2005/08/05

Prescribed "Goodness"?

From recent musings:

Let us grant the following point, that everyone who is acting rationally is acting according to some "code" of ethics. Here ethics means, in the descriptive sense, just that to do with action. Specifically, the topic of ethics is the topic of how people act. And everyone who is not insane acts according to some rule(s)--that is, principles--extant "in the mind" of the agent prior to action. That all is a fancy way of saying this--there is some principle upon which all actions that are voluntary can be said to be based, and this is not purely relative to the particular situation. In other words, you have a reason for doing what you do, and it's not "I just felt like it."

(Discount, for our purposes, those actions undertaken according to whims. This is the class of things, such as touching a spot on the wall, to which and intelligible andswer to the question "Why did she do it?" is "No reason." These, though intelligible, are "irrational.")

The point should be easy to swallow. Everybody, even the sociopath, acts according to a set of (perhaps very vague) principles, such as obtain pleasure or obery God's command. Or is it so easy?

The deontologist will want to say that a rule sits at the heart of all action. The conditional is a rule, and ethics rests at the point where we sort out the categorically required from the hypothitically required, or again the rationally acceptable from the unacceptable. I don't mean to be making claims about which of these is right, since I want to say that the formal principle of action really does not need to be operative in action.

Such a claim seems to run contrary to Kant's famous declaration that it is impossible to be certain that what is undertaken is undertaken morally (well); for (on some interpretations, anyway) only when the formal requirement of the categorical imperative is the motivator of action can a "good heart" be acting as such. (Cf. various readings of the Groundwork.) But again, I want to clarify what's going on with my claim contra such rule-bound views. (Yes I am playing fast and loose with Kant here, so sue me.)

The trick is that the genus of the good act, say an act of charity, need not be undertaken as such but one of an indefinitely large number of situation-specific species which cite not vitue or an attempt at goodness but rather some particular that can be taken as a nonmoral fact of the situation. For the example we imagine the answer to our motivational query being something like "She needed help," or "She was injured" (but this does not rule out the claim that "It was the right thing to do" or "Because I wanted to be charitable"--though mention of the specific virtue seems rather quaint and unusual).

This description is coming from a virtue theory, where we can dispense with the need for a decision procedure to be generated by the ethical theory. But I'm not levying that criticism of deontological theories here, so let us pass over it. The point is that although a "code" is in place for this person in doing a good act, the rules need not be appealed to explicitly, or consciously (i.e. at all) in order to interpret an action, correctly, as being a morally approved one.

Now let us look at the rationality in play here. We will be speaking of "practical rationality" under some definition. That in itself is a problem that needs to be addressed, but that is another problem for another day. Practical rationality is the faculty enabling one to decide how to act. Let us suppose that this is a desiderative mechanism of mind, and not specify its "excellence" as yet. For we do not wish to argue from definition.

...

The following is only a start, but let's say we buy some sort of account following Aquinas. So the special sort of action reserved for adult humans (intelligent persons, or beings having reason) is to go after something seen as in some way good. The selfish man's action is "rational" just insofar as we can understand why he does what he does, i.e. to fulfill his own advantage. Cf. Candace Vogler's Reasonably Vicious.

This thread of though has just run dry, as I try to clarify a few things, but I hope to post a bit more along this line in the next few days.

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