Thursday, December 21, 2017

Uncharacteristic Behavior

In comparing Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action to my own, one would notice that she includes a clause that distinguishes between characteristic and uncharacteristic behavior. I do not.

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 is responding to the observation that a person can be generally virtuous. However, take a generally virtuous person and deprive her of sleep for a night due to noisy neighbors. This lack of sleep makes it difficult to concentrate. She nearly gets in an accident, causing a rush of adrenaline. She struggles at work and, facing a deadline, turns in a product that others find reason to criticize. At home at the end of the day, she drops down on the couch, leans back, and hears a crash of shattering plates from the kitchen where her child knocked knocked a filled glass of milk onto the floor. She snaps at the child, showing uncharacteristic anger and frustration.

Hursthouse wants us to note that the right action is what the agent would characteristically do - not what she would do under these extreme circumstances when "she is not herself".

Yet, we do hold that people are morally responsible even for their uncharacteristic actions.

Let us assume that, in her frustration, she strikes and injures the child.

When a person adopts virtues - or adopts good desires and suppresses bad desires - these traits are not expected to be limited to a person's "characteristic" actions. People are expected to be aware of the fact that they may face situations in which they suffer from a lack of sleep or frustrations or other events that play with their emotions. These facts are to be counted among the "circumstances" that determine an agent's action. The description of what a virtuous person or a person with good desires "would do in the circumstances" includes circumstances of lack of sleep or frustration or other emotional stress.

Consequently, we have no need for a clause about what a person would "characteristically" do. We look at what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would actually do. If the actions of the individual do not correspond to this, then the actions of the individual are counted as wrong.

This is going to relate to the fact that the concept of "right action" and "wrong action" are tied to praise and condemnation, whose purpose is to create and reinforce good motives. It is a part of this theory that the concept of "right action" and "wrong action" is that they are statements of praise and condemnation. Furthermore, desirism accepts the claim that praise and condemnation are justified, in part, on their effects - and it is their effects on motives that matter most. If the uncharacteristic actions are beyond the reach of an agent's motives (good and bad desires), then praise and condemnation (and, with them, the use of the terms "right action" and "wrong action") become irrelevant. If, instead, they are under the influence of praise and condemnation, then even what an agent may uncharacteristically do - or do in these extreme circumstances - must be included in a general account of right action.

The aversion to striking a child to the point of causing injury, or risking injury, or - according to some very good evidence - for any reason at all - should be strong enough that it does not come to the surface even when "the circumstances" are ones of lack of sleep, intoxication, frustration, emotional distress, or any other circumstances that may cause one to act uncharacteristically. These types of actions ought to be beyond the realm of even uncharacteristic behavior.

So, I just see no reason to include a clause on characteristic behavior in this concept of right action

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