Nazis vs Bankers: the Silver Lining View

Consider a case of a morally ignorant agent who is doing bad things. Helmut is a devoted Nazi, or at any rate some type of ideologue who does terrible things to members of certain groups because he believes them to be right, whether his victims are Jews, blacks, gays, the infidel, etc. His belief that what he’s doing is right is an honest mistake he picked up starting with his primary school textbooks– not the result of self-deception, hate-filled rationalization, or other motivated irrationality.

There are two common ways to look at him.

Team De Dicto sees him as a person who respects morality (a good thing) but sadly has false beliefs about what it requires.

Team De Re sees him as a person who respects morality-given-some-false-beliefs-about-what-it-requires – which is not a good thing to be respectful of, any more than my-friend-given-the-assumption-he’s-a-murderer is a good person to be respectful of.

A natural way for Team De Dicto’s approach to go would be to declare that Helmut is excused for his bad actions. After all, he is motivated by concern for morality de dicto, which is a good motivation, and only false beliefs make him act badly. So why not say that moral ignorance excuses, in exactly the same way that factual ignorance does?

Some people think this view, defended by Gideon Rosen, too extreme. Do we really want to say that so many Nazis are blameless? (“As a German, I can’t accept this view”, said one of my students). More needs to be said against the view that Helmut is excused – I said some in a paper called “Huckleberry Finn Revisited”. Today I would like to pick on someone else.

Which leads us to the third view, that of Team Having it Both Ways. Look, they say, moral motivation de re is praiseworthy, but moral motivation de dicto is also praiseworthy. Helmut is not excused, because despite his concern for morality de dicto, his indifference to such important de re considerations as the pain of his victims makes him blameworthy. However, his concern for morality de dicto makes him, in a sense, also praiseworthy. Not enough to overwhelm the badness of his lack of concern for morality de re. If he’s a war criminal or a suicide bomber? Not even close, but still, there is a kind of silver lining around his blameworthy actions (and/or bad character), a silver lining consisting in his having the kind of motive that, when resulting in right actions, makes them worthy of esteem. 

Here is an argument against the Silver Lining View.

Premise 1: A motive that leads to unexcused wrong actions does not grant moral worth.

(Standard Kantian assumption, as the fact of a motive leading to unexcused wrong actions indicates “accidentality”. That’s why Kantians think sympathy does not grant moral worth to actions made out of it: sympathy can lead to unexcused wrong actions, as in the case of paternalism, and so when it leads to good actions it does so accidentally).

Premise 2: Concern for morality de dicto leads to unexcused wrong actions.

(The Silver Lining Theorist agrees to that. She holds that 1.the wrong actions of a dutiful Nazi are motivated by concern for morality de dicto and 2. that they are nonetheless not excused.

Conclusion: Concern for morality de dicto does not grant moral worth.

If concern for morality de dicto does not grant moral worth, could it still have some points in its favor? Sure. Even Kantians who think sympathy is only contingently related to morality (and therefore, even when it leads to good actions, does not make them morally worthy) – even they think there are reasons to cultivate sympathy in yourself, or regard yourself as fortunate to have it. After all, a sympathetic person might, as an empirical matter, be more inclined to help people, and thus do the right thing more often. Some Kantians think similar things about a sense of honor. Perhaps, some suggest, something similar can be true for concern for morality de dicto (Sure, it would only increase your chances of doing right in conjunction with the right moral beliefs, but well, a sense of honor would only increase them if you are surrounded by the right people). Even if that worked, it would not give concern for morality de dicto quite the respectability that Team Both Ways wishes for it. In Kantian terms, to really have it both ways one needs to show that those with moral motivation de dicto deserve not only encouragement but also esteem.

You might at this point feel that there is a still a way I’m missing in which Helmut’s concern for morality de dicto – or, at least, his devotion to it – is something about him that is intrinsically good. To nail down this feeling, it is useful to ask: whom is it that Helmut is compared with when he is awarded an intuitive “silver lining” by those pre-theoretically inclined to award it to him? it seems clear to me that Helmut is often contrasted with a person who commits the same crimes for fun, or for her self-interest alone. Or, without even demanding that other things be equal, we compare Helmut to Monty Python’s Merchant Banker, a link to whom is provided above.

Banker is a person seemingly devoid of any motivation other than self-interest. One suspects that his makeup makes him incapable of other motives somehow, or even of grasping them, as he fails entirely to discern them in other people. Helmut, by comparison, “at least has values”, “at least has integrity”, “at least believes in something”.

Wait. At least? The idea that self-interest is somehow a worse motive than the belief that Jews and blacks should be killed is a strange one upon inspection. Take an average person, think of their wellbeing, and think of it as a cause. It is not automatically a bad cause, though one can care about it too much at the expense of equally or more important things. Lucy’s wellbeing is by default a perfectly fine cause for me to have as her friend, for example, or as a benefactor of a more impartial sort for whom she is a case in point. Why, then, does it sound strange to say that it would also be a fine cause for Lucy herself? It’s not in the content, but in the sense that taking up a cause means readiness for (some) sacrifice, which Lucy wouldn’t show by pursuing her own wellbeing. If there is any way Banker is inferior to Helmut, it has something to do with such readiness. Here it shouldn’t matter much if Helmut acts out of flavorless moral motivation (see my previous post) or out of devotion to a hopelessly contaminated idea of morality, or even flat out so that people of certain ethnicities, religions etc. not have good things – as long as there is something for which he is willing to suffer net harm.

Is this really a moral advantage of Helmut over Banker? No. It is not a way in which Helmut is a morally better person than Banker. One could, however, speculate that Banker, if something in his character excludes sacrifice, is missing something that is essential to being a full blown human being or living a full blown human life. He is not a morally worse person, but perhaps he is, in a more Aristotelian fashion, worse at being a person. Writers on meaningful lives can disagree fiercely on whether a Nazi’s subjectively fulfilling life of ideological crime could give his life meaning, but they need not disagree on Banker: he is missing out on meaning, even if, thanks to an invisible hand, he does not find it necessary to perform any immoral actions. What matters here is not so much his lack of concern for morality de dicto (or de re!) but his indifference to all that isn’t his personal balance of good and harm. If one has been under the impression that most people are a lot like Banker, Helmut might seem to have, if not a moral silver lining around him, a kind of psychological “at least” clause attached to him: he has proven himself capable of sacrifice, even though his choice of cause shows that he is flat out evil.

If we compare Helmut not to a homo economicus but to a human-all-too-human type, our intuitions might vary. Consider Heidegger’s fans, who for years hoped for it to turn out that Heidegger collaborated with the Nazis out of self-interest and seem disappointed as it turns out that the man was an honest, ideological Nazi. It’s not that they hoped he was Banker, but they hoped he was a banal sellout rather than a more sinister sort of person. That goes well with my own view, which I have no space to defend here: flavorless moral motivation is morally neutral, as is self-interest, but most Nazis, white supremacists, Islamist terrorists and so on do not act from either. They follow what they take morality to be, which is at least in part antithetical to true rightness, which is at least partially about treating people as equal in some ways. Their bad motives grant their wrong actions something like the opposite of moral worth.


Talmudic Moral Motivation

There is a story in the Talmud aimed to explain why God gave the Torah to the Jewish people and not some other people. God offers the Torah to a few nations, who ask about its contents and have quibbles with some of them. To make a long story short, when the Jews are offered the Torah, they accept it without asking what’s in it.

“Anything the Lord says”, they exclaim, “we will do and hear!” – first “do” and then “hear”, suggesting that if it were possible to obey His commands first and hear their content second, they would have done so. 

Lately I have been wondering whether it is possible to be motivated by morality independently of some idea, good or bad, as to “what’s in it”. Is it possible to love, fear, care about, be loyal to, be in awe of or be compelled by morality in a way that is utterly independent of any idea as to what it requires? You might admire such motivation or you might disdainfully call it “moral fetishism”, but does it exist?

It seems to me that by the time a child is old enough to use the word “moral”, she already has some ideas about what morality might require – even if they are bad, vague, or disjunctive ideas. A child is not handed a moral theory by which to test any action she considers or observes, nor lists of good and bad actions in which she can look up every action she considers or observes. Through years of being told things like “don’t do this, it hurts the cat!” or “don’t  talk to her like that, she’s your sister!” her brain does its best to connect the dots, generalize, remember paradigm cases, in short – figure out rightness and goodness the way it figures out other things, sometimes reaching interim conclusions like those of Margaret Laurence’s child narrator as she contemplates her grandfather:

He was widely acknowledged as an upright man. It would have been a disgrace if he had been known by the opposite word, which was “downright.” A few of my friends had downright grandfathers. They were a deep mortification to their families, these untidy old men who sat on the Bank of Montreal steps in the summertime and spat amber tobacco jets onto the dusty sidewalk. They were described as “downright worthless” or “downright lazy,” these two terms being synonymous.

Moral concepts like “upright” are not first learned, then applied, but learned, like other concepts, through a careful attention to what and whom adults apply them to, and soon you think of morality as that which goes well with some things (like hard work) and not some others (like hurting the cat), and your relationship to it is “flavored” by these impressions.

Let’s take flavorless moral motivation to be motivation by morality that is independent of any beliefs, true or false, the motivated agent has about what morality requires. Is there flavorless moral motivation? The question becomes clearer once we see its relevance to normative issues surrounding moral ignorance. Imagine a person, Helmut, who is a faithful Nazi, or, if that’s boring, a similar ideologue who thinks that morality requires that he kill people of certain ethnic origins, and who is loyal to his perceived duty. His false moral beliefs are honest – they are not just convenient self-deception or hate-filled motivated irrationality. Is he bad, and blameworthy for his murderous actions? Is he good but tragically misguided, exempt from blame? Something more complicated? The answer depends partially on whether his moral motivation is flavorless. This is, basically, how:

One common way to look at Helmut is to divide his motivation into two parts: there is devotion to morality, a devotion that is flavorless, and then there is a false belief, or a set of false beliefs, about what morality requires. The flavorless moral motivation, we say, is in itself a good thing. The false beliefs might be fully excusing, with Helmut being a good person misguided, or, alternately, we might hold that they are not excusing, perhaps because Helmut’s indifference to the suffering of his victims is so damning that even his flavorless moral motivation doesn’t cancel it out, but one way or another, Helmut’s (flavorless) good will shines like a jewel and you can’t take that part – even if it’s a small part – away from him.

A second common way to look at Helmut is to see his motivation as of one piece. It is not that he is first devoted to morality, then also has false beliefs about it. He is devoted to morality-given-a-certain-set-of-false-beliefs about it. Since morality given his beliefs is a pretty ghastly thing, we must not be impressed by his finding it compelling, any more than I am impressed that you respect my friend if I know that you take her to be a serial killer. If morality ordered people to kill Jews or blacks, it would not deserve respect, and so the respect it gets from Helmut is not in any way jewel-like.

If the second way looks counter-intuitive to you, consider how we treat the news that someone is opposed to morality. Suppose I don’t know anything about Nietzsche’s work but hear that he was a German 19 century philosopher who rejected morality. Before I decide if he is, well, the antichrist, the first question in my mind is what he believed morality requires. Depending on the answers I imagine, I might think of him as a psychopath of sorts – how can anyone else oppose kindness and justice? – or, on the other extreme, as a cool guy who detested some type of suffocating social norms endemic to middle class 19th century Germany and was a bit too dramatic on the subject. In other words, before I make a judgment, I want to know what he objected to. Similarly, if I hear someone respects morality, then before I make a judgement, I want to see what he respects.

Is Helmut any better than a murderer who acts for money or some other motive that isn’t believing that his actions would be right? If he has no flavorless moral motivation then he isn’t, because then there’s no place to locate his excuse, if such there be, or the silver lining around his bad character, if such there be. I am not going to say that there is no such thing as flavorless moral motivation: there probably is, and I’ll have to talk another day as to whether it’s any good. I will say, however, that a person whose devotion to morality is entirely flavorless would be quite rare, as one’s very concept of morality is usually flavored – intertwined with assumptions as to what morality says.

It is not rare to profess that one is willing to follow morality wherever it may take one, to do the right thing whatever it turns out to be. Normally, however, people who say that have a narrower idea than they think they do of where morality might take them and what the right thing might be. Imagine a youngster maintains that Sartre is a true moral expert and asks him for the right thing to do. As per the famous tale, he is ready for the answer “stay home with your mother” and also for the answer “go fight for your country”: he might honestly feel that he does not know which of these incompatible actions is the right one and he needs a moral expert to tell him. He would do, he thinks, whatever the expert says. But imagine that Sartre answers his question with “actually, you should support the Nazis” or “you need to do whatever maximizes the beauty of ducks and worry about nothing else”. It seems likely that he would then become disappointed and decide that Sartre is not a moral expert after all, or that he lost his powers.

Alternately, imagine a very different person declaring that he would do whatever Donald Trump says is right. How likely is this person to follow through if, shortly afterwards, Trump begins to advocate feminism or reparations? Similar things go for a person who swears that God is good and she would do whatever God says. This person is unlikely to change her mind about, say, gay people simply because her preacher suddenly started talking diversity (something happened to him!) or even simply due to hearing a voice from the sky thundering “I am your Lord and I approve of gay people” (the devil is tempting her, masquerading as God, or maybe she needs a medication). Even if, instead of deferring to some fellow human or to God, you treat your own reasoning as an authority as to the right thing to do, you would be bound, by reasons of reflective equilibrium, to tear up your notes and start from scratch if you see yourself nearing the conclusion that we must maximize the beauty of ducks.

Who is the person of truly flavorless devotion to morality? Perhaps Abraham, imagined as suddenly ready to kill his beloved son at the drop of a command from a God he considers good, is an example. Religious people I know, had I dared to ask them what they would have done if God asked them to kill their child, would have answered me promptly: God would never ask me to do any such thing. Most people have a question or two about morality that they would answer in a similar way, “morality would never ask me to do any such thing”, making suspicious any claim they might present to having accepted their Torah without at least a sneak peek at its contents.

Sympathy and Accidentality

Mill famously pointed out that a great way to make a moral theory look bad is to assume “universal idiocy” along with it. It’s an old trick, and yet sometimes contemporary Kantians (and others) seem to pull off something pretty similar when they make compassion look bad.

Consider a celebrated example from Barbara Herman. If I see a man leaving the art museum in the middle of the night struggling with a heavy package, says Herman, sympathy, if unchecked by duty, which she takes to involve concern for morality de dicto, would move me to help him carry his package. Unaware of Mill’s saying, an undergrad of mine responded to the example by saying that there would have been nothing to check in his case: “I’m not an idiot. I wouldn’t have sympathized with an art thief!”. Thus he denied what some Kantians imply – that when we help for reasons other than concern for moral duty or self-interest our motivation is something they call “sympathy”, which seems to be a childish impulse, perhaps even a compulsion, to remove suffering – an impulse almost entirely indifferent to the context in which the apparent suffering occurs. Christine Korsgaard, who does not accept this view, refers to it as Kant’s belief that emotions are stupid. I call it the Sympathy Myth.

Zoe Johnson King, Keshav Singh and Paulina Sliwa seem to hold a related view: that when I help someone, or do something else morally right, while thinking it wrong, I am at most moved by one of the moral considerations relevant to the case (such as “someone is suffering”) and not by any of the others. If that were true, it would make it quite the accident that I do the right thing in any case to which more than one moral consideration applies. Perhaps Huck Finn seem to have an appropriate reaction to Jim’s predicament – a person being deprived of freedom is prima facie a bad thing – but it is still an accident that he does the right thing because, for all we know, he would have helped Jim even if he were not an escaped slave but an escaped serial killer (worse than an art thief!), or a man suffering from severe psychosis whose pursuers only wanted to provide him with decent treatment, or in any number of possible situations in which helping him escape would not have been the right thing to do.

Continue reading “Sympathy and Accidentality”

Accidentally On Purpose

The message sounded loud and clear through the train’s PA system. The voice sounded like that of a fairly young man. The text went like this:

We have reached
Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital!
Capital of the free world!
Mind the gap.

I thought it was great. Which gap should we pay attention to? Rich and poor? Free and unfree? Propaganda and reality? And what happens if we fail to heed the ominous warning? The ambiguity was delicious.

Except to this day I have no idea whether I witnessed poetry in motion or only ran into found poetry, so called. The train conductor (or whatever exactly his job was) could have pulled off a subtle piece of performance art or he could have simply prefaced a rushed repetition of the routine warning about the gap between the train and the platform with some random clichés, or with clichés expressing real awe at Washington. In order to create a poem (or a piece of performance art) you need to think of yourself as creating one. You need to “know what you’re doing”. While in the field of poetry there might be varieties and degrees of such “knowledge” – poems can come to people in dreams, for example – it seems clear that if the guy had no idea, conscious or otherwise, that his text was to have an ironic touch he does not get any credit for producing that ironic touch. Why? Because he produced it accidentally.

Continue reading “Accidentally On Purpose”

Epistemic Song

Jamie Dreier, Nomy Arpaly, Dave Estlund

(To the tune of “Mambo No. 5,” New lyrics by Arpaly, Dreier, Estlund)

Point 1, point 2, point 3, point 4
Everybody grab a credence, then grab some more
Point 5, point 6, point 7, wait!
Man you’re crazy if you think that you can hit .8!2.
It’s the latest dance, the best in town:
Grab a word like “epistemic”, then add a noun
Like “angst” or “insouciance” or “indulgence” or “greed”
If you want a paper topic that’s all you need!

CHORUS (all 3 sing)
Epistemic trespass on my lawn,
some epistemic charity, bring it on!
Injustice epistemic 123,
don’t give me your polemic: not for me!

Epistemic duties, off my back
Epistemic peers, gone off the track
Epistemic deference? outta town!
Epistemic democrats, vote em down!

Forget old virtue, vice and blame
Every word remotely ethics-like is now fair game
If “duty” doesn’t really seem to hit the spot
Epistemic consequentialism’s also hot”

Epistemic disrespect or were you just teasin’?
Epistemic rationality and epistemic reason
If you think this construction is epistemic fine
Then you must be out of your epistemic mind!

Kantianism for Wimps

In a paper that’s going to be in the supplemental volume of the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society – or maybe it’s already there? – I argue that the moral imperative to help those who are doing badly cannot be properly accounted for through the position of a Kantian duty to adopt and promote the ends of other agents. I pick on contemporary Kantians, not on Kant, and I don’t defend utilitarianism or Aristotelianism, neither of which is my view. Taking it to be true that agents have a lot of ends that are different from their wellbeing – even ignoring specifically moral ends – I argue that a person’s end of avoiding ill-being is significant to moral people in a way that her other ends are not and that the difference cannot be traced simply to the fact that for most people, avoiding misery is a particularly important end. That is, we are often morally obligated to –  or at least have a significant pro tanto reason to – protect a person’s wellbeing where we would have no such obligation or pro tanto reason to protect another end she has, even if the agent values and prioritizes that end as highly as anyone does their wellbeing and more than she cares about her own. The 1000(ish) word version of the argument is here on this blog, under the heading What Kantianism Gets Wrong.

Now, Herman offers an ingenious Kantian explanation of why we seem to have “a duty of easy rescue” – a duty to help the person bleeding by the side of the road if it is not difficult to do so. My undergrads point out that it would be very weird to say here that our duty to help others is “imperfect”, as one cannot avoid the duty of easy rescue simply by having already performed a hundred other easy rescues this year. To such an undergrad Herman says: fair enough, the imperfect duty to provide mutual aid does not provide a good explanation for the duty of easy rescue. The duty of easy rescue is a separate one, it cannot be avoided thru “I already gave at the office”, and it kicks in in places where without your help, the person in question is in danger of losing her rational agency. In my paper I argue that this move would not be enough by way of an answer to me, because there exist cases in which we are obligated to help a person if we can do so easily in which the person does not face a danger of losing her rational agency. She is not going to die, she is not going to suffer from a severe neurological or psychiatric disorder, she’s just going to suffer serious ill-being if you don’t, say, call 911. Furthermore, there are cases that fall short of emergencies in which we do still have significant reasons to help alleviate misery – and no comparable reason to protect or promote any number of ends other than wellbeing that the agent might have. We still need an explanation for the importance of wellbeing beyond the importance of ends.

This is where many a Kantian has told me the following: the wellbeing of one’s fellow humans is morally valuable because wellbeing is required for rational agency.

Such a view, I fear, might  insult some badly-off people.

If one is to think that rational agency is required for full-fledged moral status (by which I mean having all the rights that adults have, including rights not to be “paternalized”), one cannot have too demanding an idea of rational agency in mind. There is a legitimate sense of “rational” in which very, very few people are rational, but it cannot be that only these few have full-fledged moral status. Pretty much everyone whom it is immoral to hospitalize forcibly has full-fledge moral status and so pretty much everyone whom it is immoral to hospitalize forcibly should count, for Kantian purposes, as a rational agent.

There are, to be sure, cases where either a person suffers such extreme ill-being that she loses her rational agency or – more often, I suspect – the same extreme condition causes both ill-being and loss of rational agency. Torture is exhibit A. There is also malnutrition bad enough to harm the brain and severe mental conditions such as psychosis or severe depression.

However, protecting a person’s wellbeing is a morally important consideration in cases that are not like that at all. My example of Roger in the prior post is not an unusual one. If it’s not too hard, I have a duty to help a person who has a broken leg or who, without my intervention, might needlessly break a leg. Breaking a leg does not make anyone lose their rational agency.

Humans are capable of staying no-less-rational-than-average in pretty extreme conditions. It seems pretty clear from Primo Levi’s memories of Auschwitz that he was, while there, a rational agent. Admittedly, Levi strikes the reader as heroic, and admittedly, he became depressed and suicidal in his old age, in what is easy to imagine as trauma catching up with him, but you get my point. There are many people on this earth who are quite miserable and as capable of responding to practical reasons as any citizen in the kingdom of ends. If you can respond properly to practical reasons, aka set ends (which isn’t the same as achieving your ends, which requires the world collaborating with you) then your rational agency isn’t lost.

Perhaps a Kantian might say that for ill-being to be morally important it needn’t be the case that the sufferer lose their rational agency: it is enough that the sufferer be seriously impaired in their ability to exercise rational agency – that is, their ability to promote many of their ends. This kind of move certainly adds more conditions to our list or conditions with which you have a strong reason to help a person. A person struck by a severe physical illness that doesn’t hurt the brain retains her rational agency but loses efficacy in achieving a large number of ends that she might have. That’s one reason there’s a drop in her wellbeing in the first place. However, it is not that hard to imagine cases in which a person’s predicament only seriously impairs him in achieving one of his ends: his wellbeing. That’s true in the case of Roger, and it can be true even in cases of people whose ill-being is lifelong. Some humans who are deeply miserable – due to having gone through a tragedy, for example, or, in a different way, due to chronic pain – achieve a lot of rationally set ends, and we do not wish to be insulting and doubt their basic rationality, their achievements, or their misery.

In the prior post I say that it would be more urgent to prevent a suffering-inducing insect bite than to prevent a sleep inducing insect bite, though it’s sleep that clearly cancels out agency, not suffering. Since writing the prior post, it has been pointed out to me that sometimes it would be more important to prevent involuntary sleep than it would be to prevent pain. However, quite often, preventing involuntary sleep, which sure deprives you of agency, is less morally important than preventing a pain that isn’t quite strong enough to deprive you of your agency (or even of your efficacy – perhaps it doesn’t last that long, or it’s in a period where you don’t do much anyway, or you are one of the relatively stoical people I just mentioned). Furthermore, loss of agency or efficacy through suffering is worse than equal loss of agency or efficacy that isn’t accompanied by suffering, or so we think in medical contexts.

This reminds me a bit of Nagel saying that the main bad thing about non-conventional weapons that cause severe pain is that they hurt the victim’s dignity. One can harm a person’s dignity (and efficacy, and rationality) quite badly by deceptively getting them too drunk to walk, or by hypnotizing them into clucking like a chicken. I’m not saying that won’t be evil, especially if I were to make people do something of which they seriously disapprove (as per David Sussman), but using very painful means instead of the booze or the hypnosis has a whole additional, different dimension of terribleness. To be honest, back in 1990, when I was a teenager and Sadam Hussein threatened to use chemical weapons on the part of Israel I was in – it didn’t sound like an idle threat at the time – I didn’t think very much about the potential effect on my dignity, or on my rational agency. I was terrified of the potential suffering and that was basically it. But then again, maybe I’m just a wimp.

Anyway, my purpose here is not to deny that rational agency is morally important. I think it matters quite a bit in terms of justice and rights. I have argued that as far as benevolence goes, wellbeing is important in a way that’s independent of rational agency, and here I’m defending the view that in order to see someone as meriting compassion, meriting benevolence, or even generating a duty of easy rescue, we do not need to ask to what extent her ill-being will interrupt her rational agency or her efficacy in achieving rationally set ends. Now there’s one thought too many.


Excuse My Technical Term

I used to think that the main problem with moral psychologists’ use of ‘autonomy’ is that ‘autonomy’ is too ambiguous a word. There is the autonomy that all rational beings supposedly have, vs. the autonomy of which I would have more of if I could drive a car, to mark only one ambiguity. In my first book, I listed 8 different ways in which the term is used and I would not be surprised if someone else finds 10 more. It is very easy to conflate at least 2 “autonomies”, but now I think the ambiguous nature of the word ‘autonomy’ is not the only problem with using it.  It’s  equally bad that ‘autonomy’ as used by some of us moral psychologists is a term of art that is used as if it were a “natural language” term. Agent autonomy is, correspondingly, a theoretical construct about which we are expected to have pre-theoretical intuitions. The technical nature of the term ‘autonomy’ (and often of related and even fancy-er terms like ‘agential authority’) can easily become invisible to those who use it regularly, much the way I imagine some songwriters no longer notice that “self” does not, in fact, rhyme with “else”.

I will grant that ‘autonomy’ has various uses in natural language: there are autonomous vehicles, after all, and a Basque Autonomous Community. One can also grant that ‘autonomy’ meaning something like “the right to make decisions for oneself, free of coercion, especially paternalistic coercion” is almost natural English – American medical and nursing students take to it very quickly. However, ‘personal autonomy’ as used by moral psychologists is no more ordinary English than,say,  ‘internal reason’. Saying that ‘autonomy’ means “self rule” isn’t helpful. ‘Self rule’ is only used in ordinary language with regard to nations, not individuals. ‘Agential authority’ or ‘agential’ for that matter is clearly philosophers’ talk – my spellchecker won’t even let me write “agential”. Even ‘agent’ is a term of art, unless we are talking about the sort of agent who spies or the sort who might help you break into the entertainment industry. Non-philosophers who are plenty educated enough to bandy about such words as ‘irrational’ or  ‘bad faith’ never, and I mean never, say “I wonder if, when you scream at me, it’s an autonomous action on your part” or  “he is so in love that his self-rule is compromised”, or “I figure her belief in astrology expresses no agential authority”. ‘Self-control’ is the closest natural English term we have.

Why does it matter? Terms of art are legit, of course, and philosophy is not all about natural language nor all about intuitions. However, it is an error to use terms of art, steeped as they are in theory, to elicit intuitions. We do not have pre-theoretical intuitions about which individuals and actions are autonomous.

The word “autonomy” does have natural connotations. It is a suggestive term. If asked who is more autonomous, a master or a slave, any guessing undergrad will notice that the slave sounds less autonomous. But if you raise such a question as “who is more autonomous, a slave with perfect self-control or a master who suffers from chronic, ubiquitous, terrible weakness of will?” – do not expect natural language or pre-theoretical intuition to give you the answer. Are rational beliefs more autonomous? Do they form in a more autonomous way? If I were the guessing undergrad I would say “yes”, because autonomy sounds like a good thing and rationality is presumably a good thing. Thus it sounds more plausible that they go together than that they conflict. Why be pessimistic? Beyond the positive connotation shared by ‘rationality’ and ‘autonomy’, I think here is only one honest pre-theoretical answer to the question whether rational beliefs form in a more autonomous way, and the answer is “I don’t know”. This can be followed by: what exactly do you mean by ‘autonomous’, and how is it different from what you call ‘rational’?

A term of art with rich connotations is a treacherous thing. Consider by contrast the term “internal reason” – a boring, bloodless, un-suggestive, connotation-free technical term. The words “internal” and “external” are massively overused by analytical philosophers. I often wish philosophers called their views more original and imaginative names than “internalism” or “externalism”. For one, there are too many internalisms and externalisms and it’s mighty confusing. I could go on further, but I admit it’s basically a stylistic and pedagogical issue. A person with a better verbal memory than mine and a much greater patience with monotony might find nothing amiss with the way we call things “internalism” and “externalism”.

‘Autonomy’ has a deeper problem, as can be shown by the fact that so many people argue about what makes an action autonomous (or not). People don’t disagree that way about which reasons are internal. If you happen to think that Bernard Williams, when he lists the sort of things that can give rise to internal reasons, includes things that don’t belong together – say, desires and values – you do not as a rule argue that Williams made an error and called some reasons “internal” that in fact aren’t (as we can all intuit!). You say that the distinction needs to be redrawn or that a new distinction needs to be added. On the other hand, two philosophers could easily come to argue as to how autonomous an agent Homer Simpson is, and then it is often understandably hard for them to keep their hands off their intuition pumps.

I have been contemplating the term ‘agential authority’ because I have been asked if I don’t think (“don’t you think?”) that irrational beliefs express less agential authority than rational beliefs.  The question was asked as if intuition would be enough, or almost enough, to show me that as well. ‘Agential authority’ is another term of art which is sometimes treated as natural language. It does not have as many meanings and connotations, but it is metaphorically evocative in a potentially misleading way.

Imagine that you are trying hard to grade papers despite feeling urges to do just about anything else – play with the cat, watch Netflix, go for a walk (they tell me some people even clean). In such moments, it is natural for you to feel as if your psyche resembles a country, your deliberating self is like a legitimate government, and whatever it is inside you that doesn’t follow your best judgment (the urges? the fraction of the your inner “nation” that support these urges? not clear, really, but whatever it is) is like an organization that defies the authority of the government.  Since grading the papers is usually the rational thing to do, such experiences can lend  plausibility to the idea that rationality in general is like good government and irrationality in general like crime or insurrection. Now, some of you might recall that elsewhere I take the analogy between your deliberating self and the government to be a bad one even in the case of akratic action. It strikes m as similar to the analogy we make between people and kettles when we feel that by expressing anger we “blow off steam” and thus save ourselves from bigger anger: very intuitive but, despite years of great minds accepting it, ultimately mistaken (PSA: science shows that when you “let out” the anger you feel you increase it. Nothing “blows off”. Kettles have nothing to do with it). This isn’t the place to get into my arguments against people being like countries, but they are not based on denying the intuitive appeal of the self-government trope when you contemplate akrasia.

However, I think that analogizing irrationality in general, and epistemic irrationality in particular, to failure of government invites doubts of the sort that Hume expressed when he considered the theologians’ analogy between the world and a complex artifact that surely cannot be there by accident. Hume asked, essentially, what non-religious reasons we have to see the world as analogous to a lovely object made by an artisan and not, say, to a lovely plant growing from the ground.  In a similar vein, take ordinary irrational belief formation. I do not see a particular (pre-theoretical) reason to liken the person who irrationally comes to believe that Elvis is alive to a country experiencing insurrection or infiltration – (i.e. a failure of authority) –  and not to a plant suffering from rot, or a heat-guided missile guided the wrong way, or Starbucks putting Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in its cheery Christmas music mix, or any number of other things going wrong. So no, I don’t see any (pre theoretical) reason to take irrational beliefs to express less ‘agential authority’ than others. Why not think that they express more, at least sometimes? Who is more authorial of, or has more authority over, her beliefs, the one who boldly tortures the data until they confess, producing an original conspiracy theory, or the wimp who surrenders to the power of the data? I can see why we might call the latter more rational, but I see no strong pre-theoretical, intuitive pull to calling her more “agential”. Or to calling her less “agential”. Or even to thinking, as my undergrads would put it, that belief showing “agential authority” is a thing.

P.S Is epistemic blame a thing? Here are some thoughts. Is ’identification’ any better than ‘autonomy’ or ‘agential authority’? Here is a link – it’s called Just the Booze Talking. Tim Schroeder and I also have a paper about identification but it isn’t funny, really.


The Cool Dude or: I am Not a Virtue Ethicist

Aristotle doesn’t talk about the Moral Person. He talks about the Cool Dude!

Thus said one of my undergrads after reading the Nicomachean Ethics. What did he mean? Partially, he meant something similar to what Anscombe said when she said the following:

If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite.

The label “cool dude” seems, according to my undergrad, to fit Aristotle’s excellent person more than the label “moral person” does. After all, he has high self-esteem, an expensive house in impeccable taste, a penchant for giving great parties, not to mention a wonderful sense of when to tell jokes, when not to brag, how to accept honors without being “ranking-obsessed” (as undergrads called the honor-lover that year). The label “moral person” does not seem to have much to do with these things. When I told a friend about my undergrad’s comments, the friend suggested that someone translate the Nicomachean Ethics for undergrads. Whenever it says “virtuous person” we should say “cool guy”. Whenever it says “fine” or “noble” we should say “awesome”. That way we can quote Aristotle as saying:

The cool guy does awesome things because they are awesome.

In one of my talks, someone shouted “you mean awesome de re”, but that’s already interpretation.

I don’t just admire Aristotle. I often enjoy Aristotle. His use of cases and the way he does, long before “analytical” philosophy was officially a thing, dig so masterfully into to the truth beyond common beliefs and the paradoxes they create. But I am not a virtue ethicist. Everywhere I travel people tell me, critically or approvingly, that I am a virtue ethicist. Come on! A person is allowed to have the word “virtue” in the title of her book without being a virtue ethicist! Kant wrote The Doctrine of Virtue. He talked about virtue. A lot. Hume, of course, talked about virtues. We might owe it to 20th century virtue ethicists that talk of virtue has regained an important place in ethics, but we can’t give virtue ethicists a monopoly over the word “virtue”. To be fair, “virtue ethics” is not used as a super-precise term, but I don’t think it can be stretched to fit me. Here’s (the short version of ) why not:

1. When I say “a virtuous person” I don’t mean “the cool dude”, the fine human specimen, the person who is excellent at being a person, or the person with arete. I also don’t mean the phronimos. The natural language term that I have before me is “good person” (or “very good person”) and its counterparts in Hebrew and in Basque. Also German, I suppose, though I forgot my German. The point is that ancient Greek has nothing obvious to do with it). I also like the ever-so-dull and dreary term “moral person” and use it interchangeably with “virtuous person” (though I have been known to refer to the opposite number of the virtuous person with the less dreary term “asshole”, the word “vice” having been regrettably drained of its moral force by being used to refer to eating ice cream.) At least according to the dictionary, this is a legit use of the term “virtuous person”, but some people who identify as virtue ethicists don’t like it. Others do own up to talking about the moral person, someone having a long time ago discreetly removed wit and magnificence from their list of virtues and put charity and honesty in, but still think of her, the virtuous agent, also as a fine human specimen and a phronimos. I don’t. Some of my reasons not to have been better articulated by others, some coming up.

2. I think you can be a perfectly good person and still not always do the right thing in the right circumstances. That’s because doing the right thing sometimes requires that you be smart in addition to being good, and sometimes it also requires that your judgment not be clouded by, say, depression,or anxiety, or that you not be saddled with autistic difficulties in understanding other people’s emotional cues, or that you have life experience. Perhaps you cannot be unintelligent as the cool dude (what do I know about coolness? Ask my undergrad!) and perhaps being below a certain level of intelligence makes it harder to have a good life, but even if these things are true, I don’t think anyone should ever be regarded as less morally good because she is not very smart – it’s like saying one is less moral because one is blind or deaf.  Granted, to be morally good, a person needs to be conceptually sophisticated enough to have concepts like “harm” and ‘truth”,  which rules out my cats as potential moral agents. You might protest that the phronimos possesses wisdom, not smartness, but wisdom comes on top of smartness;  it seems to require quite a bit of smartness to get off the ground. Now, even in a smart person, conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, or lack of experience seem to interfere with the possibility of acting with practical wisdom. I need not deny that some of these conditions can interfere with your chances of a good life, but morality again is something else. I know so many people who think they are somehow bad people because of their depression or autism or anxiety or cluelessness! Typically, we tell them that they are mistaken. These conditions are morally neutral and while there are some situations where a person of strong virtuous motivation can overcome their influence, she often cannot. I agree with Kantian intuition that an honest-to-God good will shines through regardless of just about everything, most especially including cognitive limitations and suchlike obstacles. There’s just this small disagreement about what “will” is…. (All of this has been argued for in my last book and in a paper called “Duty, Desire and the Good Person”).

3. And then there’s Eudaemonia. Or happiness. Or wellbeing. In a forthcoming paper I argue that while virtue ethicists such as Hursthouse have said convincing things to the effect that if you want to flourish, you shouldn’t let yourself become a narcissist, a Nazi, a cynic or a purely selfish sort, this does not – as Copp and Sobel already pointed out –  amount to an argument in favor of being downright good as an obvious path to flourishing. Granted, some parts of Wolf’s “Moral Saints” seem to depict Ned Flanders rather than an actual moral paragon (Father Knows Best? Really?) and I don’t agree that even very moral people are automatically uncool men and women. Still, I argue that a person who is somewhere between “decent” and “jerk” – a morally mediocre agent – often has no reason to pursue further moral virtue, and has some reasons not to pursue it, in so far as what she wants is to flourish (she might, of course, have other reasons to be a better person). Imagine a morally mediocre person who has loving relationships with other individuals, good health, decent material conditions, and cool (though not necessarily morally significant) things he can do, with a bit of work, using his talents and abilities. Is he likely to become happier if he starts noticing injustice in the news and feeling the resulting heartache, or if he starts working in a soup kitchen during time that he would have spent playing Jazz with his friends? I argue that it’s often not the case. Some virtue ethicists  would argue that you cannot have good, truly loving relationships with other individuals unless you are all-around kind and honest. That’s, on my view, like saying that you can’t be genuinely, lovingly devoted to your dog, cat, or other cherished nonhuman animal unless you are also a vegetarian: it sounds like it should be true, yet it is clearly false.

4. Umm, yes, I forgot to mention that I don’t think that the reason helping the person bleeding by the side of the road is the right action is that it is what a good or benevolent person would characteristically do. I am still trying to figure out what the reason is, but right now I imagine something along the lines of  “it is an action that protects the bleeding person from severe illbeing without violating any rights (…)”. I don’t think any facts about the habits or concerns of moral agents are built into the right-making features of this action: the relevant facts are about what it does or doesn’t do to moral patients.

There’s more, but ok, that’s enough. So why do I like to talk about virtues anyway? Because I think our intuitions about the rightness of moral actions and the worth of moral motives are deeply and interestingly intertwined, and these in turn are intertwined with our intuitions of the goodness and badness of persons, and each of the three topics is fascinating in its own right. Even if one does not endorse defining the right action through reference to the virtuous agent, as I do not, one can still see that some of the best clues to what morality is about come from looking at what we expect a moral person to be concerned with (or an immoral person not to be concerned with).

A very tall man was once at a talk I gave. When it was time for questions, he got up, towering over me in the small room, and said “I’m sorry, the reason I’m standing up is not to be intimidating but to make eye contact”. He then asked: do we really care about the inner lives of agents? When I talk to my kids, I teach them right and wrong actions. Nothing about motives”. I pointed out that if we didn’t care about the inner lives of agents, it would have been enough for him to do the right thing – stand up – and he needn’t have bothered to make sure that I know he was doing it in order to make eye contact – a fact about his inner life.  Where there is natural talk of right and wrong actions, there is also talk of good people and assholes. You don’t have to be a virtue ethicist to be interested in these things. Or, I suspect, an ethicist at all. If you like gossip, you’re probably in.