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.

 

Previous Posts in this Thread:

Blood Disease: A Metaphor

AG writes that he agrees with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and profane are inseparable. Spivonomist starts it when he observes that honor is hard to define, distinguishing two of its meanings as sacred (honor) and profane (prudence).  SH really gets things cooking with his wonderful example from Schopenhauer, exposing those Greeks for the troublemakers they are. It’s not their fault, really, driving into the realm of ethics the notions of virtue, that is, putting into the realm of pure intellect those matters unseen, that which is cooked in the human liver. And heart. A physician, for example, must distinguish blood from bone in order to make a diagnosis of indications. But where does blood come from?

If the blood is diseased, it stands to reason that the bone is diseased, and the flesh. Even if the disease is not actually observable in the one, but only in the other, no one says, “Gosh, only my blood is diseased; I can live without that.” A painful disease to the bone is a painful disease to the entire body, and a deadly disease to the bone is a deadly disease.

When we say that the sacred and the profane are inseparable, we are really making an observation that the sacred intertwines the profane in the same way that blood vessels intertwine flesh and bone. Where does one end and the other begin? Nevertheless, we must distinguish, knowing that the distinction, like this metaphor, will cease to serve our intellectual pursuit of what is virtue versus what is prudence, and which has what effect on the other.

What we’re trying to do, of course, is diagnose indications, usually in an effort to treat our ills, beginning with the self, extending to the community, then, finally, to the society. A society filled with Schopenhauer’s Tituses would be ideal because his liver is healthy. Nevertheless, a society filled with Caiuses would be a good society, though short-lived because his liver is not healthy.

Thus, it is easy to change minds, and you can do it by force, as we have seen in the realm of American morality over the last several years. The goal to have many Caiuses is achievable. The goal to have many Tituses is hopeless because it is impossible to change hearts.

Impossible? Near-impossible. To borrow from a possibly-deceased pastiche twitter account, whom I looked to as a father figure: when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, “What was the last thing about which you changed your mind? And what was the last thing about which you changed your heart?” And the dagger, I think: “How do you know you changed your heart?”

 

Prudence is Good, but Not By Itself

The discussion started by Sam boils down to this: honor is a sacred quality, and prudence is by necessity profane, worldly. People have always in the back of their minds, or explicitly, believed that we should be able to embrace with sacred without resorting to incentives which derive from profane motivations.

When all is said and done, however, I agree with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and the profane are deeply intertwined, inseparable even. To speak of a human good we have to consider human nature. If our ideal is utterly unmoved by honors then our ideal is unattainable, even by approximation.

Aristotle’s mean, or intermediate, never involves discarding motivations entirely, but rather experiencing them in the right way, in the right circumstance, in the right amount, and so on. An honorable person will do what is right even when no one will honor them, but the prudently honorable person also understands that much of the time this does work out to your advantage. That does not mean that prudence justifies honor—just that the concerns of the sacred and the profane must work together (not simply be balanced) in subtle ways that require experience and practical reason to judge, not to mention peers and community.

Just as the tension that the artist feels between their vision and the demands of making a living can yield work just as great (and arguably greater) than the independently wealthy artist, so too does the tension the actual person feels between honor and prudence yield more truly honorable behavior than the person utterly indifferent to what is honored by other people.