Wednesday, January 09, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0011: Admiration

There is a view in metaethics that holds that “X is good” is reducible in some way to “Agent(s) ought to have a positive attitude towards X”

I say “Agent(s)” because this thesis takes two forms. In one form, X’s value is intrinsic and independent of the agent. In these cases, all agents should have the fitting attitude towards X. In the other form, X’s value is relative to the agent in such a way that it is fitting that different agents have different attitudes towards the same object.

I discussed this in the previous post, "Intrinsic Rightness" using the example of my keeping my promise to pay you $100 (a promise that is still hypothetical, so don’t expect to see any money). My fitting attitude towards the state of paying you $100 is more demanding than anybody else’s fitting attitude.

As Thomas Hurka reported in his book British Ethical Theorists, Ewing argued that different objects demanded different fitting attitudes. Some things were “ought to be desired”, some were “ought to be admired in a non-moral sense”, and others were “ought to be admired in a moral sense”.

Hurka wrote that, “[Ewing] was unsure whether moral admiration is irreducibly distinct from other forms of admiration or differs only in its object, which is an action with volitional qualities such as devotion to a good end.”

Desirism provides an easy answer to the “Admiration” question. Admiration is a form of praise. It aims to promote the behavior being admired, not only in the agent, but in others. There is a difference between those traits that we have reason to promote universally, and those that we do not. In the first sense, we can admire the person for his honesty or generosity. Honesty and generosity are dispositions we have reason to promote universally, so this counts as moral admiration. There are other traits that we seek to promote, but not universally. One example of this would be the piano player or the gymnast, who we can admire (and praise) non-morally.

We do not tend to use the term "admiration" in its moral sense for everybody moral actions. For example, we do not admire the person who walks into a store and walks about again without shoplifting, even if a clear opportunity presented itself. We do not admire those who queue up to get on the bus (though we condemn those who cut in line). Instead, moral admiration tends to be attached to the types of actions that are generally called "supererogatory" or "above and beyond the call of duty."

Desirism defines a supererogatory act as one that people generally have reasons to promote universally but, because of human nature, simply cannot expect to get reasonably close to that level. The person who donates a kidney to a stranger, for example, has gone above and beyond the call of duty. Our world would be better off if we could promote that level of charity universally. However, no matter how strongly we praise people who perform such actions and condemn those who do not (recognizing that we would have to hold ourselves in contempt if we do not do that which we promote universally), we can never expect to succeed. Consequently, we praise the action in order to promote the dispositions, but we do not condemn its absence expecting that this would do more harm than good.

In this analysis, we are going to have to recognize a possible distinction between what we do admire and what we ought to admire. There may well be people who admire President Trump. Yet, to say that Trump is admired is not to say that he is admirable (or that he "ought to be admired"). To admire Trump is to praise and, thereby, to promote and encourage lying, intellectual recklessness, bigotry, arrogance, and a number of other traits that - as a matter of fact - people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage universally. When this is the case, we can truly say that the person admired is not admirable. That is to say, the person with the traits that people are promoting universally both has traits that people actually have no reason to make universal, and lacks traits that they do have reason to make universal.

If we take "admirable" as "having those traits that people ought to admire" or "having those traits that it would be good for people to admire" or "having those traits that it would be right for people to admire," we need to provide some account of this quality "ought to admire", "good to admire", or "right to admire". I am going to address this in my next post about what an agent ought to desire.

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