House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (and virtue ethics, moral explanations, and counterfactuals)

frank underwood 1I tend to be skeptical of virtue ethics, on a metaethical level, due to the implausibility of attributing moral properties to persons – for me, moral properties seem like the sort of entity that might only obtain for actions and states of affairs – but Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards seems to force me into saying that people can be morally bad (here is a review and critique of virtue ethics). After all, if someone commits all the sorts of actions that Underwood does it seems quite reasonable to posit that such a man is of evil and morally despicable character (here is my review of season two). But before rushing into this judgment about Underwood, and implicit support for virtue ethics, we should tend to whether these claims can survive an interesting objection to moral properties in general by Gilbert Harman.

Scientific vs. Moral Observations
Harman advances one of the most fascinating and challenging objections to moral realism by noting how unlike the sciences moral phenomena are. He argues that in science, observations are evidence for a theory, and that that theory explains why you had the observation that you did. By contrast, in ethics, says Harman, observation is evidence for your theory, but the theory does not explain why you had that observation.

My having the observation that Frank Underwood is a morally bad person is evidence for my theory that a person who

He's a bad man... or is he?

He’s a bad man… or is he?

manipulates and murders other persons is morally bad. Nevertheless, it seems that that theory does not exhaustively explain why I had the observation I did. Rather than it just being the case, objectively, that it is morally bad to manipulate and murder persons, it just might be the case that in my culture it is morally bad to do such things, such that nothing about the brute nature of the world, which my theory attempts to describe, explains my observation. In other words, no supervenience relations between non-moral facts and moral facts of the sort required by moral realists need be posited to explain my observation, only non-moral psychological and sociological facts, thus casting doubt on moral realism, and with it, virtue ethics.

Moral Explanations and the Counterfactual Test
A spirited response to Harman comes from Nicholas Sturgeon, of the Cornell realism movement. Sturgeon proposes a counterfactual test for the explanatory power of moral facts, positing that if the moral conclusion of a conditional (the consequent) could be false and the non-moral explanation in the antecedent could still be true then the moral explanation is not needed. But if it seems to us that the moral conclusion could not be false while the explanation is true then the moral conclusion has explanatory relevance and thus fits into the best explanation of facts of the state of affairs.

So to test whether objective moral facts explain why I have the observation that Underwood is a morally bad person we must look at the counterfactual of ‘if he manipulates and murders persons for his own political gain, then Frank Underwood is a morally bad person’, which is: ‘if Frank Underwood wasn’t a morally bad person then he wouldn’t manipulate and murder persons for his own political gain’. If this counterfactual is true then moral facts do have explanatory relevance, if this counterfactual is false then moral facts do not have explanatory relevance, according to Sturgeon.

Virtue Ethics Cannot Pass the Counterfactual Test

Well he definitely commits morally wrong actions.

Well he definitely commits morally wrong actions.

I think Sturgeon’s theory when conjoined with virtue ethics falls short of adequately meeting Harman’s criticism of moral realism. Harman’s insight is that our moral theories must explain our observations and our observations must explain our theories in a continuous explanatory loop; Sturgeon’s proposal as applied with virtue ethics cuts off this loop. In order to meet Harman’s objection completely, the fact that Underwood is morally bad must explain why the actions he commits are morally wrong. The moral realist cannot allow this because it would entail subjectivism of moral facts due to the supervenience relations between moral facts and non-moral facts being too closely linked to individual persons.

This should lead the moral realist to jettison virtue ethics from their metaethical project as we can see that virtue ethic explanations are unpalatable. But we need not look farther than actions to meet Harman’s challenge. Consider these revisions to the virtue ethicist’s explanations of Frank Underwood: ‘If action F is such that it manipulates a person for personal political gain, then action F is morally wrong’, such that the counterfactual claim of this is: ‘if action F is not morally wrong then action F is such that it does not manipulate a person for personal political gain’. These conditionals have explanatory power because they explain the observations and theories we have as being necessarily linked due to supervenience relations between moral and non-moral properties. If an action is morally wrong if it has certain natural properties and an action that is not morally wrong does not have those properties then it seems quite plain that those properties are explanatorily relevant to why we have the observations that we do, such that a theory about the moral relevance of those properties explains our observations and our observations, again, support that theory.

What of Frank Underwood: is he of morally bad character, or may we only say that he frequently commits morally wrong actions? It follows from what I have argued, that virtue ethics has poor explanatory power and thus must be rejected on epistemological grounds, that on an ontological level we should only be confident in speaking about the morality of his actions, not his person. So, Frank Underwood is not a morally bad person, because it is not metaphysically probable that he is a morally bad person.

After all, we should only feel good and bad about our actions, not our character, since moral properties obtain for actions, not persons.

After all, we should only feel good and bad about our actions, not our character, since moral properties obtain for actions, not persons.

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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on February 23, 2014 - 1:44 pm

    An interesting post, as always.

    It seems to me that the question is when, if ever, does it make sense to say someone is a bad (or good) person? When they commit bad (or good) acts? I’m sure Saddam Hussein at some point in his life committed a good act here or there, but most of us wouldn’t be tempted to refer to him as a good person, because most of the acts he committed were bad.

    What establishes the pattern of why we commit mostly good or bad acts? Some of it is innate, natural, genetic, but from what I’ve seen, a significant portion of it seems to be our habits. Good habits promote good acts. Bad habits promote bad acts. Habits assiduously adopted can, at least in many cases, compensate for innate tendencies.

    My understanding of virtue ethics is about developing good (that is virtuous) habits and minimizing bad (that is vicious) habits. This is, to some degree, a separate issue from what *should* be a virtue or what should be a vice. Admittedly this is something that bothers many about virtue ethics.

    Would it not be appropriate to refer to someone with many vices as a bad person, or someone with many virtues as good? Or does this run the risk of implying that the person is one or the other with no ability to change?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on February 23, 2014 - 3:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking questions and comments! I think that we can sensibly refer to a person as morally good or bad, but when we do so, we are not referring to any real property that obtains for them. The peculiarity of maintaining that such properties do truly obtain for persons is hard to stomach, as you note at the end of your comments, due to issues of personal identity. I also am suspicious of virtue ethics because of deontological leanings for the priority of the right over the good thesis – the idea that there are right actions, and that makes them good on a secondary level, as opposed to there being good actions, that making them right on a secondary level, the latter thesis being posited by the consequentialist/utilitarian. I see virtue ethics as discussing good traits, habits, and characteristics, and thus being incompatible with the priority of the right thesis, such that this trade-off should lead us to abandon virtue ethics (I plan to explore this underdeveloped idea further in a future entry, but this idea might turn out to be meaningless and incoherent). Given these arguments against virtue ethics on a metaethical level (as well as other normative and metaethical arguments touched on in other entries), and the actual explanatory power of virtue ethics as being limited, as per the argument in this entry, the reasons for advocating virtue ethics seem weak and the reasons for denouncing virtue ethics seem strong.

      I do think your understanding of virtue ethics is correct, that being that, “virtue ethics is about developing good (that is virtuous) habits and minimizing bad (that is vicious) habits.” The difficulty for virtue ethics comes in the next step, which is answering the questions “what are good habits?” and “what are bad habits?” The answer, for the virtue ethicist, is that good habits are the habits that a virtuous person has. But who is a virtuous person? We know which persons are virtuous by observing their actions, as a persons’ personal character is not directly observable. What this suggests is that we already have a theory of right action in mind, due to self-evident a priori moral knowledge, such that our observations of persons confirm our theories of right action, not a theory of good character. Again we see that the explanatory power of virtue ethics is limited, such that the positive argument for it is weak.

      • #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on February 23, 2014 - 4:35 pm

        I think you’re right that the explanatory power of virtue ethics is limited. But then, as we’ve discussed before, I see the explanatory power of all normative moral philosophies as limited, but I’ll admit that VE doesn’t even really try.

        For me, the benefit of VE is pragmatic. It gives me guidance, not in figuring out what is right or wrong, but in figuring out how to be good and avoid being bad.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on February 23, 2014 - 6:38 pm

        Hmm very interesting; I find your last sentence intriguing, as I find it difficult to separate these two distinctions. Just to make sure I understand you, you’re saying that you see VE as the pragmatic view of laying out how to be a good person by developing good habits? That VE is the view that to be a good person we must develop and engrain good habits does seem separate from a normative theory of what makes actions right or wrong.

      • #5 by SelfAwarePatterns on February 23, 2014 - 7:01 pm

        I’d say you have it. My understanding about VE is that’s it’s about how to live, not necessarily about what to do. From what I’ve read, the ancient philosophers who conceived VE would have been puzzled by the modern question of what is or is not right. I think this is because they had no tradition of the gods mandating moral behavior. For them, it was about the right strategies to lead the philosophical good life, to achieve eudaimonia.

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on February 25, 2014 - 6:11 pm

        Very true, I think you are quite right on the sentiments of the ancients. Perhaps if virtue ethics doesn’t survive as a theory of morality it will still have relevance as a theory of how to live a good life. Whether the philosophical climate will ever return to a point where it is acceptable to explore such questions is another matter.

  1. Ralph Wedgwood on Cornell Realism and Australian Realism (moral semantics) | ausomeawestin
  2. Frank is not a bad person though he does bad actions? | The Horizon and The Fringe
  3. House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (and virtue ethics, moral explanations, and counterfactuals) – The Big Idea

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