Notes from a Character

When was the last time you tried to get rid of one habit you had that you didn’t like? How easy was that?

That’s normally my first response when they ask me whether I think we can change our characters intentionally, through trying. I don’t know why this question is so often addressed to me. Perhaps it’s because people think I’m a virtue ethicist. Maybe it’s because I have gone through a more thorough intentional change in my character than most people I know have. Those of us who successfully made such a change, perhaps even more than those who tried and failed, know that many philosophers speak about “cultivating” our characters or “managing” our characters in too casual a way. Intentionally changing character is hard. It’s God damn hard. It’s @#$%&! hard.

My name is Nomy and I’m too candid. However, I am, it seems, employable (even interview-able! If you are also too candid, you know that can be much harder). I also have great friends. These things weren’t true back when I was a teenager capable of telling a person that he is ugly without feeling anger at him or expecting him to be insulted. Mine was a case of grand social incompetence that today would have gotten me diagnosed as “on the spectrum” very quickly (erroneously, I hasten to add. My problem was bad upbringing, in a broad neo-Aristotelian sense). Every step of the many years long journey from there to minimal practical wisdom was the result of gargantuan effort. It sounds like I’m bragging, and in a way I am, but what I want to get across most of all is the frustrating difficulty of it, the fumbling, the repeated not-even-close failures, the times you think you have finally become an agreeable human only to discover that you once more offended someone that you hadn’t the slightest desire to hurt, or that yet another person said “ah, her? we thought she might be difficult” – without you having any idea why. It was exhausting – and we’re talking getting from utterly clueless to merely too candid; we are not talking becoming a person worthy of raising a flag with a red maple leaf on it, say, or the kind of diplomatic person that a woman is still (unfairly) expected to be.

So, intentional character change: possible but insanely hard, requires help from others, isn’t just a matter of practice through repeated action, and should not be talked about lightly, as in suggesting that every time a person is blameworthy for an akratic action what they are really blameworthy for is not having, some years earlier, done the obvious thing and gone to character school, where remedial courses are always available for free. But sometimes people ask me about whether my (and Schroeder’s) view allows for people intentionally becoming more virtuous. For Tim and me, to be virtuous is to have good will – want the right things, de re – and not to want to wrong things, de re.  If you don’t like desires, you can have a pretty similar view involving concerns or cares otherwise interpreted. Your intrinsic desire situation likely matters not only to your patterns of behavior but to your cognition as well (e.g if you want humans not to suffer, you are more likely to notice the sad person standing in the corner; if you want equality, you are more likely to notice that a movie is racist), but nobody, strictly speaking, is morally virtuous just because of a cognitive talent or morally vicious just because of a cognitive fault. Being capable of noticing the sad person in the corner because you’re an observant novelist scores you no moral points, and being incapable of noticing racism in a movie because you came from far away and don’t get the cultural references does not lose you any). By this measure, it is likely that I did not become more virtuous than I used to be. My quality of will didn’t change – my cognitions and habits did. So, in the strict Arpaly/Schroeder sense…. Is it possible to change from a not-so-virtuous person into a virtuous one, intentionally?

Seems like that would be impossible, paradoxical, self-defeating. The virtuous person is defined by the things she intrinsically desires, or if you prefer, what she cares about. She desires, let’s say, that humans be safe from suffering, that people be treated equally, that she doesn’t lie – the details would vary depending on what the best normative theory tells us morality is about. Simply acting out of a desire to be virtuous (de dicto) is not virtuous. In fact, even acting out of a desire to be virtuous de re is not virtuous: the right reason to save a person from a fire is that he not suffer or die, it’s not that you, the agent, be compassionate, and thus the virtuous person would act out of a desire to prevent suffering or death, not out of a desire to have the virtue of compassion. Self-defeating, right?

Except not really. Peter Railton pointed out that this kind of thing looks paradoxical in theory only if we ignore the various ways in which we can act upon ourselves in practice (his examples: the hedonist who decides he needs non-selfish desires in order to be happy, the ambitious tennis player who needs a bit less focus on winning, a bit more love of the game in order to win). Imagine a person who wants to be virtuous, who roughly knows (or has true beliefs regarding) what virtue is about (some other time about the person who doesn’t), but does not have the desires or cares of the virtuous person. More realistically, she has some of them, to some extent, but she falls short of what we are willing to call virtue. At first, her actions will not be expressions of virtue, but intrinsic desires do change, however slowly or gradually. They often spontaneously develop out of a more derivative form of desire: you want to learn philosophy in order to do well in law school, and by the end of the course you want it intrinsically. You start playing baseball to please your parents and find yourself continuing to do it long after they have died. If virtue is about desires or cares, it stands to reason that sometimes you can start out volunteering at a homeless shelter because you get a warm and fuzzy feeling from thinking of yourself as virtuous, or even because you get a warm and fuzzy feeling about others believing that you are virtuous, and then find yourself attracted instead to the grateful looks of some of the people in the shelter, and who knows, as the makeup of your motives shifts, find yourself moved to help when nobody is there to praise you. In ancient Jewish sources, much importance is attributed to studying the Torah for its own sake, the only praiseworthy way to do it. However, the advice for the person who cannot muster such pious motivation is to start by mustering ulterior motives and the intrinsic ones will “come”. I like this attitude. It doesn’t always work, oh no, but it strikes me as more likely to work than the practice of scrutinizing people’s motives – oneself or others – and verbally skewering them if one suspects any “virtue signaling” in the mix. Incidentally, Thomas Hill has a great article on how even Kant, the guy who brought us moral worth, didn’t like the scrutinizing thing – and he didn’t even believe in mixed motives!

So, granted: hard as it to intentionally acquire or ditch habits of thought or action, it seems even harder to intentionally acquire or ditch an intrinsic desire. Ever tried making yourself a lover of movies when you totally aren’t one, or getting rid of that desire to be tall? But there is no paradox involved, merely an “empirical” difficulty. Such difficulties can be tragic enough, but there is no need to deny that sometimes people intentionally become somewhat more virtuous than they were before. Not by sheer act of will, but by such things as hanging out with virtuous people and have it rub off on you, finding optimistic types who “believe in you” and seeing if you will automatically rise to meet their expectations, following the Talmudic advice to start from exciting ulterior motives and hope for the best, reading and watching memorable and vivid representations of the point of view of those whom your actions affect. Prosaic takes on human nature, which take moral motivation to be similar to philosophy-studying motivation or baseball-playing motivation or whatever, can be depressing, but they can be rather comforting on those occasions in which prosaic methods work. I can’t pretend any other kind of method worked for me.

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