Saturday, December 23, 2017

Resolvable Dilemmas

In my study of the differences between Rosalind Hursthouse's conception of right action and the one I defend, I have now turned to Hursthouse's book, Hursthouse, Rosalind (1999). On Virtue Ethics. Oxford University Press.

The second chapter of her book concerns "resolvable dilemmas".

Just to recap, we are working on two different conceptions of right action.

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.

Hursthouse's objective is to show that virtue ethics represents a third option to the traditional theories of utilitarianism (an act is right iff it promotes the best consequences) and deontology (an action is right iff it is in accordance with a correct moral rule or principle). She is not intent (or even aware of) the option that I am presenting.

I am not even certain that she would classify my alternative as a virtue theory.

However, the relevant point here is that in her effort to show that virtue theory provides this third alternative, she examines how virtue theory, utilitarianism, and deontology handles what she calls "resolvable moral dilemmas".

What she means by this is a choice where the option not chosen still has a "moral remainder". That is to say, there is a clear right action, but the right action still violates a moral requirement, which puts the agent in the position of having having moral regret or distress, owing another person some type of retributive payment or at least an apology.

I have typically used two types of cases that I think would qualify under Hursthouse's description.

One is the case of a parent away from town with a child who gets stung by a bee and is having an unexpected allergic. The parent needs to get his child to a hospital. His own car fails to start. Another car, parked nearby, has the keys still in the ignition. The owner is nowhere in sight. The parent takes the car and rushes the child to the hospital. We may clearly say that this is the right thing to do in the circumstances. However, we would still say that the parent owes the owner of the car at least an apology, and perhaps some compensation for the borrowing the car.

Now, oddly enough, we may also expect the owner to dismiss the moral debt - to tell the father, "You don't owe me a thing. I would have done the same thing in your place." Yet, the apology and offer for compensation is still owed.

This would be a case where the two options are still considered morally wrong.

This is in contrast with the view that one act is, in an unqualified sense, the right thing to do and the other act, in an equally unqualified sense, is wrong.

The way that desirism handles these types of cases is by noting that desires and aversions do not simply vanish when they are outweighed. A young adult is torn between leaving to go to a distant university to pursue a degree or staying in her home town where her friends and families live. There may be a clear choice . . . it is time to move on, say good-bye to her childhood friends . . . and make a place for herself in the world. Yet, even where there is a clear choice, it does not eliminate the pain of parting with the people and places that one leaves behind.

It is no less the case when one's obligations to care for one's own child comes into conflict with the aversion to taking the property of another without his consent. The fact that there is a clear option does not eliminate the regret that one feels about not fulfilling both desires at once - the desire to care for one's child AND the aversion to taking property without consent.

The purpose of the need for an apology and the offer of compensation is to stress the fact that the agent has this second aversion and acknowledges its moral status. If he can simply shrug it off without regret, then we may be suspicious that he does not have the aversion to taking the property without consent that he should have. This is true in the same way that the teenager who heads off to a distant college without tears of regret really does not care about the town and people she leaves behind - and may well be happy to be rid of them.

Desirism, then, does not only account for the fact of a moral remainder, it says that such a moral remainder is sometimes required. We expect it of people. We, in fact, condemn it of people and count as a "wrong action" the failure to offer the apologies and compensations that a person who regrets doing that which a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have been adverse to doing.

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