Thursday, 17 April 2008

McDowell's Theory of Virtue and the Multivocality Objection

One objection to McDowell’s account of virtue is that it seems to give rise to a multivocal account moral aspirations. This multivocality is viewed as problematic since it makes it unclear what the appropriate target of our moral aspirations should be.

Intuitively, one should strive to be like the ideal agent. This seems to be, in part, constitutive of what it means to be the ideal. If this is right, then it would seem that the thing to do would be to emulate the ideal (i.e., virtuous) agent. For McDowell, this means not only acting as the virtuous agent acts, but also employing the same methodology for arriving at one’s moral judgements—namely, moral perception. However, since I know that I am not the ideal, and that I am therefore unable to arrive at what I ought to do via moral perception, I should really aspire towards ratiocination (i.e., all-things-considered judgements). Admittedly, this would represent a step down from the ideal, but given my less-than-ideal status, it seems to be the best I could aspire towards.

The worry that this objection points to is that once we recognise that we are less-than-ideal agents, the ideal can on longer serve as the target of our moral aspirations. In stead of asking, what would Jesus do (i.e., the ideal agent), we seem obliged to ask what would the impetuous-but-well-meaning-apostle Peter do (i.e., the continent agent). Or, to put the matter in more McDowellian and less New-Testament-theological terms, the appropriate question for agents who recognise that they fall short of the ideal moral agent is not “what would the virtuous agent do?” but “what would the continent agent do?” This seems to follow from the fact that on McDowell’s picture the difference between the cognitive methodologies of the virtuous and non-virtuous agents (i.e., perception and ratiocination respectively) is one of kind rather than merely degree. This difference in the respective methodologies of the virtuous and non-virtuous agent opens up the lacuna that allows the multivocality worry to take hold.

This worry may further motivate the desire to have ratiocination figure as a perfectly legitimate part of the virtuous agent’s cognitive moral apparatus. If both the virtuous and continent agent, alike, are pictured as relying on ratiocination, the path appears cleared for the continent agent to become (or at least make some progress towards becoming) the virtuous agent. But so long as their methodologies remain distinct, then our awareness of our own imperfection seems to normatively confine us to emulate (i.e., employ the methodology of) the non-virtuous agent.

I believe the multivocality objection (at least in its present form) errs by construing McDowell’s account of the methodology of the continent agent (i.e., ratiocination) as prescriptive when, by McDowell’s lights, it is purely descriptive. To wit, one is never supposed to aspire towards ratiocination. Rather, moral ratiocination is simply the default position of an agent who suffers from clouded perception. Recall, the virtuous subject’s moral perception constitutes an overriding reason that silences all other reasons. By contrast, the moral perception of the non-virtuous agent is not able to silence all other reasons, which leave several competing reasons in play at once. This leads to a weighing of moral reasons, and this weighing of moral reasons just is what I have been calling moral ratiocination. The upshot of this is that ratiocination, on McDowell’s picture, always amounts to a fall back position (i.e., faute de mieux) and never to an ideal to be aspired towards.

1 comment:

Alex Scott said...

Very interesting post. I've been thinking recently about the ideal moral agent as something analogous to the ideal speaker of a moral language, and the relation that this might have to Chomsky's distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance. For an ideal speaker, there would presumably be no gap between linguistic competence (knowledge of the rules of a language) and linguistic performance (the actual use of that language in interpersonal situations)

The problem with not striving to come as close as we can to being ideal moral agents is that it may encourage us to accept a lower standard for our moral conduct than we are actually capable of achieving. It's a slippery slope; we may begin to expect less and less of ourselves, and end up saying, "well, that was the best I could do." Somehow it seems that it would be better, in some cases, to try to achieve a moral ideal, even if we may fail in the attempt. At least we'll be able to say that we did our best to try to resemble ideal moral agents. What is an acceptable minimum for moral conduct? Those who expect very little of themselves may be able feel very comfortable with backsliding. Doesn't the life of virtue require some commitment, self-sacrifice, and acceptance of our own vulnerability if we allow ourselves to truly care for others?