Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Children, Animals, and Adult Virtues

Rosalind Hursthouse defends her theory of right action in part on the basis that it provides an account of the difference between the application of moral concepts to children and animals as distinct from adults.

I wish to argue that desires provides a better account.

I want to start with a lengthy quote from Hursthouse giving her view.

In the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle says, with the other animals the action on compulsion is simple (just as in the inanimate), for they have not inclination and reason (logos) opposing one another, but live by inclination; but man has both, that is at a certain age, to which we attribute also the power of action; for we do not say that a child acts, or a brute either, but only a man who does things from reasoning'. So, in Aristotelian terms, we could say that the happy philanthropists, supposing them to have 'Humean' benevolence as described, do not act in the strict sense of the term at all. They live kata pathos, by inclination, like an animal or a child; their `doings' issue from passion or emotion (pathe) not 'choice' (prohairesis). And here is the sense an Aristotelian may attach to the Kantian claim that their 'actions' (in the broad sense) lack genuine moral worth because they act from inclination not from duty. It is actions proper, which issue from reason, that are to be assessed as virtuous or vicious), but their 'doings' are not actions, and thereby cannot be said to be, and to be esteemed as, virtuous ones.

In short, the difference between children and animals on the one hand and adults on the other is that children and animals act on inclination (passion) alone, and morally responsible adults act on both passion and reason.

In contrast, I have argued for a Humean conception of motivation whereby the passions alone provide motivational force and reason simply selects the means to these ends. The passions are sovereign - determining the ends or goals of intentional action. Reason, in Hume’s words, is the slave of the passions. Charged with realizing an end or goal, reason determines the best way to reach or hold this objective.

How can this Humean account handle the difference between children and adults?

First, the adult has a better capacity to select the appropriate means to ends. A child can carelessly inflict unnecessary harm - for example, with brutal honesty or choosing ineffective or even counter-productive ways to help. Animals lack the capacity to even understand the distant effects of its behavior.

Second, the passions and of a child are not the passions of a mature adult. An element of growing maturity is the adoption of cultural norms. Among these are @ willingness to share, an aversion to the use of violent assault, an aversion to taking the Roberts of others without their consent, and aversions to damaging the property and to inflicting unnecessary distress on others. In shot, the adult, like the child, continues to act on passions. However, through social conditioning, the adult has acquired better passions - passions that, in Hume’s terms - are pleasing and/or useful to self and/or others.

F course, we combine these two elements to give the agent the capacity to select better means to the ends established by these improved improved

We can combine this with the fact that adults also have an improved capacity to recognize that a passion is or is not a passion that people generally have reason to promote universally. It is not the case that adults somehow magically acquire these new and improved passions. Instead, we are taught these new and improved passions by others, who have reasons (based on their own passions) to cause us to have these interests - aversions to deception, aversions to taking property without consent, desire to help others in need. So, in addition to having adult as opposed to childish passions, and an improved capacity to recognize the relationships between actions and the fulfillment of those passions, there is a recognitioin of the passions that people generally have reason to promote universally (in virtue of being useful and agreeable to self and others).

This view is quite different from the view that Hursthouse seems to be arguing against - the idea that the passions of the child (or the animal) are the only possible passions, and that the alternative to her theory is one that adds means-ends rationality to the fulfillment of childish (or animal) passions. That view definitely deserves criticism, but it is not a view that fully appreciates the complexities of Humean morality.

I have included in this "passions that people generally have reason to promote universally" a desire to do one's duty. This is still a special kind new and improved passion. I want to talk about it in my next post.

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