Alice sacrifices her life to protect her innocent comrades.
Bob decides that if he ever has the opportunity to sacrifice his life to protect his innocent comrades, he’ll do it.
We praise Alice. But as for Bob, while we commend his moral judgment, we think that he is not yet in the crucible of character. Bob’s resolve has not yet been tested. And it’s not just that it hasn’t been tested. Alice’s decision not only reveals but also constitutes her as a courageous individual. Bob’s decision falls short both in the revealing but also in the constituting department (it’s not his fault, of course, that the opportunity hasn’t come up).
Now compare Alice and Bob to Carl:
- Carl knows that tomorrow he’ll have the opportunity to sacrifice his life to protect his innocent comrades, and he decides he will make the sacrifice.
Carl is more like Bob than like Alice. It’s true that Carl’s decision is unconditional while Bob’s is conditional. But even though Carl’s decision is unconditional, it’s not final. Carl knows (at least on the most obvious way of spelling out the story) that he will have another opportunity to decide come tomorrow, just as Bob will still have to make a final decision once the opportunity comes up.
I am not sure how much Bob and Carl actually count as deciding. They are figuring out what would or will (respectively) be the thing to do. They are making a prediction (hypothetical or future-oriented) about their action. They may even be trying by an act of will to form their character so as to determine that they would or will make the sacrifice. But if they know how human beings function, they know that their attempt is very unlikely to be successful: they would or will still have a real choice to make. And in the end it probably wouldn’t surprise us too much if, put to the test, Bob and Carl failed to make the sacrifice.
Alice did something decisive. Bob and Carl have yet to do so. There is an important sense in which only Alice decided to sacrifice her life.
The above were cases of laudable action. But what about the negative side? We could suppose that David steals from his employer; Erin decides that she will steal if she has the opportunity; and Frank knows he’ll have the opportunity to steal and decides he’ll take it.
I think we’ll blame Erin and Frank much more than we’ll praise Bob and Carl (this is an empirical prediction—feel free to test it). But I think that’s wrong. Erin and Frank haven’t yet gone into the relevant crucible of character, just as Bob and Carl haven’t. Bob and Carl may be praiseworthy for their present state; Erin and Frank may be blameworthy for theirs. But the praise and the blame shouldn’t go quite as far as in the case of Alice and David, respectively. (Of course, any one of the six people might for some other reason, say ignorance, fail to be blameworthy or praiseworthy.)
This is closely to connected to my previous post.