Ramsifying virtue theory

Draft of a paper to be published in Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.  My controversy is over the question “Can people be virtuous?”  My respondent is James Montmarquet.  Other contributors to the volume include Heather Battaly, Liezl van Zyl, Jason Baehr, Ernie Sosa, Dan Russell, Christian Miller, Bob Roberts, and Nancy Snow.

Ramsifying virtue theory 

Can people be virtuous? This is a hard question, both because of its form and because of its content.

In terms of content, the proposition in question is at once normative and descriptive. Virtue-terms have empirical content. Attributions of virtues figure in the description, prediction, explanation, and control of behavior. If you know that someone is temperate, you can predict with some confidence that he won’t go on a bender this weekend. Someone’s investigating a mysterious phenomenon can be partly explained by (correctly) attributing curiosity to her. Character witnesses are called in trials to help determine how severely a convicted defendant will be punished. Virtue-terms also have normative content. Attributions of virtues are a manifestation of high regard and admiration; they are intrinsically rewarding to their targets; they’re a form of praise. The semantics of purely normative terms is hard enough on its own; the semantics of “thick” terms that have both normative and descriptive content is especially difficult.

Formally, the proposition in question (“people are virtuous”) is a generic, which adds a further wrinkle to its evaluation. It is notoriously difficult to give truth conditions for generics (Leslie 2008). A generic entails its existentially quantified counterpart, but is not entailed by it. For instance, tigers are four-legged, so some tigers are four-legged; but even though some deformed tigers are three-legged, it doesn’t follow that tigers are three-legged. A generic typically is entailed by its universally quantified counterpart, but does not entail it. Furthermore, a generic neither entails nor is entailed by its counterpart “most” statement. Tigers give live birth, but most tigers do not give live birth; after all, only about half of all tigers are female, and not all of them give birth. Most mosquitoes do not carry West Nile virus, but mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Given the trickiness of generics, it’s helpful to clarify them to the extent possible with more precise non-generic statements.

Moreover, the proposition in question is modally qualified, which redoubles the difficulty of confirming or disconfirming it. What’s being asked is not simply whether people are virtuous, but whether they can be virtuous. It could turn out that even though no one is virtuous, it’s possible for people to become virtuous. This would, however, be extremely surprising. Unlike other unrealized possibilities, virtue is almost universally sought after, so if it isn’t widely actualized despite all that seeking, we have fairly strong evidence that it’s not there to be had.

In this paper, I propose a method for adjudicating the question whether people can be virtuous. This method, if sound, would help to resolve what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue theory, which over the last few decades has threatened both virtue ethics (Alfano 2013a, Doris 2002, Harman 1999) and virtue epistemology (Alfano 2011, 2013a, Olin & Doris 2014). The method is an application of David Lewis’s (1966, 1970, 1972) development of Frank Ramsey’s (1931) approach to the implicit definition of theoretical terms. The method needs to be tweaked in various ways to handle the difficulties canvassed above, but, when it is, an interesting answer to our question emerges: we face a theoretical tradeoff between, on the one hand, insisting that virtue is a robust property of an individual agent that’s rarely attained and perhaps even unattainable and, on the other hand, allowing that one person’s virtue might inhere partly in other people, making virtue at once more easily attained and more fragile.

The basic principle underlying the Ramsey-Lewis approach to implicit definition (often referred to as ‘Ramsification’) can be illustrated with a well-known story:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

Nathan uses Ramsification to drive home a point. He tells a story about an ordered triple of objects (two people and an animal) that are interrelated in various ways. Some of the first object’s properties (e.g., wealth) are monadic; some of the second object’s properties (e.g., poverty) are monadic; some of the first object’s properties are relational (e.g., he steals the third object from the second object); some of the second object’s properties are relational (e.g., the third object is stolen from him by the first object); and so on. Even though the first object is not explicitly defined as the X such that …, it is nevertheless implicitly defined as the first element of the ordered triple such that …. The big reveal happens when Nathan announces that the first element of the ordered triple, about whom his interlocutor has already made some pretty serious pronouncements, is the very person he’s addressing (the other two, for those unfamiliar with the 2nd Samuel 12, are Uriah and Bathsheba[1]).

The story is Biblical, but the method is modern. To implicitly define a set of theoretical terms (henceforth ‘T-terms’), one formulates a theory T in those terms and any other terms (henceforth ‘O-terms’) one already understands or has an independent theory of. Next, one writes T as a single sentence, such as a long conjunction, in which the T-terms t1…, tn occur (henceforth ‘T[t1…, tn]’ or ‘the postulate of T’). The T-terms are replaced by unbound variables x1…, xn, and then existentially quantified over to generate the Ramsey sentence of T, which states that T is realized, i.e., that there are objects x1…, xn that satisfy the Ramsey sentence. An ordered n-tuple that satisfies the Ramsey sentence is then said to be a realizer of the theory.

Lewis (1966) famously applied this method to folk psychology to argue for the mind-brain identity theory. Somewhat roughly, he argued that folk psychology can be treated as a theory in which mental-state terms are the T-terms. The postulate of folk psychology is identified as the conjunction of all folk-psychological platitudes (commonsense psychological truths that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on). The Ramsey sentence of folk psychology is formed in the usual way, by replacing all mental-state terms (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘pain’, etc.) with variables and existentially quantifying over those variables. Finally, one goes on to determine what, in the actual world, satisfies the Ramsey sentence; that is, one investigates what, if anything, is a realizer of the Ramsey sentence. If there is a realizer, then that’s what the T-terms refer to; if there is no realizer, then the T-terms do not refer. Lewis claims that brain states are such realizers, and hence that mental states are identical with brain states.

Lewis’s Ramsification method is attractive for a number of reasons.[2] First, it ensures that we don’t simply change the topic when we try to give a philosophical account of some phenomenon. If your account of the mind is wildly inconsistent with the postulate of folk psychology, then – though you may be giving an account of something interesting – you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Second, enables us to distinguish between the meaning of the T-terms and whether they refer. The T-terms mean what they would refer to, if there were such a thing. Whether they in fact refer is a distinct question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ramsification is holistic. The first half of the twentieth century bore witness to the fact that it’s impossible to give an independent account of almost any psychological phenomenon (belief, desire, emotion, perception) because what it means to have one belief is essentially bound up with what it means to have a whole host of other beliefs, as well as (at least potentially) a whole host of desires, emotions, and perceptions. Ramsification gets around this problem by giving an account of all of the relevant phenomena at once, rather than trying to chip away at them piecemeal.

Virtue theory stands to benefit from the application of Ramsification for all of these reasons. We want an account of virtue, not an account of some other interesting phenomenon (though we might want that too). We want an account that recognizes that talk of virtue is meaningful, even if there aren’t virtues. Most importantly, we want an account of virtue that recognizes the complexity of virtue and character – the fact that virtues are interrelated in a whole host of ways with occurrent and dispositional mental states, with other virtues, with character more broadly, and so on.

Whether Lewis is right about brains is irrelevant to our question, but his methodology is crucial. What I want to do now is to show how the same method, suitably modified, can be used to implicitly define virtue-terms, which in turn will help us to answer the question whether people can be virtuous. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, the T-terms of virtue theory as I construe it here are ‘person’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’, the names of the various virtues (e.g., ‘courage’, ‘generosity’, ‘curiosity’), the names of their congruent affects (e.g., ‘feeling courageous’, ‘feeling generous’, ‘feeling curious’), the names of the various vices (e.g., ‘cowardice’, ‘greed, ‘intellectual laziness’), and the names of their congruent affects, (e.g., ‘feeling cowardly’, ‘feeling greedy’, ‘feeling intellectually lazy’). The O-terms are all other terms, importantly including terms that refer to attitudes (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘anger’, ‘resentment’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘respect’), mental processes (e.g., ‘deliberation’), perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features (e.g., ‘being alone’, ‘being in a crowd’, ‘being monitored’), and evaluations (e.g., ‘praise’ and ‘blame’).

Elsewhere (Alfano 2013), I have argued for an intuitive distinction between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. High-fidelity virtues, such as honesty, chastity, and loyalty, require near-perfect manifestation in undisrupted conditions. Someone only counts as chaste if he never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation. Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding. Someone might count as generous if she were more disposed to give than not to give when there was sufficient reason to do so; someone might count as tenacious if she were more disposed to persist than not to persist in the face of adversity. If this is on the right track, the postulate of virtue theory will recognize the distinction. For instance, it seems to me at least that almost everyone would say that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue. Here, then, are some families of platitudes about character that are candidates for the postulate of virtue theory:


(A) The Virtue / Affect Family

(a1) If a person has courage, then she will typically feel courageous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically feel generous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically feel curious when there is sufficient reason to do so.




(an) ….


(C) The Virtue / Cognition Family

(c1) If a person has courage, then she will typically want to overcome threats.

(c2) If a person has courage, then she will typically deliberate well about how to overcome threats and reliably form beliefs about how to do so.




(cn) ….


(S) The Virtue / Situation Family

(s1) If a person has courage, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against overcoming a threat.

(s2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against giving resources to someone.

(s3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against investigating a problem.






(E) The Virtue / Evaluation Family

(e1) If a person has courage, then she will typically react to threats in ways that merit praise.

(e2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically react to others’ needs and wants in ways that merit praise.

(e3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically react to intellectual problems in ways that merit praise.






(B) The Virtue / Behavior Family

(b1) If a person has courage, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically act so as to benefit another person when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically act so as to solve intellectual problems when there is sufficient reason to do so.






(P) The Virtue Prevalence Family

(p1) Many people commit acts of courage.

(p2) Many people commit acts of generosity.

(p3) Many people commit acts of curiosity.

(p4) Many people are courageous.

(p5) Many people are generous.

(p6) Many people are curious.






(I) The Cardinality / Integration Family

(i1) Typically, a person who has modesty also has humility.

(i2) Typically, a person who has magnanimity also has generosity.

(i3) Typically, a person who has curiosity also has open-mindedness.






(D) The Desire / Virtue Family

(d1) Typically, a person desires to have courage.

(d2) Typically, a person desires to have generosity.

(d3) Typically, a person desires to have curiosity.






(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.






Each platitude in each family is meant to be merely illustrative. Presumably they could all be improved somewhat, and there are many more such platitudes. Moreover, each family is itself just an example. There are many further families describing the relations among vice, affect, cognition, situation, evaluation, and behavior, as well as families that make three-way rather than two-way connections (e.g., “If a person is courageous, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so and because she feels courageous.”). For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s assume that the families identified above contain all and only the platitudes relevant to the implicit definition of virtues. Ramsification can now be performed in the usual way. First, create a big conjunction (henceforth, simply the ‘postulate of virtue theory’). Next, replace each of the T-terms in the postulate of virtue theory with an unbound variable, then existentially quantifies over those variables to generate the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Finally, check whether the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is true and – if it is – what its realizers are.

After this preliminary work has been done, we’re in a position to see more clearly the problem raised by the situationist challenge to virtue theory. Situationists argue that there is no realizer of the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Moreover, this is not for lack of effort. Indeed, one family of platitudes in the Ramsey sentence specifically states that, typically, people desire to be virtuous; it’s not as if no one has yet tried to be or become courageous, generous, or curious.[3] In this paper, I don’t have space to canvass the relevant empirical evidence; interested readers should see my (2013a and 2013b). Nevertheless, the crucial claim – that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized – is not an object of serious dispute in the philosophical literature.

One very common response to the situationist challenge from defenders of virtue theory (and virtue ethics in particular) is to claim that virtues are actually quite rare, directly contradicting the statements in the virtue prevalence family. I do not think this is the best response to the problem, as I explain below, but the point remains that all serious disputants agree that the Ramsey sentence is not realized.

As described above, Ramsification looks like a simple, formal exercise. Collect the platitudes, put them into a big conjunction, perform the appropriate substitutions, existentially quantify, and check the truth-value of the resulting Ramsey sentence (and the referents of its bound variables, if any). But there are several opportunities for a critic to object as the exercise unfolds.

One difficulty that arises for some families, such as the desire / virtue family, is that they involve T-terms within the scope of intentional attitude verbs.[4] Since existential quantification into such contexts is blocked by opacity, such families cannot be relied on to define the T-terms, though they can be used to double-check the validity of the implicit definition once the T-terms are defined.[5]

Another difficulty is that this methodology presupposes that we have an adequate understanding of the O-terms, which in this case include terms that refer to attitudes, mental processes, perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features, and evaluations. One might be dubious about this presupposition. I certainly am. However, the fact that philosophy of mind and metaethics are works-in-progress should not be interpreted as a problem specifically for my approach to virtue theory. Any normative theory that relies on other branches of philosophy to figure out what mental states and processes are, and what reasons are, can be criticized in the same way.

A third worry is that the list of platitudes contains gaps (e.g., a virtue acquisition family about how various traits are acquired). Conversely, one might think that it has gluts (e.g., unmotivated commitment to virtue prevalence). To overcome this pair of worries, we need a way of determining what the platitudes are. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no precedent for this in the philosophy of mind, despite the fact that Ramsification is often invoked as a framework there.[6] This may be because it’s supposed to be obvious what the platitudes are. Here’s Frank Jackson’s flippant response to the worry: “I am sometimes asked—in a tone that suggests that the question is a major objection—why, if conceptual analysis is concerned to elucidate what governs our classificatory practice, don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? My answer is that I do—when it is necessary. Everyone who presents the Gettier cases to a class of students is doing their own bit of fieldwork, and we all know the answer they get in the vast majority of cases” (1998, 36–37). After all, according to Lewis, everyone knows the platitudes, and everyone knows that everyone knows them, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows them, and so on. Sometimes, however, the most obvious things are the hardest to spot. It thus behooves us to at least sketch a method for carrying out the first step of Ramsification: identifying the platitudes. Call this pre-Ramsification.

Here’s an attempt at spelling out how pre-Ramsification should work: start by listing off a large number of candidate platitudes. These can be all of the statements one would, in a less-responsible, Jacksonian mood, have merely asserted were platitudes. It can also include statements that seem highly likely but perhaps not quite platitudes. Add to the pool of statements some that seem, intuitively, to be controversial, as well as some that seem obviously false; these serve as anchors in the ensuing investigation. Next, collect people’s responses to these statements. Several sorts of responses would be useful, including subjective agreement, social agreement, and reaction time. For instance, prompt people with the statement, “Many people are honest,” and ask to what extent they agree and to what extent they think others would agree. Measure their reaction times as they answer both questions. High subjective and social agreement, paired with fast reaction times, is strong but defeasible evidence that a statement is a platitude. This is a bit vague, since I haven’t specified what counts as “high” agreement or “fast” reaction times, but there are precedents in psychology for setting these thresholds. Moreover, this kind of pre-Ramsification wouldn’t establish dispositively what the platitudes are, but then, dispositive proof only happens in mathematics.

It’s far beyond the scope of this short paper to show that pre-Ramsification works in the way I suggest, or that it verifies all and only the families identified above. For now, let’s suppose that it does, i.e., that all of the families proposed above were validated by pre-Ramsification. Let’s also suppose that we have strong evidence that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized (a point that, as I mentioned above, is not seriously contested). How should we then proceed?

Lewis foresaw that, in some cases, the Ramsey sentence for a given field would be unrealized, so he built in a way of fudging things: instead of generating the postulate by taking the conjunction of all of the platitudes, one can generate a weaker postulate by taking the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of most of the platitudes. For example, if there were only five platitudes, p, q, r, s, and t, then instead of the postulate’s being , it would be (p&q&r&s)v(p&q&r&t)&…&(q&r&s&t). In the case of virtue theory, we could take the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of all but one of the families of platitudes. Alternatively, we could exclude a few of the platitudes from within each family.

Fudging in this way makes it easier for the Ramsey sentence to be realized, since the disjunction of conjunctions of most of the platitudes is logically weaker than the straightforward conjunction of all of them. Fudging may end up making it too easy, though, such that there are multiple realizers of the Ramsey sentence. When this happens, it’s up to the theorist to figure out how to strengthen things back up in such a way that there is a unique realizer.

The various responses to the situationist challenge can be seen as different ways of doing this. Everyone recognizes that the un-fudged Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is unrealized. But a sufficiently fudged Ramsey sentence is bound to be multiply realized. It’s a theoretical choice exactly how to play things at this point. More traditional virtue theorists such as Joel Kupperman (2009) favor a fudged version of the Ramsey sentence wherein the virtue prevalence family has been dropped. John Doris (2002) favors a fudged version wherein the virtue/situation and virtue/integration families have been dropped. I (2013) favor a fudged version wherein the virtue / situation family has been dropped and a virtue /social construction family has been added in its place. The statements in the latter family have to do with the ways in which (signals of) social expectations implicitly and explicitly influence behavior. The main idea is that having a virtue is more like having a title or social role (e.g., you’re curious because people signal to you their expectations of curiosity) than like having a basic physical or biological property (e.g., being over six feet tall). Christian Miller (2013, 2014) drops the virtue prevalence family and adds a mixed-trait prevalence family in its place, which states that many people possess traits that are neither virtues nor vices, such as the disposition to help others in order to improve one’s mood or avoid sliding into a bad mood.

In this short paper, I don’t have the space to argue against all alternatives to my own proposal. Instead, I want to make two main claims. First, the “virtue is rare” dodge advocated by Kupperman and others who drop the virtue prevalence family has costs associated with it. Second, those costs may be steeper than the costs associated with my own way of responding to the situationist challenge.

Researchers in personality and social psychology have documented for decades the tendency of just about everybody to make spontaneous trait inferences, attributing robust character traits on the basis of scant evidence (Ross 1977; Uleman et al. 1996). This indicates that people think that character traits (virtues, vices, and neutral traits, such as extroversion) are prevalent. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper (Alfano, Higgins, & Levernier forthcoming), I show that the vast majority of obituaries attribute multiple virtues to the deceased. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary, of course, but most are (about 55% of Americans, by my calculations). Not all obituaries are sincere, but presumably many are. Absent reason to think that people about whom obituaries differ greatly from people about whom they are not written, we can treat this as evidence that most people think that the people they know have multiple virtues. But of course, if most relations of most people are virtuous, it follows that most people are virtuous. In other words, the virtue-prevalence family is deeply ingrained in folk psychology and folk morality.

Social psychologists think that people are quick to attribute virtues. My own work on obituaries suggests the same. What do philosophers say? Though there are some (Russell 2009) who claim that virtue is rare or even non-existent with a shrug, this is not the predominant opinion. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, p. 199) claims that “without allusion to the place that justice and injustice, courage and cowardice play in human life very little will be genuinely explicable.” Philippa Foot (2001), following Peter Geach (1977), argues that certain generic statements characterize the human form of life, and that from these generic statements we can infer what humans need and hence will typically have. For the sake of comparison, consider what she says about a different life form, the deer. Foot first points out that the deer’s form of defense is flight. Next, she claims that a certain normative statement follows, namely, that deer are naturally or by nature swift. This is not to say that every deer is swift; some are slow. Instead, it’s a generic statement that characterizes the nature of the deer. Finally, she says that any deer that fails to be swift – that fails to live up to its nature – is “so far forth defective” (p. 34). The same line of reasoning that she here applies to non-human animals is meant to apply to human animals as well. As she puts it, “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbors. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (pp. 44-5, emphasis mine).

In light of these sorts of claims, let’s consider again the defense offered by some virtue ethicists that virtue is rare, or even impossible to achieve. If virtues are what humans need, but the vast majority of people don’t have them, one would have thought that our species would have died out long ago. Consider the analogous claim for deer: although deer need to be swift, the vast majority of deer are galumphers. Were that the case, presumably they’d be hunted down and devoured like a bunch of tasty venison treats. Or consider another example of Foot’s: she agrees with Geach (1977) that people need virtues like honeybees need stingers. Does it make sense for someone with this attitude to say that most people lack virtues? That would be like saying that, even though bees need stingers, most lack stingers. It’s certainly odd to claim that the majority – even the vast majority of a species fails to fulfill its own nature. That’s not a contradiction, but it is a cost to be borne by anyone who responds to the situationist challenge by dropping the virtue prevalence family.

One might respond on Foot’s behalf that human animals are special: unlike the other species, we have natures that are typically unfulfilled. That would be an interesting claim to make, but I am not aware of anyone who has defended it in print.[7] I conclude, then, that dropping the virtue prevalence family is a significant cost to revising the postulate.

But is it a more significant cost than the one imposed on me by replacing the virtue / situation family with a virtue / social construction family? I think it is. This comparative claim is of course hard to adjudicate, so I will rest content merely to emphasize the strength of the virtue / prevalence family.

What would it look like to fudge things in the way I recommend? Essentially, one would end up committed to a version of the hypothesis of extended cognition, a variety of active externalism in the family of the extended mind hypothesis. Clark & Chalmers (1998) argued that the vehicles (not just the contents) of some mental states and processes extend beyond the nervous system and even the skin of the agent whose states they are.[8] If my arguments are on the right track, virtues and vices sometimes extend in the same way: the bearers of someone’s moral and intellectual virtues sometimes include asocial aspects of the environment and (more frequently) other people’s normative and descriptive expectations. What it takes (among other things) for you to be, for instance, open-minded, on this view is that others think of you as open-minded and signal those thoughts to you. When they do, they prompt you to revise your self-concept, to want to live up to their expectations, to expect them to reward open-mindedness and punish closed-mindedness, to reciprocate displays of open-mindedness, and so on. These are all inducements to conduct yourself in an open-minded way, which they will typically notice. When they do, their initial attribution will be corroborated, leading them to strengthen their commitment to it and perhaps to signal that strengthening to you, which in turn is likely to further induce you to conduct yourself in open-minded ways, which will again corroborate their judgment of you, and so on. Such feedback loops are, on my view, partly constitutive of what it means to have a virtue.[9] The realizer of the fudged Ramsey sentence isn’t just what’s inside the person who has the virtue but also further things outside that person.

So, can people be virtuous? I hope it isn’t too disappointing to answer with, “It depends on what you mean by ‘can’, ‘people’, and ‘virtuous’.” If we’re concerned only with abstract possibility, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we are concerned more with the proximal possibility that figures in people’s current deliberations, plans, and hopes, we have reason to worry. If we only care whether more than zero people can be virtuous, the existing, statistical, empirical evidence is pretty much useless.   If we instead treat ‘people’ as a generic referring to human animals (perhaps a majority of them, but at least a substantial plurality), such evidence becomes both important and (again) worrisome. If we insist that being virtuous is something that must inhere entirely within the agent who has the virtue, then evidence from social psychology is damning. If instead we allow for the possibility of external character, there is room for hope.[10]


[1] Nathan is also using an extended metaphor. My point is clear nevertheless.

[2] An alternative is the “psycho-functionalist” method, which disregards common sense in favor of (solely) highly corroborated scientific claims. See Kim (2011) for an overview. For my purposes, psycho-functionalism is less appropriate, since (among other things) it is more in danger of changing the topic.

[3] I seem to be in disagreement on this point with Christian Miller (this volume), who worries that people may not be motivated to be or become virtuous. In general, I’m even more skeptical than Miller about the prospects of virtue theory, but in this case I find myself playing the part of the optimist.

[4] I am here indebted to Gideon Rosen.

[5] It might also be possible to circumvent this difficulty, which anyway troubles Lewis’s application of Ramsification to the mind-brain identity theory, by using only de re formulations of the relevant statements. See Fitting & Mendelsohn (1999) for a discussion of how to do so.

[6] Experimental philosophers have started to fill this gap, but not in any systematic or consensus-based way.

[7] Micah Lott (personal communication) has told me that he endorses this claim, though he has a related worry. In short, his concern is to explain how, given the alleged rarity of virtue, most people manage to live decent enough lives.

[8] For an overview of the varieties of externalism, see Carter et al. (forthcoming).

[9] I spell out this view in more detail in Alfano & Skorburg (forthcoming). For a treatment of the feedback-loops model in the context of the extended mind rather than the character debate, see Palermos (forthcoming).

[10] I am grateful to J. Adam Carter, Orestis Palermos, and Micah Lott for comments on a draft of this paper.

What I said at the Mars Hill Panel

I recently participated in a Mars Hill Panel with Azim Shariff, Steve Bilynskyj, and Beth Bilynskyj on the the question “Can We Be Good Without God?”  Here’s what I had to say:

The question we’re discussing today is whether we can be good without god.  This question could be understood in two different ways.  It could be a question about motivation: is it possible for a human animal to do good and be good without believing in god?  Second, it could be a question about grounding: is it possible for a human animal to do good or be good if there is no god regardless of whether that person believes in god.  Azim Shariff is going to focus on the first question.  I’ll focus on the second.

It seems to me that there are two useful ways to approach the grounding question.  I’d like to explore both.

Consider first a polemic.  We want to know whether it’s possible for a human animal to be good even if there is no god.  I think the best way to show that something is possible is to show that it’s actual.  With this in mind, suppose that two things could be established: first, there is no god, and second, there is goodness.  If that were true – if it were actual that there was goodness without god, then of course it would also be possible that there was goodness without god.

To establish that there is no god, the atheist can engage in three tactics.  First, she can consider and reject all plausible arguments for the existence of god.  Second, she can argue directly against the existence of god.  Third, she can explain why, even if there is no god, belief in god is so prevalent.  I don’t have time to do this exhaustively tonight, but I think that all three tasks can be accomplished.  Among the best-known arguments for the existence of god are the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, the scripture argument, and Pascal’s wager.  The cosmological argument rests on the false premise that the universe itself needs a cause.  The ontological argument mistakenly treats existence as a property.  The teleological argument based on the teleology of life has been debunked by neo-Darwinism; the teleological argument based on the apparent fine-tuning of physical parameters mistakes low probability for intentional design.  The scripture argument is a non-starter, since it assumes that a document riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies, and impossibilities was divinely inspired.  Finally, Pascal’s wager is not actually an argument for the existence of god; it’s an argument for believing in god even though one recognizes that the existence of god is at best remarkably unlikely.

I’ll now turn to arguing against the existence of god.  One thing the atheist can say at this point is that, since there are no good arguments for the existence of god, we should conclude that there is no god.  After all, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to argue that something exists, not the person who rejects that claim.  Evil people like Donald Rumsfeld flippantly say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But when you do your very best to find evidence and don’t turn anything up, that is evidence of absence.  Just so in the case of god: if the best arguments for the existence of god are unsuccessful, that’s evidence that there is no god.  But there are also direct arguments to be made against the existence of god.  Perhaps the most persuasive is the argument from evil, which I’ll explore in three forms.  All three versions begin by pointing out that any god worth believing in, worshiping, and taking direction from would have to be both powerful and good.  They then argue that no such god exists.  The first way to establish this claim is by thinking about natural disasters.  Consider the tsunami of December 24, 2004, which killed an estimated 150,000 people and destroyed the homes of literally millions more.  Would a good and powerful god allow such an event?  I think not.  Or consider leukemia, which kills about 25,000 children every single year.  Would a good and powerful god allow innocents to suffer in this way?  Would a good and powerful god create humans in such a way that they were susceptible to this disease?  Again, I think not.  Finally, instead of worrying about the evils that god allows, one could point directly at the evils that god, according to religious scriptures, perpetrates.  In both Christianity and Islam, for instance, god is thought to punish insubordination – either mere failure to believe in god, or failure to comply with some divine commandments – with eternal damnation.  This torment is supposedly infinitely worse, in both duration and intensity, than all the suffering that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe.  As David Lewis pointed out, this makes god infinitely worse than Hitler and Stalin.

The last part of the atheist argument is to explain why, despite the fact that there is no god, theism is so prevalent.  It’s a complex story, but the most important part of it is this: for evolutionary reasons, humans are wildly oversensitive agent-detectors, which leads us to see divine agency in anything we can’t explain.

I’m happy to discuss any of this further, but for now I’m going to treat the first premise – that there is no god – as established.  If it can also be shown that there is goodness, then we are done: it’s possible for us to be good without god because it’s actually the case that some of us are good despite the non-existence of god.  This premise is, I think, much easier to establish.  We all know people who are at least somewhat good.  My favorite example is Paul Slovic, an emeritus professor here at UO who works on understanding the causes of and preventing genocide.

What I’m claiming to have established then, is that there is no god but there is goodness.  From this is directly follows that we can be good without god.  But perhaps this polemical approach strikes you as too aggressive.  Maybe you think that the arguments for the existence of god are more persuasive than I do.  Maybe you think Paul Slovic is not a good person – nor is anyone else.  Let’s grant for the sake of argument, then, that god exists.  Let’s also grant that god judges some things to be good and wants us to promote them.  Here’s a further question: is something good because god says so, or is it rather the case that god says so because it’s independently good?  I think that god doesn’t make something good just by commanding it.  After all, if god could do this, then god could arbitrarily decide to make rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking good.  And god could arbitrarily decide to make love, friendship, community, freedom, and creativity bad.  This is connected with the argument from evil that I mentioned earlier.  A god who commanded us to give up love, friendship, freedom, and creativity – a god who insisted that we instead pursue rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking – wouldn’t be worthy of our admiration and obedience.  Such a god would be evil, as would anyone who followed his commands.

How am I so sure that a god who issued such commands would be evil?  Because I think we have an independent notion of what’s good.  There are lots of ways of spelling out that notion, but one I find especially attractive that human animals have certain needs and capabilities, and that what’s good for us is for our needs to be met and our capabilities promoted.  A comprehensive list of needs and capabilities is hard to formulate, but here’s a good start: 1) life, which involves having a long enough life and a life worth living, 2) bodily health, which involves nourishment, shelter, and reproductive health, 3) bodily integrity, which involves freedom of movement, freedom from assault and abuse, and reproductive choice, 4) mental freedom, which involves having an adequate education, a wide-ranging imagination, and creative expression, 5) emotional integrity, which involves the capacity to having loving attachments to people and the ability to feel the full range of human emotions, 6) practical reason, which involves being able to formulate your own conception of a good life, 7) affiliation, which involves the capacity for friendship and political organization, 8) other species, which involves our need to live with and in nature, including other mammals, other animals more generally, plants, and the rest of biology, 9) play, and 10) political and material control.

What’s good for someone is for their life to be high on all ten of these dimensions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the only life worth living is very high on all dimensions.  It’s comparative: the higher you are on each dimension, the better off you are.  On this view, morality is a system of institutions, norms, rules, values, judgments, and actions that answers to these needs and capabilities.  One system of morality is better than another to the extent that it meets more needs and promotes more capabilities.

There will inevitably be trade-offs, with some people and cultures putting more emphasis on some capabilities than others.  There might be no principled way of choosing one set of weights over another in every case.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize a culture – including and especially our own – for failing to meet needs and to promote capabilities when it could.  This has two implications.  First, things are good for biological and psychological – not divine – reasons.  If we can be good at all, we can be good without god.  Second, there are constraints on moral relativism.  Whether a certain way of behaving is acceptable depends on the moral system in place in the relevant culture, but whether that system is binding in the first place depends on whether it meets needs and promotes capabilities sufficiently well.  Criticizing your own culture because it callously leaves needs unsatisfied and undermines capabilities is an important moral act.  This includes criticizing the predominance of a religion like Christianity, which systematically undermines bodily health, bodily integrity, mental freedom, emotional integrity, practical reason, affiliation, and political control.

A map of the values of Amherst, MA

After that somewhat depressing post about Wasilla, I’m delighted to be presenting some maps of Amherst, Massachusetts.  Before I do, a few methodological and philosophical points are in order.

First, we don’t take the ascriptions in obituaries at face value.  We realize that people aren’t described 100% accurately in these texts.  An obituary, like many other texts, tells you at least as much about its author as its subject.  We’re therefore treating these documents as reflections of what the people in a community value.  Whether the deceased actually embodied all of the traits ascribed to them is not for us to say.  Regardless of the answer to that question, the constellations of qualities ascribed in obituaries tell us what the friends and family of the deceased think is good and important enough to bother attributing.

There are other caveats to consider.  For instance, the vast majority of the people celebrated in obituaries are adults in their 60s and above.  So these texts tell us about what various communities value in the elderly.  Whether they also value such attributes in the young and middle-aged is an open question.

Additionally, as Dana Rognlie, a terrific graduate student in philosophy here at UO pointed out to me recently, we shouldn’t presume that the authors of obits are a random sample of the local community.  Presumably, they’re almost all close family or friends.  But which family and friends are they?  Are they usually the daughter, the son, or the spouse of the deceased?  Or are they typically collaborations among all of the close family?  If it turned out that 80% of obituaries that were written by a child were written by a daughter, that would be good to know.  Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any data on this, but we’re looking into it.

Next, we don’t think of these maps as comprehensive.  In particular, we think that a trait is considered a virtue in a community if, but not only if, it tends to be attributed in the obituaries composed by members of that community.

We also think, with Hume, that distinctions among intellectual, moral, political, and other kinds of virtues are blurry at best.  The rich array of thick terms used to describe the dead doesn’t seem to be carved at the joints by these distinctions.  One of the things most often said about the deceased is that they were a friend.  Is friendship a virtue?  In a forthcoming paper, I argue that it is, but I realize that that’s contentious.  Another thing that’s often said about deceased men is that they were veterans.  Is a group affiliation of this sort a candidate for virtue?  Robert Adams thinks so, but again it’s contentious.  Soldiers do things qua soldiers.  Another thing that’s often said about the dead is that they were fans of the local sports team (the Ducks in Eugene, the Patriots in Amherst, and so on).  Fandom is about as passive as being for the good gets.  When your team wins, you’re, as Garfunkel and Oates put it, vicariously, “temporarily, adjacently victorious.”

Finally, we think that obituaries and other talk about the dead lend an interesting perspective to discussions in meta-ethics and philosophy of language.  What kind of speech act are we performing when we call a dead family member generous (one of the most common terms used in obituaries)?  It looks like an assertion, but as anyone who’s encountered Pericles’ funeral oration, Plato’s Menexenusthe Gettysburg address, or John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman can affirm, talk of the dead tends to go non-cognitive pretty quickly; it turns into an exhortation of sorts to the audience.

With all that out of the way, here is a map of the values of Amherst, MA:

AmherstThis one is quite detailed, so I encourage you to open it in another tab and explore it by zooming and scrolling.  As with some of the other maps we’ve presented, the size of terms here is determined by the number of terms that co-occurred with the term in question, not  simply the number of times that term occurred.  The width of an edge connecting a pair of terms represents the number of times they co-occurred.  Centrality/peripheralness represents, well, centrality and peripheralness to the network.  And in this case color represents modularity.  Modularity is, somewhat roughly, a measure of the density of interconnections among nodes in the network.  In this map, each color represents a different module; terms within the same module tend to be more connected with each other than they are with terms in other modules (represented by different colors).

The green group seems to encompass a mix of intellectual and political virtues, notably including wit, pedagogy, feminism, civil rights activism, and political engagement.  This group is also the first to have a major node for a religion other than Christianity: Judaism (it also contains a small node for Islam.  The blue group seems to encompass a variety of other-regarding dispositions, including humor, helpfulness, environmentalism, and compassion.  The pink group seems to be primarily about commitment to the local community, including one’s family, friends, church, and civic community.  The red and yellow groups are probably too small to interpret.

If you’ve been following my previous posts that detailed Eugene, Flint, and Wasilla, you’ll probably have noticed some interesting differences.  This map is by far the most complex.  That’s in part because I was able to look at a lot more obits for Amherst (about 600… oy).  It’s also because these obits tended to be quite a bit longer and have richer descriptions.  That’s unsurprising, given how much of a class and educational difference there is between Amherst and the rest of the towns I’ve looked at so far.  This map also has much less focus on sports and religion and much more focus on political and intellectual engagement.  Depending on your prejudices, you might find that unsurprising.

In other towns, we noticed some pretty substantial differences between the constellation of traits associated with women and the constellation associated with men.  What gender differences turn up between men and women in Amherst?  Here’s the map for women:

Amherst FemaleAnd here’s the one for men:

Amherst Male

Again, these are pretty detailed, so I encourage you to open them in other tabs and explore by zooming and scrolling.  No male nuns — unsurprising.  No male feminists – disappointing.  Fewer female sports fans — unsurprising.  No female veterans — unsurprising.  Otherwise, there aren’t that many noticeable differences between these maps.

I’ll post a “complete” map comparing attributions to men and women in all towns surveyed so far in a later post.  For now, I need to take a bit of a break from reading obituaries….



Draft Review of Roberts’s ‘Emotions in the Moral Life’

I’m working on a review of Bob Roberts‘s recent book, Emotions in the Moral Life, for Mind.


Here’s a draft of the review.  Questions, comments, and criticisms are most welcome, as always.  In particular, I’d be grateful for help cutting about 400 words….

Emotions in the Moral Life, by Robert Roberts, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. vii + 220. H/b £55.

The prolific Robert Roberts is at it again. His fourth secular and eleventh total monograph, Emotions in the Moral Life, exemplifies his characteristic insight, depth, earnestness, humanity, and religious commitment. Poised midway between Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Contemplating Virtues (in progress), Emotions in the Moral Life draws on the rich resources Roberts has already developed for analyzing emotions as concerned-based construals in order to show how such construals contribute in diverse ways to moral (and immoral) cognition, action, relationships, and character.

In the first, metaphilosophical, chapter, Roberts highlights the drawbacks of theoretical, arguing for the exploration of moral concepts in their ecological niches. Such a niche is the concept’s ‘moral framework or outlook or tradition’ (p. 13); examples include the outlooks represented in the Iliad and Odyssey, Aristotle, the Judaism of the Hebrew prophets, Roman Stoicism, New Testament Christianity, the Qur’an and the Hadith, Puritan Christianity, Nietzsche, contemporary democratic liberalism, and so on. Unlike moral theories, which attempt to impose artificial structure and consistency on our hazy and disordered moral concepts, moral outlooks rest content in expressing an uncodifiable but admirable way to live. Roberts does not consider the objection that moral theories could proceed not by laying out concise biconditional definitions of moral concepts but by Ramsification (David Lewis, ‘How to Define Theoretical Terms,’ The Journal of Philosophy, 67(13): 427-446, 1970), but since this methodology has not been pursued much or well by ethicists, the omission is understandable. One might also worry that, if theorizing is abandoned, then reasoned debate and persuasion would be replaced by a flaccid relativism. Roberts disagrees, suggesting that rational dialectic may still involve immanent critique (highlighting internal conceptual or practical inconsistencies in a moral outlook) and comparative ‘apologetics’ (p. 21), which recruits moral and non-moral agreement across frameworks to argue that one framework better harmonizes conceptually or practically with the zone of agreement. The proof is in the pudding, so readers may be disappointed that when Roberts engages in comparative apologetics, he tends to target independently unattractive frameworks, such as Stoicism, flat-footed sentimentalism, antebellum Southern racism, the culture of honor embodied in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, Camus’s existentialism, and an unrecognizable caricature of Nietzsche.

Chapter two is a useful roadmap to the rest of the book.

Chapters three through five elaborate Roberts’s view of emotions as concern-based construals, contrast this view with alternatives, defend it against objections, and demonstrate how emotions can contribute to (im)moral cognitive functioning. According to the concern-based construal account of emotions, what it means to have an emotion is to perceive an object or event as impinging importantly on an object of concern and to be consequently motivated to perform a relevant action. For example, consider the case (pp. 46-7) of a parent who feels fear when he sees his child toddling towards the edge of a yard-high wall. The parent has a deep-seated concern for the child’s wellbeing. He construes this wellbeing as threatened by the imminent tumble off the wall. He is consequently motivated to forestall the threat. This, for Roberts, is a paradigmatic emotion.

According to Roberts, motional perception is cognitively mediated by affect; affect is the phenomenological aspect of emotion, what it feels like to have an emotion. Roberts helpfully contrasts this account with Jesse Prinz’s (Gut Reactions, Oxford University Press, 2004). Like Roberts, Prinz takes emotions to be perceptions, but the resemblance ends there. According to Prinz, the object of an emotional perception is one’s own affective and bodily state: when you fear, you perceive the dropping of your stomach, the increase in your heartrate and blood pressure, the widening of your eyes, your tensing for fighting or fleeing. In a well-functioning human animal, these bodily reactions reliably track threats, so there is an indirect connection between a Prinz-style emotion and a typical object of concern. According to Roberts, by contrast, the semantic and perceptual object of an emotional perception is the object of concern itself as (potentially) affected in some important way; the affective bodily concomitants are just your way of registering fear (or whatever emotion is in question).

Roberts catalogues several ways in which emotions could contribute to (im)moral cognition. Although it is possible to arrive at moral judgments unmediated by emotion (deductively, inductively, via testimony), emotionally-mediated moral judgments are ‘higher quality’ because they provide ‘deeper understanding and more intimate cognitive contact’ with moral truths and provide additional justification for moral beliefs (pp. 52-3), in much the same way that seeing the Grand Canyon for oneself provides deeper understanding and more intimate cognitive contact with the non-moral truth that it is a big hole in the ground.

Following out the visual analogy suggests some ways in which emotions can undermine rather than support moral cognition. Just as visual perception can be fooled so that we construe things as having non-moral properties they lack, so emotional perception can be fooled so that we construe things as having moral properties they lack or fail to construe them as having moral properties they instantiate (p. 61). Just as visually attending to one thing makes one less able to notice and attend to other things, so emotionally attending to one thing makes one less able to notice and attend to other morally important things (p. 61). Just as seeing something unfamiliar as just another instance of a familiar category demotivates visual inspection, so emotionally perceiving something as impinging on one’s concerns in a way it does not (or failing to perceive it as impinging in a way that it actual does) demotivates appropriate moral reasoning about it (p. 61). Thus, emotions are a double-edged sword in the domain of moral epistemology. They can either facilitate or undermine moral cognition by appropriately motivating, inappropriately motivating it, or demotivating it (p. 64). Moreover, they can help produce and reinforce premises to (im)moral reasoning (p. 65).

All this talk of truth presupposes that both emotions and moral judgments are the sorts of mental states that can be true or false — issues in philosophy of mind and meta-ethics respectively. Roberts argues persuasively that emotions can be assessed for truth and falsehood just like visual perceptions. Indignation is true (appropriate) only if one really has been treated unjustly; fear is true (appropriate) only if an object of one’s concern really is threatened (p. 92). Like beliefs, then, emotions seem to have mind-to-world direction-of-fit. (Since Roberts thinks that emotions result in motivation as well, he seems to think that they in fact have world-to-mind-to-world direction of fit: their construal element is assessed mind-to-world and their consequent motivation is assessed world-to-mind.) Moral realism based on divine governance is not so much argued for as offered as ‘a way out’ of the quagmire of moral skepticism (p. 109).

Chapter six explores the ways in which emotions contribute to (im)moral action. One thing that intrinsically contributes to an action’s being morally good (bad) is it’s (im)moral motivation. Hence, if one is appropriately concerned for the good, then one’s emotional reactions to things that impinge on the objects of one’s concerns will typically contribute to the intrinsic moral goodness of one’s actions (p. 118). By the same token, if one is inappropriately concerned, unconcerned, or concerned for the neutral or the bad, then one’s emotional reactions to things that impinge on the objects of one’s concerns will typically contribute to the intrinsic moral badness of one’s actions. This point follows in part from the truism that action is always action under a description (Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), paired with the plausible claim that the semantic content of an emotion’s motivational component contributes to said description.

Another way in which emotions contribute to (im)moral action has to do with our higher-order emotional relation to our own first-order emotions. Roberts plausibly argues that the status of an otherwise morally good action is undermined if the agent emotionally repudiates her own reason for acting (p. 127). In the same vein, it would seem that a base-level good action is morally enhanced if the agent emotionally endorses or at least accepts her first-order motivations, that a base-level bad action is ameliorated if the agent emotionally repudiates her first-order motivations, and that a base-level bad action is aggravated if the agent emotionally endorses it. (Roberts does not remark on the close analogy with Frankfurt’s discussion of free will and higher-order volitions in The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.) This chapter also contains several fascinatingly complex examples, which for lack of space I will not describe in detail, that Roberts navigates with characteristic meticulousness.

Chapter seven — perhaps the most interesting and original in the book — turns from cognition and action to personal relationships. Roberts explores the ways in which emotions and emotional feedback loops strengthen and desiccate such relationships as friendship, enmity, civility, and incivility. For example, consider a sister who generously and in a spirit of friendship gives her brother her own tickets to a concert that he would like to attend. He feels the emotion of gratitude for this gift, which he expresses with a token of thanks. Satisfied that her generosity has hit its mark, she is ‘gratified by his gratitude. […] And he may in turn be gratified that she is gratified by his gratitude’ (p. 137). Despite the fact that this is a tiny schematic example, it plausibly contains a fourth-order emotion (he is gratified that she is gratified that he is gratified that she was generous). Such episodes are, in Roberts’s view, constitutive of friendship and other normative personal relationships (pp. 140-1) — an idea I explore in a forthcoming paper (‘Friendship as a Model for the Moral Virtues,’ Webber & Masala [eds.], The Architecture of Personality and Ethical Virtue, forthcoming). Constructive feedback loops strengthen positive personal relationships but aggravate negative relationships such as enmity (leading enemies to hate, despise, or contemn each other all the more); destructive feedback loops, by contrast, undermine positive relationships (introducing distrust, contempt, or other negative emotions into extant friendships) but ameliorate negative relationships (introducing sympathy, respect, or even admiration into extant enmities).

The nuance of Roberts’s view comes fully into focus in this chapter, as he shows that, in many ordinary human encounters, the cognitive, motivational, and relational contributions of emotions to the moral life dissociate. For example, arguably, it’s at once cognitively incorrect and relationally correct to feel guilty about putting one’s increasingly dependent mother in an assisted living community. By changing her abode, one does not do her an unjustified harm; nevertheless, her (stipulated) resentment is a call to feel guilt that cannot simply be shrugged off.

Chapter eight continues to develop this dissociative hypothesis, arguing that the contribution of emotions to personal wellbeing and virtue can also come apart from their contribution to moral cognitions, actions, and relationships. Chapter nine is a prolegomenon to Roberts’s next book, in which he promises to explore the complex relations between moral emotions on the one hand and various specific virtues, including compassion, justice, courage, a sense of humor, a sense of duty, practical wisdom. We may hope that his next book will forego default masculine pronouns. Whether he does or not, if Contemplating Virtues is half as good as Emotions in the Moral Life, we will owe Roberts an immense debt of gratitude.

What I said at Princeton: Some Normative Implications of Preference Instability and Indeterminacy

Today, I presented a paper on some normative implications of the instability and indeterminacy of preferences for the Princeton University Neuroscience of Social Decision Making series.  On Monday, I present the same work to the Center for Human Values Laurence S Rockefeller seminar.  Here’s a draft of the paper.



Psychologists and behavioral economists have recognized for decades that preferences and other motivational attitudes are indeterminate: for some pairs of outcomes, a and b, a given agent will neither prefer a to b, nor prefer b to a, nor be indifferent as between a and b.  Sometimes, there’s just no fact of the matter concerning what people want.  Moreover, psychologists and behavioral economists have recognized for some time that preferences and other motivational attitudes are unstable: for some pairs of outcomes, a and b, a given agent may prefer a to b now, but be disposed to reverse her preference ordering a few moments from now in response to seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational factors.  Philosophical theories that make use of the concepts of preferences and desires, however, rarely take the indeterminacy and instability of preferences into account.

This paper has three main parts.  In the first, I discuss two convergent lines of empirical evidence, both of which suggest that preferences – at least as traditionally conceived – are both indeterminate and unstable.  In the second, I outline a descriptive model of preferences that I first articulated elsewhere (Alfano 2012) as an attractive response to this evidence.  In the third section, I draw on my descriptive model to explore some of the normative implications of the indeterminacy and instability of preferences with respect to right action, wellbeing, public policy, and meta-ethics.  At first blush, it might seem that indeterminacy and instability spell trouble for normative theories couched in terms of preferences and desires.  After all, if right action is at least partially a function of preference-satisfaction, and preferences are indeterminate or unstable, then what it would be right to do would presumably inherit this indeterminacy and instability.  In other words, it could be argued that there’s no fact of the matter about what it would be right to do, or that that fact is in constant flux.  Similar worries arise in the cases of public policy and personal wellbeing: if your welfare is at least partially a function of whether you’re getting what you want, and your desires are indeterminate or unstable, then presumably there is no fact of the matter concerning how well your life is going, or that fact is in constant flux.  Pursuing or promoting one life goal over another might then turn out to be a mug’s game.  Against these worries, I argue that the local indeterminacy and instability captured by my descriptive model preserve any intuitions worth keeping about the normative status of preferences.  I then go a step further, arguing that local indeterminacy and instability are to be embraced because they help to counter a prominent argument against the normative weight of preferences: the demandingness objection.  I conclude with some methodological remarks about the appropriate use of empirical information in philosophical theorizing.

Continue reading

How One Becomes What One is Called

UPDATE: A slightly updated version of this paper will be presented at the Central APA in February 2013, and will then appear in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies.

I’ve written a short paper arguing, though not in so many words, that Nietzsche is the progenitor of the idea of factitious virtue.  Here’s a draft:


How One Becomes What One Is Called:

On the Relation Between Traits and Trait-Terms in Nietzsche


When the devil sheds his skin, does not his name fall off too?  For it too is skin.  Perhaps the devil himself is – skin.

 (Z IV “The Shadow”)




Despite the recent surge of interest in Nietzsche’s moral psychology[1] and his conceptions of character and virtue in particular,[2] little attention has been paid to his treatment of the relation between character traits and character trait-terms.  In this paper, I argue for an interpretation of this relation: Nietzsche thinks there is a looping effect between the psychological disposition named by a character trait-term and the practice of using that term.[3]

While he affirms that people are differentially disposed to certain types of behavior, Nietzsche conceives of these dispositions as fluid both in their objects and, to a lesser degree, in their strength.  Someone disposed towards investigation will end up thinking, feeling, and acting very differently depending on whether he is labeled curious or nosy.  Someone disposed towards aggression will end up thinking, feeling, and acting very differently depending on whether he is considered a hero or a criminal (TI ix.45).[4]  The valence and content of the labels applied to a person, together with the power-relation between the labeler and labeled, interact with his preexisting psychological dispositions to produce the kind of person he eventually becomes.

Moreover, as people’s dispositions shift under the pressure of labels, the meaning of the labels themselves evolves.  If nobility is whatever noble people are disposed to think, feel, and do, then when noble people’s psychological dispositions change, so does the meaning of nobility.[5]  Pre-existing psychological dispositions are shaped by the activity of labeling, which in turn modulates the meaning of the label, which further shapes the psychological disposition, and around and around we go.

Here is the plan for this paper: Section 1 explores the first of two Nietzschean styles of becoming what one is called: the interpersonal.  Someone whose personality is built according to this plan becomes what others call him – good, bad, or mixed.  Nietzsche associates this blueprint for the construction of character with slavishness.  Section 2 explores the second way of becoming what one is called: the reflexive.  Someone whose personality is built according to this plan becomes what he considers himself.  Nietzsche associates this method of personality construction with masterliness.  It will turn out, however, that the masterly path is itself interpersonal, and in multiple ways.  In lieu of a conclusion, section 3 lays out a theory of what I call Nietzschean summoning.  In existing discussions of the looping effect, only the reactions of those labeled are considered.  Moreover, their reactions tend to be negative; they either deny the applicability of the label or modify their behavior in an attempt to squirm out of its extension.  Nietzsche seems to have realized that when the extension of a term is unclear, people sometimes modify their behavior in order to squirm into it.  Hence, by praising an ambiguously-defined kind of person, one can induce kind-relevant behavior and dispositions in one’s audience: praising people of type T summons Ts.  Sections 42-44 of Beyond Good and Evil are a prime example of this phenomenon.


1. The Interpersonal Blueprint


At first blush, it’s probably most attractive to categorize a trait attribution as an assertion: to say that someone is T is to commit oneself to the truth of the proposition that the person has the disposition in question.  Compare attributions of other dispositions, such as, “This table is flammable,” and, “You conduct electricity.”  The former commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition that the table would burn in appropriate conditions; the latter commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition that the hearer would conduct free electrons in appropriate conditions.  Why should trait attributions be any different?  What I want to argue in this section is that Nietzsche thinks that, despite the superficial similarity between attributing flammability to a table and attributing honesty to a person, it may be more apt to interpret trait attributions as directives or declarations because they either cause the hearer to engage in a certain type of behavior or make it the case that they are true by being felicitously uttered.[6]

It’s straightforward to see how a trait attribution might be used as a directive.  If someone is asking for charitable donations and I say, “Jessica here is quite generous,” it’s plausible to suppose that I’m not too subtly goading Jessica into donating.  It’s less obvious that a trait attribution might function as a declaration, but this is what Nietzsche thinks.  Standard examples of declarations are baptisms (“I hereby christen this ship the ‘Titanic.’”) and institutional acts of labeling (“I pronounce you husband and wife.”).  One of the odd things about these speech acts is their direction-of-fit.  The ship is called the Titanic because it was thus christened; it is not christened the Titanic because that is what it is called.  The couple is married because they have been so pronounced; they were not so pronounced because they were married.

Nietzsche seems to think that many people have the character traits they do because they have been labeled with those traits; in other words, some trait attributions are declarations.  This would be a special case of his insight that “what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are” because the “reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for […] grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body” (GS 58).  He claims, for instance, that “since time immemorial, in all somehow dependent social strata the common man was only what he was considered: not at all used to positing values himself, he also attached no other value to himself than his masters attached to him” (BGE 261).  This is a theme that runs throughout the writings of his middle period: the lowly, the ignoble, the slaves, the poor in spirit are shaped by society.  And in this context society means the masters of society – the elite.  If the aristocrats tell a member of the hoi polloi that he is a farmer (or a blacksmith, or a sailor, or whatever), that is what he is.

Becoming what one is called is not just a matter of vocation, however.  Nietzsche has in mind a process that runs much deeper.  His idea is that those of lower rank take on not only the tasks and jobs, but also the character traits, that are attributed to them.  They become, quite literally, what they are called.  If they are labeled dishonest, they become dishonest.  If they are labeled cowardly, they become cowardly.  If they are labeled ambitious, they become ambitious.  In fact, I would venture to say that this way of reacting to attributions is what he means by slavishness.  To be a slave in this psychological sense is to have a second-order disposition to acquire or simulate any (or at least most) first-order dispositions that are attributed to one.[7]

Here we begin to see a tension between the political and the psychological senses of slavishness.  Politically, of course, to be a slave is to have one’s will subordinated, to be in another’s power; psychologically, to be a slave is to be disposed to think, feel, and act as expected.  While it would not be incorrect to say that Nietzsche is more concerned with the psychological than the political, he is most interested in their interaction.  He seems to think that almost everyone in modern culture has inherited some degree of psychological slavishness.  Because so many of our ancestors were considered slaves (i.e., were politically enslaved), they acquired or developed psychological slavishness, which they then passed on to us.  Through an “immense atavism,” even today “the ordinary man still always waits for an opinion about himself and then instinctively submits to that – but by no means only a ‘good’ opinion; also a bad and unfair one” (BGE 261).

Being treated as a person of a certain type has profound effects, especially when the treatment begins at birth and is presented as part of the natural order of things.  So, for example, Nietzsche says that “at bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command – by having noble manners” (GS 40).

This process need not be carried out at the level of consciousness.  Indeed, it rarely is.  Instead, even slavish people think that they are acting in their own interest and from their own character.  But “what they do is done for the phantom of their ego which has formed itself in the heads of those around them and has been communicated to them […] the one for ever in the head of someone else, and the head of this someone else again in the heads of others” (D 105).  After implicitly taking a label to heart, they act in accordance with it.  This leads others, as well as they themselves, to think the label was appropriately applied in the first place.  It also reinforces their first-order disposition to behave in accordance with the label.  After many cycles of such pretence, social confirmation, and habit formation, the trait becomes second nature.  By pretending to be what one is designated, one becomes what one is designated.  As Nietzsche puts it, “The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite [….] If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else” (HH 51).

Ordinary first-order dispositions like flammability do not depend on higher-order dispositions.  Strange as it may seem, on Nietzsche’s view, first-order psychological dispositions depend developmentally, if not conceptually, on higher-order psychological dispositions.  And this developmental dependence has both ontogenetic and phylogenetic aspects.  Most of our ancestors were politically enslaved to some extent, which led the majority of them to become psychologically slavish.  We have inherited this second-order disposition, and we express and reinforce it whenever we become what we are called.


2. The Reflexive Blueprint


The interpersonal blueprint for the construction of character relies on a kind of psychological receptivity.  To become what one is called, one must be to some extent disposed to acquire or simulate whatever traits are attributed.  To be evaluated, one must be evaluable.  The other side of the coin is the disposition to assign value, to evaluate.  This is what Nietzsche often seems to have in mind when he speaks not of political but of psychological masterliness or nobility.[8]

His most sustained treatment of the moral psychology of nobility is of course the first essay of the Genealogy.  There, Nietzsche claims, against the “English psychologists” that

the judgment ‘good’ did not originate with those to whom ‘goodness’ was shown!  Rather it was ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed, and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common, and plebian.  It was out of this pathos of distance that they first seized the right to create values and to coin names for values. (I.2)

Unlike the slaves, these nobles are what they say they are.  Their self-evaluations are declarations, not assertions or directives.  Nietzsche even speculates that  “the origin of language itself [is] an expression of power on the part of the rulers: they say ‘this is this and this’” (GM I.2).  Whereas the political underclass becomes psychologically slavish and is thus molded from outside, the nobility practices reflexive evaluation.

It’s important to note, though, that even with the nobles, there is shift from the political to the psychological.  They begin by celebrating their social dominance, but end in an affirmation of their own character traits.  This is the “conceptual transformation” of which Nietzsche makes hay in GM I.4, saying that “everywhere ‘noble,’ ‘aristocratic’ in the social sense, is the basic concept from which ‘good’ in the sense of ‘with aristocratic soul,’ ‘noble,’ ‘with a soul of high order,’ ‘with a privileged soul’ necessarily developed.”  Their political superiority engenders the confidence to affirm their own character, which they subsequently take to be responsible for that very superiority (GM I.6).

But this presupposes that the nobles, too, lack robust first-order dispositions.  For the most part, they are not already, but rather become, what they say they are.  Their virtues are acquired through self-labeling.  Like the slaves, they have a second-order receptivity: they are disposed to acquire whatever dispositions are attributed to them by themselves.

This is just one of the paradoxes of psychological masterliness.  Another is the extent to which it, too, is grounded in interpersonal mechanisms.  As I have presented it thus far, it might seem that the reflexive model of character development is extremely individualistic.  A masterly person self-attributes some character traits, which he then goes on to acquire.  But this is not how Nietzsche usually envisions the process.  No individual has that much control.  The content of most masterly self-attributions is social in multiple ways.  First, the form of such an attribution tends to be not, “I am noble,” but, “We are noble.”  We – this group of people to which I belong – have this virtue.  The self-attribution thus relies on there being social group to which the individual belongs.

Second, the content of the trait-term tends to be social as well.  Nobility is perhaps the best example of this.  It implies a community of respect and honor, in which each member expects certain kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from the rest.  “As one who is good, one belongs to the ‘good,’ a community that possesses a communal feeling because all individuals are knit together by the sense of repayment” (HH 45).

A further way in which even masterly self-attributions are social depends on the fact that, though they are malleable, the meanings of trait terms are not completely up to their speakers at the moment of utterance.  Meaning depends on use, so the meaning of, for instance, ‘noble’ is dynamic, but its evolution proceeds at a stately, even glacial, pace.  Thus, when someone makes a masterly self-attribution, he can end up expressing content that he doesn’t consciously intend.[9]

The final way in which even the reflexive blueprint for the construction of character is grounded in interpersonal mechanisms is that, like many declarations, self-attributions require acceptance or uptake from the audience.  The ship is called the Titanic because someone christens it the Titanic, but the christening is felicitous only because the audience accepts the declaration.  The couple is married because they have been so pronounced, but the pronouncement only succeeds because the audience accepts it.  Someone who declares “We are noble” is noble, but only because the declaration is accepted.  Being noble depends on being considered noble.[10]  To be noble, they need to be considered noble – by themselves, by other nobles, and even by the slaves.  So “the aristocratic culture breathes power, and if its customs very often demand merely the semblance of the feeling of power, the impression this game produces on the non-aristocratic, and the spectacle of this impression, nonetheless constantly enhance the actual feeling of superiority” (D 201; see also D 248).


3. Nietzschean Summoning


In this paper, I’ve argued for two Nietzschean models of character development.  On the interpersonal model, one becomes what one is called.  This presupposes a second-order psychological disposition (‘slavishness’) to acquire or simulate whatever first-order psychological dispositions are attributed to one.  On the reflexive model, one becomes what one calls oneself.  This blueprint for character development turns out, however, to contain many interpersonal elements as well.  If my interpretation is on the right track, Nietzsche thinks there is a looping effect between character traits and the terms we use to attribute them.  People become what they are called, which helps to fix the meaning of the terms by which they are called, which again affects their personality, and so on.  This would mean that trait attributions often function as declarations rather than assertions.

And, as Nietzsche points out, pointing out this phenomenon doesn’t make it go away.  “We can destroy only as creators. – But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new ‘things’” (GS 58).  In this final section, I want to argue for a related phenomenon, which I call Nietzschean summoning.  So far, I have only discussed examples in which it’s clear who the target of the trait attribution is.  “You are T.”  “I am T.”  Sometimes, however, it’s less clear who the target of the attribution is.  When this happens and the trait is a virtue, the audience is being invited to think of themselves as the target.  When this kind of uptake occurs, the looping effect kicks in.  Praising Ts summons Ts.

The clearest example of this phenomenon is in sections 42 through 44 of Beyond Good and Evil (though it can also be observed in BGE 203, much of Zarathustra, and TI.iii.5).  There, Nietzsche says, for instance,

A new species of philosophers is coming up: I venture to baptize them with a name that is not free of danger.  As I unriddle them, insofar as they allow themselves to be unriddled –for it belongs to their nature to want to remain riddles at some point – these philosophers of the future may have a right – it might also be a wrong – to be called attempters.  This name itself is in the end a mere attempt and, if you will, a temptation. (BGE 42)

Who are these new philosophers, these attempters?  Nietzsche could, of course, just be making a prediction.  I want to say that, on the contrary, he is trying to summon the attempters from his readership.  By praising them, he is (as he himself admits) attempting to tempt us to think of ourselves as the new philosophers, and thus to become the new philosophers.

One reason to think that this is what’s going on is his bewildering use of pronouns in BGE 44.  Nietzsche transitions from talking about the new philosophers in the third person (“they […] will be free, very free spirits”) to talking about them in the first person (“that is the type of man we are, we free spirits!”) to breathless apostrophic direct address (“you new philosophers”).  In this passage, Nietzsche seems to be trying to do exactly what he describes in GS 58.  By creating a new name, he wants to create a new thing – the new philosopher.  And he tries to do so by means of the looping effect, by inviting his audience to think of themselves as new philosophers.  And, just as self-attributions need uptake from the audience to succeed, Nietzschean summoning only works when the audience accepts the invitation.  Was Nietzsche right to predict the philosophers of the future?  That depends on us.





Alfano, M. (forthcoming a). The most agreeable of all vices: Nietzsche as virtue epistemologist.  British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Alfano, M. (forthcoming b). Character as Moral Fiction. Cambridge University Press.

Alfano, M. (2010). The tenacity of the intentional prior to the Genealogy. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 40, 29-46.

Anderson, R. L. (2011). On the nobility of Nietzsche’s priests.  In Simon May (ed.), Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide, pp. 24-55. Cambridge University Press.

Conant, J.  (2001). Nietzsche’s perfectionism: A reading of Schopenhauer as Educator. In Richard Schacht (ed.) Nietzsche’s Post-Moralism. Cambridge University Press.

Hacking, I. (1995).  The looping effects of human kinds. In  Causal Cognition, ed. by Dan Sperber, et al.  Clarendon Press.  New York.

Hacking, I. (2006). Making up people. London Review of Books, 28:16, 23-26.

Hunt, L. (1991). Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue. London: Routledge.

Hurka, T. (2007). Nietzsche: Perfectionist. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katsafanas, P. (forthcoming). Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology. In J. Richardson & K. Gemes (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katsafanas, P. (2011). The relevance of history for moral philosophy: A study in Nietzsche’s Genealogy. In S. May (ed.), Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide, pp. 170-192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leiter, B. & Knobe, J. (2007). The case for Nietzschean moral psychology. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reginster, B. (forthcoming). Honesty and curiosity in Nietzsche’s free spirit. Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Reginster, B. (1997). Nietzsche on Ressentiment and valuation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57, 281-305.

Reginster, B. (2003). What is a free spirit? Nietzsche’s critique of fanaticism. Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie, 85:1, 51-85.

Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reginster, B. (2007). The will to power and the ethics of creativity. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, J. (forthcoming). Nietzsche, language, and community. In Julian Young (ed.), Nietzsche and Community. Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. (1975). A taxonomy of illocutionary acts. In Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

Searle, J. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Slote, M. (1998). Nietzsche and virtue ethics. International Studies in Philosophy, 30:3, 23-27.

Swanton, C. (1998). Outline of a Nietzschean virtue ethics. International Studies in Philosophy, 30:3, 29-38.

White, A. (2001). The youngest virtue. In Schacht (ed.) Nietzsche’s Post-Moralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zagzebski, L. (2010). Exemplarist virtue theory. Metaphilosophy, 41:1, 41-57.


[1] Alfano (2010), Anderson (2011), Katsafanas (2011, forthcoming), Leiter & Knobe (2007), Reginster (2003, 2006), Richardson (forthcoming).

[2] Alfano (forthcoming a), Conant (2001), Hunt (1991), Hurka (2007), Reginster (2007, forthcoming), Slote (1998), Swanton (1998), White (2001).

[3] The phrase ‘looping effect’ is due to Hacking (1995), who also recognizes that Nietzsche may be its discoverer (2006).  Alfano (forthcoming b) is the first to argue for a looping effect between virtues and virtue-terms.

[4] References to Nietzsche use the Kaufman translations of BGE and GS and the Cambridge translations of D, HH, Z, and TI.

[5] Linda Zagzebski’s (2010) “exemplarist” semantics for virtue terms is the closest contemporary treatment of the meaning of virtue-terms.

[6] I draw here on Searle’s (1975) taxonomy of speech acts.

[7] See Anderson (2011, p. 31) and Reginster (1997, pp. 285-7).

[8] See Anderson (2011, p. 29)

[9] For more on this, see Richardson (forthcoming), who argues that Nietzsche thinks “words get their meaning from the history of the social practice, and carry much of its depth and intricacy,” which implies that “Nietzsche thinks that words do mean a multiplicity, and that we mean a multiplicity through them, but aren’t aware of this, and are misled by the singleness and apparent simplicity of each word.”

[10] Searle (1995, p. 13) argues that social facts always exhibit the feature: “seeming to be F is logically prior to being F.”

Rønnow-Rasmussen’s “Personal Value”

I’ve just finished a draft of a review of Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen’s book, Personal Value.  After some soul-searching, I decided I couldn’t give it the thumbs-up that I’d been hoping to when I first cracked the cover.  However, there are some good ideas in it, which I hope I’ve emphasized in the review.

In her critique of Moore’s (1903, p. 55) suggestion that one might answer the question “What is good?” with “Books are good,” Judith Jarvis Thomson (1997, p. 276) asks what it could mean to say that books are “just plain” good or bad.  Aren’t they rather good to read, or in teaching philosophy, or for weighing down papers?  This point is apropos in a review of Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen’s Personal Value in two ways.  One might worry, first, about his facile dismissal (p. 7) of the notion that such first-order attributions of goodness (e.g., being good to, good at, good in, and so on) have anything to do with the “genuine evaluative meaning” of the term.  This might then lead one to ask whether Rønnow-Rasmussen’s book is good in any way at all.  After some struggle, my own answer to this question is a reluctant “yes.”


Rønnow-Rasmussen’s chief aim is to argue for a particular way of carving up the space of values.  He wants to demonstrate that it’s worthwhile to countenance personal values, which are good for some agent or other, in addition to impersonal values, which are good, as he says, period.  In his effort to show this, he relies primarily on two methods: argument by ostension, and the drawing or undermining of distinctions: between intrinsic and extrinsic values, between instrumental and final values, between the supervenience base for and the constitutive ground of values, between object-given and state-given reasons, between identifying and justifying reasons, and between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons.  While his positive proposal is interesting and somewhat novel, its development is marred by superficial summaries of the existing literature, jarring non sequiturs, sloppy argumentation, superfluous formalism, and jingoistic citation patterns.


Personal Value comprises three parts.  Chapter 1 sets the scene by drawing several value distinctions and pointing to plausible examples to support them.  Chapters 2 through 8 are the meat of the book, in which Rønnow-Rasmussen articulates, clarifies, and defends a fitting-attitude (aka buck-passing) analysis of personal value, according to which an “object x’s value for a person a (i.e. x’s personal value), consists in the existence of normative reasons for favouring/disfavouring x for a’s sake” (p. 47).  In chapter 2, the fitting-attitude analysis of value in general is introduced through its historical progenitors, Franz Brentano and A. C. Ewing.  Chapter 3 presents Rønnow-Rasmussen’s take on what has come to be known as the wrong-kind-of-reason objection to the fitting-attitude analysis.  In chapter 4, which unfortunately spans only nine pages, Rønnow-Rasmussen introduces the fitting-attitude analysis of personal value.  Since this analysis relies on the hitherto unanalyzed notion of favouring an object for someone’s sake, chapter 5 attempts to clarify this notion.  Next, chapters 6, 7, and 8 place the current proposal in the context of others’ discussions of personal value (Hurka, Regan, Rosati) and welfare (Darwall, Heathwood).  Chapters 9 and 10, which take up the distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons and the concept of value-bearer pluralism, respectively, make up the third and final section.  For all I can tell, neither of these chapters bears more than a glancing relation to the purported topic of the book, so I will not discuss them further.


Before turning to Rønnow-Rasmussen’s definition of personal value, it’s useful to summarize two of the key distinctions from chapter 1: the difference between instrumental and final value, and the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value.  Something has instrumental value when it is good in virtue of what it enables (e.g., a ladder) or prevents (e.g., a prophylactic).  Less helpfully, something has final value when it is good non-instrumentally, or, as Rønnow-Rasmussen puts it, “for its own sake.”  Examples include health, welfare, and pleasure.  Next, something is intrinsically good when all the properties that make it good are internal to it (e.g., a just society), and extrinsically good otherwise (e.g., a rare stamp, Napoleon’s hat, an unspoiled old-growth forest).  Rønnow-Rasmussen persuasively argues that these distinctions are orthogonal; in particular, he cites convincing examples of extrinsic final values – things that are good for their own sake but only in virtue of their relational properties.  Dialectically, this is a wise move, since personal values as he goes on to analyze them turn out to be necessarily extrinsic, even when they are final.


The fitting-attitude analysis of value grounds the evaluative in the normative: what’s good is whatever there is all-things-considered reason to favour, where favouring is an umbrella notion for all pro-attitudes, including desire, preference, admiration, respect, and love.  What’s bad is whatever there is all-things-considered reason to disfavour, where disfavouring includes all con-attitudes, including aversion, hatred, contempt, disgust, and fear.  This analysis has much to recommend it.  However, it faces objections.  One, which I have spelled out elsewhere (Alfano 2009), arises from the fact that it is sometimes fitting to harbor contrary sentiments towards the same object.  One might have all-things-considered reason to respect and fear a powerful person; one might have all-things-considered reason to feel love and disgust towards one’s baby when it has diarrhea.  Rønnow-Rasmussen’s response is to say that, when such cases arise, the object in question is neither good nor bad – which seems to me to conflate fitting warranted ambivalence with warranted indifference.


According to another, more widely discussed, objection (the “wrong-kind-of-reason” objection), the fitting-attitude analysis misses the mark in both directions: one can have all-things-considered reason to favour something that is valueless or negatively valued, and one can have all-things-considered reason not to favour something that is positively valued.  In most such cases, “it is seemingly the pro-attitudes themselves, rather than the objects, that are valuable” (p. 34).  What’s valuable in these cases is not the object of favouring, but the favouring itself.  Rønnow-Rasmussen presents contrived examples of such cases (e.g., an evil demon threats you with eternal torture unless you admire a saucer of mud, p. 34), but plausible examples are not far to seek.  Placebo effects, Jamesian will-to-believe cases, and beginnings of romantic relationships have the required features.  Your respect for a doctor might contribute to your recovery from an illness; your pride in your own ability might give you the confidence to hit a home run; your love for another person might induce him to requite the love.  In all of these cases, though, it is the pro-attitude itself, rather than the object of the pro-attitude, that provides a reason.


After considering and rejecting the suggestion that the right kind of reason is always object-given (Parfit 2001, p. 21) rather than state- or attitude-given, Rønnow-Rasmussen concludes that the wrong-kind-of-reason problem remains unsolved.  He then refuses to revise the fitting-attitude analysis to make favouring for the right reason a primitive, presumably because the notion of a right reason is obscure, but also refuses to draw the further conclusion that the problem is insoluble.  This open-minded, corrigible approach extends throughout the book.  The author frequently reminds his readers that he is not trying to defend the fitting-attitude analysis (or his extension of it to personal value) against all comers.  Instead, his work should be seen as an exploration of some of the positive features of the analysis.


Assuming, then, that the various objections to the fitting-attitude analysis of value can be defused, the proposal that Rønnow-Rasmussen advances for analyzing personal value is quite attractive.  Whereas something is good if and only if favouring it is warranted, something is good for some agent a if and only if favouring it for a’s sake is warranted.  The chief innovation here is to relativize to the agent not in the subject but in the content of favouring.  Rønnow-Rasmussen is not claiming that what’s good for you is what you have all things-considered-reason to favour, but rather that what’s good for you is what anyone has all-things-considered reason to favour for your sake.  Thus, your humility may be good for you even though it would be gauche for you to favour it.  This novel way of understanding personal value immunizes Rønnow-Rasmussen’s view against criticisms of the notion of good for developed by G. E. Moore (1903), Thomas Hurka (1987), Donald Regan (2004), and Connie Rosati (2008).


It seems promising to understand personal value in terms of warranted for-someone’s-sake favouring, which inevitably leads to the question of what it means to favour something for someone’s sake.  The interested reader will at this point be frustrated.  Presumably, the most natural way to approach the question would be to articulate a theory of what it means to favour something for something’s sake, and then to narrow the account to an analysis of favouring for someone’s sake.  Avocados are good for humans, but not good for rabbits.  Honey is good for adults, but not for babies.  Sleeping pills are good for insomniacs at night, but not for crane operators on the job.  Such an approach would then lead to a discussion of human nature, since the nature of an object seems in large part to determine what’s good for it.  Rønnow-Rasmussen, however, doesn’t even consider this approach.  Moreover, given the unsystematic way he approaches the question, “the prospects of specifying the characteristic features” of a for-someone’s-sake attitude are, as he himself admits, “bleak” (p. 56).


At the very least, though, the warrant for favouring something for a’s sake must refer to a’s properties asjustifiers or identifiers (p. 56).  Reasons make favouring something fitting (or not).  Somewhat crudely, we might say that a reason for xing is whatever could be successfully invoked in a satisfactory justification of xing.  You might admire someone for her wit.  The question, “Why do you admire that author?” could be satisfactorily answered by saying, “She’s a wit.”  You might love someone because she’s your mother.  The question, “Why do you love her?” could be satisfactorily answered by saying, “She’s my mother.”  Given such attitudes, you might protect a book from fire because you admire its author, or care for a stranger for your mother’s sake.  In the former case, your admiration will be more or less justified depending on the quality of the author’s writing; the properties of the agent that warrant favouring her are thus justifiers.  In the latter case, your love will not depend on what your mother is like but on who she is; the properties of the agent that warrant favouring her are thus identifiers.  Rønnow-Rasmussen plausibly claims that for-someone’s-sake attitudes that rely on identifiers are “more interesting” than those that do not because they can be “expected to have a [more] substantial impact on a person’s life” (p. 56).


One last point before wrapping up.  Since the distinction between personal and impersonal values cuts across the distinction between instrumental and final values, a final personal value on Rønnow-Rasmussen’s analysis is something that it’s fitting to favour for its own sake for someone’s sake.  This idiom is admittedly infelicitous (p. 58), but that does not necessarily make it incoherent.  After considering several potential interpretations, Rønnow-Rasmussen urges that the best way to construe the assertion “a favours x for its own sake for b’s sake” is not as the attribution of two attitudes to a (favouring in a final way and favouring for b’s sake) but rather as the attribution of a single complex attitude:


the first ‘sake’ in ‘favouring x for its own sake for b’s sake’ specifies that the value accruing to x need not be conducive to something else that is valuable. […] Similarly, the second ‘sake’ indicates that the favouring attitude is not instrumental.  Our attitude is to b, and it is final in the sense that it does not depend on some other favouring. (p. 62)


Scant clarity is achieved in this way, however, since both final and personal value are then negatively defined.  Something has final value when it is to be favoured non-instrumentally, and something has personal value when the person for whose sake it is to be favoured is viewed non-instrumentally.  Something thus has final personal value when it is warranted to favour both it and the person for whose sake it is favoured non-instrumentally.


One might also complain of the apparent inconsistency between Rønnow-Rasmussen’s claim that the fitting-attitude analysis “neither mentions nor refers to the properties in virtue of which the object is valuable” (p. 25) and his subsequent admissions that “we are to favour [something] on account of its properties” (p. 37) and that we love people “in virtue of their properties” (p. 65).  Or the inconsistency between his claim that, according to the fitting-attitude analysis, “it is properties other than the value property that provide reasons to [favour]” (p. 24) and his later contention that something’s being good can sometimes itself provide a reason to favour it (pp. 43-45).  To do so, however, would obscure the worthwhile aspects of Rønnow-Rasmussen’s effort.




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