Monday, July 10, 2017

Virtue Ethics - Moral Residue

In my studies of Rosalind Hursthouse's virtue ethics, I have moved on to her 1999 book On Virtue Ethics.

In this book, Hursthouse goes into significantly more detail on what she calls "resolvable moral dilemmas".

I have written about these types of cases often. To illustrate this type of case, the examples I have relied on the most are:

A doctor is on her way to meet her father for lunch, as she promised to do, when she witnesses a child on a bike getting hit by a car. She has an obligation to give aid to the injured child. However, doing so requires that she break her promise to her father.

A parent and child are in the wilds fishing when the child is stung by a bee and begins to have an allergic reaction. The adult's vehicle will not start, but there is another vehicle parked nearby with the keys in the car. To get the child to the hospital quickly the parent needs to take the car without permission.

I have presented these in terms that Hursthouse would call "resolvable dilemmas". In the first case, the doctor ought to stop and help the injured child, even if it means breaking her promise. In the second case, the parent needs to get the child to the hospital, even if it requires borrowing the stranger's vehicle without consent. There is a right thing to do, but the right thing involves doing something that is, at the same time, wrong.

Is this a problem?

I have been arguing that desirism can handle these types of cases better than the major moral theories. This is because desirism makes sense of what Hursthouse calls "moral residue".

The doctor in the first case should have both a desire to help the injured child and an aversion to breaking her promise. These desires would cause her to want to find an option that will fulfill both obligations - to make it the case that she provides the child with whatever care she can and keep her promise. However, the situation is one in which both desires cannot be fulfilled. A morally good person - according to desirism - would have a stronger desire to provide the child with aid than to keep the promise (assuming that this was a standard lunch meeting and not, itself, vitally important to the life and health of innocent people).

The doctor would aid the child, but still feel anxiety over not being able to fulfill the desire to keep the promise. She would acknowledge this failure by apologizing for breaking the promise and offering the need to tend to the injured child as an excuse and hope for (expect) to be forgiven for the transgression.

The same story can be told of the parent who took the stranger's car to get the child to the hospital. Again, the parent would owe an obligation to get the car back to the owner as quickly as possible, or otherwise limit the inconvenience that the owner would otherwise suffer. The parent would likely owe the owner some compensation (which the owner is free to - perhaps even encouraged to - reject on the recognition that the parent did what the parent had to do).

According to Hursthouse, a majority of moral philosophers think that it is a sign of a weakness of a moral theory that it cannot provide a determined answer to all moral questions. You should be able to plug the inputs into an algorithm, crank the handle, and out on the other end comes "the right thing to do". To some degree, she does this by showing how virtue theory creates a set of "v-rules" that agents can use to crank out "the right thing to do".

However, in the realm of "resolvable dilemmas", she argues that virtue theory can - I think that the right phrase to use is "be comfortable with" - a moral residual caused by the virtue (e.g., keeping a promise) that the agent cannot honor.

I think that desirism can say a lot more about this. These "virtues" are desires, and a thwarted desire does not simply vanish. A thwarted desire persists, providing the agent with motivation to try to find some way to fulfill it. It leaves behind regret, remorse, and a sense of loss.

In this case, it is the failure to account for this moral remainder - the theory that codifies morality such that one can simply input the relevant information and crank out "the right thing to do" that fails to properly account for morality. It is inventing something that will not exist and cannot exist among humans.

Hursthouse further mentions that some deontologists and utilitarians have seen merit to this objection and have presented versions of both of these theories that can make room for a moral remainder.

Deontologists make it the effect of conflicting moral rules. Though I think there may be problems with this. If we consider, for example, the rules of a game, if the rules come into conflict, there is no "regret" over the rule not followed. We simply build an exception into the rules and continue with the game.

Utilitarians have some room to maneuver. A utilitarian can talk about how a disposition that leads to regret in a given circumstance can promote utility overall - how a disposition that creates moral remorse when a promise is broken can make promise-keeping more reliable overall. I have sympathies for this view, as can be found in the fact that my original name for desirism was "desire utilitarianism." However, I was later forced to admit that desirism is not a utilitarian theory - or even a consequentialist theory. The value of a sentiment is not found in its capacity to 'maximize utility' or in any list of consequences, but in its harmonious relationship to other desires.

Desirism, therefore, can explain some of the features of virtue theory that Hursthouse can only describe.

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