Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The Perceptual Model as Ideal in McDowell's Account of Virtuous Agency

Avery has written a number of interesting posts about McDowell’s conception of virtuous agency. Here, I would like to offer a reason why McDowell thinks that the virtuous agent has a correct perception of what has to be done, when a particular situation calls for a particular ethically salient action.

Let’s begin by making a distinction between two ways of understanding the aetiology of a particular morally correct action: (1) the Perceptual Model, and (2) the Ratiocinative Model. (I’m trying to follow Avery’s terminology here.) On the Perceptual Model of morally correct action, a virtuous agent is moved to act by his or her perception of what that particular situation demands. Here, the virtuous agent does not think about what he or she ought to do before or while performing the relevant action. The sense in which the virtuous agent does not “think about” what ought to be done can be given an intuitive gloss: the agent is moved to act by an inculcated habit, which is very much like a reflex. In contrast, on the Ratiocinative Model of morally correct action, a virtuous agent is moved to act by his or her entertaining a thought to the effect that “That such-and-such is to be done, here and now”. On this model, the virtuous agent must first entertain such a thought and then act accordingly.

Now, McDowell elevates the status of the Perceptual Model to that of an ideal. Why does he set aside the Ratiocinative Model as being unworthy of the ideal status? Why might he think that Ratiocination ought not to be attributed to the ideal virtuous agent’s motivational psychology? I believe that McDowell elevates this model of virtuous agency to the status of ideal because he wants us to think of the ideal virtuous agent as having a special kind of non-inferential knowledge of a particular ethically salient matter of fact. The notion of non-inferential knowledge allows no room for the kind of error in reasoning in which one’s thinking begins with a correct apprehension of some segment of reality, and ends with a non-apprehension of any segment of reality. Non-inferential knowledge is both immediately ascertained and constitutes an accurate apprehension of some segment of reality. Coupled with McDowell’s account of the fundamentally relational and exhaustively conceptual nature of perceptual experience, non-inferential knowledge of a particular ethically salient matter of fact is perfect, indefeasible knowledge of what must be done, here and now, in the perceptible world. In effect, I believe that McDowell’s notion of the ideal virtuous agent is the idea of an Omniscient Agent.

But this does not yet constitute an answer to the question: Why is ratiocination ruled out? The answer, I think, is this: McDowell is assuming that we non-ideal (non-omniscient) agents use ratiocination as a means of discovering particular matters of fact about the empirical world, and that this means of gaining knowledge is simply not required by the ideal (omniscient) virtuous agent. The ideal (omniscient) virtuous agent registers each and every ethically salient fact, in each and every particular occasion, by perception alone.

I think this is a very provocative and plausible way of understanding the notion of an ideal virtuous agent, but I'm curious to know (1) whether anyone thinks that I've correctly described McDowell's position here, and if so, (2) whether anyone finds the position thus described plausible?


Roman Altshuler said...

Interesting. Are you suggesting that, on McDowell's account, a non-ideal agent can only gain moral knowledge through racionation and not through perception? That would be plausible, but fairly pointless, since it would say nothing about non-ideal agents.

But I think for McDowell non-ideal agents do perceive the salient moral features of a situation; they just don't perceive them as giving overriding reasons to act. The problem with Ratiocination is precisely that non-virtuous agents have to weigh moral and non-moral goods against each other in a way that virtuous agents don't. And it is this process that leads them astray.

Michael Brent said...

Hi Roman,

Thanks for your comment. I don't think that McDowell must be committed to the notion that a non-ideal virtuous agent can gain knowledge of how to act only through ratiocination. I think that a non-ideal virtuous agent can come to know that a particular situation requires that he or she perform a particular ethically salient action, and that he or she can come to have this knowledge through perceiving something like "Such-and-such is the thing to do here and now". (Indeed, on at least two occasions in my own life, exactly this has happened, and I hardly count as an ideal virtuous agent!)

And I agree that, for McDowell, the trouble for the non-ideal virtuous agent is that he or she has a clouded perception of the morally salient features of some fact of the matter. But I don't think that the problem with Ratiocination is merely the fact that the non-virtuous agent must weigh reasons. Rather, the non-virtuous agent must weigh reasons *because* of the faulty or clouded manner in which the world appears to him or her. That is, the non-virtuous agents are lead astray first and foremost by their faulty perceptual experience, not by the process of Ratiocination itself.