Andrew Ollett, Aristotle, Buddhaghosa, Damien Keown, Daniel Kahneman, Śāntideva, trolley problem, virtue ethics
I’ve been thinking further on the decision/capacity distinction first articulated by Andrew Ollett, and I want to take a further step. So far Andrew and I have merely acknowledged the existence of this distinction – identifying different thinkers on either side and exploring the distinction’s implications for philosophical methodology. But I am, at this point, ready to make a more substantive claim: the “capacity” approaches are better. In ethics, we should be “capacity” rather than “decision” thinkers. I had stressed before that we can and should address the “capacity” approach philosophically and not merely historically; now I want to actually do so, and say that it is correct.
Before getting into the substantive issues, I would like to propose a revision of the categories that Andrew employed: the approach that we should juxtapose against individual choices or decisions is not capacity so much as disposition, predisposition, habit. It’s not just about what we’re capable of doing – the implication of “capacity” – but about those features of our natures and our personalities that lead to and constitute our actual everyday actions, the vast majority of them that occur without any “decision” or “choice”. Not just what we can do, but what underlies the things we actually do. In a sense, the “capacity” language is still too oriented toward decision – it suggests that we are thinking about capabilities we develop which we can then reflect on and make a decision one way or the other, such that the decision is what actually defines what is done. Rather, in most cases, there is no decision at all; there is more than capacity, there is a predisposition that leads to the action without thought.
Now to the reasons to advocate a disposition rather than a decision approach. I say this partially as a Buddhist and a wavering Aristotelian; both of these traditions put far more emphasis on our dispositions and habits than on individual choices. Śāntideva’s argument against free will, if successful, makes the concept of choice or decision meaningless outside of a larger context; in a very different Buddhism, Buddhaghosa too is concerned with capacity and not decision; Aristotle is considered the paradigm of a “virtue ethicist”. (I had previously argued that the term “virtue ethics” is unhelpful, but I suspect I was wrong; the term can be helpful in pointing out the ways in which premodern ethical traditions focus our attention on dispositions and character traits rather than moments of individual choice.)
But just as much, I say this because of the evidence from contemporary psychological observation and experiment. Last time I noted how Daniel Kahneman’s work shows us that most human thought happens at an unconscious level – including such supposedly rational activities as mathematical reasoning. As far as I can tell, this point applies just as much to reasoning we would consider ethical or moral.
Suppose we were actually faced with the trolley problem in real life: suppose we actually were driving a trolley about to hit five people that we could redirect to hit one. Would we consider the utilitarian and deontological foundations of our thought and weigh the different rational considerations for each in order to come to our decision on what to do? Of course not! We wouldn’t have time for that. Any “decision” – if that is even the right term, and it probably isn’t – would be a snap decision, based on our habits more than on any deliberative thought. The point suggests to me that the real focus of ethics and moral philosophy should be on the habits we work or do not work to train ourselves in, rather than on science-fictional thought experiments about extreme cases. And such habits are just where the focus of Buddhist ethicists like Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva lies. If we insist on “ethics” being about principles for calculated decisions, then, like Damien Keown, we may come to think that there is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. But I submit this is because Buddhist philosophers, unlike analytical ethicists, put their ethical focus where it should be: on dispositions of mind rather than on discrete decisions.
An analytic philosophy course I took once refused the question “How should we live?” as too vague, preferring “What should we do?” – the standard focus of analytical ethics, concerned as it is with questions of individual action like the trolley problem. But if “How should we live?” is indeed too vague, its replacement should not be “What should we do?” but “What sort of people should we be?” The former question is quite appropriate for a robot, which does indeed precisely calculate the most appropriate individual action to take in an individual case. But that is not how human beings work. If we were ever somehow faced with a trolley case in real life, we would not turn to our weighing of consequentialism and deontology to figure out what to do – or if we did, by the time we figured it out, the decision of non-decision would already have been made for us. Rather, we would make a snap decision based on existing habits, dispositions, of mind.
To think about ethics in terms of dispositions rather than decisions is not merely theoretical; it has practical implications. When we think in terms of dispositions, we see why it is morally wrong to eat one’s dead dog for pleasure: not because the action itself causes any harm, but because one is thereby the sort of person who would think nothing of taking such an action toward what should have been a beloved companion. The most fundamental thing to evaluate is not the action taken in isolation, but the person’s character.
An excellent post.
What you are articulating is the Path of Accumulation — the cultivation of habit (karma or accumulation of merit) on the Buddhist path. I do think that there is a decision, which is the choice to engage in a path that leads to virtue.
It is actually more than one decision as the “view” on the Buddhist path becomes more expansive and less self-centered over time. It is a process in which view, meditation and action interact. In other words, the cultivation of virtue (gewa) leads to a mind that has a more generous and selfless nature and this leads to inspiration for further action to cultivate virtue. The process is grounded in meditation, because virtue is not an artificial construct, it is aligned with our true nature. So, it is a process of realization of the view, rather than creation of the view. In that sense, you could say that maybe it isn’t a choice.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks! I agree, there is certainly a decision involved in the cultivation of virtuous disposition – just as every decision comes out of dispositions. The question is where we put our focus when we think about ethics and goodness.
James Patten said:
First, in agreement: focus on actions is unjustifiably narrow. If one has consequentialist aims, then the fundamental question should be something in the vicinity of “how can I live my life to bring about the best expected outcome possible?”
That said, when looking for answers about how to accomplish that, even if one determines that the best thing would be to have a particular set of dispositions/habits, that by itself doesn’t provide any immediately helpful advice for the present (if you don’t know how to get from your current dispositions/habits to there). One still needs an answer to the question ‘what should I do right now to make myself more likely to have dispositions that will lead to a better future?’. And the kind of answer I want to that question is the answer that leads to the best prospects should I pursue it, *not* the answer of what a person leading the best sort of life would do in my shoes to pursue self-improvement. The fact that philosophers have vastly overestimated the range of cases where people are capable of choosing using analytical methods doesn’t mean those methods are inappropriate, once they have their proper target.
Thanks, Jamey. I was going to answer this by saying I’m not a consequentialist myself, but I suppose it’s not quite so clear. I have vacillated in the past between a strict trait-consequentialism or perfectionism (which asks “what action should I now take to pursue self-improvement?”) and what I might call a narrative virtue ethics (which asks “what action would be taken by the sort of person I want to be?”) I can’t accept the latter in a pure sense, just because of the dangers of not recognizing the typically huge gap between who we are and who we’re trying to be. Part of the reason I’m not sure exactly where I stand on the question is that I think a focus on individual actions is misplaced: I think we are better off shifting our attention from “what should I do right now?” to “what should I aim to do repeatedly in the future?” Sometimes the latter implies an immediate action, sometimes it waits until an opportunity arises.
The focus on actions is not only too narrow, it misses the crucial question of how we develop wisdom to know what is helpful, what is a positive result. Cultivation of virtue is a means, I would argue the only means, for developing that wisdom.
Christian Hendriks said:
You wrote, “Suppose we were actually faced with the trolley problem in real life: suppose we actually were driving a trolley about to hit five people that we could redirect to hit one. Would we consider the utilitarian and deontological foundations of our thought and weigh the different rational considerations for each in order to come to our decision on what to do? Of course not! We wouldn’t have time for that. Any “decision” – if that is even the right term, and it probably isn’t – would be a snap decision, based on our habits more than on any deliberative thought.”
Have you by chance seen NBC’s The Good Place? In the second season, this point is explicitly dramatized with a philosophy professor placed in a (simulated) trolley car, and it plays out much as you describe: he doesn’t have time for the sort of ethical decision-making he usually practices and freezes up. This is part of the entire point of his character arc, in which he is, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of (Western) philosophy of ethics, incapable of applying that knowledge and making even the most rudimentary decisions. What he must learn to do is determine how to apply moral reasoning contextually. It’s interesting to me that the show, especially by the second half of the second season, tends very much toward virtue ethics, even though Kant, utilitarianism, and contractualism are mentioned far more often than Aristotle. Perhaps this is an artifact of narrative as philosophical discourse. At any rate, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to. It is less philosophy-heavy in the first season than advertised, which I found disappointing, but this element picks up in the second season. (I would absolutely not start with the second season, though! It’s one of the rare cases, I think, where what you learn about the characters in the first season is fundamental to understanding the action of the second season.)
Of course, if you have seen it, you already know that and can feel free to disregard my entire comment!
I have indeed! I’ve been working on a post about it. :)
Christian Hendriks said:
Ah! I look forward to it.
Christian Hendriks said:
To clarify: I was not disappointed by the first season altogether, but simply with the fact that it contained less explicit philosophy than I had been led to expect.