Friday, January 19, 2024

The impact of right action on virtue

One of Socrates’ great discoveries is that moral goodness is good for us.

Virtue ethicists think there are two ways that acting morally well is typically good for us:

  1. The action itself is a constituent of our well-being, and

  2. The action promotes our possession of virtue.

Now, (1) is not just typically present, but always: good actions are constituents of human well-being. But unless we can count on miracles, there is no guarantee that (2) is always there. We can easily imagine cases where if you don’t do something immoral, you will captured and made to live among people whose vice will rub off on you to a degree where you are likely to become more vicious than you would have been had you done that one immoral thing. But those cases involve highly unusual situations. You might think that (2) is true except in highly exceptional cases.

Are there more common cases where morally good action fails to promote virtue? Well, acting morally well sometimes puts one in a position of temptation. This is not at all uncommon. You take a paycut to work for a charitable organization. But this results in financial pressures and now you are tempted to embezzle from your employer. For the sake of justice you work as a judge. And now you may be offered bribes, or simply be tempted to pride because of your social position. You drive to the grocery store to buy a treat for your child, and then along the way you are tempted to unsafe driving practices.

In a number of such cases, if you fall to the temptation, you become morally worse than you would have been had you omitted the initial morally good action. It is better to work for Morally Neutral Conglomerate, Inc. than for a charitable organization if you would be embezzling from the latter but not from the former. And we empirically know that people do fall to such temptations.

Thus we know there are ordinary cases where an instance of acting morally well has led to moral downfall.

But whether these cases are also counterexamples to the universality of (2) depends on how we read the “promotes” in (2). If we read it purely causally, then, yes, these are cases where doing the right thing was an important causal factor in someone’s moral downfall. But likely we should read (2) in a probabilistic tendency way. Perhaps we have something like this:

  1. The mathematical expectation of the level of virtue is higher upon doing the action than upon omitting it.

Again, in the highly exceptional cases this need not be true, unless you can expect a miracle. You may be in a position to be pretty confident that you will morally deteriorate unless you escape a corrupting environment but have no way to escape it except by doing something immoral.

But in typical ordinary cases, (3) seems pretty plausible. At least this is true: there are going to be few cases where the expected level of virtue is significantly lower upon doing the right action. For if that were the case, that would constitute a strong moral reason not to do the action, and hence except in a few cases where that strong moral reason gets overridden, the action won’t be right after all.

All that said, I wonder how good our empirical data is that (3) is true in the case of most ordinary actions.

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