Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt. III: Character, Responsibility and Virtue

Section III: Character, Responsibility and Virtue
“Self-Deception, Rationalization, and the Ethics of Belief”

While Audi is to be commended for the broad range of topics considered in this book, this essay is far too psychological for my taste, and so my comments will be brief, due to my lack of familiarity with the area. Audi’s general point seems to be that because self-deception and rationalizing are connected, those who act against their best interests that they have hidden from themselves are not beyond criticism.

“Responsible Action and Virtuous Character”

This essay is best understood as a compatibilist response to the problem of how we might have moral responsibility in a deterministic universe by taking an Aristotelian approach to responsibility for character. Audi does note that it seems that our most basic understanding of responsibility is direct and indirect responsibility for actions, but takes this to entail that something else could have been done by the agent, in a way that brings the character of the agent into the discussion. While it seems we can cognitively work to improve our moral characters to be disposed to embrace morally desirable outcomes by causing positive associations and removing temptation, Audi does note that the desires themselves are not alterable, as our wants are meant to be responses to facts of the world, which is an interesting and plausible rejection of the normal “direction of fit” conception of desires (that our beliefs fit the world, and the world is to fit our desires). The conclusion from this is that as rational beings be want our desires to fit objective values, and our autonomy is expressed in getting our desires to fit real values, in such a way that our desires motivate us to act in ways that are rational. Internal events of reflection and deliberation would be the impetus for this matching up of desires to rational wants, and if so, then we can be held responsible in virtue of whether one had or could have had these internal events, and without the possibility of such internal reflection we cannot be normatively responsible.

“Acting From Virtue”

This essay articulates a theory of how one may act from a virtue, in such a way that is broad enough to fit an Aristotelian virtue ethics or the Kantian idea of acting from a good will. The problem, as Audi sees it, is to provide an account of how the connection between the action and the agent’s beliefs and desires makes that action virtuous.

Audi posits that there are six notions that this account of acting from virtue must address, those being the situational, conceptual, cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and teleological dimensions of a virtuous action. Further specified, these notions amount to first, the field of the virtue, which is the situation that the virtue is characteristically seen to be relevant; second, the target the action aims at, such as promoting well-being; third, the agent’s comprehension of the field as it exists; fourth, the agent’s motivation to act in that field given how the field is; fifth, the agent acting on the basis of that understanding and motivation; and sixth, the beneficiaries of the virtue, which is the recognition of the success of the act in causing what it was meant to bring about.

Looking at this list, it seems that the critical notion is the field of the virtue, such that the central notion of acting from virtue is acting in response to the assessment that a certain type of action is normally appropriate for the situation. Such a phrasing is true to the Aristotelian tradition, but I for one hoped Audi would strive to avoid the common objection that virtue ethics is cyclical for defining an action from virtue as one a virtuous person would do, as this is what the characterization of the field of a virtue amounts to. Audi eventually comes to see this problem, noting that a theory of what actions are right and wrong seems to need to come before virtue ethics can be fully explanatory for the morality of actions. Still, Audi contends that while rule-governed ethics may be indispensable for the success of virtue ethics, an overall theory of the moral worth of actions cannot be complete without a theory of moral virtue, as Audi notes that is undeniable that an action not done from a virtuous motive hardly seems to be morally good – an idea that Kant agreed with. While I agree that the motive behind an action is morally relevant to the moral assessment of that action (thus I reject a pure consequentialism), I am far from convinced that the only way to make such an assessment is through a theory of moral virtues.


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  1. Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt IV: Practical Reason and the Foundations of Ethics | ausomeawestin

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