Monday, August 18, 2008

doing good. doing all right.

i'm taking a comp on friday, and i spent today reading about virtue ethics-- the ancient (most famously greek) notion that doing what's right is a matter of acting from good character.  it stands in some contrast to the deontological notion (most famously kant's) that doing what's right is a matter of acting on particular principles or maxims.  the theories have plenty in common, but here's where they contrast starkly:

according to most virtue theorists, perfect virtue consists in a flawless harmony between virtuous acts and the feeling and desires of the virtuous actor.  acting virtuously despite bad or conflicting feelings is (mere?) contingent virtue.  but according to kant, an act can only have moral worth when it conflicts with one's immediate desires.  it's not that our actions are necessarily bad if they happen to accord with our desires (if, say, we act generously because it feels good), but they aren't specifically moral-- if we act kindly because we feel like it, then the maxim that we're acting on isn't "act kindly" but "do what you feel like", which, kant says, is not a moral principle-- we certainly wouldn't want to make it a universal (moral) law that everyone in all circumstances should do what they feel like.

so is the more virtuous moral agent the one who has to wrestle with her own desires to do what she thinks is right, or the one who feels inclined to kindness and courage-- who is naturally or cultivated impervious to fear, envy, etc.?   here is a place where a disagreement in the philosophical literature seems to reflect conflicting notions in our everyday thinking about ethics and morality.  we count among our saints and heroes both sorts of agents.

i wonder what you think.  i'm inclined to agree with the virtue ethicists, but i'm conflicted.  haha.  fuck.

[ word of the day:  AESTIVAL (es-tuh-val) of or belonging to the summer.]


Jane said...

Both work for me, when I think of different examples.

What if there is a physician who goes to Africa to work on HIV/AIDS, and she absolutely loves her work, feeling energy and purpose and kindness regularly? Is she not a moral agent?

And what about a man who devotes himself to caring for his ailing spouse, even though he has to grit his teeth to change the bed, feed him, count the pills, etc.?

How can one reliably measure intent?

To me, as a nonphilosopher who is nevertheless interested in these questions you pose, the act is the measure.

laura.g said...

the question is: from where do acts derive their moral worth? the deontologist claims that it's from maxims or principles-- that acts have moral worth inasmuch as they conform to a certain kind of rule. the virtue ethicist claims that the basic moral facts aren't principles or rules, but facts about character, and that an act has moral worth in as much as it is an expression of one of these special characteristics (virtues).

Thomas said...

I’m more or less self-taught in philosophy, but given the (very little) bit of reading of done in the area of virtue ethics, I really like what I’ve gotten of Aristotle’s approach from the Nicomachean Ethics. I like, for example, that he doesn’t reject aspects of human personality like anger as contrary to the virtuous life—as it is in Buddhism and I think in Christianity as well. Rather anger must be deployed at the right time, towards the right object, in the right degree and so on. I also like the notion of hexis, or habitual disposition, which I think distinguishes Aristotle’s brand of virtue ethics from that of Plato and Socrates who, as far as I can tell view virtue as more of a characteristic of a certain kind of person, something intrinsic and unchanging (um, at least I think). Also I like Aristotle’s focus on activity and achievement; it seems to me less abstract and more worldly that his predecessors.

Kind of related, I was thinking after reading your post about what might be missing from the approach of classical virtue ethics—what questions it might not help us answer so well. I recently read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster,” in which he considers the ethical issues at stake in holding a lobster festival in which you boil boatloads of these creatures alive and then derive a great deal of pleasure from eating them.

Though I have to admit to having a strong prejudice against utilitarian ethics—I think reducing ethics to an accountant’s ledger of cost and loss is missing the point and basically ignoble, just not worthy of the kind of creatures I think human beings are—there is still something interesting that utilitarian ethics contributes. I was struck by Sir Anthony Kenny’s statement in Philosophy in the Modern World about Bentham’s ethics. He said that “by making the supreme moral criterion a matter of sensation [Bentham] made it appropriate to consider animals as belonging to the same moral community as ourselves since animals as well as humans feel pleasure and pain. This, in the long term, proved to be one of the most significant consequences of Bentham’s break with the classical and Christian moral tradition, which placed supreme moral value in activities not of the sense but of the reason, and regarded non-rational animals as standing outside the moral community.” I guess this led me to wonder what the Greeks have to teach us about the ethical treatment of animals or if their concern with virtue as a characteristic or a habitual disposition of a rational being makes this question outside the scope of ethical considerations. Hmm . . .

and but so

Your actual question about the presence or absence of struggle in virtuous action got me thinking as well. I may be responding to a question about ethics with an improper appeal to philosophy of mind and psychology, but in my thinking about how human beings act towards one another I have a real attachment to Freud’s tripartite personality theory.

According to that approach it is more or less unavoidable that the ego, the seat of rationality (if not virtue), is constantly engaged in a struggle against the instincts of the id to act aggressively against others and in pursuit of pleasure at the other’s expense. The rather pitiful ego is also at the mercy of the superego, an agency that siphons off some of that aggressive energy from the id in order to punish the ego for failing to live up to the super-ego’s impossible, socially-sanctioned ideals.

In some cases at least, I think the person who experiences less tension in performing acts of benevolence towards others may simply have done a very good job of keeping their aggressive impulses repressed and thus properly un-conscious; this, however doesn’t seem to be authentically virtuous or the kind of strategy for acting ethically that is likely to stand up to a serious test. Alternately, a naive desire “to be good” might be little more than a desire to avoid the terrible psychic price the ego will pay for disobeying the edicts of the super-ego. This strategy presents little hope for finding anything like happiness, though, as the superego is just as irrational in its punishing as the id is in its outward aggression. Anyway, I don’t know how (if at all) that matches up with the way virtue ethicists think about the agency that makes moral choices and engages in ethical/unethical actions.

You might note that the three strands of this post don’t match up and may be more or less incompatible. There’s probably a reason I’ve declined to pursue the formal study of philosophy and to content myself with the role of engaged spectator. Anyway, I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more of it in the future.