Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A curious story about becoming just

Alice is a supervillain and Bob is a mad scientist. Alice wants Bob’s device to destroy the world. Bob makes Alice a deal: gain the virtue of justice and get the device. Alice isn’t smart enough to realize that once she gains the virtue of justice, she won’t want to use the device. She reads the best in ancient and modern wisdom, works hard, and gains the full virtue of justice, all in order to destroy the world.

Let’s suppose that when you have the full virtue of justice, you have to act from justice (at least in actions where justice is relevant). At some point Alice lost the motivation to destroy the world. Let’s suppose that as it happened, she lost that motivation at the same moment at which she gained full justice.

Alice now possesses justice, but it seems she is not praiseworthy for being just. All her just actions are ultimately explained by her former desire to destroy the world. They are not to her credit.

Now, here is what I think is rather odd about this story: Precisely by becoming fully just, Alice has lost all possibility for getting moral credit for acting justly. She is now locked into a non-praiseworthy justice.

I don’t know how this story bears on other philosophical questions or what interesting conclusions to draw from it.

In practice, I suspect, it would be unlikely that Alice would lose the motivation to destroy the world just as she gained full justice. There would likely be an intermediate time when she is no longer motivated to destroy the world, but has incomplete justice and hence is capable of choosing between virtue and vice, and hence can praiseworthily gain full justice.


Christopher Michael said...

This would be like saying that Saint Augustine's defense of the Faith is without merit because he gained his logical and rhetorical skills in order to defend Manichaeism (to the extent that he did).

Actions, not virtues, are the proper subjects of merit and praise. Virtues are principles of merit and praise, not the subjects thereof (except by analogy). So as soon as the evil motive is lost, every action of the virtue from that point forward is meritorious and praiseworthy, whatever the explanation of how the virtue was gained.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That seems quite wrong if the virtue determines one to act well, unless compatibilism is true.

For consider this plausible principle: No creature that has always done the worst it could is ever praiseworthy. But now imagine that Alice was conceived with all the virtues, and suppose that in her circumstances the virtues always determined a unique action. In that case, Alice always did the only thing she could, and hence she always did the worst thing she could, and hence deserves no praise.

Walter Van den Acker said...


But since Alice always did the only thing she could, she also always did the best thing she could. Why, if we suppose praiseworthy is a meaningful term in this respect, wouldn't that be praiseworthy?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No: one isn't praiseworthy for always doing the best one can. A chair always does the best it can, too.

Shiyo said...

Are you sure that she wouldn't be considered praiseworthy? By whom? Because I feel like if this were the story of a TV show, Alice would be considered pretty praiseworthy and redeemed by most watchers - just like Eleanor in The Good Place, who spends the first season faking good behavior out of pure self-interest, until "the mask becomes the wearer" and she does end up a decent person.

Walter Van den Acker said...


The reason a chair is not praiseworthy is not because it always does the worst it can, but because a chair isn't conscious (AFAIK).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the chair is not praiseworthy because it doesn't make any real choices. Nor does Alice in my comment.

Walter Van den Acker said...


But the principle "no creature that has always done the worst it could is ever praiseworthy" does not entail that the creature cannot make any choice between two equally bad alternatives.
Unless, you define "real choices" as choices between good and evil, of course.
In any case, God would also not be praiseworthy, because He always does the worst he can, which also happens to be the best He can.

Unknown said...

what's wrong with destroying the world?

tarnold said...

Under the terms of the example, we have perfect knowledge of Alice's motivations. It is always compatible with perfectly virtuous actions that they are performed with insufficiently praiseworthy motivations, if not downright perverse ones. If one includes motivations themselves as objects of previous motivations (i.e. I choose to achieve "full justice" out of evil, albeit ignorant, intent), then it is compatible with virtuous motivations at time t+1 that they were fully determined by insufficient/perverse motivations at time t, hence the virtuous actions are still neither rightly motivated nor praiseworthy.

This is a demonstration of virtue ethics and deontology being difficult to reconcile in extremis.

But practically speaking, we never have perfect knowledge of motivations. To me that's where real ethics starts, reasoning over uncertainty.

Universal Portfolio said...

By destroying the world, Alice is trying to prevent future suffering and the conduct of future evil acts. Or in other words, she is attempting to create an absorbing state (aka, "Utopia"). So when she decides not to destroy the world, she is now evil?

I agree that the question is reasoning under uncertainty, but not just in motivation but in outcome. We can not be sure that the outcome we intend is good but perhaps via computation and the passage of time, we can work towards being More Good.

The virtue is in the willingness to work/to struggle/to compute "what is moral?" further, and not in the success/failure of the action taken.

I think a play through of Socrates Jones would be illuminating for Alice

Fahd Alsaadi said...

She is praiseworthy for what she has become, regardless of what motivated her, also the ability to turn from pure evil to the opposite is praiseworthy.

The next person that benefits from her new found just will praise her, justice is an absolute right, when you commit a just act, the intention & action will all align toward justice for that particular act (regardless of the initial intention in the back of her head to destroy the world), so she is praise-worthy for that specific act, at-least.

Personally, I don’t think one person can contain the idea of destroying the world (pure evil) and any amount of justice at one time, it’s like light & darkness. So the moment she accepts the challenge it would be a decision she made to let go of her ambitions to destroy the world, that is praise-worthy.

Unknown said...

What's all this excitement about praise?

Andy Sheats said...

To be praiseworthy is irrelevant to this story. Only to be just or unjust.