IPOD CH. 8 “VIRTUE”

SUMMARY & DISCUSSION, IPOD CH.8 (8.1-8.6)

  1. Here is the view of moral virtue defended as part of SC (the Simple Conativist or “most everything interesting here is explained by what ordinary desires you have” view of moral psychology): To be virtuous is to have significant good will and lack ill will; to be vicious is to have significant ill will or significant moral indifference [indifference to the moral good or right]. Additionally, as defended in 7.2, good and ill will is constituted by having relevant morally apt or inapt intrinsic desires. The main thing to notice about this view is that it is Kantian, not Aristotelian in focusing on good and ill will: virtue it taken to be an inherent quality of mind that constitutes a goal-orientation toward relevant states of affairs, not any disposition to take the actions (feel the emotions, have the beliefs) appropriate to promoting or otherwise responding to those states of affairs. 8.1 (A Theory of Virtue) presents and explains this view. 8.2 (A Theory Applied) applies this view on the supposition, for explanatory purposes, that a standard, simple interpretation of W.D. Ross’s moral theory (of usually-conclusive pro tanto reasons to follow moral requirements) is the correct one.
  2. The most important material in this chapter is in 8.3 (Virtues and Their Effects), 8.4 (Virtue and Involuntary Attitudes: Two Alternative Views), and 8.5 (Virtuous Irrationality). 8.6 concerns a problematic commitment of SC to an implausibly unified theory of the unity of the virtues if Millian consequentialism or Kantiansm turns out to be true (the short answer to this concern is that this result would make these “non-pluralistic” general moral theories worse for wear; I agree).
  3. 8.3 is a pretty direct argument from cases to the conclusion that action-disposition and action-and-attitude-disposition views of virtue are false and the desire-based good-will view true. One central sort of case goes like this schematically: dispositions to act might be entirely separated from apt desires – as certain of one’s vocalizations are if one has Tourette Syndrome and as one’s actions might be when they are performed purely from habit – and when they are one has no part of virtue in displaying such dispositions. (These cases focus mainly on actions, though perhaps there are similar cases for attitudes. Note that the Aristotelian view of the detailed structure of virtue is taken to be true, in this sense: virtue is marked not only by the reliable production of relevant actions, but also the reliable production of apt feelings and thoughts. One explanatory advantage of SC, given its account of what desires are, is that it can explain and justify including such a variety of responses as marks of virtue. More on this below.) Another central sort of case is that of a person who has the requisite moral desires (and overall structure or priority of desires that gives moral ends priority over others) but is blocked from effective action. We credit such a person with being virtuous and this again speaks to the good will theory over the dispositions theory. I find this argument less than convincing for a simple reason: these points equally favor the kind of mixed view that A&S attribute to Bernard Williams but do not treat in detail. On Williams’ view, according to A&S, virtues are dispositions to act (reliably do the right things) but the dispositions have to be of the right sort – they have to come from the right end-orientation of the agent. There is room, on a view like this, to accommodate all of the cases and intuitions in this section, I think, as long as having a good will (perhaps the right desires, if this is the right account of what a good will is) is the main necessary constituent in being virtuous – but insufficient for full virtue, full virtue requiring having the relevant dispositions to act, feel, and think in apt ways (any of which may be blocked or defeated in various ways). So 8.3 provides no evidence specifically in favor of virtue-as-nothing-more-than-good-will or their particular theory of how virtue-as-good-will goes (part of SC).
  4. 8.4 (Virtue and Involuntary Attitudes: Two Alternative Views), and 8.5 (Virtuous Irrationality) are more interesting. Each section presents an interesting moral-psychological phenomenon that a good theory should explain – and A&S argue that their theory best explains it. The first phenomenon is that attitudes not just actions can be virtuous of vicious (though – they argue and I would agree – only actions are blameworthy or praiseworthy in their virtuousness or viciousness). The SC virtue-as-good-will theory explains this in a very simple way: given that desires are constituted by a functional relationships to motivation and action, attention and belief-formation, and the occurrence of feelings or emotions (specifically, contents being “constituted as rewards” by the reward-learning system in the brain and central nervous system), it just makes sense that (involuntary) attitudes as well as (voluntary) actions may express or reflect the intrinsic desires of morality. So moral desire is functionally – and if all goes well, dispositionally – connected to morally good or right action, thought, feeling. The main alternative explanation for the relevance of thought and feeling to virtue, initiated by Scanlon but carried forward in the most detail by Angela Smith, is that attitudes as well as actions are associated with the relevant sorts of beliefs – and are rationalized by them, at least in some sense (these attitudes are “judgment-sensitive attitudes” in Scanlon’s terminology). So, for example, fear is associated with the belief that what is feared is dangerous (fear is a judgment-sensitive attitude – I think this is how this view and terminology goes). And so, if one has a morally incorrect thought (say, a bigoted thought about the moral inferiority of some arbitrary class of people), this thought might be expressed either in action (vicious action) or feelings (vicious feelings).
  5. The “internal” problem with this hypothesis – according to A&S – is that it is not clear that there is a rational connection between such thoughts and such feelings. For example, it does not appear to be irrational to judge that something is dangerous and have no fear. This, it seems to me, is something of a weak point. Apart from acceptance of a substantive theory of rationality, I don’t think we have strong, clear intuitions in this case. Also Smith might abandon the rationality hypothesis and instead favor some other way in which feelings (or further beliefs) could “reflect” or “be expressions of” relevant beliefs… One potentially strong argument in favor of A&S’s view that do not really explore is the idea that SC is a more unified explanatory approach than is Scanlon and Smith’s “judgment sensitive attitudes” approach. The Scanlon/Smith view offers explanatory unity only if cognition, not desire or anything else, is most basic – and only if action, secondary beliefs, and emotions are in some way reflected by relevant moral thoughts. If this kind of view of what is most basic to virtue has problems, and I think it does, then the Scanlon/Smith approach provides explanatory unity only at an unacceptable cost. (I don’t pretend to have even presented this argument in a very convincing manner. Just trying to indicate how it would go. If virtue concerns more than just relevant action, but also relevant feeling/emotion and attention/belief/knowledge/wisdom, it is important to say why and how this is so – and SC is well-positioned to do that.)
  6. Gideon Rosen offers another alternative explanation of how virtue or vice type valence gets attached to attitudes as well as actions: involuntary attitudes like feelings are morally vicious only when they reflect a culpable lack of effort in building one’s habits and character such that one does not have the feeling as an automatic reaction. A&S points out that this kind of view is wrong because it is the attitude itself, not efforts in coming to have or not coming to have it, that are the primary object of evaluation. In thinking that having such feelings exhibits vice, we are responding to their inappropriateness – not to the agent’s lack of effort in preventing having or expressing the feeling. (Here’s another example of a vicious feeling: being amused and laughing at a racist joke.)
  7. The phenomenon of 8.5 ( Virtuous Irrationality) is irrational feelings that are important expressions of good will – and hence virtue. The analogy with mere desire here is that of having appropriate (and strong) concern for the well-being of one’s child and this strongly leading to irrational worrying – worrying that is, for most of us, a mark of having that strong intrinsic desire. This element in SC’s theory of what desires are (and how they can misfire with respect to their effects) allows for a nice explanation of why, say, it seems appropriate – but irrational – to be full of guilt over hitting and killing a pedestrian with one’s car even though one is absolutely certain that one did everything in one’s power to be careful. As an expression of the (moral) desire not to do grave harm to others, such irrational feelings are laudable or virtuous. The main alternative explanation is due to Susan Wolf. She explains the same sort of case by reference to an (unnamed) virtue of taking responsibility for the effects of our actions in the world. On her view, the person who non-culpably accidentally kills a pedestrian with her car is actually rational, not irrational, in making amends as well as feeling guilty, etc. A&S, interpreting “taking responsibility” as an action, argue that Wolf has set up a kind of regress that is not good: if one does not feel guilt, then one is to feel guilty about not feeling guilty. And if one fails to feel this second-order guilt, then third-order guilt is in line as well. I’m not convinced that this regress is that harmful. But I see how you get it if taking responsibility is an action and this is somehow performed (expressed?) by feeling guilty. Wolf’s clear move her is to deny that “taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions in the world” needs to be an action (that one has a duty to perform). Whether or not Wolf’s view is correct or promising, I don’t think A&S have dealt it anything like a death blow. However, SC does, once again, provide a very simple, unifying theory of how cognitive and emotional phenomena, as well as actions, achieve their virtue-valances and vice-valences.
  8. One might also make the following claim on behalf of SC: it provides an account of the relevant sense of ‘expression’ or ‘reflection’ in saying the virtue and vice is ‘expressed’ and ‘reflected’ in thoughts and feelings as well as actions. The relevant connections here are provided by the functional, not always and not simply rational, nature of the connection between contents to relevant attention/thought, feeling/emotion, motivation/action – when that content is “constituted as a reward” by the reward-learning system. More broadly, you get this kind of explanatory virtue on the right sort of functional account of what desires are when you have a desire-based view of good will and a good-will-based view of virtue (even if A&S are wrong about the relevant neurological elements and how they work in their theory of desire). However, though going through in detail is too much to tackle right now, it seems plausible that a “mixed” view of virtue that puts good will at the constitutive center of it but has an essential role for dispositions (to act, to think, to feel) in full virtue and vice as well would get the same thought-and-feeling-related explanatory work done just as well.  So, again, A&S have failed to offer evidence that favors the SC view of virtue over a hybrid or mixed view like that of Bernard Williams.

One thought on “IPOD CH. 8 “VIRTUE”

  1. One further thought. It seems that there are two important things, here: (a) an agent’s end-orientation toward relevant states of affairs and (b) an agent having this end-orientation and her being disposed to have appropriate responses (actions, beliefs or knowledge, feelings or emotions). The first thing is more important with regard to having virtue: one has a significant measure of virtue when only the first thing is there, but none when only the disposition element of the second thing is there (as when one is conditioned into performing the good or right actions). But A&S would seem to be claiming that VIRTUE, the concept, applies only to the first thing. But why not think that VIRTUE is implicitly non-committal between the two things or ambiguous, sometimes referring simply to the agent’s relevant end-orientation and other times referring to this plus the relevant end-orientation’s typical effects in action, knowledge, feeling? If this is right, then the issue is not that of which of two accounts of some one thing is correct or better, but that of distinguishing two things and saying what their relationship is. And the right sort of answer, on this view of VIRTUE, would seem to go something like this: mere-end-orientation-type virtue is required for end-orientation-plus-dispositions-type virtue, but the second is to be preferred to the first. I hope these ideas make some sense and have not gone too far into the methodological weeds!

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