Monday, September 18, 2017

Let's not exaggerate the centrality of virtue to ethics

Virtues are important. They are useful: they internalize the moral law and allow us to make the right decision quickly, which we often need to do. They aren’t just time-savers: they shine light on the issues we deliberate over. And the development of virtue allows our freedom to include the two valuable poles that are otherwise in tension: (a) self-origination (via alternate possibilities available when we are developing virtue) and (b) reliable rightness of action. This in turn allows our development of virtue reflect the self-origination and perfect reliability in divine freedom.

But while virtues are important, they are not essential to ethics. We can imagine beings that only ever make a single, but truly momentous, decision. They come into existence with a clear understanding of the issues involved, and they make their decision, without any habituation before or after. That decision could be a moral one, with a wrong option, a merely permissible option, and a supererogatory option. They would be somewhat like Aquinas’ angels.

We could even imagine beings that make frequent moral choices, like we do, but whose nature does not lead them too habituate in the direction of virtue or vice. Perhaps throughout his life whenever Bill decides whether to keep an onerous promise or not, there is a 90% chance that he will freely decide rightly and a 10% chance that he will freely decide wrongly, a chance he is born and dies with. A society of such beings would be rather alien in many practices. For instance, members of that society could not be held responsible for their character, but only for their choices. Punishment could still be retributive and motivational (for the chance of wrong action might go down when there are extrinsic reasons against wrongdoing). I think such beings would tend to have lower culpability for wrongdoing than we do. For typically when I do wrong as a middle-aged adult, I am doubly guilty for the wrong: (a) I am guilty for the particular wrong choice that I made, and (b) I am guilty for not having yet transformed my character to the point where that choice was not an option. (There are two reasons we hold children less responsible: first, their understanding is less developed, and, second, they haven’t had much time to grow in virtue.)

Nonetheless, while such virtue-less beings woould be less responsible, and we wouldn’t want to be them or live among them, they would still have some responsibility, and moral concepts could apply to them.


Brandon said...

Spoken like a true deontologist! A virtue ethicist would, I think, understand both your single-decision and your habituation-less cases in counterfactual terms. A kind act, for instance, is one that is of the sort what one would do if one were kind, but this is not understood in such a way that doing kind acts requires the kind disposition (since in human beings the reverse is true); so we would identify kind acts as those that we recognize as the sort of thing a kind person (e.g., a kind human being) would do. To be sure, this is by a sort of transfer over species-lines, but I'm inclined to think that a virtue ethicist would hold that we could only recognize moral, as opposed to merely practical, reasoning by such a transfer. It wouldn't be, in itself, different from recognizing kind acts in kind, muddled, or cruel people.

(Although, I wonder if some virtue ethicists might simply deny that beings in the habituation-less case are making moral-rather-than-merely-practical decisions, anyway, asking how we would recognize their reasoning as moral if it doesn't involve anything relevant to being a morally good person, i.e., exhibiting a good character. And a genuinely habituation-less being is more bizarre than it sounds at first -- no habits of perception, no practical or productive skills -- but it's difficult to see how one could have those things and not be capable of virtues or vices if one is also able to engage in acts with moral objects.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Of course, even intra-species counterfactuals have well-known problems. The perfectly virtuous person never repents, but often it is our duty to repent. It would be wrong for me to say that I am perfectly virtuous, but wouldn't be wrong for the perfectly virtuous person to say this.

But there is a further problem with the cross-species case. It just seems implausible that what is right and wrong for x be grounded in what would be right and wrong for a being of a kind different from x. In the intra-species case, we could say that the counterfactuals are grounded in facts about the joint nature, and hence the counterfactuals are morally relevant. But here?

It seems that it would be easy to tell that some decisions of our virtue-less agents are moral rather than practical, simply because the agents could realize that the decisions are impractical. The practical thing for x to do could be to kill one innocent in order to save himself and five other innocents. But x doesn't, because it's wrong to do so. And when we query x as to why x didn't do it, x gives the usual sorts of moral reasons: "They have dignity. One ought not do evil that good may come of it. Etc."

Here is also a technical problem with the cross-species case. Either in asking counterfactually what x would do if x were a virtuous agent in a morally-habituating species we also include in the antecedent of the counterfactual that x's fellows are of that morally-habituating species or we don't. If we don't include that, then we are apt to get x's duties wrong, for it may well be that duties with respect to conspecifics differ from duties with respect to members of other species. But if we do include that x's fellows are also of that morally-habituating species, then we will get spurious moral claims. For moral-habituators should be treated differently from non-habituators (e.g., it makes no sense to impose rehabilitative penalties on non-habituators).

Brandon said...

Since we clearly can attribute moral terms to angels and God that are, in the human case, clearly virtue terms, mutatis mutandis, and presumably also to aliens who are more like us than those in the case at hand, differences of nature do not seem necessarily to create a wall for moral terms. There is not going to be any creature of whom to say 'It is just' is going to involve more difference than when we say 'God is just'; but the latter is not merey homonymous or metaphorical. Part of this is that the things required for the applicability of a virtue term, even mutatis mutandis, are the things that are required for the applicability of any moral term at all -- reason and will in some sense, which are present here.

If we mean 'One ought not do evil that good may come of it' in a moral sense, the virtue ethicist is just going to say that the natural meaning of this is that 'Doing evil that good may come of it is inconsistent with good character in general'. In addition, I think most of the more traditional virtue ethicist would deny that one could consistently recognize dignity in a moral sense without prudence or some related virtue.

If we don't include that, then we are apt to get x's duties wrong, for it may well be that duties with respect to conspecifics differ from duties with respect to members of other species.

This assumes that they have duties independently of whether they are doing the kind of thing a good person would do. Or, alternatively, that one can be a good person in a way that is recognizable independently of any reference, direct or indirect, immediate or counterfactual, to good character. Both of these already seem to require that virtue is not central to ethics, so if either is assumed rather than argued for, the argument doesn't seem to establish the point.

I would deny, very incidentally, that it makes no sense to impose rehabilitative penalties to non-habituators who are capable of giving the kind of reasons you suggest for distinguishing practical and moral reasoning for them. Either they are amnesiacs or they are not. If they are not amnesiacs, then all rehabilitative penalties still are viable because rehabilitative penalties can work as long as they are capable of taking prior penalties into account in their reasoning. All that's needed is memory and the ability to reason with it. If they are amnesiacs, however, so that they can't use memory in reasoning, then they can only use what they have innately. But moral reasoning is not purely a priori; it must be applied, and even if one has the innate idea of moral dignity, to know that this is the kind of thing to which it applies requires using prior experience of that kind of thing (directly or indirectly), which requires memory.

Adam Myers said...

I'm not sure what the argument here is for the non-essentiality of virtues to ethics. Is the following only a caricature?

1. I can imagine ethics for beings where virtue plays little or no role.
2. If (1), then virtues are not essential to ethics.
3. So virtues are not essential to ethics.