Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Types of Reasons vs Degree of Difficulty

In her comparison of Aristotle and Kant on virtuous action, Rosalind Hursthouse seems to confuse a pair of distinctions. One is the distinction between acting from inclination and acting from duty. The other is the distinction between performing an act easily or performing it with difficulty, the idea seems to be that performing an act from inclination is easy or pleasurable, while acting from duty is difficult and painful.

I described this distinction in Humean terms since I hold that Davis Hume’s account of motivation is basically correct. We act in accordance with our beliefs to fulfill our desires.

So, the first distinction is a distinction between the desires one acts on. The person who visits a sick friend in the hospital because “you are my friend; I care about you,” acts from inclination. He gives only a passing thought to duty or right action. Instead, he does that which he values for its own sake.

This is to be held in contrast to the person who visits a sick friend from a desire to do that which is right, and a belief that visiting a sick friend is the right thing to do.

Hursthouse would object to this way of drawing the distinction. She would count the first as acting from desires, and the second type as acting from reasons other than desires - acting contrary to desires. This may be why she confuses this distinction with the distinction between easily performing a right action (acting according to desire) and performing it with difficulty (contrary to desire).

Consider the case of the student trying to decide between pursuing a passion - e.g., philosophy - versus learning a useful skill such as computer programming or database management. These are matters to of inclination, but that does not imply that it is an easy decision.

On the other side of the coin, consider the person who follows a religious commandment. He chooses what to eat based on an interpretation of scripture - foregoing bacon, for example. This is a case of acting from duty (though the belief that duty prohibits eating bacon may be a false belief), yet the devout individual may have no difficulty at all following this prescription.

The phenomenon of ease versus difficulty has nothing to do with the type of reason one is acting on, but on the presence or absence of counter-weighing desires - with reasons to do otherwise. The person who is struggling to decide on a career has conflicting desires - pulling her in two directions. The person who refuses bacon without difficulty has a interest in doing what her religion commands of her and no particularly strong interest in eating bacon. After all, there are a great many other foods that taste just as good.

This confusion colors Hursthouse's discussion of the virtues of courage and charity.

Courage, it seems, is a term that is only applicable when there is a conflict between competing desires. There must be a threat to the life or well-being of the individual being outweighed by a more important concern. The parent's aversion to pain, injury, or death - however important they may be - become outweighed by their interest in saving her child from a fire. The soldier's devotion to his country (though, in fact, soldiers tend to be more concerned with protecting their brothers in arms than their country) outweighs his own interest in life and limb. These are the standard examples of courage. If no self-regarding counter-weighing desires are in play, then the concept of 'courage' does not apply.

This distinguishes courage from honesty or charity. Though honesty and charity often will require overriding self-regarding interests, this is not necessarily the case. A person can be honest when no self-regarding interests are at stake, and she can be charitable even when she has pleanty - or she has little but also does not want much. The person who is content to get by with some small amount of wealth and give the rest to charity - simply because she wants nothing more than to help others (once her own basic needs are taken care of) is a prime example of a charitable person. With courage, conflicting self-regarding desires are a necessity. With other virtues, they may exist, but not necessarily.

At this point, I need to mention that I have difficulty with the idea that courage is a virtue. Crimes from terrorism to rape to armed robbery require courage. Whether courage is a virtue depends on whether the ends that one is courageous in advancing are those that a virtuous person would advance. The person who advances a good cause where a less timid person would not is the virtuous-courageous person. The reason for praise is because "courage," in this case, demonstrates the strength of her good motives . It is for the sake of strengthening those good motives that we praise her courage. Whereas courage in the heart of an immoral person - a person who fails to pursue good motives or who does so in ways that require courage but which a good person would not pursue - warrants no praise.

So, let's look at charity instead. Who is the most charitable - the person who contributes to helping others out of inclination (a desire that others be well), or out of duty (a desire to do what is right combined with a belief that helping others who are disadvantaged is the right thing to do)?

Hursthouse compares several types of charitable actions, in order to intuitively measure their moral worth.

The first is the person who helps others out of a desire to help others - an interest in their well-being. This is a person who acts "from inclination" as it were - in the Aristotelian sense (though Aristotle did not argue that charity was a virtue).

The second type is the person who helps others out of a sense of duty. She doesn't care about others. However, she cares about doing the right thing and believes that donations to charity are the right thing to do. Perhaps she is following a religious tradition and mechanically - unthinkingly - gives 10% of her income to charity as a rule. However, when she hears about the suffering of others due to a natural disaster, poverty, disease, or injury, she really could not care less.

Among these two, it seems that the first person better embodies the virtue of charity. Charity is concerned with having an interest in the well-being of others, not an interest in "doing the right thing".

Then, Hursthouse brings in the Kantian philanthrope - the person who is suffering her own set-backs and is in a state of depression or sadness. She is more focused on her own problems - an ailing parent, the death of a child, or her own life-threatening illness - which fixes her attention so that she "has nothing left emotionally" to spare for others. Yet, she continues to help out. Hursthouse argues that the Aristotelian should agree that this person displays the virtue of charity.

Yet, I see this as confusing the question of whether the charitable act is difficult with the question of whether it is done from inclination or duty. It may well be that the sorrowful philanthrope had gotten into a habit of making a contribution to charity out of duty as described above, and the change in her situation simply does not motivate her to change her habits. Or she could have been somebody who gave to others because she cares about their welfare and, when her own situation turns bad, says, "It's not their fault that my situation has changed - and they should not suffer the lack of charity because of it. At least some good will come from my actions." The change in the agent's circumstances may give us reason to evaluate the strength of the agent's concerns, but it does not eliminate or override the distinction between acting from concern for others and acting from duty.

Hursthouse also confuses the distinction between types of reasons and degree of difficulty when talking about the merit of returning a purse one has found full of money. In her evaluation of this case, Hursthouse's conclusions are correct. The wealthy person who returns the money does not display as much virtue as the poor person who returns the money. This is because we are looking at whether the action displays that the desires are present in the required strength. The rich person who returns the money does not give us much evidence of this (though the rich person who refuses to return the money does tell us a great deal about her level of averice). The poor person who returns the money - who is struggling to feed her family, provide medical care, and the like - does show us that her interest in returning the lost money is sufficiently strong to outweigh these other concerns. Yet, even if she fails to return the money, and blows it instead on some personal luxuries, this would give us added reason for condemnation.

All of this is perfectly compatible with the desire-based theory of value mentioned above. It still provides no evidence for people acting on different types of reasons - desires versus some type of rationality-based reason. The desire-based theory can handle these types of cases without complicating the metaphysics.

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