Sunday, July 16, 2017

Action Guidingness: Virtue Theory vs. Desirism

Rosalind Hursthouse defines a "right action" as:

P.r. An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances. Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 355-356). Kindle Edition.

Desirism, I dare say, has a more complex account of "right action". Desirism recognizes that actions are generally placed in one of three categories; that of obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission. With this three-part dichotomy in mind, desirism categorizes actions as follows:

(1) An act is obligatory iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would characteristically do in the circumstances.

(2) An act is prohibited iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would characteristically not do in the circumstances.

(3) An act is permissible but not obligatory iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires neither would nor would not do in the circumstances depending on the agent's other interests.

There are some things worth noting on the desirism account.

Originally, my idea is that a wrong action was the action that a person with bad desires would do under the circumstances. That seemed to have a type of symmetry about it. However, that simply is not correct. A person can perform a wrong action even if she has no bad desires. The prime example I have used is that of negligence. The truck driver who drives when she is too tired has no bad desire. She just wants to get to her destination. It is her lack of a good desire - a lack of concern for the welfare of other people on the road that she might harm if she falls asleep behind the wheel - that makes her action immoral. To handle this type of case, wrong action is not that which a person with bad desires would do. It is that which a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not do.

Second, there are some desires that people have little reason to make universal. In fact, there are some desires where people generally have reason to promote and encourage a variety of different tastes and attitudes. This is because a population with diverse interests in these areas have less competition and conflict. When we eat chicken, my wife likes the white meat while I like the dark meat. Our interests are in harmony. Each of us gets what we like, and there is no conflict. In matters ranging from what to eat, what to wear, what to do for entertainment, who to love, what to read, and what profession to go into, there are few reasons to promote a common interest, and many reasons to promote a variety of interests. This, then, accounts for the category of non-obligatory permission.

In On Virtue Ethics, Hursthouse has a narrower conception of non-obligatory permission.

She brings up the idea of a "positive moral dilemma". A regular moral dilemma is a case where a person must make a choice where both options are those which a moral agent would reject. A positive moral dilemma is a case where virtue theory does not give the agent a clear choice among two or more positive outcomes.

Hursthouse uses the case of a mother who is obligated to buy a present for her child. Virtue does not give her any reason to choose among two possible options. Let us say that she is making a choice between present A and present B. The mother cannot determine what present to get by looking at virtue theory. The virtuous person would not necessarily choose A over B or B over A. Consequently, the agent, according to this objection, is left without action guidance. This, then, identifies a defect with virtue theory - it cannot guide action.

Maybe it is odd to say that they both do what is right-neither action, after all, is required or obligatory-but certainly each acts well. Note here that saying only that each does what is permissible fails to capture that fact, and thereby fails to do justice to our two agents. What they do merits more in the way of assessment, for they do not do what is merely permissible, but act generously and hence well. Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 882-884). Kindle Edition.

This seems a bit excessive.

A mother has an obligation to take care of her children - to feed them. She goes to the store. There are shelves filled with various options regarding what to feed the child. It would be odd to describe each and every trip to the store to be an instance of a positive moral dilemma. She must choose clothes for them, and decide on a doctor. She must decide on a career for herself. Life seems to be filled with positive moral dilemmas on this account.

Desirism would simply describe these options as morally permissible. Now, these morally permissible actions exist in an environment where are are also impermissible options. Refusing to feed one's children is morally impermissible, as is refusing to take care of their health. Killing them and eating them are also morally impermissible. The fact that there are morally impermissible options does not imply that all permissible options constitute a positive moral dilemma. They are cases where the parent is permitted to appeal to desires that need not be universalized across a population in deciding among several options.

One of the merits of desirism, I would argue, is that it makes sense of the fact that we have such a large number of morally permissible actions. Nearly everything we do in the day is one of several morally permissible options. My writing this blog post is simply one of a large set of morally permissible actions available to me that includes spending some time playing a computer game, watching television, listening to a podcast episode, writing a novel, or taking a nap.

It is odd at best to argue that a moral theory is not action-guiding if it is not telling an agent what to do every moment of every day. If this is what virtue theory (or desirism) must do to prove that it is sufficiently action-guiding, then I would argue that a failure to be action-guiding in this sense is not a serious defect. In fact, it is no defect at all.


Doug S. said...

You made a mistake somewhere - your definitions of obligatory and prohibited are identical.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you. One little three-letter word makes a lot of difference.