Wednesday, June 15, 2011

moral psychology: contra the classical view.

Moral psychology is, among other things, the study of how our moral views motivate or influence how we act in moral contexts. Right now I’d like to discuss what I take to be something like the Classical View on the matter:

(CV) An agent S can neither willfully nor consciously perform action F unless she genuinely believes that F is ultima facie good.

I call CV the “classical view” because from what I can tell, the list of philosophers who advocate something akin to CV is long and prestigious. Some names that come to mind include Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, arguably Augustine, perhaps Aquinas (even though a colleague of mine would disagree), Spinoza, Hume, Mill, and C.S. Lewis.

I find CV as dubious as it is hard to deny. I’ll explain why in reverse order.

CV is hard to deny because it has a very straightforward and compelling rationale in its favor. Let’s suppose that CV isn’t true and that an agent can willfully and consciously perform F while all the while believing that F is not ultima facie good. What exactly would this look like? Suppose that someone plops a pile of manure on my plate. Could I willfully and consciously eat the manure on my plate while believing that doing so is absolutely disgusting and that nothing good, either in itself or extrinsically, would come from it? It seems to me that I couldn’t: It’s simply impossible for me willfully and consciously do that. In order for me to willfully and consciously eat the manure I’d have to think that doing so would be good in some respect or other, and until then there’s just no way I could. And this is just what CV says.

In the previous example it’s easy to see why CV might be so compelling—but let’s see how CV might fair in other, less benign, contexts. Suppose that a young boy named Joe has a knack for rounding up and hanging the stray cats in his neighborhood. CV says that this is only possible if Joe takes it to be ultima facie good to hang cats. But, how could he? What good could possibly come out of hanging cats? Notice now that CV does not say that what an agent does must be ultima facie good for her to willfully and consciously do it—rather, CV says that the agent must only genuinely believe that what she willfully and consciously does is ultima facie good. CV isn’t suggesting that for Joe to hang cats it has to be good (that would be all too easy to refute), but rather, Joe has to think he’s getting some ultima facie good out of hanging cats. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this is what we usually think. Though we wouldn’t hang cats precisely because we don’t see the good in it, if Joe does, doesn’t he have to believe that there’s some good in it? Or else why in the world would he be doing it in the first place? And so we think, and it usually is the case, that kids who hang cats do get some perceived good out of it. We explain their behavior by suggesting that pleasure in itself is a good thing, and so these kids must be getting pleasure out of being cruel, and this is why they hang cats. Otherwise, they simply wouldn't do it. If Joe were like the rest of us and thought that hanging cats is just as disturbing as eating manure is disgusting, he wouldn’t do it. But since Joe doesn’t think that hanging cats is disturbing—on the contrary he takes pleasure in it—Joe willfully and consciously does what he does precisely because he believes it to be an ultima facie good. And this is exactly what CV says.

To go even further, think of the most heinous acts you can think of—those of Ted Bundy or Jeffery Dahmer, say. Though we might not think that what they did is ultima facie good, they must have thought that it was or else they would have been just like us and they wouldnt have the things they did. It’s only because they thought that there was some ultima facie good that they could have willfully and consciously done what they did. I take it that the only way I could eat a plate of manure is if I genuinely thought it was good, and so a fortiori, given how much worse their acts were than eating manure, they must have thought that doing what they did was ultima facie good.

But now we’re in position to see why CV is dubious for the same reason that it’s hard to deny. If it’s really true that we cannot F unless we sincerely think F is ultima facie good, then it follows that we never do anything evil willfully or consciously. And if this is right, then the difference between Ted Bundy and us is not a matter of the goodness of our intentions or motivations. The only difference between us is that what we believe is good is actually good, and what Ted Bundy believed is good is not. And it gets worse. If CV is true, then it follows that Ted Bundy could not have believed differently than he did. For him to be able to believe differently, he would have had to think that what he believes to be good is actually evil. But, if he genuinely believed that what he did was good, then ipso facto he couldn’t have believed what he genuinely thought to be good to be evil any more than I could make myself believe that eating manure is not disgusting. Whenever I think of something that I think is good and attempt to force myself to think it’s not good, I can’t, and salva veritate for the things that I think are evil.

But this means that the difference between Ted Bundy and us is a matter of luck, and if that’s right, then it’s hard to see how he’s any more responsible for the harm he did than I would be for accidentally hitting a pedestrian with my car during a violent earthquake.

All this to say that if CV is true, we don't lose morality altogether, but we do seem to lose moral responsibility. And for this reason I reject CV. It is possible for me to think that something is ultima facie evil and yet willfully and consciously still do it. I do it all the time, in fact, but don’t ask me how it’s possible. I have no idea.


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