Friday, April 1, 2011

Roger Crisp at Washington and Lee

Yesterday Roger Crisp spoke at W&L University here in Lexington and they kindly invited me to come along to dinner with them as well as attend his talk afterwards. The talk was called "A Third Method of Ethics?" and argued that virtue theory, at least as presented by Rosalind Hursthouse, does not represent a third way to determine the right action in addition to, or competition with, consequentialism and deontology, as has been claimed (for instance by Hursthouse herself).

According to the kind of account given by Hursthouse (according to Crisp), consequentialism says that an action is right if and only if it promotes the best consequences, deontology says an action is right if and only if it accords with a correct moral principle, and virtue ethics says an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances. Crisp pointed out, rightly to my mind, that it would be better if ethical theories explained why actions were right instead of just telling us how to identify them. And to say that an action is right because it is the kind of thing that a virtuous person would do sounds wrong. Surely a virtuous agent, asked to explain why she had done some good deed, would not just say that that's the kind of thing people like her do. The reasons she gives for her action are likely to be either consequentialist or deontological ones. If they are neither then we do indeed have a third kind of ethics, but it will be defined negatively, as non-deontological non-consequentialism, not positively in the way Hursthouse's work might suggest.

Judging by the questions afterwards, a common response was that this might be a good criticism of Hursthouse, but would not apply to virtue ethicists who care about more than just right action. If you care about right feeling, say, or being a good person, then virtue ethics might still have a distinctive contribution to make.

Crisp seemed to suggest that character is not important as long as one does the right thing for the right reason. So if a habitually bad person on one occasion does a good deed, and with the same motivation that a virtuous person would have, then this is a good deed and its being an exception to this person's usual behavior (before and after this one time) is irrelevant to how we should judge the act. I'm not sure about this. In terms of judging the act itself I'm not sure that even the reason why it is done matters (unless this somehow changes what the act is, as in Mill's example of saving someone from drowning in order to torture him before he dies--in this case the act of saving is not good, because it is not really an act of saving but part of an act of torture). In terms of judging the agent, it surely does matter if there is something in her that can lead to good acts, even if this happens only once. And it also matters that she does not normally act well. So a person like this is pretty bad, but not 100% bad. If all we care about is actions then maybe that doesn't matter, but why should we care only about actions?

I wonder also what Hursthouse would say about all this. As I remember it, her view is that the virtues are character traits acquired by habituation to the kind of behavior that is most likely to lead to one's having a happy life. So the right thing, on her theory, is what a virtuous agent would do, but it will not be done out of concern to do that kind of thing qua that kind of thing. It will be done out of something like habit, training, or second nature. Asked to explain the action (saving someone from drowning, say) the agent will point out the relevant facts of the case ("he was drowning," e.g.) and then be at a bit of a loss to explain any more ("what else could I do? There was nothing else for it but to jump in," etc.). And that doesn't sound far from the truth.


  1. This isn’t a direct comment on your post. But I have, from a slightly different angle, been thinking about the judging of actions only by their reasons and consequences, too. I have been meaning to blog about this, but I’ll give away the load bearing story.

    A while ago Norway’s wealthiest man was walking past a streat beggar in Oslo. He stopped. Then he more or less threw a crumbled-up hundred pound note at the poor man with a clear message that he should pull himself together. Crisp, you write, ”seemed to suggest that character is not important as long as one does the right thing for the right reason.” Well, I think it is possible to describe this incident as a good deed with good concequences done for right reasons. Still, it looks obvious (to me at least) that what he did falls short of the morally praiseworthy. And I am pretty sure that doesn’t depend on his reasons or on the consequences of his actions. Even if he did it in order to help, and the beggar appreciated it as such (this particular beggar did in fact -- at least he said he wasn’t at all offended, he was just happy about the money and really couldn’t thank his donor enough) there seems to be something, perhaps not wrong but not very good either about the WAY he gave away this impressive amount of cash. I don’t know what Crisp would say about such a case (perhaps he has a good answer to it within the frames of his philosophy), and I am not very familiar with Rosalind Hursthouse either, but virtue ethics in general seems to me to be on the right track.

    (If you liked ”Kitchen Stories”, you might also enjoy the swedish film ”Songs From the Second Floor” by Roy Andersson. It is very different from Bent Hamer’s movie, but still has something in common with it. Perhaps it’s a scandinavian tone, perhaps a philosophical tone, or perhaps it’s just the very, very, very slow pace. It is funny, though.)

  2. Thanks for the movie tip. I'll check it out.

    The example of the rich man giving money in an apparently contemptuous way is a good one. As an act of giving it seems to have been a good thing to do; as an expression of contempt or judgment it seems less good. I agree that consequentialism lacks the resources to handle cases like this well. Kant might be able to deal with it, but I'm not certain he really can. Aristotle's idea that we should do the right thing at the right time in the right way, etc., etc. seems better. And this might be a reason also to prefer real examples rather than the usual two-dimensional ones. This (as well as the value of Aristotle's work) is something that virtue ethicists often emphasize.