Friday, May 16, 2008

Wrongness and vice

Consider these two cases:

  1. Martha hears Patrick utter an insult against her husband. Incensed by the insult, she fights Patrick with her fists, trying to kill him in a "fair" way (Patrick is not weaker than she is, she is not sneaking up on him, etc.). She succeeds in winning the fight, and has, thus, deliberately killed Patrick.
  2. Constantine tortures a small reptile, knowing the reptile to be entirely harmless.

What Martha has done is, intuitively, morally worse than what Constantine did. Martha killed a person, a creature in the image and likeness of God, a being endowed with dignity. She was provoked, but nonetheless acted deliberately to cause the death of a juridically innocent human being. On the other hand, Constantine caused wanton and inexcusable pain, but he did this to a being quite low down on the scale of moral concern. (If you disagree with my comparison between the two actions, then change the reptile into a ladybug.)

However, Constantine's action is the one that is more expressive of a vicious character: a character that is cruel, cowardly and irrational. Martha's action, while admittedly exhibiting disproportionate wrath, also exhibited loyalty and courage, albeit of a misguided sort. We wouldn't want to have Constantine among our friends. On the other hand, having Martha as one's friend would be an asset, as long as we were careful in our behavior around her.

If this is right, then there is a distinction between how wrong an action is and how expressive it is of a vicious character. This distinction has some interesting consequences. An obvious one is that it makes implausible Hume's account of punishment. Hume thought we punished actions insofar as they were evidence of a vicious character. But we would rightly punish Martha more severely than we would Constantine.

But a more important consequence is that it puts into question the virtue ethics project of grounding moral permissibility and impermissibility in virtue and vice. For, surely, if impermissibility is to be grounded in virtue and vice, then an action is more impermissible—more wrong—if it is more expressive of vice. But the above examples show that this is not so.


Mike Almeida said...

Maybe there is something wrong with my moral perception. While Constantine's action is clearly more cruel than Martha's, it isn't obviously more vicious than Martha's. Who display's a deeper vice, someone who's disposed to kill a person for a verbal insult, or someone who's disposed to torture a defenseless reptile for fun? I honestly don't know.
The more interesting question is which is more wrong. It seems to me that the torturing is more wrong, since (as I read it) Martha believes herself justified in which she is doing. Constantine (again, as I read it) does not entertain the need for justification. If the wrongness of actions depends in part on motives (I think this is a view you hold) then the latter (torturing case) might well be worse.

larryniven said...

Alex, I think you've got this one about right. I disagree, obviously, that humans have God-given dignity, but I'm not sure that's crucial to the argument. Lots of seemingly very wrong actions don't speak to the character of the person (in the Aristotelian sense of character, anyway, which I think is what you mean), because they're one-time things (e.g. crimes of passion, like your case). Certainly, Constantine's actions indicate a higher number of vices than Martha's do, and a smaller number of virtues. If the intensity of these traits doesn't balance now, which seems to be mike's concern, I don't doubt that the situation can be reconstructed to make up for that.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I agree that the knowledge issue is important.

We can keep the two cases parallel in two ways:
1. Martha believes that it is permissible to kill to protect honor, and Constantine agrees with Kant that we have no duties to animals but rejects Kant's argument that we have a duty to humanity to be humane to animals.
2. Martha knows what she is doing is wrong, but does it to protect her husband's honor. Constantine knows what he is doing is wrong, but does it for fun.

Notice how one thing that makes us more sympathetic to Martha is that she has an absolutely better reason for acting (the honor of another is a better reason than one's own fun), though relatively speaking her reason may be worse (protection of honor may be a less good reason for killing a human than fun is a reason for torturing an intellectual unsophisticated animal).

Mike Almeida said...

Notice how one thing that makes us more sympathetic to Martha is that she has an absolutely better reason for acting (the honor of another is a better reason than one's own fun), though relatively speaking her reason may be worse (protection of honor may be a less good reason for killing a human than fun is a reason for torturing an intellectual unsophisticated animal).

I think this is a really important observation. Martha has nearly no reason (call it R) that would justify what she does and Constantine has some reason (call it R'). Since R' is a better reason than R for doing either (wrong)action (i.e., torturing (T) or killing (K)) C is more justified absolutely in what she does than M is in what she does. But taking reasons for actions in what might be called their "proportional justification", Martha is proportionately more justified than Constantine, or R'/T > R/K. So how does wrongness go? Does wrongness go by absolute justification or by proportional justification? By the former, Martha does something more wrong than Constantine, by the latter Constantine does something more wrong.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

I wonder what implications this has, if any, on the idea of sinning in the mind via "doing the wrong thing for the right reason" or "doing the right thing for the wrong reason".

Alexander R Pruss said...


I was thinking that Martha's reason is much better, absolutely speaking, than Constantine's. Defending one's spouse's honor is a worthy enterprise than having fun.

Brandon said...

But a more important consequence is that it puts into question the virtue ethics project of grounding moral permissibility and impermissibility in virtue and vice. For, surely, if impermissibility is to be grounded in virtue and vice, then an action is more impermissible—more wrong—if it is more expressive of vice.

What sort of account of grounding an expression do you have in mind here. If one accepts, as most virtue theorists do, that actions usually tend toward the establishing of vices or virtues, then it wouldn't make sense to judge actions merely in terms of what vices one has already developed; one would also have to judge them in terms of the vices toward which you are tending. Thus Martha is engaging in the sort of action that, if it catches hold (so to speak), will become a much, much worse vice than a tendency to torture animals.

In any case, a virtue theorist can't, and won't, have a simple equation between wrongness and expressiveness of vice, because vices can be expressed by a range of actions, not all of which are equally expressive of it: so, for instance, if Constantine is torturing reptile because he has developed the character of a torturer, who would torture human beings to death if the opportunity came up, that's an action that is certainly expressive of the vice, but not so much as the action of actually torturing a human being to death.

Mike Almeida said...


Sorry, yes, but then everything in the last note, mutatis mutandis.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There are two different approaches to defining the right in virtue ethics. One approach says that the right actions are the kinds of actions that flow from virtue. (A standard version of this is that the right action is the one that a phronimos would do under the circumstances.) On this view, presumably, actions are wrong to the extent that they are the kinds of actions that flow from vice. This is the version of virtue ethics I was assuming.

The other kind of virtue ethics holds that the right actions are the ones that tend towards the establishment of virtue. But this is way too consequentialistic. Maybe it's rule consequentialism rather than act consequentialism, but in either case it's objectionable (and anyway, it's really hard to keep rule consequentialism from collapsing into act consequentialism).

For instance, consider the action type: stealing a small amount in order to pay for tuition in a virtue ethics class with a professsor who has a very well-established track record in helping his student achieve virtue. This action tends towards the establishment of virtue. (The theft promotes vice, but this effect is more than compensated for by the ethics class.)

Brandon said...

It's interesting that you see virtue theory as dividing so sharply; I haven't read more than a small selection of the newer material in the past few years, so I had never come across a form of it that clearly held it was a matter of only one of the two. Certainly traditional virtue ethics, whether Aristotelian or Humean, are not so narrowly rigid. Humean virtue theory, for instance, is about the character one presents, and this would quickly be collapse into nonsense if we only considered one or the other. If you're right about virtue theories falling into two different kinds along these lines, one wonders what has made the change.

But with regard to the first, since that is what you've had in mind: I take it that by this you mean kinds of action flowing from vices rather than kinds of action flowing from vices, since the latter would simply raise the problem again in a slightly different form: if an action is simply the kind of action that would be rejected by a virtuous person, and this is what establishes its wrongness, then it becomes irrelevant whether the action itself is actually done out of vice or not: either way it is the sort of thing a virtuous person would not have done. The wrongness of an action is grounded in virtue and vice; but Maria and Constantine present no problem for such an account.

I am not at all convinced by your example with regard to the second. Consider a simpler and much, much more common action: stealing a Bible in order to have one to read. (Bibles are the most shoplifted books, and one can assume that at least some of those thieves intend to read it.) Now, having a Bible is a feature of one's situation that can be favorable to virtue. But stealing a Bible does not tend toward virtue at all. Similarly, stealing money in order to attend a virtue ethics class doesn't tend toward virtue at all; the only twist is that it adds a feature to one's situation that can be favorable to virtue. Neither case shows that the stealing tends to virtue; they just show that not all actions tending to vice have perfectly bad consequences, even perfectly bad intended consequences -- which, I think, we already know from other cases.

Alexander R Pruss said...

So in the Bible case, it is reading the Bible that is conducive to virtue, not stealing the Bible, though the latter is a means to the former.

I don't know if one can cut up actions into subcomponents like that. The intentions seem to be part of an action. Cutting someone's heart with a knife is virtuous when done to cure (think: heart surgery) and vicious when done to kill, and these are different kinds of actions, though the incision may be the same. (The heart surgeon plans to close up the incision, but that's a matter of intentions.)

Once we include intentions in the action, then the question becomes: Does stealing the Bible in order to read it tend to conduce to virtue? And there the answer seems positive, assuming reading the Bible conduces to virtue sufficiently to overcome the loss of virtue in stealing. (Note: Reading the Bible does conduce to virtue, but perhaps only given God's grace.)

Compare another case. Buying bread is neutral with repect to virtue, or close to neutral (if it's virtuous, it's not very virtuous). But buying bread in order to feed the poor with it does tend to conduce to virtue.

Brandon said...


I don't see that it requires cutting up the action. In the case of the Bible-stealing, the intention is not merely to read the Bible but to steal it; reading it is merely part of what makes the Bible a thing of value, worth having. But cultivating an intention to steal something valuable -- whatever the reason it is valuable -- is not conducive to virtue. Consider someone like Simon Magus, but virtue-minded: receiving the Holy Spirit is conducive to virtue. But trying to buy the Holy Spirit, even with that end in view, does not tend to virtue at all, but to all sorts of vices associated with treating divine, good, and holy things as commodities. In other words: the fact that someone intends their action to tend to virtue is not sufficient actually to make it tend to virtue. And in cases like the stolen Bible and the virtue ethics class, if the possession of that Bible, or the attending of that class, does, in fact, conduce to virtue, there is a clear sense in which this is incidental to any action on the part of the thief (the fact that a good consequence can incidentally follow from a bad action).

In the buying-bread instance, it seems to me that buying the bread does not tend to virtue (except, of course, insofar as it may be done in a way that tends to cultivate virtues related to buying). What tends to virtue are (1) thinking about the poor in order to formulate plans for relieving their poverty; and (2) following through on those plans by actually feeding the poor. But buying bread is merely the obtaining of an instrument; it is an action subordinated to the overall action as means to end. Contrast it with murdering rich people in order to use their money to feed the poor: murdering the wealthy to get money is also a distinct, and purely instrumental action.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think I see. So the idea is that a plan of action is right only provided that every step in it individually conduces to virtue or at least does not conduce to vice? So the plan of stealing a Bible in order to attain virtue is not right, because one step in the plan--the theft of the Bible--conduces to vice.

That's pretty good as a response. I think, though, the requirement that no part of an action plan should be such as to conduce to vice is too stringent. For instance, suppose that exposure to the a particular logo conduces to dishonesty. This is not a crazy supposition. Exposure to the Apple logo conduces to creativity, and exposure to the Disney logo conduces more to honesty than does exposure to the E! logo according to this research (whether exposure to the E! logo conduces to vice is something the article does not say). Suppose I am an ambulance driver, and I need to choose a route to the accident. The shortest route takes me by a giant billboard with a logo that conduces to dishonesty. It is impossible to drive by it without seeing it. (And maybe avoiding looking at it directly, and simply seeing it with the corner of the eye, has a stronger subliminal effect.) It is not wrong to take this route, even though a part of one's plan now conduces to dishonesty.

Now, you might make a double effect move here. One isn't intending to see the problematic logo. So now the view becomes: No intended part of one's plan can be such as to conduce to vice.

But even then, I think this may be too strong. Suppose that it turns out, as a matter of empirical fact, that when you look at money, you tend to become slightly more greedy. This would not be that surprising in light of the research on the logos, would it? Then buying bread for the hungry has an intended component--the taking out of money--which contributes to vice.

Brandon said...

I'm not sure it's quite helpful in this context to put it in terms of a "plan of action"; plans of action aren't intentions: you can plan without intending and intend without planning.

I think your suggestion, though, is much closer to what I'm trying to suggest. However, the point is not that actions are "right only provided that every step in it individually conduces to virtue or at least does not conduce to vice" (nor even if we insert 'intended' before 'step'). The problem with your logo and money examples is that the things that are conducing to vice aren't actions performed by the person in question, but featuers of the situation within which action is performed. The tendency to become less honest in looking at a logo is not a feature of anyone's action (unless, perhaps, they are looking at it in order to become less honest), but of certain associations, etc. Similarly, if I become slightly more greedy in looking at money, this is not a feature of any action that I am performing but a quirk of my personality that just has to be taken into account.

Think of it this way. Association with prostitutes is presumably more conducive to vice than to virtue. But if I associate with prostitutes not in order to use their services but in order to help them off the street, there is nothing my action that tends or conduces to vice, despite the fact that it involves association with prostitutes. Rather, what conduces to vice is a feature of the environment in which I am acting, one for which, if I am prudent, I will compensate in my actions.

The complement is true, too. Attending church is conducive to virtue; but only in that sense that church is the sort of environment, or feature of my environment, that can facilitate the growth of virtue. If I attend church in order to be admired and applauded, there is nothing in my action that tends to virtue.

So my argument is that there are two senses of 'tends to or conduces to vice' (and associated phrases) that are being blurred together. In one sense we may be talking about any feature of our situation that facilitates the growth of virtue. And, as you note, these may be all sorts of things: logos, companions, objects in the immediate vicinity, things we possess, institutions in which we are participating, etc. In the other sense, you are interested simply in features of the action that are immediately relevant to the formation of internal dispositions and habits. So the version of Simon Magus mentioned in my previous comment is trying to receive the Holy Spirit (and receiving the Holy Spirit is conducive to virtue in the former sense); but by trying to buy the Holy Spirit, he is setting a bad pattern and precedent for himself (his action tends to vice in the second sense).

Alexander R Pruss said...


Here's one worry. One might use the same division between the action and its circumstances to say that in stealing money the action is "taking some money", in circumstances where one knows the money belongs to someone else. This seems parallel to "looking at a logo", in circumstances where one knows that seeing the logo conduces to dishonesty.

Brandon said...

I'm not sure the stealing parallel is entirely a problem; for one thing, there really are cases where taking money in circumstances in which one knows that it is another's is not stealing in a moral sense: e.g., if you are broke and your children need bread, or if you are stealing from a usurping oppressor to alleviate the oppression he is causing. So 'taking money in circumstances in which one knows that it is another's' is really a generic description that can cover actions across the moral spectrum, and so should not be treated as involving anything that tends to vice in itself. ('Looking at a logo that tends to make one dishonest' is much the same, and cf. the association with prostitutes example.)

But I wouldn't myself put it in terms of a distinction between actions and circumstances, because some circumstances can be part of the action (e.g., the poison if I murder someone with poison because I know that it will make them suffer before they die). Rather, it's between the action and circumstances that are not part of the action. The former is directly relevant to virtue and vice since it is part of one's own contribution to being either virtuous or vicious; the latter is only relevant indirectly in the sense that it is something a prudent person will take into account if he is aware of it. The distinction, in any case, is one to which more than just a virtue theorist is committed: situationists, for instance, are committed to something like it as well, or their attack on virtue theory collapses. The only people who aren't usually committed to something like it (as far as I can see) are consequentialists.