once sat through a show with broken air conditioning in the middle of a Dallas summer. It was sweltering and there was very little talent on display, but I couldn’t possibly go. As people left in droves, leaving the remaining performers with very few people to clap for them, I wondered about the thoughts of those who stay and those who leave.

What intrigues me is that when I look at my reasons for staying, they seem so fragmented. I can’t get the reason to be one simple reason. Misery loves company, so I’m glad to see that 7, the combination answer, is the one in the lead (34%).

Reciprocity (2) is a big factor for me. Maybe the children’s feelings would come into it (3) if a lot of other people were leaving too. The specter of every parent leaving after his kid’s performance draws me to the rather Kantian (4). How could a talent show really work if everyone did that? Golden-rule-ish (5) has entered my mind in these situations. And though I would never spontaneously think about it in Utilitarian terms (6), I can’t say that makes no sense.

Instead of just admitting ethical stupidity—why can’t I settle on one answer?--I’m going to try to draw deep conclusions here. I admit this has a little of the flavor of making lemonade out of lemons, so caveat emptor.

All the other answers
But first, about those who didn’t pick 7. I had an opportunity for an extensive exit interview with just one person, namely my husband. It went something like this: “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you choose 7?”

He said it was wimpy, and in polls like this you’re really supposed to force yourself to choose one answer. (He chose 2--reciprocity) I wonder how many people who didn’t choose 7 –40% chose either 3 (kindness) or 4 (Kant)--were thinking along those lines.

As for the 1’s, who would stay if they felt like it, leave if they felt like it, don’t worry, you’ve got the rest of your life to repent. Just kidding—I can see a case for living life with a little more spontaneity. “Cheerful moral anarchy” is a nice phrase from Jonathan Glover’s book Choosing Children. It has its attractions.

We Sevens
Alright, now for the deep conclusions. You might say there’s a single idea underlying all of 2-6, which is to take other people seriously—as having needs, feelings, rights. But there do seem to be significantly different ways of expounding on that idea. Possibly I’m just lacking moral smarts, or confused, or need to hear another 50 arguments and counterarguments, but my gut feeling is that all of these strains of moral thought are cogent. Morality is irreducibly complex, multi-faceted, plural—pick your own pretty word.

Possibly we 7’s are just undisciplined. We think about our obligations in multiple ways. In this case our different approaches converge. In other cases, our pluralism is going to pull us in different directions. We’re not going to be sure which way to go, because the Kantian in us (expressed by 4) says X and the Utilitarian (6) says Y. Reciprocity (2) says this, and kindness (3) says that.

It’s nice there’s actually a view that endorses this kind of messiness. It’s W. D. Ross’s moral intuitionism. He says there are many prima facie duties that have to be recognized and in specific situations they can converge (like the talent show situation) but they will often pull in opposite directions. Then we have to “just” figure out which is predominant. That, of course, is the problem, and the reason why there’s an irresistible impulse to keep looking for the holy grail, the one true moral theory.


Anonymous said...

So should I read The Right and the Good?

Ross is one of a number of thinkers to whom I wish I could explain the current evolutionary understanding and say, do you recognise this? does this fit in with your ideas?

Jean Kazez said...


But I admit, the more I read stuff about morality and evolution the more I get nervous about a Platonic picture. People intuiting duties...hmm. You have to think of morality sort of on the model of math to go in for that.

I must put up a link to a good article in the New York Times yesterday about evolution and morality.

pj said...

I'm with your husband on this one - it is like having a scale from 1 to 5 - everyone picks 3.

You can't analyse a poll like this in much detail if 'other', or 'all of the above' are options picked by a large proportion of respondents.

Anonymous said...

I would stay out of a feeling of unity with the others in my childs group.