Tag: consequentialism

Philippa Foot and I Have An Irritable Exchange About Virtue

The following pseudo-dialogue is based on my reading of part three of Philippa Foot’s famous essay, “Virtues and Vices”, which can be found here. All of her “dialogue” constitutes direct quotes from the essay. In this essay, she seems to me to be anxious about identifying vice for what it is and has crafted a sophisticated means of diluting the boundaries between virtue and vice, in order to relieve that anxiety. I could be wrong, of course. But Here is my engagement with those portions of the text that seem to me to be pointing in that direction.


FOOT: Is there not more difficulty than might first appear in the idea of an act of injustice which is nevertheless an act of courage? Suppose, for instance, that a sordid murder were in question, say a murder done for gain or to get an inconvenient person out of the way, but that this murder had to be done in alarming circumstances or in the face of real danger; should we be happy to say that such an action was an act of courage?

ME: No, I think not. Courage, the virtue, is not the mere capacity to act regardless of any fear we might feel. It is not simply overcoming fear to whatever acts we desire a license to commit. Rather, courage is the capacity to do what is right regardless of the fear. It is overcoming fear of personal risk when an act of duty, or benevolence, or justice is required of us. Courage is not licentiousness, it is a kind of discipline of the soul.

FOOT: [but] there is no doubt that the murderer who murdered for gain was not a coward: he did not have this second moral defect which another villain might have had. There is no difficulty about this because it is clear that one defect may neutralize another. As Aquinas remarked, it is better for a blind horse if it is slow…

ME: No, this is wrong. What this hypothetical murderer lacks is not cowardice, but courage. But let me back up a second. Our murderer can be one of two types of people. It could be he has no conscience, or lacks the capacity to “hear” his conscience when it pricks him. If this is the case, then he is no better than an animal or a madman, and it makes no sense whatsoever to speak of virtues and vices in such a creature, because they cannot make choices. Or, it could be that our murderer has a conscience, and can hear it, but is not heeding it because he has chosen to obey his avarice rather than his conscience. I say this is an act of cowardice. Acts of cowardice always have the goal of alleviating some momentary or short-term want or desire or discomfort. Murder, rape, assault, robbery, fraud: all of these things get us something right now, at the expense of the future and the health of our own souls. In the case of this murder, as you say, a pile of booty or the elimination of an inconvenient person. In other cases, it might be the discharge of rage, or the capture of a prize. It takes enormous courage to recognize in ourselves that we each are capable of acting in these ways, and then choosing not to. There is no guarantee that having the courage to obey the conscience will result in material good in the future, of course. That is partly what makes it an act of courage to refrain from the murder. On this account, the fact that the act of murder itself might include “alarming circumstances”, is irrelevant.

FOOT: [But] his courage will often result in good; it may enable him to do many innocent or positively good things for himself or for his family and friends. On the strength of an individual bad action we can hardly say that in him courage is not a virtue.

ME: Philippa, what is wrong with you? First, you equate courage with a willingness to commit murder, and now you equate the Good purely with the material gains acquired as a result of that willingness to murder? This is one of the reasons I am not a consequentialist. My prior response to you is sufficient to answer this. The murderer is not exhibiting courage, but cowardice. Further, there is no good reason to think that material gain is always necessarily a positive good. It could be, that if the murderer had refrained from killing said victim, an opportunity to gain something even more valuable might have arisen. There’s no way to know for sure, but even if it is guaranteed that he is destined to no material gain whatsoever in refraining from the murder, one would have to be a very peculiarly narrow consequentialist indeed to rule his restraint a morally wrong action.

FOOT: One way out of this difficulty might be to say that the man who is ready to pursue bad ends does indeed have courage, and shows courage in his action, but that in him courage is not a virtue… courage is not operating as a virtue when the murderer turns his courage, which is a virtue, to bad ends.

ME: Firstly, the murder is not an “end”, as such. It is a means to an end, which you said was material gain or the elimination of an inconvenient person. That aside, however, why are you so insistent on diluting the meaning of virtues like courage? I cannot help but wonder if you actually understand Aristotle at all, or if there might be something psychological going on. I have already explained how this murderer is not showing courage at all, but cowardice. But even if we consider any other habit or disposition of character described by Aristotle’s ethics, what we find is that the definition of a virtue is a capacity to follow a narrow path of right behavior that cuts through the center between two wide expanses of vice at either extreme. What’s more, he explicitly identifies the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness as the extremes on either side of the virtue courage. But, let’s take your example of industriousness in this article, to illustrate the point even more: the extreme to the left of the virtue would be the vice of sloth, and the extreme to the right of the virtue would be the vice of slavishness. There is no circumstance in which the virtue of industriousness is “operating” as either of those vices, because then it would be one of the two vices, and not the virtue. And, there is no circumstance in which the virtue of industriousness could be “operating” as a virtue, and come to vicious ends. That’s not how virtues work.

FOOT: [But while it’s true that] wisdom always operates as a virtue, its close relation prudence does not… for in some, it is rather an over-anxious concern for safety and propriety, and a determination to keep away from people or situations which are apt to bring trouble with them; and by such defensiveness, much good is lost.

ME: Now you’re just making my point for me. Your own language, “over-anxious concern” is nearly good enough to act as a label for the actual vice we’re dealing with here. What you’re describing is not prudence, but either the vice of timidness or the vice of cowardice (ironically enough). Why are you so afraid of naming the vices, in an article that includes the word right in the title?

FOOT: Of course what is best is to live boldly yet without imprudence or intemperance, but the fact is that rather few can manage that!

ME: But that’s exactly the point! Virtue is something that is possible for all of us, but also very difficult for all of us. It wouldn’t be a virtue if you needn’t have worked very hard at it. As you said yourself, ”virtues are about what is difficult for men.” I don’t understand why that’s suddenly a problem for you, here in part III of the essay.

Anyway, it’s no wonder modern society is so corrupt, when its philosophers keep trying to turn the vicious man into the virtuous man, and deploying obfuscating language like “inoperative virtues” to hide the real nature of vices. No matter how anxious we might get about having to properly judge character from a meritocratic understanding of the noble soul, shrinking from this duty into the comfortable “everybody gets a trophy” mentality is only going to make things worse. We make a mockery of morality when we do this, and show our children that we don’t actually care for the health of either their souls, or our own. We need to screw up the courage to call things by their right names, and name the vices.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Is it better to be truly just, or merely to seem so? This is the question put to Socrates by Glaucon in The Republic. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind”, counts Glaucon among the cynics for putting this challenge to Socrates. But Haidt is missing a subtle and very powerful nuance in Plato’s story. Socrates had just finished embarrassing Thrasymachus for his weak defense of cynical egoism. Glaucon and Adeimantus were certainly entertained, but they were not satisfied with Socrates. They sought much stronger reasons for accepting the conclusion that true justice is preferable to appearance, because they did not want to merely seem to agree with Socrates. They really wanted to believe that genuine justice was better, and giving Socrates the strongest possible objection that could be mustered is the only way an honest man (if he is honest with himself) can do this.

Socrates’ initial response to Glaucon was not the description of the ideal state that the story has become famous for. Rather, it was a likening of the soul to the body. Repeated abuses and illnesses corrupt and degrade the health of the body over time, until at some point it is no longer possible to experience vigor and vitality. Likewise, says Socrates, repeated vices and injustices committed in pursuit of wealth or power or honor will eventually render the soul so degraded and corrupt that it will no longer be capable of achieving eudaemonia (aka ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, or ‘flourishing’). This is the fate of the man who pursues a life of politics, without first tending to his soul.

Haidt seems almost proud of his “Glauconian cynicism” – a socio-biological view in which he believes he can show that, regardless of which is better, seeming just is what we humans actually seek. Haidt claims explicitly and confidently not to be offering an argument for what ought to be, only what is. But the enthusiasm with which he reports this supposed scientific fact suggests that he also thinks that what is, just is what ought to be. But this is precisely the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon: it certainly is true that many people (perhaps even most) are cynical and self-serving. So, why oughtn’t they be? Haidt’s response to this recurring implicit question seems to be to just keep reasserting the fact, in ever more sophisticated and complex ways.

Near the end of the book, in spite of already offering an explicit refusal to address the problem of normative ethics, Haidt tosses off a flippant endorsement of Utilitarianism as if this view has already settled the normative question, or simply to signal to the reader that the question just isn’t interesting enough to bother investigating. But this has profound implications for how seriously one can take some of the claims he makes in this book. The tension between what is and what ought to be plagues this book, and any reader eager for insight into the gap between descriptive and normative ethics will find it profoundly frustrating.

The Basic Theory, and It’s Problems

Haidt’s basic theory of the “Righteous Mind” comes down to two hypotheses. First, that the human brain has evolved for both “tribal” and “hive” social structures. To put it in his terms, “we are 90% chimp, and 10% bee”, and a special “hive switch” in the brain is flipped, when conditions are ideal, that suppress our self-interested “groups” psychology, and make us more altruistically “hive-ish”. It’s not quite clear what sort of mechanism this “switch” is, what causes it to flip, and how it gets reset. But he offers a lot of anecdotes from his research that describe evidence suggesting its presence.

The second, and much more complex portion of the theory, is his six-dimensional model of moral psychology. His system is powerfully reminiscent of David Hume’s own four-pole system of moral emotions (Pride-vs-Humility / Love-vs-Hate). But there is one extremely significant difference. Hume’s theory was one meant to describe morality as a system of “passions” (special kinds of emotions). These passions derive from a natural propensity for pleasure, and a natural aversion to pain (he presages the Utilitarians in this respect). What’s more, moral judgments are not reasoned, but felt. Morality, for Hume, just is emotions expressed. Haidt’s theory, on the other hand, describes six dimensions of values, not emotions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Haidt says that all human beings have this six-dimensional system built-in as a consequence of thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. He argues that the “sensitivity level” at which each of these is not permanently fixed, but is set to “defaults” at birth, and adjusted over a lifespan by experience. How, precisely, this happens and by what mechanism, is a bit murky, but again, he offers loads of anecdotal examples (and data from his studies) to show how each of these dimensions is expressed by individuals.

A few questions and objections arose for me, about these two hypotheses, as I read through the book, that never seemed to get a satisfactory answer. First, on the six aspects: are they like adjuster knobs on a sound board? Or, are they merely barometer needles reporting varying pressure levels set by environmental impacts on a biological system? If the former, then surely there are “optimal” positions for each of these knobs (even if only circumstantially optimal)? In that case, then there is indeed an opening for a normative ethical theory, describing these optimums. However, if the latter is true, then it is hard to understand how there could be any such thing as an “ought” at all, much less a system prescribing them. Haidt is constantly nudging up to the edge of this Humean is-ought cliff, and retreating from it just when things start to get interesting.

Second, Haidt never quite explicitly acknowledges that he’s describing a system of values, rather than a moral psychology. One might object that a system of values could be said to be a variety of moral psychology, but I would reply that by the time we get to values, we’re already one layer above fundamental psychology. Why these six, and not others? Indeed, in the book, Haidt explicitly acknowledges that some early reviewers of the book objected to the lack of “equality” as a value on his list of “aspects”. If “liberty” counts as a foundational psychological value, then why not “equality”? It has just as long a history, after all. More importantly, to talk of values at all, you’re once again in flirting in the realm of the normative. I would have to look more closely at the research he used to back this section of the book, but how do we know he didn’t just happen to find the set of six values that he and his team were particularly focused on already? That is a normative selection process: “these values are more important than those”.

Third, returning to the “hive switch”, Haidt emphasizes the “dangers” of too much hive-ishness or too much groupishness. But he never quite explains how there could be any such thing as a “right amount” of either, in the absence of a normative theory. Without any idea of what an ideal amount of either would look like, why would the horror of the Hobbesian anarchy or Stalinist oppression even count as “bad”? Lower primates seem perfectly satisfied with brutal inter-tribal conflict, and ants are obliviously willing to destroy themselves en masse for the sake of colony and queen. What’s worse, is that there’s no clear explanation for how the “hive switch” and the six-dimensional moral psychology fit together. Do certain knob settings produce hives instead of tribes? Do others produce tribes instead of hives? What are the right tension levels between the two modes? If the knob settings do influence this, how do we know what those should be? None of this is discussed in the book, except in passionate warnings to beware of extremes. A laudable sentiment, but so what?

Lastly, while Frans de Waal is largely an asset to Haidt’s book, there is one key notion from de Waal that highlights the primary problem with Haidt’s “Glauconian moral matrix”; de Waal captured it in a rather pithy phrase: Veneer Theory. In his book, “Primates and Philosophers”, de Waal uses the phrase to criticize Huxley and Dawkins for uncritically accepting a view of human nature that is Hobbesian without providing an explanation for how a self-serving egoist gets to altruism all on his own. Haidt’s book suffers from a similar problem. Though he does a great job of bridging the gap between egoist and “group-altruist”, what he fails to do is explain how the “Glauconian cynic” becomes a genuinely caring being. Haidt has concocted his own variety of Veneer Theory by redefining it as a complex inter-subjective social delusion that we all agree to participate in. He takes this as an answer to the problem of a “veneer” layer. But it only makes his own set of theories seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. Haidt makes a strong case for the biological and psychological reality of moral experience as a genuine phenomenon. But this works directly against the idea that we merely wish to appear to care, or to be virtuous. Why layer a “moral matrix” on top of a perfectly reasonable explanation of genuine moral emotions? More to the point, why would evolution tolerate such an expensive and convoluted cognitive load, such as layers of delusion, on top of the already demanding task of navigating the social world in real time? Even more curiously, why would we count the primitive primate morality of chimps and bonobos as “actual” or “genuine”, while regarding our own as a mere matrix-like delusion?

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has read the entirety of The Republic has to come to terms with a powerful dissonance in Plato’s tale. Either Socrates truly misunderstood human nature (perhaps he confused it with his own psychological projections), or he didn’t actually believe what he was saying. Some philosophers argue for the latter theory: that the ideal state was ideal intentionally. Socrates was never going to convince the Athenians to drive all the old folks out of the city in order to start afresh, or convince the educated classes to surrender their private property holdings to the commons, or convince them to put their women and children into a breeding commune to be tended by specially bred and trained guardians. He must have known that. What was really going on here? Remember that the tale was written by Plato, long after Socrates’ execution. Plato was engaging in his own bit of cynical rhetoric, grounded in bitterness. He wanted to demonstrate the utter impossibility of the larger task: convincing men to love virtue for its own sake; to be just, rather than simply to appear just. He had given up on the possibility, and the Republic was his way of showing this. It is hard to blame him, on one level. He’d watched these people destroy his master and teacher; a man for whom Plato had given up a promising life as a poet, in order to follow him in philosophy. Haidt, on the other hand, embraces his cynicism with zeal, because he believes the data tells him he must, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility that we might just be better than that. In effect, he takes Plato’s implicit condemnation of man and turns it into a simple matter-of-fact. But recasting the condemnation as mere description doesn’t change the moral reality; it just hides it behind a veil of cynicism.

Mill, Kant, Preference and Universality

If you look closely at Mill’s arguments in Utilitarianism, he seems to be making a very strong response to Kant (perhaps against the Groundwork?). Mill accepts the notion of moral duty, just as Kant does. But he insists it derives not from any form of analytic (i.e., Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori) truth. Rather, Mill insists it derives from the apparently universal desire of mankind (individually, in aggregate) to seek its own pleasure. Aware of some of the contextual implications of this principle, Mill attacks head-on the charge of Epicureanism. But what strikes me as interesting, is the fact that, though he makes frequent reference to Kant, he never directly refutes Kant’s position, and never fully explains how the pleasure principle isn’t obviously and soundly refuted already by Kant’s explication of deontology (in the Groundwork). Mill just seems to ignore the problem of subjectivity in the hypothetical imperative, as described by Kant. Perhaps Mill is assuming that the apparently universal preference for pleasure somehow renders the hypothetical imperative a moot point? (i.e., since everyone prefers pleasure, it’s pointless to bother thinking in terms like, ‘if you seek pleasure, then you should do x’).

This idea of a universal preference is an intriguing one. Mill makes frequent appeals to preference – both implicit and explicit. What if we could actually identify a preference that is indeed universal to all human beings? I’m struggling, frankly, to think of one. Even something as intuitively obvious as “life” isn’t so obvious, when you consider the willingness of soldiers to throw themselves over the trenches, or the high rate of suicide among men in the west, today. Clearly, those folk do not have a preference for living. If something like life itself can’t be ascribed as a preference to all human beings, why should pleasure?

On the other hand, biology is notoriously fuzzy at the edges. Sometimes a horse is born with 5 legs. Is it no longer a horse? Sometimes humans are born with 3 x chromosomes, instead of an xy pair. Does that mean there’s no such thing as mammalian sexes? If we can accept these sorts of vaguenesses in distinction, then perhaps a “universal preference” could also be accepted as something slightly less than universal?

Perhaps, but when we start ascribing moral significance to such a thing as a preference, the game changes a bit. Because what are we really saying, when we say we can judge a behaviour as “right” or “wrong”? When I say something is or isn’t a preference of mine, nothing follows. I just go about my business, and you, yours. But when I take a preference of mine as a standard to judge you ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I am implying a great deal more. It implies that, at the very least, I am licensed to condemn you for not sharing the preference — and at the most extreme end, that I am licensed to kill you.

But what if the standard isn’t some particular material preference (such as ice cream favors, or even living), but rather, for behavioral reciprocity? Now, if I have a preference for vanilla, and you have a preference for chocolate, but we both share (for example) a preference for not attacking people with differing preferences, then we might be able to negotiate a peaceful existence together. What’s more, we’d then be justified in self-defense against someone who didn’t share that meta-preference.

Perhaps this is what Mill was thinking when he suggested we all ought to regard each other equally, in the decisions we make? More thought must be done on this one…