Saturday, October 19, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- Lost Sheep in Heaven
Discuss the question of character verses conduct in personal matters. Philippa Foot claims, with Aristotle, that a person who has good character is better then a person who has to control him or herself. Kant would say the opposite. Explain those view points. Which do you agree with more and why?
-- The motto for virtue ethics is: "Be this sort of person" rather than "Follow this rule." Kant's "What is my duty?" becomes instead "What sort of person shall I become?" --
This contradiction between Foot and Kant I think, is overstated. Recall the Native American and African attitudes that a person must acquire character. Foot's person who already has good character is all fine and good, but how do you get there? Don't you use a kind of self construction method as understood by African-American Indian societies? Don't you make yourself do the right thing so that it becomes habitual?
It seems to me that we are not discussing two entirely different things here. They may sound like different ways of viewing character, but I see them as simply two different aspects of the same process.
Foot and Aristotle assume a person in a certain state. Kant assumes a person who is working toward that state. Admittedly, the first two seem to believe that once a person attains that state it simply becomes his natural, default position. Kant, on the other hand assumes a person is always in the process of improving himself or resisting his undesirable impulse.
To sum that up, Kant assumes that the journey never ends and that you must always keep up the struggle. But what Foot and Aristotle assume is that you can reach a position in which the journey is over and, as long as you don't travel backwards, you need struggle no more.
Nevertheless, Foot and Aristotle do assume a situation which I think is unrealistic and unreasonable. More about that later.
But back to differences in detail with another excerpt from the article:
-- Let us take the example of Jack and Jill, who work in a bank at the same position. Each have the same opportunity to embezzle money from their tills. Jill never thinks about doing it, and thus can be said to have "natural" virtue. However, Jack is always tempted to take some money for himself, but he always overcomes the temptation. Let us call Jack's virtue "duress" virtue.
Which person has highest moral worth? Kant's answer is clear: Jack, because we are sure that he is not stealing out of duty. We are not sure about Jill, because of her natural inclination not to steal. (As Kant reminds us: we don't praise people for preserving their lives when they have every inclination to do just that.) Kant's view seems unsatisfactory, because we definitely want to give Jill moral worth. Indeed, if after a probationary period, the bank managers have to decide whom to keep--Jack or Jill--it is obvious that they will not want to keep Jack on. (Let's assume for the sake of argument that Jack confesses his daily temptations to his superiors.) --
Foot and Aristotle most value Jill. She is clearly a better person than Jack. She has never even experienced the temptation.
I contend that they are wrong. The fact that she has never experienced temptation may be due to the simple fact that she has never had a need. What if she suddenly discovers that she will lose her home if she does not embezzle some money? Previously the situation did not exist, so she was not tempted.
I reject the idea that there are people of such perfect moral character that the idea of doing a wrong thing never even occurs to them. I believe this is an unrealistic view of human character. Once Jill suddenly realizes that by embezzling from the bank she may save her precious home, she would have to be a very stupid person indeed not to realize, at least on an intellectual level, that this does present a solution for her problem.
It is entirely possible that she would immediately reject this temptation. Nevertheless, the idea that she would never under any circumstances even be tempted is to establish her as some sort of superhero character. Or perhaps as an alien. No human being is perfectly capable of resisting or even of conceiving of temptation.
Given that, one could still argue that she is of a superior moral character because, unlike Jack, she's not tempted to embezzle simply for the pleasure of gain, but only because she feels desperate.
However, I think Jack deserves a great deal of praise as well. After all, he has the moral willpower to say no to himself. I think the error here is in comparing two things that are not exactly identical. Yes, obviously Jill has a moral character which is in many ways superior to Jack's. Most particularly superior to Jack in that she does not feel the need to indulge herself. I would have to say that I find her to be more morally reliable than Jack.
But the fact remains we have no idea what would happen if she were tempted by some other element. Are we to assume that she was never tempted by anything, anywhere, under any circumstances? Again, this is an unreasonably high expectation for a human being. Foot and Aristotle are attempting to establish, rather like Plato, an ideal perfect form of a person of character. It may exist in some alternate world which is itself perfect, but it does not exist in our grubby world of reality.
Jack, on the other hand, shows a great deal of moral character in that he can control himself. This is something which apparently is totally absent and totally unnecessary in Jill.
In other words, my interpretation is that Jill shows a certain type of moral character which is different from the moral character which is displayed by Jack. Jill is certainly more reliable as a bank employee. However, I insist that no one is truly perfect. Jack may be the completely moral superior to Jill in that he can resist temptation while we do not know if she can or cannot. Surely she is tempted by something. The question is, does she then give into it? Or does she resist it, as does Jack?
The fact is, we have insufficient information to decide who is morally superior.
To answer the question in a direct and simple manner, I say that Foot and Aristotle have fallen into the careless and intellectually devastating trap of utopianism. Utopia means "no where", a place so perfect that it cannot exist. I am applying the word in this case not to a place but to a human being. A person as perfect as Jill is like a utopia. It doesn't exist anywhere in the real world, neither does someone as perfect as she.
So Kant is more correct simply because he deals with a better view of people as real beings, not imaginary idealized symbols of a philosophical belief. Jack is a superior human because because Jack is a real person while Jill is nothing but an imaginary idealization.
Additional comments which I just can't resist making:
In an earlier presentation I sharply criticized Kant for not dealing with the real world. Now I'm praising him for dealing with the real world. This is not a contradiction. My criticism of Kant is correct in regard to that particular point. My praise of Kant is correct in regard to this particular point. This time it is Foot and Aristotle who aren't dealing with reality. This is an occupational hazard of philosophers.
This whole thing can also be better understood if we look at an excellent example outside the area of moral character. You remember that during World War I people who fell apart under the stress of combat were referred to as lacking moral fiber, while today we know their bodies and their minds simply broke down. So we know that moral character isn't the issue when it comes to fear.
In the question about Jack vs Jill, the difference between Foot and Aristotle's view of character as opposed to Kant's shows up very well in the following example.
Who is braver? The person who never fears anything or the person who overcomes his fear? Shakespeare said, "The coward dies a thousand deaths. The brave man dies but once." This is a very common attitude and it's very foolish. The idea that man who is brave is never afraid makes no sense at all. Bravery consists of going ahead when you are afraid. If a person ever existed who was never afraid of anything, he had no courage at all. He didn't need any. Also, he had some kind of severe brain damage.
Remember Aristotle's Golden Mean between cowardice and excessive courage. The person with no fear at all would be about as excessive as possible.
Imagine you go to a petting zoo and in one area there's a snake. Are you very brave if you walk up and pet it, when you have no fear of snakes and even enjoy their company? Of course not.
But an old friend of mine, Barbara Hamilton, was once teaching her class of special needs students. One of our bus drivers brought in his huge pet boa constrictor to show to the children. Barbara was absolutely terrified of snakes, but didn't say so because she didn't want to teach the children to share her fear. Since she looked so calm, the driver showed the children how nice snakes were by putting the snake on her lap and wrapping it up around her neck. She showed no sign of her fear.
The next day she couldn't come to work because she had broken out in hives as result of her absolute terror. She was brave. Although terrified, she would not show that fear because she didn't want to teach the children to be afraid.
The driver was not being brave, he was enjoying his pet.
My final point: addicts who have recovered will frequently tell you, if you ask, that they have recovered only in the sense that they no longer indulge their desperate desires. They will tell you that they are under control, but they are still addicts. They will always be addicts. There is no way to escape that reality.
A modern psychologist would say these individuals have an addictive personality and an addictive habituation. Foot and Aristotle would say they have weak moral character. Kant would say they have strong moral character.
People like me simply aren't tempted into addiction because we have what psychologists call a nonaddictive personality. It is unlikely that I, or people like me, will ever become addicted. If we ever do become addicted to something, we will be able to escape that addiction without most of the stress and horror that other addicts experience. This is not because we are better people. It's because of the way our brains are constructed. We are just lucky. It has nothing to do with moral character.
Recovered addicts show the greatest moral character as they continue to be severely tempted and to resist
Luke 15:7 KJV
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.