Friday, August 7, 2020

Virtues as pocket oracles

Consider three claims:

  1. Virtues when fully developed make it possible to see what is the right thing to do without conscious deliberation.

  2. Acting on fully developed virtues is the best way to act.

  3. Acting on a pocket oracle, which simply tells you in each case what is to be done, misses out on something important in our action.

All three claims sound pretty plausible, but there is a tension between them. To make the tension evident, ask this question:

  • What makes a fully developed virtue relevantly different from a pocket oracle?

Consider three possible answers to the question:

Answer 1: The virtue makes you understand why the right thing is right (e.g., because it is courageous, or loyal, etc.). The oracle just says what is right.

But: We can easily add that the oracle gives an explanation, and that you understand that explanation. Intuition (3) is still going to be there.

Answer 2: The virtues are in us while the oracle is external.

But: Suppose that due to a weird mutation your gut had the functions of the pocket oracle, and gave you literal gut feelings as to what the right thing to do is (and, if necessary, why).

Answer 3: The virtues are formed by one’s own hard work.

But: Perhaps I had to work really hard to get the oracle. Or maybe I designed the AI system it uses.

Maybe there is some other answer to the question. But I would prefer to say that there is a relevant similarity between the case where the virtue tells me what to do and when the oracle does (even the gut oracle), namely that in neither case did I consciously weigh the options myself to come up with the answer.

I would deny (1). There are some independent reasons for that.

First, in difficult cases the struggle is important. This struggle involves oneself being pulled multiple ways by the genuine goods favoring the different actions. It is important to acknowledge the competing goods, especially if they are weighty. If I am trying to decide whether to rescue the drowning friend of five years or the mere acquaintance, it is by being deliberationally pulled by the good of rescuing the mere acquaintance that I acknowledge their moral call on me.

Second, there is sometimes literal and complex calculation going on in decisions. There is a 25% chance of rescuing 74 people versus a 33% chance of rescuing 68 people. It is not a part of perfected human virtue to have us do arithmetic in our heads instantly and see whether (0.25)(74) or (0.33)(68) is bigger. Of course, most of the time the deliberation is not mathematical, but that only makes things harder. We are not gods, and our agential perfection does not involve divine timeless deliberation.

Third, there is a trope in some science fiction (Watts’ Blindsight is where I saw this first) that there are non-human beings that are highly intelligent but lack consciousness. The idea is that consciousness involves some kind of second order reflection which actually slows down an agent, and agents that lack this evolutionary complication might actually be better. It seems to me that the temporally extended and self-reflective experience of deliberation is actually quite important to us as human agents. We are not gods or these kinds of aliens.


S. F. Griffin said...

Why do you choose to follow the pocket oracle?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Because I have evidence it's always right, I guess.