Modesty, Courage, and Other Vices

Believe it or not, I’ve heard people describe modesty as a “virtue.” It obviously isn’t: it’s a direct, frontal assault on truth-telling. There should be less of it in the world, and more grandstanding.

With that ill-argued and implausible preface, I make a plug for a modest essay of mine, “David Solomon on Egoism and Virtue,” just published in a festschrift for the same Solomon, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, until recently Director of ND’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and in perhaps his most daunting academic role, my dissertation advisor. My essay appears in the volume, ridiculously, among essays by the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Haldane, and Candace Vogler, not to mention a response (which I haven’t yet read) by Solomon himself. 

As for what he’s responding to: I honor my mentor and repay his patient forbearance of me by singling out a paper of his from a 1988 issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy, and subjecting it to a sustained barrage of below-the-belt criticisms based on a fundamentally uncharitable reading of the article itself. Because that’s how I roll. It ain’t pretty, but it is published and for sale. I encourage readers to buy two copies, one for themselves, and one to leave at random on mass transit. The book itself is called Beyond the Self: Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Culture, published by Baylor, and edited by Raymond Hain of Providence College. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I didn’t pick the title.

While I’m at it, let me make a plug for David Riesbeck’s review of The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Ethics, edited by Christopher Bobonich (in Polis 36:2), which he describes, much too modestly, as a discussion of “a bunch of chapters by a bunch of people, adding up to a pretty decent book.” It’s more than that, but I wouldn’t want to brag, especially since I didn’t write it.

Speaking of virtue, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the virtue of courage–in particular, about what strikes me as the neurotic “superhero” conception of it that now seems to command adherence, at least in this country. I’m thinking, obviously, about the Scot Peterson case that I’ve mentioned a few times before, but also about a spate of other related cases, like that of Cordell Hendrex, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer who was first on the scene at the Las Vegas massacre of October 2017. Hendrex, assisted by a trainee and a few security guards, was expected to confront and take out Stephen Paddock, the heavily armed psychopath who barricaded himself on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 58 and wounding 800 at a concert nearby. Instead, Hendrex “froze,” paralyzed into inaction by terror, and was recently fired from the police force. Unlike Peterson, he has not been subjected to ridicule or condemnations as a “coward,” in part because he’s managed to beat his critics to the punch.

I have real doubts about the conceptions of courage and cowardice implicit in the popular and legal/bureaucratic reactions to these cases, and am curious whether treatments of courage/cowardice in the virtue ethics literature have anything useful to contribute to our understanding of them. If you’ve got bibliographic recommendations, I’d like to hear them; feel free to mention them in the comments, perhaps with an explanation of what you take to be of value in the item you recommend. I’m not looking for stuff from any particular tradition or style of philosophy (whether analytic, Continental, historical, etc.), just anything worth reading.

P.S. Just got my copy of Beyond the Self yesterday. Turns out that Solomon’s essay is not a response to critics, but a 23-page historical essay on the dialectical arc of virtue ethics from Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” to the near-present: “Elizabeth Anscombe and the Late Twentieth-Century Revival of Virtue Ethics.” Have only managed to skim it for now, but on a quick glance, it seems to give a very useful account of a somewhat neglected topic: the analytic reaction to work by philosophers working in the Catholic philosophical tradition, and vice versa. A lot of good stuff in the volume, overall. This link takes you to the Table of Contents.

15 thoughts on “Modesty, Courage, and Other Vices

    • I think the song makes a very plausible case for intellectual property rights. If anything could justify the use of coercion to stop someone from appropriating a song written and performed by someone else, this could. I’m not usually the first in line to defend One Direction, but I’d go to the mat for them on this one.

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  1. Not a philosophical source, but I found this survey of psychological studies interesting, especially the apparent relevance of training (I linked to this a while back re: Scot Peterson). One thing that seems wrong with the superhero conception is that it seems to expect a level of courage from people who simply haven’t had the opportunity (or necessity) to develop it. That can’t be the whole story, because sometimes people do display outstanding levels of courage (or something behaviorally similar) without training. But among the many factors to be considered, the Aristotelian and common-sense point that most people have to develop virtues through training seems significant. The apparent statistical connections with all kinds of other factors might also be of some interest.

    https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935291.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935291-e-36#oxfordhb-9780199935291-e-36-div2-13

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    • Muchas gracias. I think I missed this reference the first time around. I haven’t read the study yet, but two thoughts occur to me off the top of my head, just thinking in general about the idea that courage requires special training. Would be interesting to see whether the study deals with one or both.

      One is that there’s training and there’s training. The arrest warrant drawn up against Scot Peterson makes a big point of listing all of the training he’d had, the implication being: a person who had had all that training had (or “was given”) all the resources he needed to be courageous under fire; if he “failed” under fire, the inference to draw is that he was a coward. But there’s often a huge gap between training and real-world circumstances, and there are often ethical or logistical obstacles to closing the gap. The standard firearms certification that cops go through is totally unrealistic relative to real-world circumstances. That doesn’t mean it does no work, but it would be a serious misinference to think, “Well, X was certified in the use of firearms, so his missing the target in real life shows him to be incompetent.” It does nothing of the sort.

      The other is that I think this topic brings us back to our old bete noire (or do I mean casus belli?), moral luck. On my view of virtue (or perhaps I should say, of moral virtue), a necessary condition of a trait’s counting as a virtue is that it’s the kind of trait that a moral agent can exemplify across a whole lifespan simply qua moral agent. The paradigm example of this is honesty (which is why, I think, so many people regard it as the paradigm virtue). Honesty and dishonesty depend entirely on the agency of the moral agent. This is easiest to see in the case of honesty with oneself and self-deception: no training external to the agent’s own resolve makes the agent more or less honest. The exemplification of the trait is entirely up to the agent, and any agent can exemplify it as well as any other without having to be specially trained.

      If courage turned out to be highly dependent on prior training, I think I’d be inclined to say that unlike honesty, courage is not a moral virtue. In other words, whereas every failure of honesty is a moral failing, the inferences aren’t quite as straightforward in the case of courage.

      Suppose that courage is highly training-dependent. Now suppose that Smith, through no fault of her own, doesn’t get the relevant training. Now suppose that Smith faces some occasion calling for danger and fails to exhibit it. That would be a failure of courage, but not (on my view) a moral failing–a situation akin to throwing an untrained musician into the Los Angeles Philharmonic and demanding a performance appropriate to professional standards. The inevitable failure would be a case of the “musician’s” being out of her depth, not vice. There would then be something deeply wrong about a culture which called her an incompetent piece of shit for failing under such circumstances. I’ve increasingly come to think that we live in such a culture–a culture that sets people up to fail, then revels moralistically in their failures. (One problem here is the ambiguity of the words “competence” and “incompetence,” which have both moral and non-moral meanings.)

      I think it’s interesting that courage isn’t one of the Objectivist virtues. The closest approximation is integrity, understood as the resolve to adhere to one’s best judgment in the face of adverse circumstances. Part of the rationale for that, I think, is the desire to avoid moral luck. (This is a surmise, since I don’t know of an Objectivist discussion of moral luck.) My hunch is that courage doesn’t make the list either because it’s so training-dependent, or because it seems so results-sensitive (involving results beyond the agent’s agency).

      Anyway, maybe I should just read the damn study.

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      • I’ll be a bit brief (my laptop is on the fritz and I’m waiting for a new one so that I can use all the keys without having to copy/paste individual letters):

        1. I think you’ll find that the article is ambiguous on ‘training.’ It seems to me that respondents had in mind that their training gave them competence in the relevant situations, but it’s hard to tell whether they mean something closer to technical training or something that includes habituation through exposure to similar situations. The training involved is military training; that’s at least less likely to be as patently inadequate as the police training you describe.

        2. Why does your account of virtue ignore (or reject?) features that paradigmatic virtue theorists (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Aquinas) have stressed, viz. (a) that virtue requires habituation and (b) that virtue is, if not necessarily then at least often, difficult, covering areas in which human beings can typically find temptation to act badly? Virtue might be easy for the virtuous, but your criterion seems to require it to be easy for everyone, and thereby flies in the face of much of the tradition and seems quite contrary to common experience and empirical psychology (I don’t recall reading any cognitive behavioral therapy material claiming that you can change your patterns of behavior and motivation right now, with no practice, on the basis of nothing more than an act of will). As with moral luck, your account strikes me as giving too much emphasis to (unmitigated and occasion-specific) blameworthiness and not enough to goodness.

        3. I am not surprised that courage is not an Objectivist virtue, only because the Objectivist list of virtues is so bizarre that nothing surprises me about it. There’s no analogue of sophrosyne/temperantia either, and it omits not just courage, but other virtues related to it, such as those that Aquinas treats as ‘parts’ of fortitude, e.g., magnanimity, perseverance, patience. I assume that the Objectivist isn’t committed to denying that these are good traits to have, but to analyzing them in terms of other virtues. Perhaps the same is true of courage?

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        • 1. Point noted on “training.”

          2. I don’t think the rejection of moral luck (or my rejection of it) has either of the two consequences you mention. The basic principle is that moral virtues are traits, or those aspects of traits, for which the moral agent gets exclusive credit by acting so as to cultivate them (and the reverse for moral vices, but let me stick with virtues). The moral part of a virtue, or a moral virtue, is produced by the agent’s own initiative.

          So, (a): Habituation can and usually does provide the occasion for the exercise of the relevant initiative, understanding “habituation” for now as something initiated by an agent external to the moral agent of interest (e.g., as a parent stands to a child). Take two moral agents, one well-habituated and ill-habituated. My view entails that moral virtue is equally accessible to either. But it also entails that in either case, the exercise of moral virtue will have radically different effects in the world (including on the agent herself). The moral virtue of the well-habituated agent will more effectively bring about well-being. The moral virtue of the ill-habituated agent will have much weaker effects on well-being. Substitute “circumstances” for habituation and you get the same result.

          In another sense, an agent can habituate herself by her own initiative. There’s no puzzle to solve there. What a view like mine insists on is the role, at least for moral agents qua agents, of self-habituation in habituation. It may be true that toddlers, small children, and very mentally disordered people are incapable of self-habituation. But I would say, to that extent, they are moral patients, not moral agents. I don’t deny that habituation plays a crucial role there (as well as in the paradigm cases). I just insist on a distinction between moral virtue and non-moral well-being. Habituation plays radically different roles in the two different cases.

          On (b), my view doesn’t (at all) entail that virtue is easy. It entails that it’s accessible to all moral agents at will by an act of (good) will. Though I wouldn’t go as far as Kant does, I might go as far as Freud does: I think the will has an uphill battle to fight against the obstacles that surround it. Some face more of a battle than others. In one sense, morality demands more of those who face smaller obstacles, and less of those who faces larger ones. Those who face smaller obstacles can be expected, pro tanto, to achieve more in the world in the way of successful accomplishment of teleological outcomes, e.g., well-being, happiness, success, etc.. Those who face larger ones can be expected, pro tanto, to achieve less. But in another sense, morality demands the same thing of all moral agents: that they do the best they can with the resources at their command, whatever those resources happen to be. That’s not easy–not even in the case of the person who has it easy.

          On therapy: I don’t think there’s anything in CBT that precludes what I’m saying above. Therapists generally have so morally deflationary (and conceptually conflationary) a conception of what they’re doing that I doubt any CBT theorist has ever thought to conceptualize the issues we’re discussing here. They tend to treat moral considerations as plague-like, and tend to conflate moral with non-moral considerations as though there were no problem in doing so. But I think most therapists would acknowledge that, setting aside cases of severe psychiatric disorder, the client’s initiative is more central to the therapeutic enterprise than anything that the therapist “does.” A skillful therapist just directs the client in a direction that makes his will more effective in the world.

          Psychodynamic and Gestalt therapists are more explicit about this than most, but putting aside the most behavioristic of CBT therapists, I think most therapists of any orientation would agree with the point I’m making. (I tend to lean psychodynamic and Gestalt myself.) There are some heavily behavioral (behavioristically conceived) therapies that seem to treat the client as a conduit for the “behavioral interventions” of the therapist. I don’t deny that they work in certain cases (weight reduction, addiction), but if so, the effect they have is on the non-moral part of a person’s personality, not their moral character.

          Incidentally, the anxiety that many people feel about the use of psychotropic medications arises, I think, from the fact that they tend to blur the boundaries between moral character non-moral personality. If I take Wellbutrin for my depression, there is a sense in which the Wellbutrin gets the credit for resolving my depression, not me. But some people are depressed precisely because they feel as though they have accomplished too little with their lives, in which case it becomes problematic to prescribe them something that will yield success, if it does, at the price of suggesting that the success came about by means external to the client’s agency. One of the worst features of the medicalization of mental disorders is the dogmatic insistence that you can reduce complexities like the preceding to some supposedly scientific formulation handed down by an MD with a prescription pad. You can’t. But medicalization is only the most extreme manifestation of a refusal to take seriously that the client is the one doing the work.

          3. The Objectivist account of the virtues is one of the things I still find plausible about Objectivism. The account may seem bizarre to someone steeped in traditional accounts of the virtues, but I think that only raises the question: what counts as a virtue, and what criterion, how set, determines what goes on the list? It may seem bizarre that courage isn’t on the Objectivist list, but we could equally say that it’s bizarre that productiveness and honesty aren’t on some of the traditional lists. In any case, your surmise is correct: it’s not that Objectivism would (necessarily) deny that any of the traditional virtues are good traits to have; it just tends to analyze them in terms of other virtues. (I’m being charitable here. This is what I take Objectivists to be committed to, not necessarily what they actually do.) Tara Smith says something to this effect in her Virtuous Egoist book, but she doesn’t clearly distinguish (as I would) between moral virtues and non-moral traits conducive to well-being or happiness. Not that I have any intention of writing a companion volume that clarifies everything once and for all.

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          • I don’t understand the work that the word ‘moral’ is doing in your reasoning, so I can’t really assess what you’re saying. It looks to me like ‘moral’ for you is essentially a matter of blame and praise. In our past discussions of moral luck, that seemed to be the idea; I agree (at least mostly) that agents can’t be blamed for what is solely a matter of luck or significantly beyond their control, but I don’t think that’s the sort of ‘moral luck’ that matters most. What matters most, in my view, is acting and living well, and whether we can or actually do either is not always in our control, but depends on luck. In that case, I don’t know that we have any real disagreement; what you deny in denying moral luck is not something that I deny, and what I affirm is not something that you deny (so far as I recall).

            In the case of virtue, I’m not so sure we avoid disagreement. I take a virtue (of the relevant sort) to be a trait by virtue of which one can reason well about what to do and thereby act well. Blame and praise enter into the picture insofar as our reasoning and action are voluntary and in our control, but I do not think it follows that virtue is always in our control in every sense or that every failure to act virtuously is blameworthy. That is because I do not think that every failure to act virtuously or to develop a virtue is in our control (i.e., vice is not the only alternative to virtue). Maybe a clearer way of putting my idea is as follows: it is possible (i) for some agent x to fail to φ, where φ-ing is the most reasonable action for x in the circumstances, through no fault of x’s, and (ii) for some agent x to fail to develop the ability to identify φ-ing as the most reasonable action for x in the circumstances or to execute that action, through no fault of x’s; if either (i) or (ii) obtains, x either fails to act virtuously or fails to develop virtue; but x does not deserve blame, or at least not the same sort of blame merited by someone whose failure is due to their own fault. Examples include those suffering from pathological mental illness, but also cases of akrasia such as I take at least some failures of courage to be. One might resist this view by insisting that what counts as the most reasonable action for x in the circumstances is relative to x’s cognitive and affective capacities at the time of action, so that the pathologically ill or the akratic do not fail to do what is most reasonable for them to do. I do not think this move sits well with a eudaimonist (or perhaps more broadly, any welfarist) conception of what we have reason to do. I have reason to develop and sustain friendships, to pursue knowledge and understanding, to experience and appreciate beauty or other aesthetic experience, etc., even if I suffer from pathological mental illness that makes doing these things difficult or impossible; the reasons I have to do those things are among the reasons I have to try to overcome my illness. So too, if I have reason to act courageously, that reason is not silenced or defeated by my being paralyzed by fear and thereby unable either to identify what I should do or to bring myself to do it. I cannot have reason to do what is strictly impossible, but the relevant sort of possibility does not fail to obtain due to my contingent cognitive or motivational limitations.

            That’s a stab at the sort of thing I have in mind, anyway. Whether you agree with it or not (I suspect you won’t), I think we might agree on the following point, which seems fundamental for thinking about applying the notions of courage and cowardice to cases like those of Peterson and Hendrex: before we can begin to apply either notion (or any related alternatives) in a given case, we need to know whether the person in question acted reasonably or unreasonably, and in what ways exactly the act was unreasonable if it was. Your past posts on Peterson make the point that it isn’t clear whether he acted unreasonably, or if so how unreasonably. If someone does not act unreasonably, it does not of course follow that they acted courageously or that they did not fail in courage somehow (maybe I wait for backup, which is what I should do, but I do it because I’m scared to death and thinking only about how I can avoid risking any harm to myself). But standard charges of cowardice or other failures of courage do seem to presuppose that the agent failed to do what he should have done. If that’s not clear, it’s unlikely that the charge can be justified.

            **Addendum: it’s unlikely that the charge can be justified, and all the other disagreements we might have about what exactly it is for someone to act virtuously or courageously take on only marginal importance.

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            • I think I can best clarify what I mean by “the moral” by filching this passage straight out the SEP entry on moral luck. I subscribe to both principles, CP and its corollary.

              (CP) We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.

              It is intuitively compelling, as is the following corollary of it:

              (CP-Corollary) Two people ought not to be morally assessed differently if the only other differences between them are due to factors beyond their control.

              So even on the opening issue, at the beginning of your comment, there is a disagreement. After pointing to our agreement on praise and blame, you say: “What matters most, in my view, is acting and living well, and whether we can or actually do either is not always in our control, but depends on luck.” If I simply look at that one sentence on its own, out of the context of the rest of your comment, I can agree with it. But I don’t really see the contrast you intend by morality’s being a matter of praise and blame versus its being a matter of “acting and living well.” Living well is constituted by acting well, and acting well–as I see it–is a matter of acting in a praiseworthy rather than blameworthy fashion.

              I agree that there is a dimension of human life beyond our control that bears on–has causal effects on–our well-being. The part of habituation, training, education, upbringing (etc.) that isn’t up to us is one obvious factor. I just insist on distinguishing sharply between the part of an agent’s well-being of which she is the exclusive author (for which she gets credit, blame, praise, punishment, etc.), and the rest. It’s not that the rest is (causally or explanatorily) unimportant. Nor is it not part of her life. It’s that it has a radically different normative status from the part within her control. So on my view, there are morally assessable acts, and then there are mere actions; there are morally assessable traits, and non-moral traits; there is the moral part of well-being, and the non-moral part. CP and CP-C apply to the moral versions of these phenomena, not to the non-moral.

              To clarify one last thing: obviously, we aim to bring about states of affairs that are in some sense beyond our control. Walking out of the house to my car, starting it, and driving out of the HOA is pretty trivial, but depends on factors outside of my control. I might fall down the stairs. Hugo might attack me. The car might have been stolen. I might get arrested on the way out.

              So I’m not disputing that getting to my destination is part of my well being, or that deliberating on my destination or trying to reach it are moral endeavors. What I’m insisting on is that Irfan-who-successfully-makes-it-out-of-the-HOA and Irfan-who-doesn’t-through-no-fault-of-his-own are in the same moral state and subject to the same moral assessment. Suppose that I was on my way out of the HOA to do some extremely virtuous thing (an act of justice, let’s say). In the first (successful) case, I drive out, get to my destination, and perform the relevant act. In the second (unsuccessful) case, Hugo leaps out from nowhere, sinking his fangs into my carotid artery, leaving me in a pool of blood and unable to make it out the door (a fortiori to my destination).

              Maybe this is counter-intuitive (to you), but I regard both acts (of mine) as acts of justice. It’s not just that I’m equally praiseworthy in both cases (though that’s true), but that I’m equally virtuous. In the first case, I exemplify justice in the paradigmatically recognizable way, whereas in the second, I don’t. But I would insist that I exemplify the virtue of justice in both cases. It’s just that that virtue has a very different look after you’ve been lethally attacked by your cat than it does in the usual case.

              That’s an outlandish example, but in more realistic cases, I use the preceding reasoning to reconcile virtue ethics with multiculturalism (and also, somewhat differently, with the claims of disability ethics). The exemplification of a given virtue comes to have a paradigmatically recognizable cast in one culture that it sometimes (entirely) lacks in another. The significant insight of multiculturalism–its crucial addendum to Western-centric virtue ethics–is that despite that, two very different-looking acts can still exemplify the same virtue. Justice at the Gaza-Israel border doesn’t look much like justice at the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A Palestinian kid’s standing up to the Israeli army doesn’t look anything like a middle aged man’s hyper-conscientious driving over the Lambertville Bridge. But they’re both instances of justice, relativized to very different circumstances. Justice-in-Gaza demands what the kid is doing. Justice-in-Lambertville, New Jersey demands what the motorist does. (So I’m denying the existence of both executive and circumstantial moral luck with respect to claims about virtue, not that those distinctions really matter that much.)

              I’ll spare you the agony of my spelling this out, but mutatis mutandis, the same reasoning could be applied to cases of disability.

              I guess the shortest response I could give you on virtue is that I regard the ascription to someone of a moral virtue as in part a moral assessment of them, and the same (mutatis mutandis) for vices. So I regard virtue ascriptions as subject to both CP and CP-C.

              I guess that entails that I’m just flatly disagreeing with this:

              That is because I do not think that every failure to act virtuously or to develop a virtue is in our control (i.e., vice is not the only alternative to virtue).

              I draw the distinction between moral virtue and non-moral traits precisely to mark the distinction implied by this statement. Those failures and developings-of-traits that are relevant to well-being and in our control are specifically moral traits. Those that aren’t, aren’t.

              I agree that this does probably imply a different picture of the agent than the one we find in Nicomachean Ethics VII, where enkratia and akrasia are conceived of as fundamental alternatives to virtue and vice. (Assuming that bestial states are out of our control, bestial states are an alternative to virtue and vice on either picture, yours or mine.) I think of enkratia either as virtue compromised by adverse circumstances or as virtue tout court, and akrasia as basically assimilable to vice (milder in form than hard-core vice, I suppose, but vice all the same). In any case, the overall picture is probably different from Aristotle’s, acknowledging the phenomena he discusses, but drawing the distinctions in different places with different implications. (NE VII was always the text I had the most trouble with, rather than NE X, which is most readers’ stumbling block.)

              So yes, as you anticipated, I’d go this route:

              One might resist this view by insisting that what counts as the most reasonable action for x in the circumstances is relative to x’s cognitive and affective capacities at the time of action, so that the pathologically ill or the akratic do not fail to do what is most reasonable for them to do.

              I would resist it just that way. One proviso I’d add is that I generally regard mental illness as radically misconceived and misunderstood nowadays. The problem with contemporary psychiatric nosology is that it’s medicalized so many disorders that it’s generated huge amounts of confusion about what counts as a mental disorder in the first place. It’s also become tangled in politically correct dogmas about the agent’s contribution or not to the disorder from which he suffers (the dogma being that all mental disorders are “illnesses,” so that no one suffering from one ever does anything to bring it about; hence cannot be expected to take action to overcome it).

              So your claim about the pathologically ill has to be interpreted with some caution. For some of the mentally disordered, I think it makes perfectly good sense to say that they can act reasonably relative to their capacities. In other cases, the illness destroys the capacity for agency altogether, so that they don’t act reasonably because they’re not acting voluntarily in the first place. (I have a quibble about your relativization to times–“at the time of the action”–but I’ll put that aside for now.)

              It seems to me that the point you make in the last part of the second paragraph goes back and forth between demanding the impossible in the name of virtue, and then drawing back from that demand. What I reject is any demand for the impossible.

              I have reason to develop and sustain friendships, to pursue knowledge and understanding, to experience and appreciate beauty or other aesthetic experience, etc., even if I suffer from pathological mental illness that makes doing these things difficult or impossible; the reasons I have to do those things are among the reasons I have to try to overcome my illness. So too, if I have reason to act courageously, that reason is not silenced or defeated by my being paralyzed by fear and thereby unable either to identify what I should do or to bring myself to do it. I cannot have reason to do what is strictly impossible, but the relevant sort of possibility does not fail to obtain due to my contingent cognitive or motivational limitations.

              Fundamentally, you have reason to do the best you can, not the best that some idealized you counterfactually could have done in some nearby possible world that doesn’t obtain. It’s one thing to say that you ought to pursue a good (or have reason to pursue it) despite the difficulty of doing so. My view has no trouble with saying that. But I do reject the idea that you ought to pursue, or have reason to pursue, a good that is impossible to attain, whether “impossible” means literally, causally impossible (so that there is no causal route to it) or impossible in the weaker sense that by pursuing it, you sacrifice every other good to it, thereby undermining or destroying your capacity to pursue the good at all. Both interpretations seem to me to conflate virtue with quixoticism (or vice versa).

              If someone suffers from a mental disorder that prevents them from attaining or achieving goods that are good for humans qua human, the question arises whether and to what extent the disorder can be overcome so as to attain those goods. Given how many mental disorders are now medicalized and treated as the functional equivalent of congenital diseases, this task is more complicated than it needs to be. But setting that aside, many mental disorders can be overcome with the right kind of effort. So if the agent has reason to achieve goods {G1…Gn}, and achieving {G1…Gn} requires overcoming a mental disorder which in turn requires huge effort to overcome the disorder, the agent has reason to overcome the disorder (if it can be overcome). If it can’t be overcome (literally cannot), it makes no sense to try to overcome it.

              If the chances of overcoming it are miniscule, it likewise makes no sense to put huge effort into a highly improbable outcome. That seems irrational (i.e., a failure of practical reason, a virtue of its own). Better to accept the limitations created by the disorder and achieve what can with greater probability be achieved. It also seems prima facie irrational to value some one good, G1, in such a way as to sacrifice {G2…Gn} to its pursuit at the price of wrecking all of {G2…Gn} just to achieve G1. That’s a defeasible claim, of course, and depends on how we generate the list of goods in the first place; there could be some overriding good that’s so valuable that it outweighs every other good on the list. (If G1 is one’s integrity, and G2 is a bucket of trinkets or even a pot of gold, then yes, G1 > G2.) But the agent would have to know this, and know why it has this overriding value before sacrificing so much to it.

              Courage is hard to discuss, because the courage under discussion is a sort that few of us have had to face, so that in talking about it we risk the danger (so to speak) of lacking standing to discuss the topic. There’s also the problem of our not having any fund of real-life experience to draw on. It seems unAristotelian to speak with moral authority on something so distant from one’s actual experiences.

              The one thing I’d say is that a defensible conception of physical courage can require that the agent put his life at risk, but it cannot require the functional equivalent of a suicide mission. So I would distinguish sharply between a person paralyzed by fear of the risk of death or injury where the risks are there but not suicidal, and a person paralyzed by fear because what is demanded of him is essentially to function as cannon fodder for the PR Department of City Government. The first may well qualify as cowardice. The second does not.

              What I resent the most in both the Peterson and the Hendrex case is that the demands placed on these officers seem, to my untrained eye, much more like the latter than the former. The demand was not, “Do the mission at risk to yourself,” but “Go in there! Maybe with some luck, you’ll take the guy out, but even if not, your death will make us look good.” From a sheer tactical perspective, it is not clear what these officers were being asked to do that didn’t amount to the latter. To grandstand about courage on top of this is just too much for me.

              So while I don’t disagree with your comments on courage, or your comments on the Peterson or Hendrex cases, I would say that an inquiry into those cases (whether legal or moral) should focus elsewhere. Instead of asking whether it was reasonable for them to act as they acted, the question to ask is: what is it that their superiors thought they should have done under the circumstances they were in, and how? What is the baseline expectation for courage under these circumstances?

              It’s all very well to say, “Peterson should have rushed into Building 1200 and cleared it, shooting the gunman,” or “Hendrex should, armed with a handgun, accompanied by three hotel security guards and a trainee, have rushed at the door, broken it in, then taken Paddock out.” And if we were on the set of the next Die Hard or Marvel comics movie–where there are no real bullets, you can suspend the laws of nature to your advantage, and cut the film as appropriate–these would be terrific ideas. But translated to the real world, they strike me as prima facie insane ideas. What’s worse is they strike me as ideas that Peterson’s and Hendrex’s superiors don’t quite believe, but find it expedient to pay lip service to in order to appease an ignorant mob that believes them. Before we address questions about Peterson’s or Hendrex’s reasonability or courage, I would want to know, in detail, not only what options they had, but what they were expected to do.

              So on courage, we’re agreeing with a slight difference in emphasis. I think we should stop focusing on the highly debatable courage/cowardice of first responders and start focusing on the manifest cowardice and hypocrisy of their superiors.

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              • Another way of putting what I want to say about courage in Peterson- and Hendrex-type cases: It is not cowardice to be paralyzed by fear when you find yourself in a life-threatening situation, only to discover that what’s expected of you is suicidal recklessness, opportunistically re-described as “courage” once the dust clears. You balk at the demand, and are then described as a coward while everyone sits around debating how much of a coward you were.

                In Aristotelian terms, it’s as though someone demanded thrasutes (rashness), then described the refusal to be rash as cowardice–in the full, but evasively concealed knowledge that the demand exemplified rashness rather than courage! I’m not even sure that that mental state in question–“let me entice you into vice by re-describing it as virtue, then condemn your refusal to commit vice as itself an instance of vice”–has a name beyond “fucked up.”

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              • On the courage cases, I don’t think we’re disagreeing. When I say that we have to know whether someone acted unreasonably, I don’t mean whether they did what some of us sitting in our chairs reading the news think was unreasonable. I mean whether they really acted unreasonably. I don’t see that asking what options they had, what they were expected to do, what the baseline expectations were, what their superiors thought they should have done, and whether acting otherwise would have been the functional equivalent of a suicide mission is something other than asking whether they acted unreasonably; it’s part of asking whether they acted unreasonably.

                I’m not finding any clarification of how ‘moral’ works for you, aside from the fact that it’s got something to do with praise and blame (certainly the quotation from the SEP doesn’t help, since it deploys unanalyzed instances of ‘morally’). You say that living well is a matter of acting well and that acting well is a matter of acting in a praiseworthy rather than blameworthy fashion. To me that seems either seriously implausible or to involve a conception of ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘blameworthy’ that I don’t fully understand (or to reduce to triviality, but I don’t think that’s the case here). It’s implausible if it means that there are no non-trivial aspects of well-being that are not wholly in an agent’s control (and hence not subject to praise and blame). It’s trivial if it just means that some aspects of well-being are wholly in our control (and hence subject to praise and blame) and some aren’t. If it doesn’t mean either of those things, then I don’t know what it means. Perhaps the idea is that the aspects of well-being that are wholly in our control are just vastly more important? I’m happy to grant them a kind of primacy. But I don’t see any reason to think that they have some sort of primacy that renders everything else trivial. In any case, I don’t know what you want to say about them aside from the fact that they’re subject to praise and blame.

                I think the sorts of failures that we really disagree about are not those that fit the Hugo Model, as I’ll call it. We might disagree about such cases, depending on what you want to say about how significant or insignificant non-culpable, Hugo-induced failures are for living well. To me it seems clear that they can be extremely significant. I think I’d also deny that both cases describe acts of justice; it seems to me that the Hugo-thwarted case is one in which you’ve formed an intention to do something just, and perhaps initiated the plan of action aiming at doing something just, but whether or not you really get far enough to be doing something just seems doubtful. But it also seems to depend on the details of the case and how we describe them. More importantly, I don’t think a different description leads to any different assessment of you or your action qua blame- or praiseworthy. So if there’s a disagreement, it’s probably pretty trivial at least for these purposes.

                The non-trivial disagreement, I think, comes in cases like these: (i) x has most reason to φ, but x fails to φ because (s)he mistakenly supposes that (s)he has more reason to not-φ; (ii) x has most reason to φ and correctly identifies φ-ing as the most reasonable action, but fails to φ. I think that there are not only possible but actual cases of both (i) and (ii) in which the failure is beyond x’s control in a way that makes blame of the standard sort inappropriate. Failure in type (ii) cases need not be failure on the Hugo Model (where we might or might not disagree about whether the agent in some case has really failed to φ, but do not disagree that blame is inappropriate). Non-Hugonic cases include the sort I described before: pathological mental illness and at least some cases of akrasia. Your remarks on mental illness don’t seem to conflict with my view; the assimilation of akrasia to vice strikes me as entirely wrongheaded. An example of the relevant sort of akrasia-case I have in mind is being paralyzed by fear and unable to do what you rightly identify as the thing you have most reason to do. I’m taking it for granted that in a non-negligible range of such cases, agents really aren’t able to gain or retain full control. My grounds for that assumption are introspective and observational; my own experience and observation of others lead me to think it true. But maybe it’s not; the sort of evidence I have is highly defeasible. If it is true, then the agent doesn’t deserve to be blamed for not being able to overcome their fear. Perhaps he should be blamed for not having developed greater control, but that seems contingent on features of the agent and the circumstances. If it’s not true, then the failure was fully in the agent’s control, and so he deserves some sort of blame. But I cannot fathom refusing to distinguish between the kind, or at least the degree, of blame deserved by someone who sincerely thinks he should φ but fails to overcome his fear and by someone who culpably fails to see that he should φ in the first place. Overcoming fear can be hard, and one can pretty easily sympathize with someone who sees what he should do and tries to overcome the fear but fails; I at least cannot so easily sympathize with someone who instead offers up excuses and rationalizations to convince himself that he wasn’t being unreasonable at all. Collapsing akrasia into vice amounts to saying that we should pass the same judgment and relate to failures of these two sorts in the same way. I can’t see any reason to think we should (which is not to say that we should never be harsh with others or ourselves about our akratic failures, or always harsher with people’s vicious failures).

                I don’t see that a view of this sort involves taking people to have reasons to do the impossible in any sense in which it is obvious that we do not have reason to do what we contingently can’t do. I don’t think the difference in our views leads us (necessarily, anyway) to different assessments of which acts are praiseworthy or blameworthy. The difference seems to be that I think we can fail to identify correctly what we should do, and that we can fail to do it even when we correctly identify it, through no fault of our own or through faults that merit only a mitigated sort of blame. Probably at this point I won’t be able to get any further without writing up a much fuller and more general defense. That’s not gonna happen today, I’m afraid.

                The relevance of our disagreement to questions about courage is more limited, I think. I’m inclined to say that there are real failures of courage that are not cases of cowardice, or (otherwise put) that akratic cowardice and vicious cowardice differ significantly. So I’m open to allowing in principle that Peterson’s or Hendrex’s actions were failures of courage but that they deserve less harsh and more sympathetic treatment than they would if they were full-on cowards. In fact I don’t think I’m in any position to tell (entirely apart from the problem of standing, insofar as that is not simply an epistemic problem of figuring out what really was reasonable or unreasonable).

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                • On the courage cases: I’m not disagreeing. I’m just pointing out that most people, sitting in an armchair, are not in a position to make the relevant judgments with any confidence, or even to enumerate the factors relevant to the judgment. And yet, many people insist that they can make such judgments, and issue them with amazing confidence.

                  On morality, praise/blame, and virtue: I thought that what I meant could be gleaned by reflection on SEP’s account of CP, but I think of morality as a set of norms to guide and assess action subject to a version of CP and CP-C. I don’t know how illuminating that is, but it solves the immediate problem of the SEP formulation’s deploying unanalyzed instances of “morally.” The norms in question guide particular actions, including those actions that inculcate virtues (and lead to the avoidance of voice). They direct us toward achieving certain ends, including well-being. They guide second- and third-personal judgments about all of those things as well.

                  The relevant implication is that CP applies to some but not all of human action. Moral assessments (in turn) apply where CP applies, and other kinds of assessments apply where it doesn’t. That implies in turn that a great deal of supposedly “moral” language is insensitive to a basic distinction, and proceeds as though the distinction didn’t matter. An action may be good or bad for a variety of reasons, but is only morally good or bad if it was within the agent’s control, hence a candidate for praise and blame. An “act” outside of an agent’s control may have positive bearing on his well-being, but if it’s outside of his control, is not in my sense a moral action. We call both “actions,” but that usage is misleading. The same action may express a certain trait, say, a positive one that promotes the agent’s well-being. We’re apt to say that the agent acted “virtuously,” but that way of talking fails to distinguish the part of the inculcation of the virtue that was up to the agent and the part that was not. The agent acted on moral virtue only to the extent that he himself was responsible as an agent for the inculcation of the virtue. He gets no specifically moral credit (praise, etc.) for acting on a trait whose action-producing or action-guiding features were inherited by him due to factors outside of his agency, be it genetics, parental upbringing, or habituation-conducive social environment. We would prefer, of course, that everyone had great genetics, great parents, and lived in great societies. Those who do express good traits in a fashion more conducive to well-being than those who don’t.

                  But they need not differ morally. The person who has it all (genetics, upbringing, environment) and the person who lacks them all are on an equal moral footing, at least if they qualify as moral agents in the first place. Moral virtue issues the same imperative in either case, and adjusts its expectations in both cases: each agent is to express moral virtue to the best of her abilities, given the resources available to her. The person of better endowments faces fewer obstacles to expressing the virtue in the world; the person of lesser endowments faces greater ones. But what is demanded of both is the same degree of moral effort: doing the best one can.

                  Since the same effort goes a longer way in the first (fortunate) case, (defeasibly) more is expected of the fortunate person in the way of outward exemplification of virtuous traits. Less of that sort of success is expected in the second case. But the moral effort required is the same. A fortunate person who (somehow) faces no significant obstacles in life has the moral obligation to go out and create some so as to expend the kind of moral effort that virtue requires. The unfortunate person who faces nearly insurmountable obstacles has the moral obligation (or though it sounds odd, the compulsory latitude) to modify the demands of virtue to fit her circumstances.

                  If they do things right, the lucky and the unlucky agent are both equally praiseworthy and express or exemplify the same moral virtues (to the same degree). Obviously, one manages to achieve more than the other in terms of overt accomplishment. And insofar as the agent authored the accomplishment, the accomplishment is a moral one. But the lucky person’s more impressive accomplishment is morally speaking no better an accomplishment than the unlucky person’s, and gets no greater moral credit.

                  Part of your criticism, I take it, is that the preceding view is either unclear or insufficiently fleshed out. To that part of the criticism, I can only plead lack of time. I can’t do better or more than what I’ve done above in the time I have. But the other part of your criticism is that my view is either implausible or trivial.

                  Let me take the issue of triviality first. I don’t see why the distinction is trivial, unless avoiding the charge of “triviality” requires that distinction be difficult to grasp in the abstract. If that’s the criterion, I plead guilty, but simplicity can’t plausibly be thought to entail triviality.

                  The distinction between moral and non-moral X’s is as easy to draw as CP is easy to understand: “moral X” ranges as far as the scope of CP, so that we’re obliged to draw a distinction between “moral act” and “non-moral act,” “moral trait” and “non-moral trait,” and so on, gauging the agent’s degree of control, and predicating “moral” appropriately. I grant that few philosophers would have difficulty grasping the meaning of the claim “Some aspects of well-being are subject to control, and others are not,” or “Some parts of the trait we call ‘courage’ are within our control, and some not.” But I don’t see how it follows that the distinction (or the conception of morality it depends on) becomes “trivial” as a result. Applying the distinction in practice is neither easy nor lacking significant implications.

                  Suppose you reflect on the way your life is currently going–the beliefs you hold, your personality taken as a whole, your career up to this point, your property holdings as of now. You might ask of these things, “What did I do with respect to them that was blame- or praiseworthy?” That seems a somewhat narrow question, I guess. Alternatively, you might ask, “To what extent do I deserve specifically moral credit for where my life is with respect to these things?” This latter question should be distinguished from questions about your entitlement (legal or otherwise) to hold on to them. Maybe you lack moral credit for them, but have a right to hang on to them anyway because, e.g., no one else has a right to them, or it’s just more expedient for you to hang on to them, etc. The question asks about the extent to which you get “personal authorship credit” (if any) for being in possession of the good things, and personal authorship demerit (if any) for the bad.

                  You could reduce these considerations to matters of praise and blame, I suppose, but I think of “praise” and “blame” as specifically social phenomena with social functions. “Credit” is more personal. It asks: if someone observed you sub specie aeternitatis, or you put yourself in that position, what verdict would be warranted on yourself as agent, as applied to the good and bad in your life? With respect to the good, the distinction is between what you are grateful for, and what you get credit for. With respect to the bad, the distinction is between what went wrong, and what you did wrong.

                  To answer questions about moral credit, you’d have to pose questions like the following:

                  1. What part of your beliefs are yours through your own cognitive efforts, and what part an unexamined inheritance?

                  2. For any virtue that you think you have: what part is a matter of your self-authored actions, and what part unreflective habituation (whether good or bad) brought about by factors in your environment?

                  3. What parts of your career up to the present came about entirely through your efforts as an agent, and what parts came about otherwise?

                  4. What part of your current property holdings are something you earned, and what part are in some sense a bequeathal by others, including unknown others?

                  Behind these specific questions is a more general one:

                  5. To what degree is the life you are leading so thoroughly shaped by your past (out of your control) or the contingencies of the world you live in (out of your control) that were you placed in fundamentally different surroundings, (what you take to be) your most counterfactually stable traits would undergo radical change and become the contraries of what you currently take them to be?

                  All of those questions proceed from what seems, ostensibly, a trivial distinction between the moral and non-moral, or what you control and what you don’t. But none of the questions are trivial, and neither are the answers. They all mark the distinction between the earned and the unearned, or the creditworthy and not-creditworthy. Consider (2). Even if a trait happens to guide you to do all the right things in the right way, there’s a distinction to be drawn between the exemplifications of the trait that you authored, and the exemplifications that more or less came along for the ride, however integrated into your personality both things may be. To conflate the two is to invite the possibility of systematic error in one’s moral judgments: to treat, e.g., moral virtues and vices as ranging far beyond anything the agent controls.

                  One way of seeing the implications is to say that I’m forging an explicit connection between virtue/vice and praiseworthy/blameworthy. I’m asking: what part of the inculcation of virtue/vice is itself praiseworthy/blameworthy? An observer who fails to distinguish what’s in the agent’s’ control from what’s not invites the possibility of judging, say, the exemplification of a virtue a praiseworthy, and the failure to exemplify it as blameworthy when neither thing is true. I’m speculating that perhaps a basic difference between us is that you don’t think of virtue-exemplifications and failures-to-exemplify-virtue as being as directly subject to praise or blame as I do. [PS. I re-wrote the latter sentence well after posting to make it clearer than it first was.]

                  One radical-sounding implication of my view is that I take it to be a condition on a trait’s being a virtue that it be capable of exemplification under constrained (even severely constrained) circumstances. In other words, I regard it as a constraint on an account of the moral virtues that if S is a human agent, then S can, qua agent, act on and possess all of the moral virtues regardless of her circumstances or opportunities for action. A physically paralyzed person without limbs but in possession of his mental faculties should be able to act on and possess all of the moral virtues. A person restricted for life to solitary confinement can do the same. Etc. Of course, I distinguish between better and worse environments for the exemplification of the virtues, and regard the better environments as better for humans qua human than the worse. But I would insist that moral virtue can be exemplified in any environment that allows for the exercise of human agency.

                  So that’s my response on triviality. Now, as to the issue of plausibility, your complaint is that my account can’t properly handle cases of mental illness or akrasia.

                  I’d propose dealing with “mental illness” on another occasion. I think my general approach to mental illness should be clear enough. I think we have to conceive or re-conceive mental disorder so as to make our taxonomies consistent with CP. We have to identify the part of mental disorder that arises through factors outside of the agent’s control, and the parts that arise through actions the agent does control. We also have to identify the parts of the future course of mental disorders (meaning, after the diagnosis) that is subject to control and that isn’t. The details are too complicated to deal with here and now. If we’re to discuss mental disorder, we have to get down to cases. We can’t have a productive conversation talking about “mental illness” in a general way. But each case entangles us in complications which take us too far afield. And it’s not as though the particular complications are irrelevant to our topic and can somehow be bracketed for purposes of our conversation. The complications are the topic. (I’m belaboring this even though you say that my claims about mental illness don’t obviously conflict with your view. Maybe not, but there may still be disagreement there.)

                  As for akrasia, my strategy is to bite the bullet. I simply don’t believe in akrasia, at least as typically described in the philosophical literature. As far as I’m concerned, cases of akrasia can plausibly be re-described in one of two ways. Either they are cases of total blamelessness that have unfairly been misdescribed as cases of “weakness of will,” or they are cases of low-grade vice that have been misdescribed as akrasia on the (to my mind false) assumption that there are deeply interesting cases of kinda-blameworthyish behavior that don’t exemplify any particular vice. My response to the first type of case is to insist that what is being called “weakness of will” is subtly an overborne will. My response to the second case is to insist that what is being called non-vicious akrasia is just a crafty, somewhat half-assed form of vice. But my reaction to all cases of so-called akrasia is to insist that the supposed problem arises through theory-laden misdescription of the case.

                  You say:

                  The non-trivial disagreement, I think, comes in cases like these: (i) x has most reason to φ, but x fails to φ because (s)he mistakenly supposes that (s)he has more reason to not-φ; (ii) x has most reason to φ and correctly identifies φ-ing as the most reasonable action, but fails to φ. I think that there are not only possible but actual cases of both (i) and (ii) in which the failure is beyond x’s control in a way that makes blame of the standard sort inappropriate. Failure in type (ii) cases need not be failure on the Hugo Model (where we might or might not disagree about whether the agent in some case has really failed to φ, but do not disagree that blame is inappropriate). Non-Hugonic cases include the sort I described before: pathological mental illness and at least some cases of akrasia. Your remarks on mental illness don’t seem to conflict with my view; the assimilation of akrasia to vice strikes me as entirely wrongheaded.

                  So now it’s my turn to wonder what you mean by “have most reason to do.” But as to the case:

                  An example of the relevant sort of akrasia-case I have in mind is being paralyzed by fear and unable to do what you rightly identify as the thing you have most reason to do.

                  I would say: there is no such thing. That just strikes me as a loaded description of a phenomenon that demands a radically different description. If you are literally paralyzed by fear and literally unable to do X, then there is no sense in which X is the thing you have most reason to do. If you can’t do X, then it makes no sense to say that you can “rightly identify” X as the thing you have most reason to do. “Rightly identify” begs the question. You have no reason to do X because you can’t do X.

                  We might take the case a step back, of course. What if your present incapacity is explained by some previous blameworthy act? Well, in that case, your present incapacity is both blameworthy, and I would say, low-grade vicious. In this case, are we really disagreeing over whether it’s permissible to use the term “vice” for habituated actions that are blameworthy and bad, but not that blameworthy or bad?

                  Of course, “paralyzed” is itself a loaded metaphor. No one is literally “paralyzed” by fear. We use that misleading phraseology because it’s convenient and captures something real (yes, fear is hard to overcome), but fear is not, in the medical sense, a form of paralysis. (If it somehow turns out to be one, then we’re back to the “totally blameless” category above.)

                  Setting aside cases of some literal medical paralysis, if someone claims to have been “paralyzed” by fear, what he really means is that he was subject to a great deal of fear. Strong fear inhibits action, so the question becomes how inhibiting of action this fear was. What I deny is that a person could feel fear, wholeheartedly believe he should perform X, not be impeded in the performance of X by some factor beyond his control, but then correctly blame the fear (rather than himself) for his failure to perform X.

                  Either the fear is a factor beyond or within his control. If it was beyond his control, the agent was blameless, and (I would add) cannot be said to have reason to perform the action. If it was within his control, the agent is blameworthy and expressed vice. By “within his control,” I’m including the case in which past control explains the present situation. If a person’s present incapacity is explained by blameworthy lack of preparation for this case, the person is blameworthy.

                  This connects to what I was saying above about moral credit. If the person was comfortably circumstanced, this past blameworthy failure can turn out to be pretty blameworthy. It only looks blameless or merely akratic if we fixate on the moment where the person professed to be “paralyzed” (and maybe was paralyzed, if self-paralysis-by-past-blameworthy-failure-to-prepare-for-just-this-fear counts as paralysis). But if my view is right, there is real blame involved here. You just have to push the case back to where the blame applied. Comfortable, fortunate moral agents should be in the business of making life hard on themselves. Part of that is facing danger–danger you don’t have to face, given your circumstances, but that you should go out and look for so that you know how to deal with danger when it comes. Come the day that danger befalls you, and you are paralyzed it, then if the explanation for that “paralysis” is that in the past, you shrank, bit by bit, from the opportunities for facing-danger that presented themselves prior to the occasion producing “paralysis,” then you are blameworthy. That is what vice is for comfortable, fortunate people: an ostensibly innocuous but persistent shirking of the requirements of virtue, iterated over time until the day when moral failure “strikes” and then is re-described as akrasia.

                  A person might be internally divided about what to do, feel fear, then mouth the assertion “I must perform X,” and then fail to perform X. Fair enough, and probably more likely than the preceding case of wholeheartedness. Response: either the internal psychological division in the agent is blameworthy or not (meaning that it came about through factors the agent controlled or not). If the internal division isn’t blameworthy, but serves to impede the performance of X, then the agent is just wrong about the need to perform X. Given psychological facts about himself (for which he bears no responsibility), he can’t perform X. To demand that he perform X under these circumstances is like demanding that a deaf person comment on a melody that was just played. If so, we’re back to the previous case, then: no blameworthiness, no vice, no “akrasia,” just sheer incapacity. Nothing to see here, morally speaking.

                  But if the agent’s internal division is itself blameworthy (and in fortunately circumstanced people, I think it often is), and impedes the performance of X, then the sincerity of the avowal “I must perform X” conceals more than it reveals. Suppose that I am conscious of blameworthy internal division within myself, and know that this division is making me unable to take the action I ought to be taking. I now assert “I must perform X.” The sincerity of this avowal is either seriously open to doubt or motivationally irrelevant. Open to doubt: in some cases, sincerely avowing “I must do X” is just a way of evading the fact that I have, in blameworthy fashion, made myself incapable of doing X. Irrelevant: if I am occurrently incapable of doing X, then sincerely saying that I must do it is quixotic. It’s as though someone looked directly at an impassable obstacle and said, “I must surmount this obstacle,” somehow fantasizing away its impassability.

                  Suppose that I lack the self-knowledge required to grasp the fact that there is internal division in me, and/or that this internal division is what’s vitiating my capacity to perform X. Then either this lack of self-knowledge is culpable or not culpable. If not culpable, we’re back to the case of non-blameworthiness, non-vice, and non-akrasia. (People in this situation need better moral education, but can’t be blamed if they haven’t gotten it.) If it’s culpable, it’s blameworthy and expressive of some vice, however minor. But either way, the case doesn’t require the invention of a special category, akrasia.

                  As a side observation: I think “sincerity” is a concept of limited value when applied to internally divided agents, especially internally divided agents who lack the self-knowledge to know how divided they are. If my personality is compartmentalized into Irfan1 and Irfan2, and Irfan1 sincerely avows p at t1, Irfan2 can sincerely avow ~p at t2, and then sincerely fail to see the problem. “Sincerity” either ceases to apply, or ceases to mean much under these circumstances. But the circumstances are almost always relevant to discussions of akrasia, which is why I take “sincerity” to be misleading when applied to akrasia.

                  I take the preceding to answer this:

                  An example of the relevant sort of akrasia-case I have in mind is being paralyzed by fear and unable to do what you rightly identify as the thing you have most reason to do. I’m taking it for granted that in a non-negligible range of such cases, agents really aren’t able to gain or retain full control. My grounds for that assumption are introspective and observational; my own experience and observation of others lead me to think it true. But maybe it’s not; the sort of evidence I have is highly defeasible. If it is true, then the agent doesn’t deserve to be blamed for not being able to overcome their fear. Perhaps he should be blamed for not having developed greater control, but that seems contingent on features of the agent and the circumstances. If it’s not true, then the failure was fully in the agent’s control, and so he deserves some sort of blame. But I cannot fathom refusing to distinguish between the kind, or at least the degree, of blame deserved by someone who sincerely thinks he should φ but fails to overcome his fear and by someone who culpably fails to see that he should φ in the first place.

                  Well, I am distinguishing the kind or at least degree of blame deserved. But I am also skeptical of your description of the case(s).

                  Overcoming fear can be hard, and one can pretty easily sympathize with someone who sees what he should do and tries to overcome the fear but fails; I at least cannot so easily sympathize with someone who instead offers up excuses and rationalizations to convince himself that he wasn’t being unreasonable at all. Collapsing akrasia into vice amounts to saying that we should pass the same judgment and relate to failures of these two sorts in the same way. I can’t see any reason to think we should (which is not to say that we should never be harsh with others or ourselves about our akratic failures, or always harsher with people’s vicious failures).

                  The second sentence is a non-sequitur. Collapsing akrasia into vice entails that we should have more sympathy for vicious people than is entailed by an account that distinguishes akrasia from vice. It doesn’t entail that we should treat every case of vice in just the way that we treat every other. If my account had a slogan, it might be “Have sympathy for the vicious, not the vice.”

                  I don’t see that a view of this sort involves taking people to have reasons to do the impossible in any sense in which it is obvious that we do not have reason to do what we contingently can’t do. I don’t think the difference in our views leads us (necessarily, anyway) to different assessments of which acts are praiseworthy or blameworthy. The difference seems to be that I think we can fail to identify correctly what we should do, and that we can fail to do it even when we correctly identify it, through no fault of our own or through faults that merit only a mitigated sort of blame. Probably at this point I won’t be able to get any further without writing up a much fuller and more general defense. That’s not gonna happen today, I’m afraid.

                  The third sentence doesn’t really identify a difference between us. In assimilating akrasia to vice, I’m not denying that in the cases when it’s blameworthy, it involves a lower grade of blameworthiness than full-scale, hard-core, bad ass vice. I agree with that. I’m just insisting that when it’s blameworthy, it expresses vice. Of course, there are other cases of so-called akrasia where I see no blameworthiness at all. But as I see it, low-grade vice and non-blameworthiness cover the cases.

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  2. Ha, yes (regarding therapist tendencies): “morally deflationary (and conceptually conflationary).” Hey are we going to read/discuss the George Sher book IN PRAISE OF BLAME (speaking of praise and blame and CP and the rest)?

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    • I think Irfan wanted to read Desert, right? I’d be down for either, since I’ve found Sher’s work rewarding in the past. Both seem relevant to the sorts of issues we’re discussing here. The Desert book came up in some recent reading I was doing on punishment; the view didn’t strike me as especially attractive, but it did strike me as pretty interesting.

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  3. Pingback: The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (4) | Policy of Truth

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