Monday, December 25, 2017

Acting from Duty or Acting from Inclination

In our previous postings

For those who do not care to go back and read what came before (and I do not blame you - your time is precious), I offer a brief context for this discussion. Those who have read the earlier posts can skip to the section on morality and the emotions.

In my previous post, Virtues, Right Actions, and Reasons, I identified what I see as a key difference between my own thesis and Rosalind Hursthouse's virtue theory. It is also a key difference between my own thesis and Kantian deontology.

Hursthouse identified it in the following quote:

We should not forget that Kant and Aristotle significantly share a strongly anti-Humean premise about the principles or springs of movement (or `action' in the broad sense of the term). According to Hume, there is only one principle of action, the one we share with animals, namely passion or desire; according to both Aristotle and Kant there are two, one which we share with the other animals, and one which we have in virtue of being rational.

In this dispute, I am a Humean. That is, I side with the Humean model of intentional action. Desires provide the motivating force behind intentional action, and beliefs merely select the means. There is no "second reason" for intentional action.

In the previous post I defended the thesis on the grounds that it makes the most sense given human evolution. We evolved a disposition to learn to like that which - in liking it - our ancestors were disposed to have fit offspring. The aversion to pain, tastes for food, thirst, the desire for sex, parental affection - we came to like these things because it allowed our ancestors to successfully reproduce.

We also inherited a "plastic" mind that can learn new desires based on our interactions with the environment. However, even this learning process became molded by evolution to dispose us to acquire preferences that made us fit for survival.

And what makes a population fit for survival is a contingent fact - based in part on the environment in which one's ancestors evolved, including the other types of animals, plants, and diseases that inhabited the region. Whatever it is we have come to value - or are disposed to learn to value - it could have been otherwise.

That is one line of argument. The other is that such a theory can explain and predict how people actually behave.

To make good on this idea, I would like to look at some of the claims that Hursthouse made in defense of Aristotle and Kant (in defense of the virtue theory and deontology account of reasons for intentional action) and show that the Humean system can handle these just fine without all of the metaphysical complications.

Acting from Duty or Acting from Inclination

Hursthouse presents a dispute between Kant and Aristotle regarding the moral value of acting from duty.

She begins by presenting an interpretation of Aristotle that goes as follows:

At the end of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces a distinction between the `continent' or `self-controlled' type of human being, (who has enkrateia) and the one who has full virtue (arete). Simply, the continent character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, contrary to her desires,' and the fully virtuous character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, desiring to do it. Her desires are in `complete harmony' with her reason; hence, when she does what she should, she does what she desires to do, and reaps the reward of satisfied desire. Hence, `virtuous conduct gives pleasure to the lover of virtue' (io99aiz); the fully virtuous do what they (characteristically) do, gladly. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1131-1136). Kindle Edition.)

Her interest in discussing this topic is to investigate an apparent contrast between Aristotle and Kant. According to the standard view, Aristotle believes that acting from "full virtue" (arete) is the morally superior individual. This is contrasted to Kant's view that moral merit is to be assigned the 'continent' or 'self-controlled' person - the agent who acts from duty.

It is in the context of this discussion that Hursthouse brings up the idea that on one point where Aristotle and Kant agree is that it is possible for an agent to act from something other than desire - that there is a second type of reason for intentional action, namely, rationality itself.

What I want to do is to show how desirism can handle this distinction without mentioning a "second type of reason" for intentional action.

Before going on, I would like to present what desirism says about this distinction.

Let us take an example of a person who finds a wallet with some money laying in the curb laying in a parking lot. One who "has full virtue" in the sense described above has a weak interest in keeping the wallet. She has desires, and knows that the money in the wallet would help to fulfill those desires, but the desire to return to others what they have lost is sufficiently strong that she does not give the idea of keeping the money a second thought. She would not even accept a reward from the owner of the wallet when she returns it for she has done nothing other than what any decent person would have done. Her desire is to return the property to its rightful owner.

I would like to compare this to a person with a different desire. This person has no interest in returning things to their rightful owner. Instead, she has a desire to do the right thing, accompanied by a belief that returning the wallet is "the right thing". For her, the question, "How can it be the case that 'returning lost property to its rightful owner if possible' is true?" can be a perplexing question - one that might drive her study moral philosophy.

Both of these agents are acting from desire. In one case, it is a desire to return lost property. In the other case, it is a desire to do that which is right (that which is in accordance with duty) and a belief that one has a duty to return lost property.

However, the relevant difference here is that, when returning the wallet "because it is the right thing to do" is different from returning the wallet from a simple desire to return property to its rightful owner.

In the terms that Hursthouse uses, the first person "acts from inclination". The second person "acts from duty". Neither agent acts from duty alone. If not for the motivational force provided by the relevant desire, neither agent would act.

It is possible for each agent to act rationally or irrationally. Each agent, wanting to return the wallet (either to fulfill a desire to return the lost property or the desire to do what is right) could decide to go up and down the street asking each person they met if they lost a wallet. Or they could open the wallet, find some identification, search for a phone number for the person identified in the wallet, and try to contact the owner that one. One option is more rational than the other. But they are more or less rational in terms of matching means to ends, not in terms of selecting ends by reason alone.

So, using the Humean system we have an account of the two types of character - distinguished by having to different desires, and a concept of more-or-less rational action given those desires. We have no reason to over-complicate things by adding a second type of reason for action.

Those other types of reasons do not exist. And those who call an action right or wrong - or an agent virtuous or lacking virtue - based on these "other types of reasons" are grounding their conclusions on a false premise. Their system for determining which moral attitudes are true or false is unsound.

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