Frank is not a bad person though he does bad actions?

There is a lovely blog called AusomeAwestin, and for the purposes of this post, I will address the author as Awestin. I cannot tell to whom the blog belongs, but nobody just writes on Mark Timmons in metaethics without at the very least being either a graduate student or established scholar of ethics and metaethics. From what I can tell of the self-admitted survey, we have similar metaethical positions minus the untenability of virtue ethics, which is largely what I will be discussing today. At one time, I loved W. D. Ross, thought that moral properties were nonnatural, and thought that values should be described as moral properties. I am very sympathetic to these positions. Moreover, since I am doing House of Cards and Philosophy, I wanted to make a few brief comments about one particular post that struck my fancy. This would have never happened if they did not like a blog post of mine, so I am returning the favor.

Consider Awestin’s blog post here. Let me summarize the argument as I understand it.

Following Gilbert Harman, Awestin embraces the critique of virtue ethics based on Harman’s objection to moral realism, and the implicit premise unstated here is that virtues of a person are moral properties in a realist sense. Obviously from his Nature of Morality, Harman distinguishes between scientific observations and moral observations. Like scientific observtions, moral observations should be explained by the normative theory I accept. Obsservations are evidence for theories. So the analogy holds to scientifc observation should directly support the theory I adopt about physical objects and perception just as much as moral observations should support the moral theories I adopt. Clearly, Frank Underwood could be a very good candidated for being a bad person.

But wait, as Awestin believes, the observation that Frank is a bad person does not support the moral theory of virtue ethics. “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. ” At best, the moral observations are reports about sociological and psychological facts about how Frank behaves and the relevant assessments that belong to our cultural milieu. We are limited only to moral observations. Put more boldly by Awestin, “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.” Virtue ethics cannot account for the supervenience of moral facts onto the nonmoral psychological facts about persons. I want to ignore Sturgeon’s response to Harman, as Awestin thinks that the virtue ethicist falls at the feet of Harman from the get go, though other forms of moral realism are implicitly safe from this critique apart from virtue ethics (though to be fair we are never told why, but also I am forgiving for blog post philosophizing just the same).

Since virtue ethics describes persons and not actions and states of affairs, virtue ethicists must be committed to attributing moral properties to persons. If a person can be good or bad, then we are forced to regard moral properties as belonging to persons when moral properties make more sense when applied to actions and state of affairs. Harman and Awestin think moral properties about persons 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.”

There are several responses to all of this I would like to maintain, but most notably, I wonder why we must think of values as properties at all. The reason we think of properties falls at the feet as to how the term properties entered moral philosophy historically and its entrance carries with an entire history of metaphysical baggage that problem-based analytic philosophy is unwilling to think through. Like many other metaphysical terms, the use of “moral properties” commits us to the baggage that constitutes them. They are regarded as mind-independent, somehow motivating, and only properly thought to belong to actions and states of affairs–which is easy to explain historically. We first thought of properties as part of objects, and actions and state of affairs are closer to objects than persons are. Yet, the strange thing is that values are realized through persons as that which brings value into being. Property-talk about values reifies them naturally when the metaphysics of values is truly somewhere between mind-independence and mind-dependence. The former and the latter presuppose a strict split between subject and objects, and for reasons to long I cannot defend this here. Needless to say, values are not properties as much as they are correlates of emotion that condition how various phenomena are given to us.

Second, Awestin seems to think that action-guidance is a goal of moral theory itself. However, virtue ethics provides a way to talk about how persons ought to realize themselves as a deeply flourishing human being. When we only think about actions and states of affairs, we sever the connection between the type of people we ought to be since living out a life of virtue and connects philosophizing back with the concrete world of experience rather than severing ethics from the concrete life due to the fanciful abstractions of analytic moral theory. Only by conceptualizing human life through how we are deciding to be can ethics make any headway and connect up with how we ought to live. Therefore, the goal of ethics is not to tease out our prima facie moral intuitions about actions and state of affairs and somehow to establish a reflective equilibrium between my intuitions and principles, but to offer us a way to conceive of human life, the choices we make, and to offer us a way to talk about realizing a complete life.

Let’s go back to Frank Underwood. Connected to popular culture, Underwood epitomizes the hyperbolic fear that politicians could be that bad.He is a type of vicious person. He swindles, deceives, and murders people. He is the type of human being we should never be, and it’s not just the actions that are wrong. That’s only part of it. He is realizing a normative type of life that one should never lead. That’s it. End of story. If you advocate a form of moral realism that severs ethics from the type of person someone is becoming, it’s not that virtue ethics is full of shit, but the abstractions that have convinced you otherwise about ethics.

2 Replies to “Frank is not a bad person though he does bad actions?”

  1. Reblogged this on ausomeawestin and commented:
    I’m very honored that Ed Hackett has written an extensive response to one of my blog entries when I’m sure he is quite busy, being as it is the beginning of the semester. Aside from being deeply flattered by some of Ed’s comments, I also am very grateful for the opportunity to have a discussion about some particularly interesting issues in metaethics.

    Before getting to the really interesting ideas Hackett presents I do want to note that I thought I had explicitly stated why I thought forms of moral realism that focus on actions and states of affairs do avoid Harman’s objection while virtue ethic versions do not: because Sturgeon’s counterfactual test response to Harman’s objection works for actions and states of affairs but not virtue ascriptions (Contra: “I want to ignore Sturgeon’s response to Harman, as Awestin thinks that the virtue ethicist falls at the feet of Harman from the get go, though other forms of moral realism are implicitly safe from this critique apart from virtue ethics (though to be fair we are never told why)”).

    The truly fascinating defense of virtue ethics that Hackett proposes involves denying that values are best understood as properties, quite ingeniously noting that not thinking of values as properties uniquely sidesteps the issue of how to characterize mind-independence in a way that is true to folk concepts of objectivity while still honoring the idea that the “to-be-pursued-ness” built into moral properties entails the need for someone to perceive them. The idea seems to be that talk of properties presupposes a clear divide between subject and object, of which Hackett hints at being skeptical. While Hackett may only be suggesting that we should not venture outside of Kant’s phenomenal realm, one might begin to wonder if this is truly a fruitful way of defending virtue ethics, as we begin to near irrealist territory, at least of a constructivist sort. Of course, this might be something the virtue ethicist is not ashamed of, and my trepidation venturing into constructivist possibilities might just be fighting against the tides that pull away from property-talk. Still, if it is possible to defend a conception of properties that captures the notion in which they seem objective in not being decided by our whims and yet exist only through the experience of a subject (something like Stratton-Lake’s view) then I think we should favor talk of properties over Hackett’s non-property route, given the assertoric nature of moral discourse.

    1. In abandoning, property-talk, I am indeed asking you to reflect on the metaphilosophical commitments that define the landscape of metaethics. This involves a host of binary oppositions that define that landscape: subject/object, value/action, person/world as well as dispensing with the idea that somehow philosophical reflection is above and beyond folk concepts. With that said, I do have some clues on how to proceed, that is, if you’re willing to listen.

      First, the pursuedness is that values call us on an experiential level. Every person has a pre-cognitive and pre-reflective affective intentionality (and here intentionality means the Husserlian variety and not the incoherent and superficial aboutness of Nagel and his bats). Instead, feeling acts always correlate to a value-quality, and this co-relational affective intentionality gives us access to the values we “feel” (or perceive if you will, though perceive is more your intuitionist term that severs subjects from objects; Scheler’s term is value-ception). Understanding moral experience this way allows us to explain why we experience persons, goods, and action as valuable. We experience this value-ception and it opens us up to the objective value-qualities associated with all aspects of experience.

      Second, the decided area of incompleteness in Scheler’s project is that Scheler’s phenomenology of value provides a metaethical description of how it is we truly experience values rather than a prescriptive element, nor does it impose already-made conceptions unto experience. It shows, like intuitionism, that we have insight into the structure of how experience unfolds and what material/content is experienced as such. More than that, the values are also given in relation to each other, and given in such a way that we intuit. As such, Scheler’s account is neither a constructivism tending towards irrealism (though I prefer the term anti-realism) or a strict moral realism. Instead, Scheler advocates a metaethical version of moral realism I have called participatory realism. Since values originate and are realized metaphysically by our participation in affective intentional acts, values only enter the world through our dynamic experience at the level of intrapersonal experience. They are efficaciously felt, and feeling here does not mean “whims” or something “subjective” since, as I have hinted, intentionalty collapses the strict ontological independence between mind and world.

      It’s hard to convey these insights in full since so much of what needs to happen must come first. The powers and strengths over phenomenology must be conveyed to an analytic audience that accepts the metaphilosophical commitments that carve up experience in ways that hinder understanding what phenomenology is claiming as much as why it succeeds where analytic epistemology and value ontology fail.

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