Tag Archives | Ethics

True Grit

I recently came across the following striking passage in William Hope Hodgson’s 1912* story “The Thing Invisible”:

I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time. …

Do I make myself clear? You understand, I feel sure, that the sense of respect, which I spoke of, is not really unhealthy egotism; because, you see, I am not blind to the state of mind which helped me. I mean that if I had uncovered my face by a sheer effort of will, unhelped by any revulsion of feeling, I should have done a thing much more worthy of mention. But, even as it was, there were elements in the act, worthy of respect.

What’s noteworthy about this passage is how closely it follows (whether intentionally or by coincidence, I can’t say) the ethical doctrine of Immanuel Kant. On Kant’s view, a moral action is worthy of respect only if it is motivated by a good will – a respect for the moral law for the moral law’s own sake. If it is motivated instead by some sort of inclination or sentiment (such as charitable acts being motivated by feelings of sympathy), the action is no longer worthy of respect, because if one’s actions depend on favourable sentiments – sentiments whose presence or absence is not under the control of the agent’s will – then that implies that if those favourable sentiments had happened to be absent, the agent would not have performed the action, and so the agent’s having done the right thing is fortuitous and not the expression of a reliable commitment to duty.

Hodgson’s narrator is making a similar point here, holding that since his act of courage was largely motivated by a feeling of revulsion at his own cowardice, it is less worthy of respect than it would have been if motivated by “a sheer effort of will.”

The narrator does not follow Kant entirely, however, since he suggests that his action is still worthy of some respect. For Kant (as I understand him), if an action is motivated partly by duty and partly by inclination, the crucial question is whether the dutiful part of the motivation would still have been sufficient to produce the action, had the inclination been absent. If the answer is yes, then the action is wholly worthy; if no, then the action is wholly unworthy. There is no room in Kant’s account for Hodgson’s notion that an action of mixed motivation might have an intermediate degree of worthiness.

This possibility of intermediate worthiness aligns Hodgson’s conception more closely to Aristotle’s view than to Kant’s, though the alignment is not perfect. For Aristotle, a continent person is one who has to overcome strong temptations in order to do the right thing, whereas a temperate person is able to do the right thing with little or no contrary temptation – though (and this aspect of Aristotle’s theory is often missed) the temperate person is such that he would still do the right thing if strong temptations were present (so the objection that temperate people don’t really deserve credit because right actions are too easy for them doesn’t apply). In Kantian terms, then, both the temperate and the continent person act from duty and not merely inclination, though in one case the inclinations favour the action and in the other case they oppose it.

Kant would regard the temperate and continent persons (and actions) as having equal merit; but Aristotle regards the temperate person (and action) as superior to its continent counterpart, since for Aristotle a virtuous action is supposed to express a healthy and harmonious character, not one (ordinarily) riven by conflict. However, the continent person and action do have some merit. So Aristotle, unlike Kant, allows for intermediate merit here.

But this doesn’t quite apply to Hodgson’s example. In Hodgson’s case it’s not that will is sufficient though inclination is lacking; it’s that inclination is sufficient though will might not have been. Since Aristotle in effect treats will-plus-inclination (temperance) as having more value than will alone (continence), that might mean that he grants some positive moral value to inclination alone (which is more or less what he calls “natural virtue”). But I can’t recall his saying so explicitly.


* Strictly speaking, although the story was first published in 1912, the quoted passage occurs in this form only in the revised 1948 version, the corresponding passage in the 1912 version being much less interesting. But since Hodgson died in the First World War, the revision was presumably made closer to 1912 than to 1948.


The Invisible East

In the 3rd edition of Classics of Philosophy – which is, ironically, one of the texts I’m using in my “Philosophy East and West” course – Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn write:

The first philosophers were Greeks of the sixth century B.C. living on the Ionian coast of the Aegean Sea, in Miletus, Colophon, Samos, and Ephesus. Other people in other cultures had wondered about these questions, but usually religious authority or myth had imposed an answer. … The Great Civilizations of Egypt, China, Assyria, Babylon, Israel, and Persia … had produced art and artifacts and government of advanced sorts, but nowhere, with the possible exception of India, was anything like philosophy or science developed. Ancient India was the closest civilization to produce philosophy, but it was always connected with religion, with the question of salvation or the escape from suffering. Ancient Chinese thought, led by Confucius (551-475 B.C.), had a deep ethical dimension. But no epistemology or formulated logic. (pp. 3-4)

Is this true?

The two earliest Upanishads – the Brihadaranyaka-upanishad and the Chhandogya-upanishad – are generally dated to the 7th century BCE or earlier. They contain clear examples of philosophical argumentation. So why don’t their authors – or the thinkers whose views they purport to record (e.g., Yajñavalka and Uddalaka) – count as Indian philosophers antecedent to the Greeks?

Apparently because their views were “connected with religion” and “the question of salvation.” Yet Classics of Philosophy contains writings by Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard – for all of whom philosophy was closely bound up with religious questions. If this connection doesn’t invalidate their claim to be philosophers, why does it invalidate the like claim of their Indian predecessors?

In any case, it is not even true that all early Indian philosophical thought is connected with religion. The Charvaka or Lokayata school, which was atheistic, materialistic, and hedonistic, is generally dated to the late 7th century BCE as well – thus again antedating the Greeks.

As for why the early Chinese thinkers are ruled out as philosophers, we’re told it’s because, although they had a “deep ethical dimension,” they had “no epistemology or formulated logic.” So epistemology and logic are philosophy but ethics is not?

And anyway it’s not true that early Chinese thought had no epistemology or formulated logic. Even if we leave aside the exploration of logical paradoxes by such thinkers as Zhuangzi, Hui Shi, and Gongsun Long, we have a pretty clear example of epistemology and formulated logic in the Mohist Canons.

Of course the Mohist Canons date to around the 3rd century BCE, so if Pojman and Vaughn are making only a claim of chronological priority, they’re entitled to dismiss them. But the tone of the passage certainly offers no hint that these Chinese and Indian traditions got more philosophical later. And the fact that no Indian or Chinese sources appear in an anthology titled Classics of Philosophy (rather than, say, Classics of Western Philosophy) suggests that they don’t regard even later Chinese and Indian thought as containing anything worthy of the status of philosophic classic. The sophisticated logical and epistemological debates among the Navya-Nyaya, Purva-Mimamsa, Vyakarana, and Sautrantika-Yogachara schools, for instance, count for nothing, apparently.

It was bad enough when Antony Flew ignorantly declared in 1971 that Eastern Philosophy contains no arguments, but this is the 21st century, for petesake.


CFP: Alabama Philosophical Society 2017

Owing to a time- and energy-consuming family medical crisis, I’m about two months late in announcing this – the submission deadline’s just over a week away.

But anyway, this year’s APS will be September 29-30 in Pensacola; submission deadline is August 1st. Note also the undergrad essay contest (Alabama students only), which pays $100 plus one night’s stay at the conference hotel.

More info here.

Alas, I won’t be able to attend this year. Hoping for next year.


Mirror Images

DEONTOLOGIST: You say we should do whatever has the best consequences; but what if Awful Action X had the best consequences?
CONSEQUENTIALIST: But Awful Action X wouldn’t have the best consequences in any realistic scenario.
DEONTOLOGIST: It doesn’t matter; as long as your theory is committed to saying that Awful Action X would be okay if it did have the best consequences, your theory is defective.
CONSEQUENTIALIST: Well, darn it!

 
 

CONSEQUENTIALIST: You say we should do the inherently right action even if it doesn’t have the best consequences; but what if the action you say is inherently right had Awful Result Y?
DEONTOLOGIST: But the inherently right action wouldn’t have Awful Result Y in any realistic scenario.
CONSEQUENTIALIST: It doesn’t matter; as long as your theory is committed to saying that Awful Result Y would be okay if it did come about from the inherently right action, your theory is defective.
DEONTOLOGIST: Well, darn it!


Kant Unbound!

kant-touch-this

[cross-posted at BHL]

I neglected to post about this while it was actually happening, but I just finished participating in a Cato Unbound exchange on Immanuel Kant’s place in classical liberalism – with digressions on, inter alia, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rand. My interlocutors were a Kantian and two Randians.

Reading it is categorically imperative! Catch the phenomenal action here.


Caffeinated Philosophy of Happiness

This Wednesday (so either tomorrow or today, depending on your time zone) the Auburn Philosophy Club will be hosting a public panel on happiness at 5:00 at Mama Mocha’s coffeeshop (414 S. Gay St.); details here. My contribution will be to argue that Kant’s arguments against happiness-focused theories of morality, while they may work against some versions of that approach, don’t succeed against the ancient Greek versions (as represented, e.g., by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics).


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