Monday, January 01, 2018

Acting Virtuously

In my last post, I promised to say something about "acting virtuously".

I have been discussing Rosalind Hursthouse's thesis that:

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

This definition of a right action does not look at why a person actually performed an act - so long as it was the act that a virtuous person would have done. The person who repays a debt does what he ought to do -
he ought to repay the debt (under normal circumstances). He may repay the debt because it is owed, or he may repay the debt out of malevolence - because doing so will allow the recipient to afford to purchase something that somebody I hate is also trying to purchase. My reasons for repaying the debt does not change the fact that repaying the debt is the right thing to do.

We are assuming that this is a case in which one actually should repay what is owed. There are, of case, circumstances in which one perhaps ought not to repay a debt; such as returning a borrowed car to a driver who is drunk and would likely drive. However, the interesting fact is that when repaying the debt is the right thing to do, it does not matter whether the agent acts from duty or acts from malice. And when repaying a debt is the wrong thing to do, it does not matter whether the reason is concern for the consequence or selfishness.

Yet, there is also the category of "acting virtuously" - which is "doing the right act for the right reasons".

More specifically, Hursthouse is interested in comparing the virtue-theory concept of acting virtuously with the Kantian concept of acting out of a sense of duty. She wants to claim that these two concepts are closer than people have assumed.

To "act virtuously", Hursthouse provides the following conditions:

(1) For a start, it is to do a certain sort of action. What sort? `A virtuous, good, action', we might say-and truly, but this is hardly an illuminating way to begin laying down what it is to act virtuously, or well. So we'll give examples - it is to do something such as helping someone, facing danger, telling the truth, repaying a debt, denying oneself some physical pleasure, etc.

(2) The agent must know what she is doing-that she is helping, facing danger, telling the truth, etc.

(3) The agent acts for a reason and, moreover, for `the right reason(s)'."

(4) The agent has the appropriate feeling(s) or attitude(s) when she acts.

The "right reasons" in this account actually refers to a range of reasons. Hursthouse writes:

What are reasons `typical of' a virtue? They will be the sorts of reasons for which someone with a particular virtue, V, will do a V act. So, thinking of the sorts of reasons a courageous agent might have for performing a courageous act, we can come up with such things as `I could probably save him if I climbed up there', `Someone had to volunteer', `One can't give in to tyrants', `It's worth the risk'. Thinking of the range of reasons a temperate agent might have for a temperate act, we can come up with `This is an adequate sufficiency', `I'm driving', 'I'd like you to have some', `You need it more than I do', `She said "No"'. With respect to the liberal or generous, `He needed help', `He asked me for it', `It was his twenty-first birthday', day', `She'll be so pleased'. With respect to the agent with the virtue of being a good friend, `He's my friend', `He's expecting me to', `I can't let him down'. For honesty we get such things as `It was the truth', `He asked me', `It's best to get such things out into the open straight away'. And for justice we get such things as `It's his', `I owe it to her', `She has the right to decide', `I promised'. And so on and so forth.

These are the same types of reasons, Hursthouse argues, that would also count as "acting from a sense of duty" in the Kantian sense. The Kantian does not need to actually be thinking, "I am acting from a maxim that I can will to be a universal law" to be acting from a maxim that she could will to be a universal law. She could be acting for any of the reasons given above, and still be acting from duty in the Kantian sense.

The desire-based model that I defend provides another way of viewing this question.

Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional actions that exist. We look at the proposition that the agent is trying to make or keep true to determine why the agent acted. To refuse to make a particular claim "because it would be a lie" indicates an aversion to lying - or a "desire that I not lie". This "desire that I not lie" is not the same thing a "desire that I not say things that are untrue." To lie is to say something that the agent believes to be false; which is different from saying something that is false. An agent can say something true that she believes to be false and that would still be a lie. Similarly, an agent can say something that is false that she believes to be true, in which case she is mistaken, but not lying.

So, there is a difference between telling the truth under oath "because it is the truth" or "because the system of justice requires it of me," and doing so "because I wish to avoid being punished for committing perjury". The first two reasons provide examples of acting from a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally. The last is acting from a self-interested desire that people naturally have.

We can see the difference as well between religious people who obey religious commandments to obtain the rewards of heaven and avoid the penalties of hell, and those who do so because it is the right thing to do. With the first sort of people, if they were to lose their beliefs in heaven and hell, they would lose their reason to refrain from these activities. They would see no reason not to engage in murder, rape, and theft. However, the person who would refrain from murder, rape, and theft anyway is somebody who not only has the desires for the pleasures of heaven and aversion to the pains of hell, but somebody who has an aversion to murder, rape, and theft for their own sake.

Hursthouse also makes use of this distinction - and on the fact that we can tell more about what a person's reasons are by their actions than by their words. There are people who may say, "Without God, everything is permitted." Yet, even if they were to come to believe that God did not exist, would still be reluctant to put their hands in a hot flame, sell their children into slavery, betray a friend, or inflict needless suffering on somebody that they love. This is because the reasons they give for their action (to please God) simply are not true. If it were true, the reasons would vanish if the belief in God vanished. They actually do these things for their own sake - because these are, themselves, the objects of the agent's desires. whether they admit it or not.

No comments: