Praise in Poker and Ethics

Within consequentialism, it’s common to draw a distinction between two kinds of rightness: an act X is said to be objectively right just when, among the alternatives open to the agent, X will, as a matter of objective fact, have the best consequences; whereas X is said to be subjectively right just when the agent believes (or may reasonably believe) that X will have the best consequences. Thus, the question arises — at least for consequentialists — which of these two varieties of rightness is primary in ethics. Which, if either, is the more important or relevant kind of rightness? (I imagine that a similar distinction can be drawn in non-consequentialist ethics; so this is a question for everyone. But it’ll simplify things to frame the issue in consequentialist terms.)

A common argument given by subjectivists — i.e. those who hold that subjective rightness is primary — appeals to the notions of praise and blame. Surely, it is said, when it comes to praising and blaming people’s actions, it is only subjective rightness that is at issue. We cannot hold a person responsible for the (reasonably) unforeseen consequences of her actions. If a person acts in the (reasonable) belief that by so acting she will bring about the best possible world, given her alternatives, then she should not be blamed for so acting, even in the event that her belief turns out to be false. Hence, if ethics is primarily an exercise in apportioning praise and blame, subjective rightness is primary.

I want to suggest that common practises of praising and blaming, as exemplified by poker players, put pressure on the argument just outlined.

My own experience suggests that in games of poker players will often praise or blame other players on the basis of objective rightness. (“Rightness” may not be quite the right term here. In poker, the question is normally not whether a player’s actions are moral, but rather whether they are rational. So the analogy between poker and ethics is not perfect. But I don’t think that makes an important difference here). Consider an example. A certain player, Monica, calls a large bet before her hand has been completely revealed to her (e.g. in a game of Texas Hold’em, she calls on the turn). At the time of calling, her hand, for all she knows, amounts to nothing much. If the final card to be revealed is, say, the six of hearts, then she’ll have a straight flush (very good); otherwise she will, at best, have a pair of sixes (not very good). Now, the final card is revealed, and, to Monica’s delight, it’s the six of hearts. She hits her straight flush and wins a huge pot (that’s a lot of money, not a large cooking implement). Her opponent — the guy who made the large raise that Monica called — is revealed to have a full house. When all of this comes to light, the other players in the game respond approvingly to Monica’s play: “Good call!” they say.

It is doubtful, however, that this praise for Monica’s play could be justified by subjective rightness (or the counterpart of rightness in the case of rationality). At the time when she called, the odds of her making the straight flush were worse that 19-to-1 against. Hence, assuming that she’s not abnormally risk-seeking, she could not have reasonably believed that the expected utility of calling was greater than that of folding. From a subjective standpoint, her action seems clearly irrational. From an objective standpoint, on the other hand, her action is perfectly rational. Although Monica could not have known this at the time she acted (we assume she’s not cheating), her action did, in fact, have the best consequences for her. It seems, therefore, that when the other players judge Monica’s play praiseworthy, they do so from an objective standpoint.

The argument for subjectivism, as outlined above, claims that praise and blame depend on subjective rightness. But the example of poker suggests that, sometimes, people’s actual practises of praising and blaming bely that claim. How might subjectivists reply? I see three possibilities. First, it might be said that the other poker players are simply mistaken; although Monica’s play is praised, it’s not really praiseworthy. Second, it might be said that the other players believe that Monica’s play is subjectively rational, because she could have reasonably believed that calling had the greatest expected utility; perhaps they assume that she has some extraordinary poker intuition that allows her to foretell what cards will be dealt (aside: does this violate the “no cheating” stipulation). Third, it might be said that Monica’s action is praiseworthy, not because it maximises subjective expected utility, but because it displays some other kind of virtue (e.g. it was highly courageous).

None of these responses strikes me as entirely satisfying. But I’ll leave their evaluation to discussion, to see what others think.

Update: There’s a fourth possible response, which I negelected to mention above. It might be said that the other players are not really praising Monica’s play; rather, they’re remarking on her good fortune. In this context, “good call” might be taken to mean something like “you just got very lucky”.

5 Replies to “Praise in Poker and Ethics

  1. Thanks for the post, Campbell.
    I don’t think poker is the right place to look for an example of a context in which ‘praise’ and ‘blame’ (or their equivalents) are apportioned on the basis of ‘objective’ rightness. This simply doesn’t happen among experienced poker players. Experienced poker players understand that poor play can turn out well, and good play can turn out poorly. The result of any particular poker decision is thus an unreliable indicator of the player’s skill.
    The ‘first’ response you mention–“…it might be said that the other poker players are simply mistaken; although Monica’s play is praised, it’s not really praiseworthy”–strikes me as correct. Care to explain why you find this response unsatisfying?
    Thanks again–

  2. Campbell: It’s great finally to get a poker post. Long overdue!
    While I think there are interesting things to be learned from the comparison of poker and morality, I’m not sure they’re the lessons you think are to be drawn. For one thing, the analogy — specifically with respect to the praising aspect — isn’t terribly tight, primarily because in a genuine poker game (and not some namby-pamby friendly “neighborhood” game) the game is *always* on. By that I mean that all comments, gestures, grunts, etc. are to be taken as potential sources of information *or misinformation*. So “good call,” while perhaps a genuine form of praise out of some people’s mouths, will probably play a variety of other roles, depending on who says it. For example, someone might say it in order to encourage similar recklessness on the part of Monica in the future, in the hopes that he’ll clean her out next time she calls a big raise against all odds.
    Now of course these differing functions of “praise” may occur as well, I suppose, in the morality game (although there they’d be immoral, I think, whereas in the poker game they’re both rational and perfectly within the spirit/rules of the game). So it seems what you want to focus on are practices of *genuine* praise(in which case your Update option shouldn’t be included), but then I don’t think the case shows what you want. For praise in poker, even when expressed sincerely, sometimes is a comment on objective “rightness” but sometimes is actually a comment on *subjective* “rightness.” You’ve identified a case corresponding to objective rightness. Here’s one corresponding to subjective rightness: consider the person who *raised* Monica on the turn (call her Jan). Despite the fact that Monica called and Jan wound up losing all that extra money — despite having every reason to believe she had the “nuts” — many players would say to her, “You played it just right,” or “Good raise.”
    What this suggests is kind of a deflationary answer in the objective vs. subjective rightness debate: neither’s primary. Both play a role in our ordinary practices. And indeed they do: sometimes we praise someone for having done the objectively right thing, despite the fact that they had no reason whatsoever to believe it was the right thing. And sometimes we praise someone for having done the subjectively right thing, even though it produces disastrous consequences. So I don’t think appeal to ordinary practices will help resolve the dispute (but I think it does give us a clue that the dispute might simply be misguided).

  3. Thanks to both Davids for your comments.
    To the first David:
    On reflection, I’m inclined to agree with you: the first response is correct. I had in mind the following kind of objection to that response. Suppose that Monica had folded instead of calling. When the six of hearts is revealed she will regret her decision to fold, and her regret will not be irrational. And rationally regretting one’s actions is, in relevant respects, like blaming oneself for them. But I’m now inclined to say either (1) that Monica ought not to regret folding, or (2) that it’s OK for her to have regrets, but these don’t really amount to self-blaming in the right way.
    I’ve noticed that when I play poker (strictly “namby-pamby” games), I have the habit of watching the cards after I fold to see whether I would have won if I had stayed in the hand. When I see that I wouldn’t have won, I pat myself on the back: “Good, you did the right thing”, I think to myself. (And vice-versa when I see I would have won.) But I’m trying to kick the habit, because I think it’s irrational.
    To the second David:
    I agree with your first point. I take it to be in the spirit of the fourth response I suggested. In a context like poker, we should be wary of taking what people say at face value.
    I’m less sure about your second point. Granted, there is evidence that people praise and blame on the basis of both subjective and objective considerations. But I’m tempted to say that, in the objective case, people are just mistaken, in the sense that they praise actions that are not praiseworthy. And it seems that the important issue in ethics is what makes actions praiseworthy (not merely praised).
    Having said that, I am sympathetic to the deflationist position you suggest. I’m not sure why we need to say that either kind of rightness is primary. Rather, we might simply say that one kind of rightness is more relevant in some contexts, while the other is more relevant in other contexts, and leave it at that. But in the context of praise and blame, it still seems to me that subjective rightness is what’s at issue.

  4. If we approach this problem from within another debate we might get another answer.
    Consider a typical objection to Consequentialism(C): If (C) is correct, then it would follow that the right thing for me to do is to kill one innocent person and harvest his organs for five other people in need of them. But that is just crazy, the objection goes, and so (C) is false.
    A fairly typical move at this point is to distinguish between consequentialism as a decision procedure and consequentialism as an criterion of rightness. It might be, the response goes, that although harvesting the organs is right, no good consequentialist would ever make such a decision, for good consequentialists do not always try to maximize overall value.
    It seems to me that anyone who uses this distinction must believe that the objective account of rightness is the correct account of rightness, or takes priority over the subjective account. If the theory of consequentialism is suppsoed to provide us with a criterion of what makes acts right, but we are not necessarily constraied to deliberate using this criterion of rightness, there is no good reason to rely on the subjective account.
    In fact, the role of the subjective account of rightness might just be the same as the role of the distinction between decision procedures and criteria of rightness, namely, to provide the resources necessary to respond to these sorts of objections. If Campbell is correct that there are problems for the subjective account of rightness, then this may give consequentialists some reason to favor the other move instead.

  5. I’d say that some combination of the first and fourth responses is correct:It would only be a deeply superstitious player who would conclude that every outcome in the game, including highly unlikely outcomes like Monica’s, must be the result of players performing well or badly. To deny the role of luck here is surely wrongheaded.
    I am intrigued by the analogy to morality, but there does seem to me an important disanalogy: As David the second noted, Monica will get praise either way. If she holds, she’s (objectively) praised, and if she doesn’t, she’s subjectively praised, for having utilized the rational strategy. This is (I think) because we suppose luck to have a much greater role in the value of poker outcomes tha in moral outcomes. But are there moral contexts like Monica’s, in which if a person takes a moral risk (something risky because of low probability of success, lack of relevant information, etc.) and it works out well, we’d (morally?) praise them, but if they do the less risky thing and it works out poorly, we’d morally praise them for their prudence, levelheadedness, and the like? Such situations would be something like Nagel’s moral “blind alleys” turned on their heads, situations in which one could do no wrong. A very well-lit moral alley perhaps? I can’t think of a situation which is ‘no-lose’ from a moral point of view, but perhaps others can?

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