Sunday, December 31, 2017

Does Virtue Benefit the Virtuous?

A key claim of Aristotelian virtue is that virtue benefits the virtuous. Indeed, the very reason to become virtuous is to live a good life.

I find a curious inconsistency in this way of talking. Is one being virtuous for the sake of virtue: Honest for the sake of honesty? Kind for the sake of kindness? Repay a debt because it is owed? Or is one being virtuous for the sake of living a good life? The two are not the same.

I want to put that discussion aside until my next posting.

The question is whether a virtue benefits the agent.

Let's go back to the beginning and look at Rosalind Hursthouse's proposed theory of right action as compared to my own, and look at the question of whether right action benefits the agent.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

From here, the question becomes: Does a right act benefit the agent?

Hursthouse is keen to agree that this is not the case with respect to every specific action. The question is whether the disposition tends to allow the agent to live a better life. She compares virtuous behavior to smoking - or, more precisely, the absence of smoking. The person who gives up (or never starts) smoking cannot be guaranteed a long and healthy life - but does improve their odds.

Hursthouse further argues that, when parents teach their children to be virtuous, it is not with the idea that the child will then miserable. Instead, the parent realizes that the virtuous child can also expect to have a better life than a vicious child. It is with full regard for their interest in their child's well-being that they teach the child to be virtuous. This at least suggests that living virtuously benefits the agent.

Actually, Hursthouse makes a stronger claim than merely to assert that virtue benefits the virtuous. This is true nearly by definition. A virtue is a character trait that benefits the virtuous.

Now, what does my thesis say? Does a good motive benefit the person who has it?

A good motive is a motive that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally. They have reason to promote the motive universally because it is a motive that tends to fulfill other desires. Insofar as the desire tends to fulfill other desires, people generally benefit as the good motive becomes universal.

However, we need to be careful here about the word "benefit". A good desire is a desire that tends to full other desires. But the fulfillment of a desire is not always and automatically a benefit to the person whose desire is fulfilled. It is not the case that everything we want is a benefit to ourselves.

I have used the example of a person with one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exist. He has a button in front of him. Pressing the button will bring the planet Pandora into existence. Pressing the button will also kill him. The agent has one reason to press the button - to bring the planet Pandora into existence. He also has no reason not to press the button. His only interest is in bringing the planet Pandora into existence. When he presses the button he will get what he wants. However, it is a mistake to say that when he gets what he wants he has obtained a benefit.

So, a good desire is a desire that, if universal, will tend to fulfill other desires. And, among humans, it happens to be the case that many of our desires are self-referencing. We have an aversion to being in pain or being uncomfortable. We have a disposition to sadness and frustration - traits to which we are also averse - when our other desires are thwarted.

So, a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. And it happens to be the case that a desire that tends to fulfill other desires tends largely to benefit the people whose desires are fulfilled. However, it is not entirely true, and it is not necessarily true, that the universalization of a good desire benefits people.

I have a standard, simple example of such a good desire.

A community of individuals, each of which has an aversion to his or her personal pain, has a reason to promote universally an aversion to causing pain to others. As this desire becomes universal, agents within the community acquire two desires instead of one. These desires may sometimes come into conflict. An agent may find himself in a situation in which he must choose between inflicting a large amount of pain on others or a little pain on himself. The agent with this good aversion will accept the minor pain for himself.

Has he obtained a benefit?

Not really. He has realized something that he values - the absence of pain for others. But it has come at a cost - the minor pain he then experiences.

However, because of this universal aversion to causing pain to others, each agent can expect to experience less pain than he otherwise would. So, people obtain benefits from the universalization of a virtue, but not from exercising the virtue itself.

So, why become virtuous?

That's not the right question.

Why promote a virtue or good motive universally?

Because the good motive is, by definition, is one that, when universal, tends to fulfill other desires, and the fulfillment of those other desires provides the reason to promote the motive universally.

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