Lately, I’ve been pondering the difficulty all Virtue Theories face in defining and justifying what counts as a Virtue, Vice or, in my case, an Indifferent. I had started from Kant’s “Treat everyone not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves” principle, which I tied to the idea that what is critical to morality is moral agency, and that means treating moral agents as moral agents, making — I argued — agency the primary focus. But there’s a lot of work to be done in moving from agency to a full set of virtues and vices, because agency can’t carry the burden itself; there are some things that we do want to think vicious that it seems that agency could carry on its own. That might mean that I need a new underlying principle, but how to come up with that? It seemed a massive puzzle.
But, it turns out, it isn’t. I can start from Kant himself and justify all of my virtues, and didn’t realize the power of the statement that I had already justified. See, I started from agency, but because I started thinking about it from Kant’s principle I didn’t realize that it wasn’t the principle itself that justified my move to agency. That I took from the definition of morality, arguing that morality requires moral agents and so must have as its key principle that moral agents must be treated as moral agents. Thinking that this, then, was the proper translation of Kant’s principle in my model, I needed to find a way to get from that principle to my set of virtues and vices, but it was difficult to do. Why? Because being a moral agent means choosing between what is virtuous and what is vicious, so it’s hard to move from moral agency that says that you must be able to choose between them to a set of virtues and vices that defines what it means to make morally appropriate and inappropriate choices. Basically, I was trying to move from the general definition of “We must respect choosing moral and immoral actions” directly to “And here’s what is and isn’t immoral”, and that’s really hard to do. I needed another step in-between, another premise, to get from the general to the specific.
And what I have is Kant’s actual principle: Treat others not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves. One of the things about agents in general is that they have ends or goals they want to achieve. Moral agents can try to achieve these goals in moral or immoral ways; they are capable of grasping the intellectual force of morality and choosing their means in accordance with it. So, for example, lions have ends, as they count as agents; one of those is to find food. But they aren’t capable, as far as we know, of acting based on a full consideration of moral principles; they are too tightly tied to instincts to properly do that. The same thing could be said for primates, even those that we claim show empathy; they act on empathy, not on a moral consideration of that empathy and how it is properly moral to act on it. Humans, however, really do seem to be capable of properly understanding and acting on moral principles, which is what makes them moral agents. They won’t, of course, always make the right moral decisions, but being capable of making the wrong moral decisions is indeed what makes them moral agents.
So, what we have are moral agents who have ends, and who have the ability to choose the means by which they achieve those ends. From our starting principle, that means that unless we give them the full ability to choose the means they use to achieve their ends, we are not treating them as moral agents. And if we don’t treat them as moral agents, then we are at best amoral and, I would argue, actually being immoral. Thus, we must always keep in mind that they as moral agents have ends. Thus, we must never treat moral agents as merely means to our ends, but in all interactions with moral agents we must treat them as having ends in themselves that they must fulfill, and carefully act always in a manner that allows them to choose moral or immoral means towards their own ends. We don’t have to do that for agents that are not moral agents — ie we can treat them as ends — because the means they use to achieve their ends aren’t relevant because they aren’t moral, and so are at best amoral. Note that this doesn’t mean, however, that we have no moral obligations to animals because we are ourselves moral agents, and have obligations to our own ends and to our own moral means of achieving those ends, and so we can get obligations to animals through that (although a lot more work is required). And unlike modern morality, we can indeed have things that are immoral even if they impact no one except ourselves, if we treat ourselves as means to our own ends instead of as moral agents in and of ourselves.
More work needs to be done, of course, but it’s easy to come up with at least some examples of how this will define certain actions as immoral from these principles:
Murder — If you stop someone from being able to take any actions merely to satisfy your own ends, you are clearly treating them as a means to your end.
Rape — You are clearly simply using them as a means to your desire for sexual pleasure.
Lying — You are impeding their ability to make proper choices so that you can achieve your own ends.
Now, the biggest problem I had previously was this: it looked like under my model that I couldn’t give someone a painless truth serum to get them to tell me where they had hidden a bomb that would kill many people, but that I might be able to torture them to get the information. I got into this problem because I needed to be able to punish people who did wrong, and justified that by claiming that giving people consequences isn’t impeding their choice in a bad way — under the Stoics, things like that are things you should overcome in order to act morally — but clearly taking away any meaningful choice would be. Lying is a case of this because it isn’t just giving them an impediment that they can overcome in order to act virtuously, but is instead making them think that they have the proper information to make their choice when in fact they don’t. They, being unaware that you are deceiving them, can only overcome this deficit by, in fact, not trusting what you tell them, which they have no reason to do. Note that this analysis of lying fits nicely in with Kant’s universal ban on lying, although this allows for white lies in cases where there is no impact on someone’s choices or decisions, such as in Edward Feser’s car joke.
But if I add in another long held principle of mine, I can easily escape this problem. I am, of course, an intentionalist, and a strong one. What you intend to do is what matters in determining morality, not what happens. So, what will determine whether the torture case counts as a “consequences” case will be what your intention in carrying out the torture is. If you torture them to manipulate them into giving you the information, then your intent is wrong and you are doing something immoral. If, on the other hand, your intent is just to take the necessary steps given the situation at hand, then your intent is fine and you are doing nothing immoral. So, for example, if you decide to lock someone in a small room for 3 hours because you think it will make them talk, that’s immoral, but if you lock them in a small room for 3 hours because they are dangerous and that’s the only room available, that’s not immoral.
From this, we can define Virtues, Vices, and Indifferents:
Virtues: Treating a moral agent as a thing that has ends that they can achieve morally or immorally.
Vices: Treating a moral agent only as a means to your ends.
Indifferents: Actions or ends that one can achieve either morally or immorally.
I find the idea that things like money, sex, power, friendship and even food and life are things that don’t in and of themselves have moral value and yet can be rationally desirable irresistable. This allows me to define them: anything that can happen or be achieved by either moral or immoral means (at least in theory). So:
Money: One can become rich by manipulating, lying to, and cheating people, or by producing a really good product or service that everyone wants to buy.
Sex: One can get sexual fulfillment through an open and honest relationship — even one that’s just for sex — or by lies, manipulation or even rape.
Food: One can steal food, or earn it.
Life: Life is just one big set of choices of moral and immoral means, including when one’s life ends.
So, now I have Virtues, Vices and Indifferents, all — I think — justified from what it means to be moral by definition. This is a good place to stop, for now. Later, I’d like to go through the Catholic and Stoic/Greek virtues and vices to see if my model can encompass them, and why they aren’t if I can’t.
Tags: My moral theory