1. Donationbbarr
    Chief Justice
    Center of Contention
    Joined
    14 Jun '02
    Moves
    17381
    24 May '08 21:20
    Among the detritus of a recent thread I found a gem by the estimable Vistesd, which I think calls for sustained discussion. His questions are in bold, my responses are interstitial:

    I suspect that people do things for a lot of reasons. If I do something “good” (generous, compassionate, whatever) for someone because I want to, is that by definition selfish? (I don’t mind the tag, so cannot be offended by it.) Does it matter?

    Whenever we engage in an intentional action we do so on the basis of some motivational state. But motivational states are not selfish just by virtue of being ours. Motivational states are selfish only when they take the self as their object. A compassionate agent, for instance, will characteristically be motivated to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of others. She will tend to notice such suffering, take such suffering as reason-giving, believe that such suffering ought to be alleviated, etc. She has a constellation of perceptual, cognitive, affective and motivational dispositions oriented towards the alleviation of suffering. She certainly wants to alleviate the suffering of others, but this motivational state aims at the alleviation of suffering, not at anything that may be regarded as selfish. Contrast this with the merely prudential agent, who may intentionally alleviate the suffering of others because he hopes for some reward.

    It certainly does matter whether our motivations are selfish. It indicates a real character defect if one all and only is motivated selfishly. Further, such egoism is incompatible with flourishing. One cannot have meaningful intimate relationships unless one is disposed to be directly concerned for the welfare of others. It should be clear that when, in the context of a relationship, one begins to wonder "What am I getting out of this?", the relationship is already in deep trouble.

    If I do something “good” for someone because I think that I should—well, does that mean that I simply want to do whatever I think that I should do? Does the decision to do what I think I should mean that I have placed some value on the should such that it becomes a want?

    Theorists disagree about the ability of thoughts and beliefs to motivate. Humeans, for instance, think that only desires or desire-like states can motivate, and that beliefs serve only to guide one in the satisfaction of one's desires. But I doubt this is the case, for two reasons: First, we often do things in the belief that we should, even though we do not desire to do so. Now, one could say that if one does something, it necessarily follows (i.e., it is a conceptual truth) that one desired to do it. But this is either question-begging in the context of a debate about the structure of practical reason or it is trivial if one takes desires to be just whatever it is that motivates action. Second, it seems pretty clear to me that beliefs have motivational content. If I sincerely believe that P, I will be disposed to treat the world as though P in thought and in action.

    Does an act of moral “good” require, to be called such, that I absolutely do not want to do it—for any reason? Must I somehow feel “bad” about doing good? If I feel “good” about doing good, does that make it less virtuous? (After all, I like to feel “good”.)

    No, that is all crazy talk. Virtuous agents are such that their affective responses reflect their normative evaluations. The compassionate agent wants to alleviate suffering, and will feel relief and satisfaction at doing so. She will regret failing to alleviate suffering, and may feel shame at failing to notice such suffering or guilt at not taking the appropriate measures to alleviate such suffering.

    Is it possible for morally good actions to simply flow from a person’s character, without any reflection about want or should at all?

    Yes, and this happens all the time. How often do you actually explicitly deliberate about what you ought to do? Someone asks you a question, you are inclined to tell the truth. That this is an opportunity for deception does not cross your mind. If a loved one is in distress, you are inclined to go to them and offer support and assistance. That this is an opportunity for callousness does not cross your mind. This is one attractive feature of virtue ethics; it does not hyper-intellectualize ethical action by requiring agents to do things from any explicit recognition that what they are doing is required or good. The very structure of the motivations of the virtuous agent reflect the good, as these motivations track the ethical reasons that there are in the case at hand.

    What about morally evil acts? Most of the most egregious ones that you could list, I find that I simply have no desire to commit. Is that morally virtuous on my part?

    It is a manifestation of virtue, as it is reflective of your character and evaluative framework.

    I have never found morality—at least on the theoretical level—to be as simple and straightforward as some people seem to. I’m not at all sure that following some prescribed set of rules (shoulds) in all circumstances solves the problem. There is a quote that I stumbled on some time back that I like—

    “When it comes to shaping one’s personal behavior, all the rules of morality, as precise as they may be, remain abstract in the face of the infinite complexity of the concrete.”


    Ethics cannot be codified. Being a good person, living a good life, none of this is algorithmic. We may employ heuristical rules to guide our conduct, but these are just empirical generalizations, not moral laws. Further, we tend to employ these rules only when we are in complex or novel situations where it is opaque what we ought to do. Finally, application of rules requires character. We have to be able to see when a rule applies, and we cannot do this on the basis of further rules without the threat of regress. We have to be able to judge how a rule is to be appropriately applied, and judge how to mediate between apparent conflicts of rules.

    If someone follows some religion simply to attain an after-life reward (or any other kind of reward), I would say that is selfish by definition (as I say, I don’t mind the label myself, so neither find nor intend it to be offensive).

    Yep, but, as you say, not all selfish motivations are bad.

    However, I would also say that it is a pragmatic choice, not necessarily a moral one—that is, that it has nothing necessarily to do about morality one way or the other. How one goes about following that religion—what they are willing to condone or condemn, for example, in order to follow it—that certainly has moral implications.

    I am not so sure that this choice has no moral implications. First, if what one is ultimately after is one's own salvation, the threat is that this motivation will underwrite actions that should be motivated by direct concern for others. I should treat my friend well because I care for my friend; I take him as a source of my reasons or as a final end. To treat him well because it is a requirement for my own salvation is egregiously self-indulgent; it is to be motivated in the manner of a child. Second, when one sincerely follows a religion, one's character tends to be shaped by the normative commitments of that religion. If one begins to think that God's decree is the source of ethics, then one may well come to be motivated for precisely those reasons. You can imagine why a spouse would find unpalatable the thought that she was loved because God commanded her husband to do so.
  2. Donationrwingett
    Ming the Merciless
    Royal Oak, MI
    Joined
    09 Sep '01
    Moves
    26187
    25 May '08 14:481 edit
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Among the detritus of a recent thread I found a gem by the estimable Vistesd, which I think calls for sustained discussion. His questions are in bold, my responses are interstitial:

    I suspect that people do things for a lot of reasons. If I do something “good” (generous, compassionate, whatever) for someone because I want to, is that by definition selfi ind unpalatable the thought that she was loved because God commanded her husband to do so.
    I cannot comment on every point in this thread, but I am reminded of the character Jean-Baptiste Clemence, from Camus' novel 'The Fall.' He is a highly respected defense lawyer who takes on the cases of poor people, he gives to charity and helps blind people across the street. In short, he is seemingly a paragon of selflessness. His 'fall' is brought about by the realization that all his seeming virtuosity was in fact engaged in for very selfish reasons. To improve his status within the community or to improve his self image, for example. He concludes that his life has been a sham.

    The question, I suppose, is whether altruism is really possible. Does 'seeking to improve one's karma' turn it into a self-interested act.
  3. Joined
    27 Sep '06
    Moves
    9651
    25 May '08 20:35
    Originally posted by rwingett
    I cannot comment on every point in this thread, but I am reminded of the character Jean-Baptiste Clemence, from Camus' novel 'The Fall.' He is a highly respected defense lawyer who takes on the cases of poor people, he gives to charity and helps blind people across the street. In short, he is seemingly a paragon of selflessness. His 'fall' is brought about ...[text shortened]... ally possible. Does 'seeking to improve one's karma' turn it into a self-interested act.
    In other words we can't win!
  4. Subscribersonhouse
    Fast and Curious
    slatington, pa, usa
    Joined
    28 Dec '04
    Moves
    52617
    25 May '08 21:21
    Originally posted by josephw
    In other words we can't win!
    Personally, I don't really believe someone goes and rescues a little girl from a fire, say, while thinking, I just made brownie points with god, now I KNOW I'll be in heaven. When those situations happen, it could just as well be a muslim, a jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a terrorist, who would fly in the face of danger to get the job done.
    It happened to me one time, on vacation in Canada with my family, we were driving near Niagra and drove up on a semi on its side off the side of the road. So I got out to see what was up, and about a dozen people were there just dumbly staring at the truck. I could see the driver pinned down with the passenger seat having come apart and landed on top of him and he was twisted around where he couldn't move. The asholes standing around were doing nothing but staring with stupid Jerry Springer kind of people looks to them. I saw fuel leaking out of the fuel tank and into the cab, I just envisioned the whole thing going up in flames and the guy trapped inside. He had a gf who got out. Totally unthinking, I just started climbing the side of the truck (it REALLY looks big when you try that btw) and got up to the passenger side window and had already figured out if I had just smashed the windshield from the outside, I could get glass in his eyes and he would not have been able to do anything about it, so from the passenger side window, I got my feet inside and kicked the windshield out from the inside and then pulled up on the passenger seat enough so he could extricate himself and climb out the window, now sans glass.
    At no time before, during or afterwards did it ever even occur to me about what a good deed I was doing or what attaboys I had coming. I was too busy thinking about that dripping fuel. Fortunutely there was no fire but at least the guy got out in one piece and the bf and gf had a tearful reunion, while we left, not wanting to wait till Canadian police showed up and get involved in a big investigation. All the while I was doing that, not one of those Springer clones lifted a finger to help. THAT pissed me off more than anything else. But the point was, there was never a thought of reward, either here and now or in whatever passes for afterlife, which I personally don't believe in anyway. I think most people do good deeds like that, especially in life threatening situations. I suppose there are those who keep a running tally of good deeds or something but that is a sure sign of being sick if you ask me.
  5. Joined
    27 Sep '06
    Moves
    9651
    25 May '08 21:29
    Originally posted by sonhouse
    Personally, I don't really believe someone goes and rescues a little girl from a fire, say, while thinking, I just made brownie points with god, now I KNOW I'll be in heaven. When those situations happen, it could just as well be a muslim, a jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a terrorist, who would fly in the face of danger to get the job done.
    It happened to m ...[text shortened]... unning tally of good deeds or something but that is a sure sign of being sick if you ask me.
    I read about your experience in another thread and replied to you there about it.

    I have news for you. One can do good deeds all their lives, but it won't get one into heaven. Eternal life is a gift that can't be earned.

    Christians aren't the only people on the planet doing good. But in that context it's a matter of quality and not quantity.
  6. Joined
    15 Oct '06
    Moves
    10115
    25 May '08 22:19
    Originally posted by rwingett
    I cannot comment on every point in this thread, but I am reminded of the character Jean-Baptiste Clemence, from Camus' novel 'The Fall.' He is a highly respected defense lawyer who takes on the cases of poor people, he gives to charity and helps blind people across the street. In short, he is seemingly a paragon of selflessness. His 'fall' is brought about ...[text shortened]... ally possible. Does 'seeking to improve one's karma' turn it into a self-interested act.
    What of the individual who acts righteously simply because to do otherwise isn't an option for them?
  7. Hmmm . . .
    Joined
    19 Jan '04
    Moves
    22131
    26 May '08 06:081 edit
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Among the detritus of a recent thread I found a gem by the estimable Vistesd, which I think calls for sustained discussion. His questions are in bold, my responses are interstitial:

    [b]I suspect that people do things for a lot of reasons. If I do something “good” (generous, compassionate, whatever) for someone because I want to, is that by definition selfi ind unpalatable the thought that she was loved because God commanded her husband to do so.
    [/b]Thanks, Bennett.

    It certainly does matter whether our motivations are selfish. It indicates a real character defect if one all and only is motivated selfishly. Further, such egoism is incompatible with flourishing. One cannot have meaningful intimate relationships unless one is disposed to be directly concerned for the welfare of others. It should be clear that when, in the context of a relationship, one begins to wonder "What am I getting out of this?", the relationship is already in deep trouble.

    I agree with all of this, and I suspect it would surprise you if I didn’t. I, however, did not attempt in any of my questions to define “selfish.” Some people would undoubtedly find the goal of living a flourishing life innately “selfish,” rather than seeing flourishing as a good and such a life as virtuous. But I have really lost all interest in defending myself against the charge, or, as I said, even feeling offended or affronted by it.

    Although “happiness” may not be an accurate translation of eudaimonia, living a flourishing life certainly implies living a joyful life, and I agree that “such egoism is incompatible” with it. Mystics tend to be joyful folk; never trust a joyless mystic. I tend on here, with reason, to define mysticism in terms of simple clear awareness of tathata, the just-suchness of it all, of which we also inseparably are; I do that to avoid inferences of the supernatural or occultism and the like. A better way might be to call it a natural flourishing intimacy in/with/of that just-suchness.

    Note: By “joy” and “joyfulness”, I mean precisely that emotional state that reflects a flourishing, harmonious life; grief (see below) is the primary emotional that signals the opposite.

    No, that is all crazy talk. Virtuous agents are such that their affective responses reflect their normative evaluations. The compassionate agent wants to alleviate suffering, and will feel relief and satisfaction at doing so. She will regret failing to alleviate suffering, and may feel shame at failing to notice such suffering or guilt at not taking the appropriate measures to alleviate such suffering.

    It is crazy. But a whole puritanistic culture is built on it; one which I imbibed and allowed to stalk my life until I was 40 or so.

    The only thing that I’ll argue with is use of the words “shame” and “guilt.” Replace them with grief. If someone tells me they feel ashamed or guilty about something, I’m likely to ask them if they feel sad. Grief is a primary emotion; shame and guilt are not. For me, shame and guilt (guilt as a feeling, not guilt as an acknowledgement) tend precisely toward the egoism you are talking about. For the type of person you call virtuous, grief would be the principal emotion that signals behavior that takes one out of the “flourishing zone”. What could it possibly mean for me to feel shame/guilt over injuring the beloved, but not grief?

    [The primary emotions are joy, grief, anger and fear in an imminent threat situation (the survival response), and disgust (also a survival response).]

    ____________________________________________

    Except for the comment below, I agree with everything else you’re saying. It may be why I find debates about moral theory personally frustrating. I certainly do not claim to never commit ethical errors; but, if I am sufficiently self-attuned (sometimes that takes more reflection than others), I am aware of them. I feel grief over them; if I can make amends, I do; sometimes I cannot. I grieve and move on.

    First, if what one is ultimately after is one's own salvation, the threat is that this motivation will underwrite actions that should be motivated by direct concern for others. I should treat my friend well because I care for my friend; I take him as a source of my reasons or as a final end. To treat him well because it is a requirement for my own salvation is egregiously self-indulgent; it is to be motivated in the manner of a child.

    Yes, but I don’t see the moral implications coming in until that point. I did use the word “necessarily.”

    Further—and this is speaking personally—I either treat my friend well because I care for him or I don’t. I cannot care for my friend because I “should.” It’s a little like what you said above: if I care for my friend because I “should”, what kind of friendship is that? “The relationship is already in deep trouble.”

    I strive to live in what I have called the We, which is a perhaps overly poetic term (or, worse, overly romantic). Call it , perhaps, living in realization of the inescapable intimacy of the tathata, of which I also inseparably am. There, I don’t think “should”. When I start to think in such terms, I am not there. I even find it difficult to think in terms of “because.” I don’t think in terms of “justification”. Those are not even categories that I think in (the question of whether, or not, my existence is somehow “justified” makes no sense to me). When I start to think in those terms, I’ve already fallen off the famous razor-blade. And most of my stuff on here in the past months has reflected just that.
  8. Standard memberKellyJay
    Walk your Faith
    USA
    Joined
    24 May '04
    Moves
    148432
    26 May '08 11:40
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Among the detritus of a recent thread I found a gem by the estimable Vistesd, which I think calls for sustained discussion. His questions are in bold, my responses are interstitial:

    [b]I suspect that people do things for a lot of reasons. If I do something “good” (generous, compassionate, whatever) for someone because I want to, is that by definition selfi ...[text shortened]... ind unpalatable the thought that she was loved because God commanded her husband to do so.
    You cannot fly right side up if there isn't a right side, or an up.
    Kelly
  9. Donationbbarr
    Chief Justice
    Center of Contention
    Joined
    14 Jun '02
    Moves
    17381
    26 May '08 18:521 edit
    Originally posted by ThinkOfOne
    What of the individual who acts righteously simply because to do otherwise isn't an option for them?
    If they are not being compelled by external forces, and their acting rightly and being motivated appropriately flows from their character, then they are morally exemplary. The compassionate person does not see the suffering of others as an opportunity to either alleviate or exacerbate suffering and then choose the former. Our character, to a large extent, determines what we take our practical options to be.
  10. Donationrwingett
    Ming the Merciless
    Royal Oak, MI
    Joined
    09 Sep '01
    Moves
    26187
    26 May '08 19:50
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Our character, to a large extent, determines what we take our practical options to be.
    I think that it is our circumstances, to a large extent, that determine what we take our practical options to be. I think anyone is likely to commit any crime under the right circumstances. The fact that most people do not commit those crimes is because they have not been confronted with those particular circumstances. In one environment Adolph Eichmann grows up to be a nondescript human, in another he grows up to be a Nazi war criminal. In my present environment I look askance at bank robbing. If, in another environment, I am presented with a 100% chance of successfully robbing a bank, would I still refrain from doing so? I don't think anyone can truthfully answer that question until they are confronted with those particular set of circumstances.
  11. Donationbbarr
    Chief Justice
    Center of Contention
    Joined
    14 Jun '02
    Moves
    17381
    26 May '08 21:29
    Originally posted by rwingett
    I think that it is our circumstances, to a large extent, that determine what we take our practical options to be. I think anyone is likely to commit any crime under the right circumstances. The fact that most people do not commit those crimes is because they have not been confronted with those particular circumstances. In one environment Adolph Eichm ...[text shortened]... ully answer that question until they are confronted with those particular set of circumstances.
    Circumstances are interpreted by agents in accord with their character. That this or that is the case is irrelevant to determining action. What is relevant is that an agent takes this or that to be the case, and that he takes the considerations of which he is aware to be reasons that stand in favor of some action. Saying that circumstances do the work seems to me to put the cart before the horse. Of course circumstances do shape the cultivation of our characters, and we can be warped by vicious parents, poverty, etc., but an established character is that in virtue of which we take certain facts about our circumstances to be normative or reason-giving.
  12. Joined
    06 May '05
    Moves
    9174
    27 May '08 01:51
    Originally posted by josephw
    I read about your experience in another thread and replied to you there about it.

    I have news for you. One can do good deeds all their lives, but it won't get one into heaven. Eternal life is a gift that can't be earned.

    Christians aren't the only people on the planet doing good. But in that context it's a matter of quality and not quantity.
    Are you suggesting that if a Christian does good it's of higher quality than if a non christian does good?

    You also say it "can't be earned" - but aren't you earning it if you just believe in christ and take him in as your supposed savior?
  13. Joined
    15 Oct '06
    Moves
    10115
    27 May '08 01:58
    Originally posted by bbarr
    If they are not being compelled by external forces, and their acting rightly and being motivated appropriately flows from their character, then they are morally exemplary. The compassionate person does not see the suffering of others as an opportunity to either alleviate or exacerbate suffering and then choose the former. Our character, to a large extent, determines what we take our practical options to be.
    What is "character"?
  14. Donationbbarr
    Chief Justice
    Center of Contention
    Joined
    14 Jun '02
    Moves
    17381
    27 May '08 02:47
    Originally posted by ThinkOfOne
    What is "character"?
    I use the term to refer to a collection of psychological traits; broad and stable evaluative frameworks, manifesting as dispositions to, ceteris paribus, (i) discern trait relevant features of one’s environment, (ii) take certain trait relevant features of one’s environment as reason giving, (iii) be moved, affectively, by those reason giving features, (iv) to be motivated by those reason giving features where (v) such motivation is sufficient to elicit appropriate actions.
  15. Joined
    15 Oct '06
    Moves
    10115
    27 May '08 20:03
    Originally posted by bbarr
    I use the term to refer to a collection of psychological traits; broad and stable evaluative frameworks, manifesting as dispositions to, ceteris paribus, (i) discern trait relevant features of one’s environment, (ii) take certain trait relevant features of one’s environment as reason giving, (iii) be moved, affectively, by those reason giving feat ...[text shortened]... se reason giving features where (v) such motivation is sufficient to elicit appropriate actions.
    Thanks for the definition. Do you have a conceptual model for the inner workings of "character"? For example, it can be viewed as a function of selfishness vs. virtue where the two are inversely proportional.
Back to Top