on virtue

The excellent discussion that ensued after my last post got me thinking about ethics in general. I don’t do ethics in an academic context, mostly because it’s really, really hard. I’m always on the lookout for that sweet spot between trivially easy and frickin’ impossible, and as far as I can tell, sorting out right from wrong falls well into the latter category. While it’s not terribly rigorous, the moral system I was taught by my father has served me pretty well and remains my go-to framework for when things get confusing – it could be called olfactory morality. It basically only has one principle:

I can tell when something stinks.

Incidentally, there may actually be something to this in terms of how the brain processes moral questions. Recent studies have found weird correlations between, for example, having tasted something bitter and making harsh moral judgements (here, pdf) and between being in a nice smelling environment and being morally altruistic (here, pdf).

But probably it would be worthwhile to have something a little more precise, and not as influenced by whether I take my coffee with sugar or how clean the cat-box is. It would be super-nice if we had something objective, or at least studyable in a scientific way. This makes the work of someone like Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape very tempting. He argues that science can tell us what’s right and wrong. Happiness, he claims, is the ultimate moral good, and we have reasonably sound ways of measuring how happy people are. Therefore, we should just go out into the world and measure what makes the most people happiest – whatever does that is morally good.

The blogosphere has already done a good job poking holes in this proposition, and I don’t intend to rehash the whole discussion (if you’re interested, here is a particularly cutting critique, and here a more delicate one). What I’m interested in is the meta-ethical argument Harris provides for his position that utilitarianism, the view that whatever maximizes happiness is what is good. The basic thrust of his reasoning is this:

Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings… whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature… Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe.

Given my pragmatic bent on big questions, you may find it unsurprising that I’m at least sympathetic to this kind of thing. I’m a big fan of the notion that in order to be philosophically interesting, a model needs to be apt for telling us about how to make decisions about our lives. Philosophy should be apt for action. This must be doubly true of moral philosophy, where the I tend to think the only interesting question is: what should we do?

But Harris looses me on his next step, from the claim that what we should be interested in is conscious beings, to the notion that everything of interest can be captured in terms of ‘well-being’. There is another moral tradition that I think better captures what Harris is holding out as valuable here – virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is also concerned with conscious beings, but it says that what we really ought to be concerned about is the question ‘What kind of character should I be cultivating?’

I’m convinced that virtue ethics does a better job than Harris’ style of utilitarianism, mostly because of things like Anton-Babinski Syndrome. This is a medical condition where people who are demonstrably blind don’t realize that they are blind. They will insist, despite bumping into walls and tables, that they can see perfectly fine. With all apparent sincerity, they confabulate stories to explain why they bumped into that wall, or fell over the chair, which do not involve the fact that they can’t see a thing. This is obviously an extreme case, but not an isolated one. And I think it nicely illustrates the general human condition: mostly what we do is bang around in the dark, and tell ourselves stories about it that makes it look as though we were being rational all the time. Our impression of having voluntary, conscious control over our activities is, in my opinion, wildly exaggerated.

Ok, so that’s pretty pessimistic. But I guess I’m a pessimist, because it looks to me like the degree to which we actually have conscious control over what we do is pretty slim. Most people, most of the time, are just acting out unconscious habits that culture has foisted on them. And if that’s true, what interest could any form of moral framework have? Moral questions only come up when you have choices, and if we’re just playing out our cultural and biological programming, we’re not really making choices at all.

But it’s not really as bad as all that. Surely we do have some conscious influence over our worlds. What I want to suggest is that, given the fact of our mostly unconscious behaviour, what we should be interested in is our habits and character. We are considerably malleable beings, and changing our character does not seem like an implausible project, even if we aren’t completely in control of ourselves. So we can run a kind of second-order version of Harris’ argument – to the extent that our conscious control over our actions is swamped by unconscious volitions, virtue ethics is the only moral framework which can be of any import.

If this argument works, it shows why questions about intervening on the personality is perhaps the most critical moral question. Both philosophical and empirical questions arise: what kind of character ought we try to encourage, and what interventions actually work? I’ll have more to say about the first question in my next post – I think some basic outlines of an answer can be laid using the notion of autopoiesis and the enactive perspective. The second question I’m not confident I have an answer for. I’ve thrown my lot in with things like study and meditation, as well as picking my friends carefully. But it surely has to be an open, and I think pressing, question.


One thought on “on virtue

  1. Cory, I would say one thing, among utilitarians at least it is common to separate out the basis of evaluations from the decision procedure that is proscribed. Most if not all utilitarians wear two hats, they evaluate what outcomes are or were better or worse by attempting to evaluate in line with (approximating) a strict utility calculus, the other hat is that in actual deciding what to do in the hurly burly of life usually here they attempt to scrupulously obey rules of conduct (Bentham wrote about what should be legislated for example). The rules of conduct are supposed to be ones formulated so that in aggregate or on average obeying them promotes the greatest good (net pleasure or whatever) for the greatest number, but this means that in individual cases following the rules will be disutile. The logic is that actually calculating the utility in each case takes too long, is too error prone (due perhaps to moral weakness) and the like and so would lead in general to worse consequences if everyone attempted to do it in every case, even if it avowed some disutility required by the iron rule.

    So its perfectly consistent with utilitarianism to focus on say habituating good behaviour (i.e. behaviour that in general leads to the greatest good for the greatest number), in recognition of the limitations of both the utility calculus simple lists of proscribed rules or duties as decision procedures for actual human beings. Although such a habit or virtue oriented utilitarian would stand in contrast to earlier exemplars of the philosophy.

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