Responsiveness to Reasons

The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.

What does it mean to act for the right reasons?

Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?

But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.

Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.

Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.

From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.

Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.

That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.

Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.

If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.

Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.


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4 thoughts on “Responsiveness to Reasons

  1. I don’t think anyone actually advocates “you should do things for evil reasons”. Of course you should have good goals, but that’s the starting point of any moral philosophy.

    You basically have three categories:
    1.) People who don’t give a poop about moral philosophy and are going to do what’s best for themselves. They aren’t going to be convinced to do otherwise by any of this.
    2.) People who do evil for good reasons.
    3.) People who do good for good reasons.

    The focus on unintended consequences and invisible hand and all that biz economists do is to help people in group 2 become people in group 3. The other task of economists is to guide the institutions of society in such a way that group 1 people either don’t harm others much or that they actually wind up doing good. Moral philosophers talk about the nature of good, but it’s the economists that actually do something about it.

    1. You said that you don’t think anyone advocates doing anything for evil reasons, but consequentialism (which, incidentally, it the philosophic underpinning for all paretian analysis) doesn’t have any place in the analysis for “reasons”. It’s just consequences. Pareto and other specific types of consequentialism try to address the same concerns as “right reasons” type ethics in various ways by trying to demand very specific consequences that are hard to get by devious means. But nevertheless it’s the ends that matter, the means are neutral—in those frameworks.

      That’s not something I’m just imagining or making up, that’s a whole huge influential way of thinking.

      Moreover, to be honest, I didn’t really intend to attack or even criticize anyone here, first paragraph aside. I was mostly trying to work out the whole idea of “responsiveness to reasons,” especially since as a Hayekian it’s kind of a counterintuitive concept to me. Writing about it helps me to grapple with it.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply you were attacking anyone, and I agree that writing is a hugely helpful way to organize your thinking. I understand that consequentialism is a big school of thought, but I think it gets unfairly attacked (not by you, but in general) by the “implausible thought experiment” school of moral philosophy.

        “How do we know what the right reasons are?”
        This is a really good question to ask. A reason is a good one if it leads people to do the sorts of things which have good consequences. A virtue is good if people who use it to guide their behavior do things which have good consequences. Which consequences are good consequences? Well, it’s just turtles all the way down, as unsatisfying as that is. What is good is perhaps beyond the scope of consequentialism.

        People can’t determine what the consequences will be. Hayek enters into the picture because saying you’re doing something because it has good consequences is meaningless if you can’t know what those consequences will be.

        Moral philosophies are mental tools which are used for a purpose. None of them are perfect for the same reason that no tool is good for every job and no model fits all situations. Consequentialism is useful because it says to people “You can’t just mean well, that’s not enough”. You have to also think about the likely outcomes of your actions, you have to try to see the unseen. Utilitarianism is useful because it says “You should consider the effects of your actions on everyone.” It’s the egalitarian and universalist mentality of utilitarianism that’s the reason it has had a positive impact on the world. Virtue ethics says “Ok, but how should a person act? What adjectives would describe their behavior?”. It takes these vague theoretical notions of good and translates them into prescriptions intelligible to normal people.

        The reason I oppose the “right reasons” approach is because I don’t think it’s a productive way to get people to do morally better actions.

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