Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Acting from Inclination

In recent posts, I have been examining a distinction that Rosalind Hursthouse draws from Aristotle that she describes in terms of "acting from inclination" versus "acting from duty".

"Acting from inclination" can best be understood as doing what one wants.

"Acting from duty" often means going against one's desires to do that which is right.

In recent posts, I have been arguing that all actions are examples of "acting from inclination". The distinction is actually between those who have an inclination to do that which is right (a desire to do that which is right) and those who have other desires. I draw a distinction between, for example, an aversion to taking that which belongs to other people without their consent, and an aversion to doing that which is wrong accompanied by the belief that it is wrong to take the property of another without consent.

Here, the issue gets a little confusing because Hursthouse does not talk about acting from desire - but acting from emotion. While it is the case that emotions can be connected to action, I would argue that this happens when the emotion is associated with a desire - which provides a reason for action.

Hursthouse writes:

In short, the emotions of sympathy, compassion, and love, viewed simply as psychological phenomena, are no guarantee of right action, or acting well. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1254-1255). Kindle Edition.)

Of course, this is true. It is also true in the desirism account. There is nothing in the desire to tell the truth, or the aversion to causing harm, or the aversion to taking the property of others without consent that guarantees that one will perform a right action. One of the reasons for this is precisely the issue that Hursthouse discusses - the act that one seeks to perform is unreasonable. She brings up the example of a person for whom, "compassion misguided by a misconception of 'good' may prompt someone to lie rather than tell the hurtful truth that another needs to know."

A more stark example would be the case of a parent who kills a child to protect the child from a demon, or who tries to "beat the devil" out of the child. We may include in this the person who, apparently out of charity, opposes globalization - unappreciative of the fact that globalization has resulted in a substantial decrease in extreme global poverty.

The examples listed here are examples of failure of means-ends rationality. The failure to tell a truth that a person "needs to know" is a failure to select the appropriate means to acting compassionately - assuming that the person "needs to know" this truth because it would ultimately be best if she knew it. Killing a child to protect it from (non-existent) demons or destroying the best tool for reducing global extreme poverty out of "compassion" are examples of selecting - due to ignorance - an inappropriate means to a good end.

So, Hursthouse is correct when she writes:

There is nothing about [the emotions of sympathy, compassion, and love, viewed simply as psychological phenomena], qua natural inclinations, which guarantees that they occur 'in complete harmony with reason', that is, that they occur when, and only when, they should, towards the people whose circumstances should occasion them, consistently, on reasonable grounds and to an appropriate degree, as Aristotelian virtue requires. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1254-1256). Kindle Edition.)

When a person selects the inappropriate means to an end, we often have reason to suspect that the agent does not have the particular end in question. A parent who does a poor job of protecting her child from harm - who does not take reasonable steps to determine what threats are real and which are imaginary, and whether a certain action will cause harm or prevent harm - we may suspect does not really care about whether the child is safe. A parent who refuses to vaccinate a child or to seek medical care for an easily treatable disease, we may suspect, cares about things other than the health of the child.

We have no direct access to a person's ends. We only have a means to infer the ends that best explain and predict observed behavior. If observed behavior is behavior that puts a child at significant risk of harm or cause actual harm, then this is to be taken as evidence that the agent does not have a sufficiently strong aversion to her child suffering this harm. This gives us reason for moral condemnation.

The implication that "having good desires and lacking bad desires" has on beliefs implies that, even with the standard of right action in use - an act is right iff it is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances - we are not going to simply accept an agent's beliefs without question. An agent with good desires and lacking bad desires are going to be inclined to do research and to form responsible beliefs. Consequently, desires alone do not determine right action. Desires combined with the beliefs that an agent who has good desires and lacks bad desires would adopt are what determines right action.

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