The meta-ethical approach limned in John McDowell’s essay, “Virtue and Reason”, combines the Socratic thesis that “virtue is knowledge” with the Aristotelian thesis that a virtuous agent is one who exhibits a “reliable sensitivity” to the requirements of virtue. McDowell describes this sensitivity as a perceptual capacity—the ability to see, for example, what kindness requires. Significantly, McDowell’s picture does not require that the virtuous agent have the conceptual sophistication to nominally identify the particular virtue (for example, “kindness”) the agent happens to be acting from in a given situation. All that is required is that the agent be able to identify the act that kindness requires as “the thing to do”, whenever acting kindly is what ought to be done. The exercise of this sensitivity amounts to a type of knowledge, according to McDowell, because it involves getting things right.
One preliminary objection McDowell considers to the virtue as knowledge thesis is the claim that a mere sensitivity is insufficient to capture virtue since one may apprehend what one ought to do without being motivated to do it. According to this objection, some added appetitive component is needed, so that virtue is best conceived as a composite of reason and desire. I will refer to this idea as the composite conception. McDowell diagnoses the plausibility of the composite conception as stemming from the putative possibility of a non-virtuous agent perceiving the very same thing as a virtuous agent in a given situation and yet not act as the virtuous agent acts.
McDowell’s response to the composite conception appears to give rise to a dilemma, rooted in (what I shall argue are) conflicting sets of claims. On the one hand, he seems to deny the possibility of a virtuous and non-virtuous agent enjoying matching perceptions vis-à-vis what ought to be done:
If we are to retain the identification of virtue with knowledge, then, by contraposition, we are committed to denying that a virtuous person’s perception of a situation can be precisely matched in someone who, in that situation, acts otherwise than virtuously. (p. 54*).
On the other hand, he rejects Socrates’ claim that the difference between the virtuous and non-virtuous agent is one of ignorance, since this has the unattractive upshot that the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act as the virtuous agent does is involuntary. However, it is not clear that both of these positions can be consistently maintained.
McDowell’s proposed solution is “to allow that someone who fails to act virtuously may, in a way, perceive what a virtuous person would…but to insist that his failure occurs only because his appreciation of what he perceives is clouded, or unfocused, by the impact of a desire to do otherwise.” (p. 54) This reply preserves the idea that virtue is nothing more than a sensitivity since, by McDowell’s lights, the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act is not due to the agent lacking something that the virtuous agent possesses. Thus, there is no need to posit something, like say a desire, to bridge the gap between the virtuous agent’s action and the non-virtuous agent’s inaction. In stead, the reverse seems true by McDowell’s lights. To wit, it is the non-virtuous agent who actually possesses something that the virtuous agent lacks—namely, a perception-clouding desire to do otherwise. However, McDowell points out that the fact that there is an appetitive element present in the case of the non-virtuous agent does not mean that there is an appetitive element present in the case of the virtuous agent as well.
McDowell’s reply to the composite conception seems to concede that the virtuous and non-virtuous agents have the same sensitivity after all, albeit the latter’s sensitivity is accompanied by something extra. Recall, McDowell means to deny that the inactivity of the non-virtuous agent is to be explained in terms of ignorance. As such, he appears to allow that the non-virtuous agent possesses the same knowledge (i.e., sensitivity) that the virtuous agent has. However, if virtue is knowledge, then this seems to entail that the non-virtuous agent also possesses virtue. Admittedly, the non-virtuous agent possesses more than just knowledge (i.e., the relevant sensitivity) since he also possesses a competing desire. But, if virtue just is knowledge, then possession of said knowledge should be a sufficient condition for the agent counting as virtuous. If so, then the fact that the non-virtuous agent also has a perception-clouding desire to do otherwise seems beside the point. (Consider: if possessing mammary glands is sufficient for being a mammal, then the fact one also has a tail in no way ameliorates one’s fulfilment of the sufficient condition.)
The above objection illustrates why the Socratic response to the composite conception—i.e., equating a lack of virtue with ignorance—is so attractive. If one posits a sufficient condition for virtue and one wants to deny that a particular agent is virtuous, then the thing to do would be to deny that the agent meets the sufficient condition, not to say that the agent meets it but has some additional property. Thus, to the extent that Socrates employs the first strategy and McDowell employs the second, the former is preferable to the latter. As already noted, McDowell rejects the Socratic strategy because it has the unattractive upshot that the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act as the virtuous agent does is involuntary. But he seems equally unable (or unwilling) to say that the non-virtuous agent has the relevant knowledge (i.e., sensitivity) since, given the equation of virtue and knowledge, this would imply that the non-virtuous agent is virtuous.
There is a tempting reply to the above dilemma which I believe should be resisted. It is almost impossible to read McDowell’s claim that the virtuous and non-virtuous agents fail to have matching perceptions without thinking of a thesis McDowell advocates elsewhere—namely, experiential disjunctivism. Roughly, experiential disjunctivism amounts to the thesis that perceptual experiences are essentially relational, so that a subject who undergoes a veridical perceptual experience and one who undergoes a phenomenologically indistinguishable illusory experience actually have different types of experiences. On this view, there is no “highest common factor” shared between verdical and illusory experiences which may be cited as an explanation for their phenomenological indistinguishability. Applying this idea to the case of virtue, McDowell may well argue that although the perceptual experience of the virtuous and non-virtuous agents may be in some sense indistinguishable, the fact that the latter’s experience is clouded by a competing desire entails that the non-virtuous agent is having a different type of experience. That McDowell may have had something along these lines in mind is suggested by his carefully placed qualification “in a way”, in his description of the shared perception of the virtuous and non-virtuous:
This is to allow that someone who fails to act virtuously may, in a way, perceive what a virtuous person would…but to insist that his failure occurs only because his appreciation of what he perceives is clouded, or unfocused, by the impact of a desire to do otherwise. (p. 54, Italics mine)
“In a way” is supposed to flag the fact that though similar, perhaps even indistinguishable in some sense, they are ultimately different perceptions and involve the use of different sensitivities. On this view, moral perceptions are to be individuated, in part, by the presence or absence of competing desires to do otherwise.
However, the disjunctive reading of moral perceptions seems powerless to free us from the aforementioned dilemma. First, even if we grant that the virtuous and non-virtuous undergo different types of perceptual experiences, it does not follow from this that they are exercising different types of sensitivities. Presumably, the same sensitivity can be exercised in different ways and can even give rise to different types of experiences. But since it is the exercise of a certain sensitivity, rather than the type of perceptual experience the sensitivity gives rise to, which is to be identified with virtue, then a disjunctive conception of perceptual experiences does little to ameliorate the present worry. Second, even if we allow that the sensitivities exercised by the virtuous and non-virtuous agents are in fact different, this only pushes us unto the second horn of the dilemma outlined earlier. If the virtuous agent has a different sensitivity to that of the non-virtuous agent, then (given that the sensitivity in question is to be equated with knowledge) the non-virtuous agent lacks the relevant piece of knowledge. But that is just to say that the non-virtuous agent suffers from a type of ignorance. Hence, if this is the correct diagnosis of the non-virtuous agent by McDowell’s lights, then McDowell’s position is no better than the Socratic solution.
In sum, McDowell seems confronted with the following dilemma. If he denies that a virtuous agent may have the same knowledge (i.e., moral sensitivity) that the virtuous agent has, then it seems to imply that the non-virtuous agent had no choice but to act non-virtuously. If, on the other hand, he affirms that the non-virtuous agent may have the same knowledge (i.e., moral sensitivity) that the virtuous person has in a particular situation, then given the equation of virtue with knowledge, McDowell’s position would imply that the non-virtuous agent is virtuous.*All page numbers taken from the Mind, Value and Reality anthology.