What are the bearers of virtue?

(UPDATED August 28th)

I’m doing a lot of writing these days.  Here’s another draft paper, for a collection edited by Hagop Sarkissian and Jen Cole Wright.  The title is, “What are the bearers of virtue?”  The answer I propose is that, contrary to a natural assumption, the bearer of a virtue is not an individual agent, but a complex of object that encompass the agent, her social milieu, and her asocial environment.

As always, comments and objections are quite welcome.


What are the Bearers of Virtues?



Despite the recent hubbub over the possibility that the concepts of virtue and the virtues are empirically inadequate,[1] researchers have only superficially considered the fact that these concepts pick out dispositional properties.[2]  For the first time in this controversy, we need to take the dispositional nature of virtue seriously.  Once we do, one question immediately arises: what are the bearers of virtues?


In this paper, I argue for an embodied, embedded, and extended answer to this question.  It is generally hopeless to try to say what someone would do in a given normative state of affairs without first specifying bodily and social features of the situation.  There’s typically no fact of the matter, for instance, about whether someone would help when there is sufficient reason to help.  However, there typically is a fact of the matter about whether someone in a particular bodily state and social environment would help when there is sufficient reason to help.


If that’s right, it puts some pressure on agent-based theories of virtue, which tend to claim or presume that the bearers of virtue are individual agents (Russell 2009, Slote 2001).  Such theories hold that a virtue is a monadic property of an individual agent.  Furthermore, this objection to agent-based and agent-focused theories suggests a way of reconceiving of a virtue as a triadic relation among an agent, a social milieu, and an asocial environment (Alfano 2013).  On this relational model, the bearers of virtue are not individual agents but ordered triples that refer in addition to objects outside the agent.


Here is the plan for this paper: Section 1 summarizes the relevant literature on dispositions.  Next, section 2 sketches some of the relevant psychological findings, which suggest that how people are disposed to think, feel, deliberate, act, and react is determined to a large degree by both their immediate asocial environment, which in turn influences their moods and other bodily states, and their social milieu.  Finally, section 3 argues that the best response to the empirical evidence is to revise the concept of a virtue.  A virtue is not a monadic property of an agent, but a triadic relation among an agent, a social milieu, and an asocial environment.


1. Virtues as Dispositional Properties


1.1. The Subjunctive Conditional Analysis


The most natural way to approach dispositions is through the simple subjunctive conditional analysis:


(S-SCA) object o is disposed to activity A in condition C if and only if o would A if C were the case (Choi & Fara 2012).


The A-term refers to the characteristic manifestation of the disposition; the C-term refers to its stimulus conditions.  To say that OxyContin is an analgesic for humans is to attribute a dispositional property to it: OxyContin is disposed to relieve pain when ingested by a human.  This statement would then be analyzed as: OxyContin would relieve pain if it were ingested by a human.  According to the standard semantics for subjunctive conditionals, this analysis means that all close possible worlds at which a pained person ingests OxyContin are worlds at which that person’s pain is subsequently relieved.


Many of the dispositions we refer to on a regular basis, such as being fragile, soluble, or poisonous, do not wear their manifestation or stimulus conditions on their sleeves.  Following Lewis (1997), the standard “two-step” strategy for dealing with them is first to spell out these conditions, and then to translate them into the subjunctive conditional schema.


Furthermore, it’s now recognized that most dispositions have characteristic masks, mimics, and finks.  A fragile vase might not break when struck because its fragility is masked by protective packaging: at some nearby worlds, the vase is both struck and protected, and at those worlds it does not break.  A sugar pill can mimic a real analgesic via the placebo effect: at some nearby worlds, a placebo is ingested by a pained individual whose pain is subsequently relieved.  An electron’s velocity, which it is naturally disposed to retain, inevitably changes when it is measured – a case of finking.[3]  Such possibilities are not evidence against the presence or absence of the disposition in question; instead, they are exceptions to the subjunctive conditional.  The vase really is fragile, despite the falsity of the subjunctive conditional.  The sugar pill is not really an analgesic, despite the pain relief.  The electron really is disposed to follow its inertial path, despite Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.


Let’s stipulate that finks, masks, and mimics be collectively referred to as disrupters.  Since it is possible to possess a disposition that is susceptible to finks and masks, and to lack a disposition that is mimicked, the simple subjunctive conditional analysis fails.  In my view, the most attractive response to the constellation of disrupters is Choi’s (2008) anti-disrupter SCA:


(AD-SCA) object o is disposed to activity A in condition C if and only if o would A if C were the case and there were no disrupters present.


1.2. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda


The subjunctive conditional analysis, even in the sophisticated form that allows for disrupters, expresses a very strong notion of what it takes to be a disposition.  Consider, for example, a loaded die that has a .5 probability of showing ace and a .1 probability of showing each of the other results.  Surely, one might argue, the die is disposed to show ace, even though there are plenty of close possible worlds at which it shows two, three, four, five, or six.


In light of such cases, it’s possible to provide weak and comparative analyses of dispositions.  For instance, we can analyze a weak disposition as follows:


(W-AD-SCA) o is weakly disposed to A in C if and only if o could A if C were the case and there were no disrupters present.


In the standard semantics, this means that o As at some undisrupted nearby C-worlds.  Obviously, the same object can be both weakly disposed to A in C and weakly disposed to not-A in C.  This makes weak dispositions less informative than we might like.  W-AD-SCA can be supplemented with the comparative analysis:


(C-AD-SCA) o is more disposed to A than to A* in C if and only if o is significantly more likely to A than to A* if C were the case and no disrupters were present.


In the standard semantics, this means that there are more undisrupted C-worlds where o As than undisrupted C-words where o A*s.


Which, if any, of these notions is appropriate to an analysis of virtues?  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.  For these, AD-SCA seems most appropriate.  Someone only counts as chaste if he (almost) never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation.  Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding.  For them, some combination of the W-AD-SCA and C-AD-SCA seems appropriate.  Someone might count as generous if he was more disposed to give than not to give when doing so was appropriate; 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 analysis of virtue dispositions adds one additional step before Lewis’s two.  First, determine whether the virtue in question is high-fidelity or low-fidelity.  For instance, it’s reasonable to suppose that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue.  Second, identify the stimulus conditions and characteristic manifestations.  The most overt manifestation of helpfulness is of course helping behavior, but more subtle manifestations presumably include noticing opportunities to help, having an occurrent desire to help, deliberating in characteristic ways, and forming the intention to help.  The most overt manifestation of loyalty is refusal to betray, but again there are more subtle manifestations.  The stimulus condition for helpfulness is a normative state of affairs: that there is adequate reason to help.  For loyalty, too, the stimulus condition appears to be a normative state of affairs: that there is temptation to betray whomever or whatever one is loyal to.  Finally, the stimulus conditions and characteristic manifestations are slotted into the relevant schema.  To be helpful, then, someone must be weakly disposed to help (among other things) when there is adequate reason to do so, whereas to be loyal is to be strongly disposed not to betray (among other things) when there is a temptation to do so.



2. The Psychology of Dispositions


In this section, I argue that both high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues, as traditionally conceived, suffer from an indeterminacy problem.  There’s often no fact of the matter about whether someone would exhibit the characteristic manifestations of a high-fidelity virtue in undisrupted stimulus conditions.  There’s often no fact of the matter about whether someone is more disposed than not to exhibit the characteristic manifestations of a low-fidelity virtue in undisrupted stimulus conditions.  This is because both bodily and social factors partially determine which possible worlds become actual.


Someone might be strongly disposed to tell the truth if others think of her as an honest person, but strongly disposed to deceive if others think of her as a dishonest person.  For such a person, it would be incorrect to say that she would tell the truth in undisrupted stimulus conditions, but also incorrect to say that she would lie in undisrupted stimulus conditions.  However, once the asocial and social context are specified as well, it generally will be possible to assert true subjunctive conditionals.


Similarly, someone might be significantly more disposed to persist than desist in the face of adversity if she is in a good mood, but significantly more disposed to desist than persist if she is in a bad mood.  For such a person, it would be incorrect to say that she is weakly disposed to persist in undisrupted stimulus conditions, but also incorrect to say that she is weakly disposed to desist in undisrupted stimulus conditions.  However, as before, once the asocial and social context are specified, it generally will be possible to assert true subjunctive conditionals.


2.1. Asocial Situational Influences


Asocial situational influences are asocial features of the immediate environment that partially determine which subjunctive conditionals are true about how someone will act in a given virtue’s stimulus conditions.  They come in two main varieties: ambient sensibilia, and mood modulators.


For instance, the volume of ambient sound influences both helping behavior and physical aggressiveness.  In a loud environment (80+ db), people tend not to help one another, but in a quiet environment (79- db), they do (Matthews & Cannon 1975).  A loud environment tends to lead to aggressive behavior, but a quiet environment does not (Donnerstein & Wilson 1976).  Or consider the olfactory modality.  People tend to engage in helping behavior when exposed to pleasant smells, such as coffee or freshly baked bread (Baron 1997).  Or consider the visual modality: subtle shifts in lighting partially determine whether people cheat.  They cheat more in an almost-imperceptibly darker room, and act more selfishly when wearing shaded glasses rather than clear ones (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino 2010).


These are just a few of literally hundreds of relevant studies.  Together, they suggest that there are stable, though weak, connections between seemingly morally irrelevant sensibilia and the manifestation (or not) of virtue.  The connections don’t all run in the same direction, and they interact.  Loud environments don’t uniformly dispose towards morally bad behavior, nor do pleasant smells invariably dispose towards morally good behavior.  Whether a given sensory input will tend to produce good, bad, or neutral results depends on what kind of behavior is normatively called for and which other sensibilia are present, among many other things.


I should also note that these connections are not crudely behavioristic.  Sensory stimuli influence behavior in large part by modifying the agent’s cognitive and motivational set.  Loud noises, for instance, result in attentional focusing (Cohen 1978), while pleasant smells produce openness to new experiences (Baron & Thomley 1994).  These internal states mediate the connection between the asocial environment and the agent’s behavior.


The other main asocial influence is the set of affect modulators, very broadly construed to include mood elevators, mood depressors, emotion inducers, and arousal modifiers.  Embarrassed people are more disposed to help than unabashed people (Apsler 1975).  People who feel guilty are more disposed to help – regardless of whom they feel guilty towards (Regan 1971).  People who’ve been put in a good mood are more disposed to help and to try new things in general (Isen 1987).  Those who feel disgusted make harsher moral judgments, even if the disgust is ostensibly directed at something other than the object of moral judgment (Schnall, Haidth, Clore, & Jordan 2008).  Sexually aroused men are more disposed to engage in disgusting, illegal, or immoral activities (Ariely 2008).


As with sensibilia, affect modulators are connected in weak but stable ways to the manifestation (or not) of virtue.  Fair moods don’t necessarily make us fair, nor do foul moods make us foul.  The valence of the effect depends on what is normatively called for in the particular circumstances.  And as with sensibilia, these connections are not crudely behavioristic.  Internal states, such as perceptual sensitivities, desires, and expectations, mediate the effect on behavior.


It’s important to point out, furthermore, that while asocial influences tend to have fairly predictable effects on behavioral dispositions, they by no means explain action all by themselves.  Indeed, any particular factor will typically account for between 4% and 16% of the variance in behavior (Funder & Ozer 1983).  This is one reason among several that I am not proposing a purely bodily account of personality and behavior.  As Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda (1995) have emphasized, behavioral coherence is to be sought not in one factor alone, but in the interaction between personal, social, and asocial factors.


2.2. Social Influences


In addition to the asocial influences canvassed above, there are a variety of social influences on the manifestation (or not) of virtue.  Somewhat roughly, there are two types of such influences: expectation confirmation, and outgroup bias.  In cases of expectation confirmation, what happens is the agent reads others’ expectations off of explicit or implicit social cues, and then acts in accordance with the expectations so read.  Of course, people often mistake or misinterpret others’ expectations, so what they end up doing isn’t necessarily what others expect, but what they think others expect.  In cases of outgroup bias, the agent displays a prejudice against someone who is perceived as not part of the ingroup.  Since everyone belongs to myriad social groups, whether someone is perceived as in or out depends on which group identities are salient at the time, which leads to systematic misperception of social distance.  In this section, I have room to discuss only social expectations in detail.


Much of the groundbreaking social psychology of the second half of the 20th century investigated the power of expectation confirmation.  The most dramatic demonstration was of course Stanley Milgram’s (1974) studies in obedience, in which roughly two thirds of participants were induced to put what they thought was 450 volts through another participant (actually an actor who was in on the experiment) three times in a row.  While there were many important features of this study, the key upshot was that the participants were willing to do what they should easily have recognized was deeply immoral based on the say-so of a purported authority figure.  They performed exactly as expected.  Blass (1999) shows in a meta-analysis that Milgram’s results were no fluke: they have been replicated all around with the world with populations of diverse age, gender, and education level.


Another striking paradigm for investigating the power of social expectations is the Asch (1951, 1955, 1956) paradigm, in which participants publicly answer questions after hearing the unanimous and obviously wrong responses of at least three confederates.  Roughly half the participants give what they themselves recognize to be the wrong answer in such circumstances because they detect an expectation to say what others have said.


Yet another example of the power of social expectations is the large literature on bystander apathy that grew in response to the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City (Darley & Latané 1968; Latané & Darley 1968; Latané & Darley 1970; Latané & Nida 1981).  It turns out that, the more bystanders are present in an emergency situation, the lower the chances that even one of them will intervene.  What seems to happen in such cases is that people scan others immediate reactions to help themselves determine what to do.  When they see no one else reacting, they decide not to intervene either; thus everyone interprets everyone else’s moment of decision as a decision not to intervene.  Then, since they think that intervention is not expected, it doesn’t occur.


Reading off others’ expectations and acting accordingly doesn’t always lead to bad outcomes, though.  Recent work on the phenomenon of social proof shows that the normative valence of acting in accordance with expectations depends on what’s expected.  For instance, guests at a hotel are 40% more likely to conserve water by not asking for their towels to be washed if they read a message that says, “75% of the guests who stayed in this room participated in our resource savings program by using their towels more than once” than one that says, “You can show respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing towels during your stay” (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius 2008)


Psychologists and behavioral economists have also investigated the effect of extremely subtle, thoroughly embodied, social distance cues on moral behavior.  In a string of fascinating studies, it’s been shown that people are much more willing to share financial resources (Burnham 2003; Burnham & Hare 2007; Rigdon, Ishii, Watabe, & Kitayama 2009), less inclined to steal (Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts 2006), and less disposed to litter (Ernest-Jones, Nettle, & Bateson 2011) when they are “watched” by a representation of a face.  The face can be anything from a picture of the beneficiary of their behavior to a cartoon robot’s head to three black dots arranged to look like eyes and a nose.  In debriefings, participants never voiced suspicions about the of the face, and yet their behavior was clearly influenced by it.


The last example of the power of social expectations involves the use of labeling to induce label-congruent thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  As I document and explain in more detail elsewhere (Alfano 2013), people tend to act in accordance with the traits that are attributed to them, whether the traits are minor virtues such as tidiness (Miller, Brickman, & Bolen 1975) and ecology-mindedness (Cornelissen et al. 2006, 2007), major virtues such as charity (Jensen & Moore 1977), cooperativeness (Grusec, Kuczynski, Simutis & Rushton 1978), and generosity (Grusec & Redler 1980), or vices such as cutthroat competitiveness (Grusec, Kuczynski, Simutis & Rushton 1978).  On this view, when people act in accordance with a virtue, they often do so not because they have the trait in question, but because they think they do or because they know that other people think they do.  I call such simulations of moral character factitious virtues.


These empirical considerations weigh heavily in favor of Merritt’s (2009) argument that the very social structures that sometimes enable us to act virtuously also sometimes lead us to act viciously.  We are deeply social animals, and it would be both against our nature and in many cases counter-productive to try to deny this.


3. Revising the Metaphysics of Virtue


In the previous section, I argued that both social and asocial influences shape how people are disposed to think, feel, and act.  What we notice, what we think, what we care about, and what we do depends in part on bodily and social features of our situations.  This is not to deny that people also bring their own distinctive personalities to the table, but it suggest that both high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues, as traditionally conceived, are not thick on the ground.


To see why, let’s walk through the three-step analysis of a traditional cardinal virtue: honesty.  For current purposes, I’ll assume that it’s uncontroversial that honesty is high-fidelity.  Next, we specify the stimulus conditions and characteristic manifestations.  I don’t have space to do justice to the required nuances here, but it wouldn’t be too far off to say that the stimulus conditions C are temptations to lie, cheat, or steal, and that the characteristic manifestations A are behavioral (not lying, cheating, or stealing), cognitive (noticing the temptation without feeling too much of its pull), and affective (disapprobation of inappropriate behavior, desire to extricate oneself from the tempting situation if possible, perhaps even prospective shame at the thought that one might end up acting badly).  Finally, we slot these specifications into the schema for high-fidelity virtue:


(AD-SCA-honesty) The agent is disposed to activity A in condition C if and only if she would A if C were the case and there were no disrupters present.


In other words, at all nearby undisrupted worlds where she is tempted, she thinks, feels, and acts appropriately.  It’s only reasonable to assume that at some of these undisrupted temptation-worlds, however, the lighting will not be bright; at others, she might not feel watched; at still others, she will have been labeled dishonest, or at least not have been labeled honest.  What she would do depends in part on these factors, and so the subjunctive conditional is false, which in turn means that she is not honest.


It could be objected that these factors are disrupters, and so should be ruled out by fiat.  This objection is unmotivated, however.  We can see how protective packaging masks an object’s fragility.  Does it make sense to say that being in slightly dim conditions would mask someone’s honesty?  What good is honesty if it gives out so easily?  Does it make sense to say that not being watched would fink someone’s honesty?  What good is honesty if honest people need constant monitoring?  Ruling out all of the asocial and social influences described in the previous section as disrupters is not only ad hoc; it destroys the evaluative valence of honesty, making it no longer a virtue.


Furthermore, social and asocial influences are nearly ubiquitous.  Indeed, it’s difficult even to think of them as influences because they are so common.  Should we say that very bright lighting is the default condition, and that lower levels of light are all situational influences?  To do so would be to count half of each day as disrupted.  Or should we say that twilight is the default, and that both very bright and very dark conditions are situational influences?  It’s hard to know what would even count in favor of one of these proposals.


Even more to the point, what one might want to rule out as a disrupter in one case is likely to contribute to the manifestation of virtue in other cases.  Should we say that being watched, or feeling that you are watched, is a situational influence?  Then it might be that all of the reprehensible behavior displayed in the Milgram experiments was committed by people whose virtue was finked or masked, but it would also mean that all of the praiseworthy behavior someone exhibits while “watched” by a representation of a face is not virtue but mimicked virtue.  If we try to rule out all of these factors, leaving just the agent in her naked virtue or vice, we may find that she disappears too.  Strip away the body and the society, and you leave not the kernel of authentic character, but something that’s not even recognizably human.


Instead of filtering out as much as possible, I want to propose that we should try to include as much as possible, by expanding the unit of analysis, the bearer of virtue.  Instead of thinking of virtue as a property of an individual agent, we should construe it as a triadic relation among a person, a social milieu, and an asocial environment.


There are two ways of fitting the milieu and the environment into the subjunctive conditional analysis.  They could incorporated into the stimulus conditions:


(AD-SCA*) Person p is disposed to activity A in condition C, social milieu S, and asocial environment E if and only if p would A if C were the case, p were in S and E, and there were no disrupters present.


Or they could be fused with the agent:


(AD-SCA†) Person p in social milieu S and asocial environment E is disposed to activity A in condition C if and only if p-in-S-and­-E would A if C were the case and there were no disrupters present.


According to AD-SCA*, the person is still the sole bearer of the disposition; it’s just a more limited disposition.  According to AD-SCA†, in contrast, the bearer of the disposition is now a complex, extended object: the person, the milieu, and the environment.  What I want to suggest is that, given the sorts of creatures we are – embodied, socially embedded, with cognition and motivation extended beyond the boundaries of our own skin (Clark 2008, Clark & Chalmers 1998) – AD-SCA* is more attractive.


Virtue would inhere, on this view, in the interstices between the person and her world.  To be honest, for example, would be to have certain basic personality dispositions, but also to be considered honest by one’s peers (and to know it), to consider oneself honest, to be watched or at least watchable, and to be in whatever bodily states promote the characteristic manifestations of honesty.  Someone could become honest, on this view, in standard ways, such as habituation and reflection on reasons.  But someone could also become honest in non-standard ways, such as having the expectations of others signaled or the lights turned down.  This makes it both easier and harder to be virtuous: deficiencies in personality can be made up for through social and bodily support, but strength of personality can also be undermined by lack of social and bodily support.


One of the salutary upshots of this way of thinking about virtue is that it helps to make sense of the enormous diversity named by any given trait term.  Different people are more or less honest, and on many dimensions.  By making explicit reference to the social milieu and the asocial environment, this framework suggests ways in which partial virtue could be differently instantiated.  Two people might both count, at a very coarse-grained level of description as mostly honest, but one could do so because of personal and social strengths but despite asocial weaknesses, while the other does so because of social and asocial strengths but despite some personal weaknesses.


Furthermore, the framework allows for the plausible idea that there is a kind of asymmetry amongst the bearers of virtue.  Someone’s personality can only be so weak before we are no longer inclined to call him virtuous, even if that weakness is counteracted by great social and asocial strengths.  We can also make sense of the feeling that someone is extremely virtuous if he displays characteristic manifestations despite weaknesses or pitfalls in the social and asocial environment.  I’m not inclined to go too far in this direction, but the framework does allow for such asymmetries.


Before concluding, I want to point to two normative upshots of this view.  The first is that each of us is to some extent causally and even constitutively responsible for the character of others, and in several ways.  By signaling our expectations, we tend to induce expectation-confirming responses.  By interacting with others, we alter their moods.  When we help to construct the material and bodily environment, we also construct others’ character.  For someone who is on the verge between virtue and vice – that is, for most people – such influences can make all the difference.  (Hagop Sarkissian [2010] makes a similar point.)  The comforting myth of individual responsibility notwithstanding, each of us truly is our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.


This is a heavy responsibility to bear, but it pales in comparison to the responsibility borne by those with the power to set the default expectations that govern a society and to shape the material conditions of people’s lives.  On the view I am proposing, politicians, corporate leaders, reports, and architects, among many others, quite literally have the power to make people virtuous – or prevent them from being or becoming virtuous.  If this is right, we need to hold such people more accountable, and to stop pretending that it’s possible to separate political and economic power from morality.



While any proposed interpretation of the vast empirical evidence on character is inevitably tentative, speculative, and corrigible, I think we now have good reason to pursue the idea that character traits are not dispositional properties of individual agents, but dispositional relations among agents and their environments.  Many of the key elements of the environment, on this view, are grounded in the fact that the human animal is embodied, socially embedded, and extended outside the limits of its own skin.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that virtue, too, is embodied, embedded, and extended.









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Isen, A., Clark, M., & Schwartz, M. (1976). Duration of the effect of good mood on helping: “Footprints on the sands of time.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 385-393.

Isen, A., Shalker, T., Clark, M., & Karp, L. (1978).  Affect, accessibility of material in memory, and behavior:  A cognitive loop.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1-12.

Jensen, A. & Moore, S. (1977).  The effect of attribute statements on cooperativeness and competitiveness in school-age boys.  Child Development, 48, 305-307.

Johnston, M. (1992). How to speak of the colors. Philosophical Studies, 68, 221-263.

Latané, B., & Darley, J. (1968).  Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215-221.

Latané, B., & Darley, J. (1970).  The Unresponsive Bystander:  Why Doesn’t He Help?  New York:  Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Latané, B., & Nida, S. (1981).  Ten years of research on group size and helping.  Psychological Bulletin, 89, 308-324.

Lewis, D. (1997). Finkish dispositions. The Philosophical Quarterly, 47, 143-158.

MacIntyre, A. (1984).  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Martin, C. (1994). Dispositions and conditionals. The Philosophical Quarterly, 44, 1-8.

Matthews, K. E., & Cannon, L. K. (1975).  Environmental noise level as a determinant of helping behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 571-577.

McKitrick, J. (2003). A case for extrinsic dispositions. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 81, 155-174.

Merritt, M. (2000). Virtue ethics and situationist personality psychology. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 3:4, 365-383.

Merritt, M. (2009). Aristotelian virtue and the interpersonal aspect of ethical character. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 6:1, 23-49.

Milgram, S. (1974).  Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper Collins.

Miller, R., Brickman, P., & Bolen, D. (1975). Attribution versus persuasion as a means for modifying behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31:3, 430-441.

Mischel, W. (1968).  Personality and Assessment.  New York: Wiley.

Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing the invariances in personality and the role of situations.  Psychological Review, 102:2, 246-268.

Regan, J. (1971).  Guilt, perceived injustice, and altruistic behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 124-132.

Rigdon, M., Ishii, K., Watabe, M., & Kitayama, S. (2009). Minimal social cues in the dictator game. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30.3, 358-367.

Russell, D. (2009). Practical Intelligence and the Virtues.  Oxford UP.

Sarkissian, H. (2010). Minor tweaks, major payoffs: The problems and promise of situationism in moral philosophy. Philosophers’ Imprint, 10:9.

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1096-1109.

Schwartz, S. & Gottlieb, A. (1991).  Bystander anonymity and reactions to emergencies.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 418-430.

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

Slote, M. (2001). Morals from Motives. Oxford UP.

Smith, A. (1977). Dispositional properties. Mind, 86, 439-445.

Snow, N. (2010). Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory. New York: Routledge.

Sreenivasan, G. (2008). Character and consistency: Still more errors. Mind, 117:467, 603-612.

Upton, C. (2009). Situational Traits of Character: Dispositional Foundations and Implications for Moral Psychology and Friendship. Lexington Books.

Weyant, J. (1978).  Effects of mood states, costs, and benefits on helping.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1169-1176.

Zhong, C.-B., Bohns, V., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21:3, 311-314.


[1] The canonical firebrands are Doris (1998, 2002) and Harman (1999, 2000, 2003).  Flanagan arrived at the party both too early (1991) and too late (2009) to shape the course of the debate.

[2] Upton (2009) is the only book-length effort, but her work makes little use of the literature on dispositions, relying instead on her own naive intuitions.  Sreenivasan (2008) also discusses the dispositional nature of virtues without reference to the literature on dispositions.

[3] The concepts of masking, mimicking, and finking were introduced by Johnston (1992), Smith (1977), and Martin (1994), respectively.

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.




Alfano, M. (2009). A danger of definition: Polar predicates in moral theory. Journal of Ethics and Social Practice, 3:3, 1-13.

Hurka, T. (1987). ‘Good’ and ‘good for’. Mind, 96, 71-73.

Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica. Cambridge University Press.

Parfit, D. (2001). Rationality and reasons. In Egonsson, Josefsson, Petterson, & Rønnow-Rasmussen (eds.), Exploring Practical Philosophy: From Action to Values. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. Pp. 17-41.

Regan, D. (2004). Why am I my brother’s keeper?  In Wallace, Pettit, Scheffler, & Smith (eds.), Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz. Oxford: Clarendon.  Pp. 202-230.

Rosati, C. (2008). Objectivism and relational good. Social Philosophy and Politics, 25:1, 314-349.

Thomson, J. J. (1997). The right and the good. The Journal of Philosophy, 94:6, 273-298.