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Unprincipled VirtueReview - Unprincipled Virtue
An Inquiry Into Moral Agency
by Nomy Arpaly
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Matthew Pianalto
Aug 29th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 35)

What makes an action morally praiseworthy? The Aristotelian recipe tells us that a virtuous action is performed intentionally and willingly, for its own sake, and from a firmly virtuous character. The Kantian account claims that morally praiseworthy actions are those guided by universalizable maxims of action (i.e. principles which pass the Categorical Imperative's test). In both cases, the moral agent appears to be a deliberative and fully rational being, who stands in an unproblematically transparent relationship to her actions and her reasons for action. Throughout Unprincipled Virtue, Nomy Arpaly reminds us that many, if not all, of our actions lack this kind of hyper-rationality, and that moral praiseworthiness needn't hinge on these oversimplified notions of moral agency. Arpaly accomplishes much of her work through diverse examples which aim to show that many of the current and classic accounts of moral praiseworthiness are lacking, because they fail to appreciate the complexities of our moral psychology. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce these issues with discussions of the morality and rationality of complicated characters and cases.

Huckleberry Finn is one of Arpaly's favorite and most productive examples. Huck sees his own failure to turn in Jim as precisely that: a moral failure. Jim is a slave, and slaves are property. A good boy would report a runaway slave, not befriend him. Arpaly points out that, at the end of the day, most of us will judge Huck as having done a good and praiseworthy thing, even though Huck's professed beliefs contradict and condemn his actions toward Jim. Arpaly calls Huck's case one of "inverse akrasia": although he makes bad moral judgments, Huck does the right thing. (The typical akratic is the weak-willed person who judges correctly but fails to act on that judgment.) So, on this interpretation of the story, Huck's action seems to be morally praiseworthy, and he seems to be morally praiseworthy. Arpaly takes these intuitive judgments to show, for example, that it may be not only moral but also rational to act against one's "best" judgment (Chapter 2). (This seems to hold true when one's own best judgments are based on some kind of ignorance, bias, or other factual or moral errors.) The moral of Huckleberry Finn's story is that if he is a praiseworthy character, his praiseworthiness does not seem to be captured by the Aristotelian and Kantian formulations mentioned above. The conflict between Huck's stated racist beliefs and his benevolent treatment of Jim make it unlikely that his action is guided by any explicit principle.

On Arpaly's account of moral worth (Chapter 3), Huck is praiseworthy because his action demonstrates responsiveness to moral reasons. In this case the moral consideration is that Jim is a person rather than a mere piece of property, and deserves to be treated as a person. Even though Huck probably couldn't articulate this moral reason (and might even, given his other beliefs, deny it), his actions seem to be guided by it and thus by a concern for Jim's personhood which overrides his stated racist convictions.

Arpaly emphasizes the role depth of concern for moral considerations plays in the attribution of moral praise. Recall Kant's philanthropist, the one who doesn't really care about other people, but who sees that he is rationally and morally required to do charity. Many have been chilled by the idea that such a character is more praiseworthy than someone else who performs charitable acts and happen to derive great pleasure from helping others or act out of a sentimental rather than moral concern. Arpaly's view suggests that, at least on some interpretations of the philanthropist's psychology, that his lack of deep concern for other people (or, his merely ho-hum concern with doing the morally right act) make him less praiseworthy (and perhaps deserving of some blame). Responsiveness to moral reasons and our depth of concern for moral reasons are tied together in the sense that a person who has one of these two things will generally develop a capacity for the other; the cool philanthropist who remains cool and detached and seemingly unconcerned with other people will not impress us with his inability to develop a deeper concern for others. The person who is deeply concerned with morality will tend to be someone who is more responsive to moral reasons -- will see moral reasons when others might not notice them. (She compares the morally concerned person to someone who cares about keeping the house clean -- he will be more likely to notice dust on the windowsill than someone who isn't deeply concerned with domestic cleanliness.)

It might be objected to such a view that it makes no sense to blame the philanthropist for his cool demeanor if there is some sense in which this character trait is beyond his control -- perhaps he was raised by parents who nurtured this attitude in him. Similarly, it seems odd to praise Huck Finn for his benevolent actions when he himself sees his behavior as immoral. We can imagine Huck saying that he doesn't even want (or intend) to be nice to Jim, but he just can't help himself, can't control himself. Arpaly characterizes these objections as the worry that her account of moral worth fails to appreciate the importance of autonomy (Chapters 4 and 5). How can non-autonomous actions -- those that aren't under the control of the agent -- give rise to moral praise or blame?

On the one hand, we can spin examples which support the claim that people can't be held morally responsible for non-autonomous actions: hypnotized or sleepwalking people who kill others, or people with mental disorders. How can people whose actions are determined by outside forces, or compelled by their disorders, be praised or blamed? Such considerations seem to suggest that it is only autonomous actions that can be praiseworthy or blameworthy. In Chapter 4, Arpaly distinguishes eight different senses in which autonomy is used, and argues that the sense in which it is used in the above objection -- she calls it agent-autonomy -- is not an essential element in determining moral worth. Agent-autonomy is autonomy in the sense of self-control over one's own actions, and is something that the hypnotized person clearly lacks. Arpaly argues that if self-control is necessary for an act to have moral value (or disvalue), then far too few of our actions would have any moral worth. We can, for example, feel alienated from our own actions, and yet still be responsible for them: "no murderer has ever pleaded insanity simply on the ground that he experienced the deed as if his arm did it rather than he himself" (131). Arpaly also cites the case of Patty Hearst, who was ultimately held blameworthy for her terrorist activities, even though her "conversion" may have consisted in brainwashing. There are even more mundane cases of conversion in which our arriving at some choice is not a fully self-controlled venture -- consider many beliefs learned in childhood, or the manner in which many decide to vote for one candidate or another. These processes need not be rational or exhibit self-control in order for us to be held responsible for what we believe and how these beliefs influence our actions.

Arpaly speculates that the objections to her view are motivated by a desire to minimize the role constitutive moral luck plays in our lives. Constitutive moral luck is the idea that much of who we are is determined by past factors beyond our control: our environment, our parents, heredity, etc. Who we are, and how we will succeed or fail morally, is largely a matter of luck. Many have lamented that if such claims are true, then the moral project of constructing systems of praise and blame seems ineffectual and absurd. It makes no sense to praise or blame people for actions (or character traits) over which they have no control.

Arpaly responds to this problem in two ways. First, she simply rejects the conclusion that it makes no sense to praise or blame people for actions that can be explained away by constitutive moral luck. For example, even if there is a story about why Sam is a bad businessman (because of the way his family treated him), Sam's boss may nevertheless reply, "Too bad. Sam's still a lousy businessman" (see 172). Arpaly (like Thomas Nagel in his treatment of moral luck) holds that we can take the same approach in moral cases: even if Ted the Serial Killer's mother abused him, that's too bad, because Ted the Abused Boy became Ted the Serial Killer, and it is the latter person we hold responsible and blame for his terrible behavior. (Of course, in some cases we might feel compelled to spread the blame around.)

The second move Arpaly makes here is to distinguish blame and punishment. To morally blame a person, she says, is not the same thing as punishing a person for having done something wrong. Moral blame doesn't imply any particular punishment, and there may be cases, she suggests, where we hold a person morally blameworthy without punishment (or without the usual punishment). Perhaps all that Arpaly means is that if someone is morally blameworthy, then we are justified in some further handling of the wrongdoer. Although how we deal with various wrongdoers may vary case by case -- as we assess their particular motives and characters -- we will still morally blame them, if they have all done the same bad deed, equally.

Arpaly's view provides interesting solutions to the problems in moral agency that arise when one reflects on the consequences of determinism (or moral luck) and on the flatness of traditional approaches to morality, in which only the most autonomous of agents seem to deserve any credit. Her notion of responsiveness to moral reasons seems to presuppose some kind of moral realism -- that moral reasons are in some sense out in the world to be detected -- and some philosophers will probably want more than Arpaly's analogies about dust-conscious housekeepers to support the idea of seeing moral reasons. However, such analogies are a fair starting point, and for Arpaly's purposes in this book, are sufficient. A lingering question, however, is that of what the moral enterprise is for: if non-autonomous people can be blamed, if inversely akratic people like Huck Finn can be praised, and if by hypothesis our praise and blame wouldn't change anything in a deterministic world, then why praise and blame? The answer, it seems, is that the praise and blame is just as much for us -- it is the practice of morally organizing the world -- as it is for those we praise and blame, in the hope that everything is not completely determined and that our evaluations will make a difference, for ourselves and others.

Unprincipled Virtue will be of great interest to those working in moral philosophy or moral psychology.

 

2005 Matthew Pianalto

Matthew Pianalto is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Arkansas, where he has also taught logic and introduction to philosophy. He holds a B.A. in English, and an M.A. in Philosophy. His master's thesis, "Suicide & The Self," attempts to reinvest in the philosophical nature of the problem of suicide. More info at his website: http://comp.uark.edu/~mpianal. (See "Suicide & Philosophy" link for resources on suicide.)


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