Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Character Thesis and The Desire Thesis

This is the month in which I return to graduate school. My first departmental meeting is in 24 days, and my first class is in 27 days.

Over in the "documents" page of the Desirism site, I have posted a new "work in progress". This is a commentary on "Character and Blame in Hume and Beyond" by Antti Kauppine.

I want to say a few words about commentaries.

Among my sources of entertainment is the podcast series, The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. In the late ancient and medieval period philosophers traditionally produced commentaries on earlier works. In fact, scholars created copies of original works by writing the original text in a column down the middle of a page with particularly wide margins. They would write their own comments in these margins. Those comments often contained some of the author's most original work as they wrote their understandings of, expansion on, or criticisms of the content of the original work.

I think that there is some value in that kind of work, so I have taken to producing my own commentaries. If I find an article with some particular merit, I have decided that it may be worth while to write a commentary on that article, explaining my understanding of that material, expanding upon it, or offering criticism of it.

Recently, I have read Questions of Character edited by Iskra Fileva. It contained Kauppine's article above, which I found worthy of commenting on as a way of developing and explaining my own view.

(NOTE: I still have a problem identifying my own view as "desirism" since it fells quite pretentious. I have an actual aversion to being the kind of person who defends my own moral theory. And, yet, I have a moral theory to defend. It causes a fair amount of tension from time to time.)

Kauppine's article concerns the "The Character Thesis" (CT).

Blame targets a person's character, as manifested by bad thoughts, words, and actions.

This is quite similar to a claim within desirism. That claim can be expressed as "The Desire Thesis."

Praise and blame - as well as other types of moral reward and punishment - targets a person's malleable desires, as manifested by bad thoughts, words, and actions, with the aim of promoting desires generally that produce benefits and reduce harms.

What is unstated in this thesis is that "benefits" and "harms" are understood in terms of the fulfilling and thwarting of other desires.

In the article, Kauppine produces three arguments - taken from Hume - in defense of CT.

(1) We want to attribute the bad action to the person who performed them in order to call that immoral, and we do that by saying that the action comes from the person's character.

(2) Blame has the potential of altering a person's character, which in turn can produce benefits in the form of future good action.

(3) CT is consistent with the concept of "excuse" and how excuses function in moral discussion.

These also provide reasons to accept The Desire Thesis. However, I think that this account leaves out the most important defense of CT and DT. This is the fact that praise and blame also influence the character of other people - people other than the agent. If we are interested in the utility of CT and DT, this effect on the character of several other people and their several future actions produces much more of a benefit than that produced by altering the character of the one person explicitly praised or blamed.

I use the idea of capital punishment, the use of literature to promote good character, and the power of gossip (discussed in another article in this same anthology; "The Psychology of Character, Reputation, and Gossip" by T.L. Hayes, Robert Hogan, and Nicholas Emler) to argue for the power of third-person or even fictional-person praise and condemnation.

So, we add to these:

(4) Blame has the potential of altering the character of people other than the person blamed, thus harvesting benefits from their improved behavior as well.

Of course, (4) is particularly important in desirism, where reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation - are used as a tool to mold malleable desires and, thereby, produce more behavior that tends to fulfill other desires and less behavior that tends to thwart other desires.

After presenting these arguments in favor of CT (and, even more so, DT), Kauppine considers three objections.

(O1) The Autonomy Objection: Blame should attach to that which is under an agent's control, and character traits are not under an agent's control.

According to Kauppine, Hume simply denies that blame is attached to that which is under a person's control in some "free will" sense. We seek to blame the person, and that means attaching the act to his character. DT goes further in denying that blame is free from control by arguing that character is under the influence of blame itself (or, more accurately, rewards and punishments including praise and condemnation).

(O2) The Moral Luck Objection: The level of praise or blame given to people depends, to some extent, on the effects of their actions independent of character. For example, we recognize the distinction between attempted murder and murder even where that difference is attributed to some matter of luck thwarting the attempt.

Kauppine argues that Hume simply denies the existence of moral luck. DT, on the other hand, takes morality to be a practice that the vast majority of people - regardless of their backgrounds and levels of education - must participate in. Therefore, it cannot be too complicated. There is no way to remove moral luck without making morality too complicated. This is why it remains. Yet, blame still targets character since its purpose is to alter character - to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and aversions that tend to prevent the thwarting of other desires.

(O3) Blame of Actions Out of Character: The thesis that blame targets character is threatened by the observation that we assign blame even when a harmful act is out of character. A person cannot entirely escape blame for a violent assault on the grounds that it is out of character.

According to Kauppine, Hume would argue that these actions are not actually out of character if they come from the person being blamed, even if they are unusual for that person. DT makes this more explicit and defines "out of character" in the morally relevant sense as "anything that comes from traits that praise and condemnation have no power over". Can the rare action be prevented by a stronger character, which itself is under the influence of praise and condemnation? If so, then it is not out of character in the relevant sense.

So, we have four arguments in defense of CT (and of DT) and a response to three potential objections.

These responses help to illuminate the features of desirism and, through this, produce a significant value. In my previous writings, I have not given much attention to the fact that a moral theory is one that nearly everybody can use. Yet, it proves to be an essential part of the defense against the "moral luck" objection. This discussion also heads off in the direction of equating a person's character traits with "the person" - the issue of personal identity - which I have seen for a long time but not explored in detail.

The one thought I want to leave you with is that the fact that this is a commentary does not imply that it is trivial. This commentary describes some important developments in and components of desirism.

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