Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Does Social Approval Excuse Vice More Than It Deflates Virtue?

Jennifer Matey, in a recent email, got me thinking about whether there might be differences in the conditions under which we attribute characterological virtues versus vices. Here's my thought: If the people around you all tend to approve of a certain kind of virtuous behavior, and you exhibit that approved behavior, we tend to ascribe characterological virtue to you. But vice may work differently. If the people around you all tend to approve of a certain kind of vicious behavior, and you exhibit that approved behavior, we're somewhat more reluctant to attribute you the characterological vice.

Consider these cases.

(1a.) Everyone in Adam's immediate environment thinks one should flee from battle once the bullets start flying. The bullets start flying and Adam flees. He wouldn't have fleed if it weren't generally approved of. Is he a cowardly person?

(1b.) Everyone in Adam's immediate environment thinks one should stand one's ground in battle once the bullets start flying. The bullets start flying and Adam stands his ground. He wouldn't have stood his ground if it weren't generally approved of. Is he a courageous person?

(2a.) Everyone in Belle's immediate environment thinks one shouldn't give money to neighborhood kids who knock on the door raising funds for extracurricular activities. A neighboorhood kid knocks on her door to raise funds for karate equipment and Belle doesn't give money. She would have given money if it weren't generally disapproved of. Is she a stingy person?

(2b.) Everyone in Belle's immediate environment thinks one should give money to neighborhood kids who knock on the door raising funds for extracurricular activities. A neighboorhood kid knocks on her door to raise funds for karate equipment and Belle gives money. She wouldn't have given money if it weren't generally approved of. Is she a generous person?

(3a.) In Charlie's country, there is a persecuted ethic group, the Junnels. Everyone in Charlie's immediate environment thinks one should offer no quarter to the persecuted ethnic group. A Junnel wants to hide in Charlie's basement and Charlie offers her no quarter. Charlie would have offered her quarter if it were generally approved of in her immediate environment. In Charlie an unkind person?

(3b.) In Charlie's country, there is a persecuted ethic group, the Junnels. Everyone in Charlie's immediate environment thinks one should help the persecuted ethnic group. A Junnel wants to hide in Charlie's basement and he lets her. Charlie wouldn't have let her hide if it weren't generally approved of in her immediate environment. In Charlie a kind person?

Now you might just reflexively say "no" to all these questions, on the general principle that characterological virtues and vices shouldn't be attributable in such cases, where the response is contingent on social approval. But my guess is that if you don't consciously hew to such a principle, you will -- or most people will -- find the social approval to be more excusing in the a-cases than it is deflating in the b-cases. That is, speaking roughly and generally, we're somewhat inclined attribute the virtues in the b-cases, despite the contingency of the act on social approval, but we're disinclined to attribute the vices in the a-cases, because of the acts' contingency on social approval. I suspect this holds for a wide range of virtues, though probably not all of them.

Maybe we simply have a higher threshold, or slightly different standards, for attributing vice than virtue because there's something awkward, conflictual, ungenerous, etc., in attributing vice? Or is that just my own softheartedness?

9 comments:

Genius said...

maybe we jsut use a more than b (so it has more impact).

For example I might need "excuses" not to act utilitarian but seldom look at "excuses" for actually doing it (except in a philosophical debate!).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Possibly so (though I tried to use a spread of examples).

Another thought that occurs to me is this: We take for granted that virtuous behavior is approved of, so having one's behavior approved of is just part and parcel of acting as a virtuous person does. It's more unusual for vice to be approved of, so when it is, that serves as a kind of exceptional condition.

Deril said...

My first thought is that your examples seem to conflate social approval or disapproval with social requirement for or against something.

My second thought is to wonder in what sense we are to consider something virtuous or vicious outside the context of social approval or disapproval. Maybe what the person would have done (or not done) if it weren’t socially disapproved of (or socially approved of) in all of the a-cases is actually a vice. And maybe what the person would have done (or not done) if it weren’t socially disapproved of (or socially approved of) in all of the b-cases is actually a virtue.

The asymmetry between the a-cases and b-cases seems to hinge entirely on what we ourselves socially approve of or disapprove of.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Daril! You're right that I'm kind of eliding the approval/requirement distinction. Do you think the examples would break differently if I was more careful about that?

I also agree that relativism could introduce some problems here. With variability in what's approved/required, there might also be variability in what really counts as virtue or vice. I don't want to go entirely over to relativism, though!

Deril said...

On further reflection I suspect the elision is only apparent, or at any rate inconsequential. In (1a), for example, instead of saying, “He wouldn’t have fled if it weren’t generally approved of,” you could have said, “He wouldn’t have fled if it were required that he stay” and the meaning would have been the same.

I also suspect now that relativism does not introduce any problems here at all. It’s not even relevant, really. It isn’t necessary that we answer no to all the a-cases and yes to all the b-cases. It only matters that a and b receive opposite answers in every a-b pair.

Brad C said...

I am drawn to this explantion:

First: (Cp) When we say that someone exhibits a virtue of vice, we are, by implication, praising or blaming him.

Second: When we blame or praise someone for what they do, we think it fair to hold him responsible for having done an act of good or bad quality.

Third: We think that the fairness of holding people responsible varies with the pressures they faced. This is complicated by differences that result depending on how bad the vice or how good the virtue is (see below).

These claims ground this explanation:

We tend to withhold saying Adam (1a) is cowardly just to the extent that we think it would be unfair to blame him - hold him responsible for - acting as he did. And many think it unfair to hold him responsible for running away if that is what everyone in his society approves of.

We can also explain our willingness to assign virtues in the positive cases. Adam in 1b does not have the same pressures as Adam in 1a, but we do not worry that it would be unfair to praise someone (by attributing a virtue to them) when we find out they had less pressure to fall short of virtue than some others did. We might say what they did deserves less praise, but we do not worry about the praise that is (Cp) implied by the attribution of the virtue.

My explanation would predict that your effect would disappear when we turn to cases involving more horrific behavior, becasue we set the bar higher, so to speak, in these cases. More specifically, in those cases, we require stronger "pressures" to be in place in order for the worries about fairness in holding responsible to kick in.

And that is what I think we find: If you torture dogs for the fun of it in a society where people approve of that I will still say you are cruel. If you worked at the concentration camp torturing people, I would say you were cruel regardless of whether others thought it ok to act as you did. And that is because the fairness-based excusing conditions are more stingent for behavior that bad.

Finally(!), I think this is a good example of "pragmatic" implications can distort our understanding of virtue and vice concepts, if we are not careful. Fairness-based conceptions of responsibility can drive us to think that these preople don't have the vices in these situations, where the fact is that they do have them; we just feel (rightly or not) bad calling them out on it.

I also harbor doubts about the fairness based conception of holding responsible and blaming (the second and third theses above), but that is another topic and my explanation hinges on the ide a that the fairness based conception is embeded in our thinking in a way that your examples bring out. In any case, I guess I should say am influenced, on both counts, by Watson's line on attribitive responsibility (which Scanlon adopts with some changes).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, Deril, I see my brilliant counterarguments won you over! ;)

Brad: Very thought-provoking comments, as usual! You suggest that the asymmetry may have something to do with considerations of fairness in praise and blame. I find that an appealing idea, and I hope it might harmonize with my thought in my first commment about the social approval of vice being an exceptional, excusing condition.

The part of what you say that is most in tension with that is your remark about the severity of the vice. I agree about the attributions of characterological cruelty in your examples, but I wonder they derive from the nature of cruelty (which we might think of as more deeply character-driven) rather than from the severity of the acts. For example, I don't think torturing dogs is worse than refusing quarter to a member of a persecuted ethic group (if it means death to the victim and is low risk to you). The act of torturing the dog is not worse, but if my current thinking is right, it might say something worse about your character.

Raskol said...

I realize this is an old thread, but it's new to me! Anyway, here are my 2 cents:

Assuming there really is a general difference in opinion between the two kinds of cases (I at least feel that there's one when I look at the examples), one possible explanation for it might be that part of the idea of a person's having a certain virtue is that they have the ability to perform a kind of action even under difficult circumstances, and that vice is the lack of that ability. (Or at least, that this is part of the idea of at least some of the virtues.)

To take the first example: the person who did not flee because it was socially desirable not to flee demonstrated, despite their motives, the ability to withstand the pressure of being under fire without succumbing to what might be held to be the natural instinct (to flee). The fact that they did so out of a less than sterling motive might diminish our moral approval of the action somewhat, but we're still going to recognize that what they did required at least some important part of what is called courage.

On the other hand, when we look at the example of the person who fled because it was socially admirable to do so, we don't learn that the person was incapable of subjugating their fears. We see instead that they had an 'ability-irrelevant' motive to flee, which leaves open the question of whether they could have stood their ground, making us less likely to attribute cowardice to them. In fact, the way the example is worded so that it says they would *not* have fled except for their 'non-moral' reason for doing so implies that they did in fact have the ability to stand their ground had they chosen to do so. So we're hesitant to attribute cowardice.

The same general story could be told for the other examples, with each virtue being at least in part the ability to perform good acts despite emotional obstacles like fear, selfishness, etc...I'm not entirely sure that it would work equally well for all of the things that are called virtues, but it's worth mentioning, at least. Or so I thought :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Raskol! It's nice to see the old threads still living on.