Friday, July 21, 2017

Praise, Blame, and Matters of Character

I need to add a bunch of brief notes to catch up on things I have learned.

(1) I have been praising Rosalind Hursthouse's defense of the thesis that a right act is the act that a virtuous person would perform. On the negative side, Hursthouse apparently links virtues to the survival of the species - as if species survival has intrinsic value. My own view is that nothing has intrinsic value. What gives a character trait (desire) it's value is its tendency to fulfill other desires.

(2) I have learned that there is a philosopher, Julia Driver, who defends "virtue consequentialism". However, she seems to hold the view that the relevant consequences consist of maximizing "intrinsic value". Here, too, since there is no such thing as intrinsic value, a virtue cannot be that which maximizes something that does not exist. I need to read her book and discover more details.

(3) The book, Questions of Character, edited by Iskra Fileva (my faculty advisor) contains an article,

(4) This book contains another article, "Character and Blame in Hume and Beyond" by Antti Kauppinen. Kauppinen discusses the idea that blameworthiness concerns a defect in character. A part of this discussion is on the idea that blame, condemnation, and punishment aim at improving the character. However, Kauppinen focuses solely on changing the attitudes of the agent. There is no mention of the use of punishment to promote attitudes generally.

It may be more accurate to sat that Kauppinen attributes to Hume a concern with changing the attitudes of the person blamed. I need to go back to Hume and see if this is correct - if Hume made any claims about changing the attitudes of people generally. This possibility suggests that there will be cases where condemnation has little effect on changing the character of the one condemned, but can still be justified by its more general effects.

Kauppinen raises three problems for a thesis that bases blameworthiness heavily on having a defective character.

(4a) Voluntariness. People are only blameworthy for that which is under their control. Their character is not under their control. Therefore, it is inappropriate to hold somebody blameworthy on the basis of their character.

Desirism (and Hume, according to Kauppinen) simply deny that "voluntary control" is relevant to blameworthiness. In fact, the only sense that we can make of "voluntary control" is that the action springs from the person's character - from the person. Desirism goes further and argues that the reason to be concerned with what comes from a person's character (malleable desires) is that condemnation and punishment (as well as reward and praise) aim to alter the character traits. We see what springs from a person's character, determine whether the character needs modifying, and then modify those traits using reward and punishment (and praise and condemnation).

(4b) Moral luck. The degree to which we praise or blame somebody depends not only on their character traits but on consequential moral luck. A paradigm example involves two people who leave a bar to drive home. Both are intoxicated. Both drift off of the road. One happens to hit and kill a child, the other does not. We blame the person who hits the child more than we blame the person who did not.

For a long time, I held to the view that we should take the average risk of an action and judge the character trait on the basis of this average risk - and blame all people equally. However, then I came to the realization that luck happens. Two people are equally concerned with planning for their retirement. They both invest the same percentage of their income, they both get the same income. However, as it turns out, the investments that one makes does better than the investments that another makes. Because of compounded interest, a small percentage difference each year turns into a significant difference over time. One person ends up $400,000 wealthier than the other. Or, in another case, two people are diligent about protecting their health. They both eat well, exercise, and avoid harmful activities such as smoking. Yet, one gets cancer and the other does not.

Luck happens. If condemnation takes into consideration moral luck, we will still end up with an average condemnation that is the same as it would be if we were to try to go through all the math and condemn all people equally. Furthermore, this "luck" method will automatically include changed consequences due to changed circumstances. It will automatically lower condemnation for an activity that becomes less harmful due to advanced technology, and increase condemnation for actions that become more harmful. We still have the effect of impacting the relevant desires/sentiments/character traits to a degree proportional to its tendency to produce benefit or harm.

(4c) Out-of-character actions. We blame people for actions that are out-of-character. A person is tired, and she snaps at a neighbor for what was a slight irritation that she would normally let pass - that a good person would normally not raised such a fuss about. We still blame her. She still owes the neighbor an apology. If her actions caused actual harm, she would owe compensation for harms done and be subject to some level of punishment. Yet, this is not how she characteristically behaves.

Here, the argument will be that the disposition to fly off the handle when one is tired or stressed is one of their character traits. People have many and strong reasons to promote in others a disposition to control their tempers even in times of stress or distraction. Consequently, we have reason to condemn people for whom this threshold is rather low and to encourage them to make it higher. This is still a case of condemning and potentially punishing people based on their character - with a dash of moral luck thrown in.

This last point is relevant to another objection being raised against all moral theory, which is situationalism. Researchers have shown that people are disposed to behave more or less morally. For example, ask somebody for money when there is the smell of fresh baked bread in the air and they will tend to be more generous. Conversely, have a person make a judgment about an action when they are in a room littered with junk and they will tend to give a harsher judgment. Our behavior - even behavior commonly attributed to "character" - is under the influence of outside forces.

Again, this does not change the fact that we have reason to use reward/praise and punishment/condemnation to promote more charity in those circumstances. There is still a difference between the person who will give $5 when there is no smell of baked bread in the air and $10 when there is, as opposed to the person who gives $10 when there is not and $20 when there is. These are the types of facts that determine the reasonableness of rewarding/praising and punishing/condemning.

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