Feb 18, 2012

How to Almost Get Moral Dispositions Right

This week, in two face-to-face installments, supplemented and supported by a variety of handouts, summaries located in our Course Management System, and even two lecture videos from previous Ethics classes (#1 and #2), I've been leading my students through the dully dry, compendiously ennumerational, Victorian-tinged prose of Jeremy Bentham's classic moral treatise Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation -- an exercise in demonstrating to them that a book ought not be judged by its cover, nor even by the style of its author -- that the merit of ideas remains to some degree independent of, unindexed by wordcraft, mode of arrangement, ease enabled or rather interest sustained in the reading.

Bentham is well worth the effort of wading through his preferred means of presentation:  seemingly interminable enumerations and exhaustive examples aiming at every step at making the same point -- Utilitarianism has covered every bet, examined every possible case, encompassed every exception or objection (suggestive of a dialogical panopticon).  Why?  Because the ideas conveyed are sound -- at least if not pushed too far -- and eminently worth thinking through, wrestling with, wrapping one's head around.  And today, they were Bentham's notions of intention, motive, and disposition.

Depending on how thorough an exposition of Utilitarian moral theory one has been provided -- and that's all over the map in contemporary college education! -- or what representative notions one can recall to active service from one's Introduction to Philosophy or Ethics (or perhaps one flavor or another of applied Ethics -- Business, Nursing, Criminal Justice, etc.) coursework, it might seem a bit strange for me to be talking about raising and exploring these topics from a Benthamite perspective.
After all, isn't the really distinctive feature of that particular moral theory the fact that it focuses exclusively upon outcomes, tallies up consequences of production or prevention of pain or pleasure, unconcerned -- by marked contrast to Kantian deontological, or other duty-based, or Thomist natural law, or Aristotelian virtue ethics approaches, just to mention a few -- with the action considered in itself, let alone with the motivation of the acting person?  Admittedly, that's often how Utilitarianism gets taught or presented -- and as a result, many assume that's all such an approach has to offer.

In point of fact, it wasn't just kinder, gentler, John Stuart Mill-modified, qualitative Utilitarianism which turned attention back to the goodness or badness of desires, motivation, intentionality -- or even the greater or lesser value of a person's moral reflectiveness, their voluntary self-scrutiny, self-modification, self-cultivation, one's harmonization with others and with society (or lack thereof).  Bentham, the "father of Utilitarianism" was deeply concerned with understanding, evaluating, and promoting these as well.

What is particularly interesting is that, yes, ultimately, in the last analysis, for a Utilitarian, the value, positive or negative, of a person's intention, of a motive, of a disposition, does reside in its consequences -- though these can be imagined, intended, generalized -- in whether it is productive of pain or pleasure, and for whom.  But, there are, as it were, detours through the human person, meandering through their structures of motivations and moral habitudes, considerations of the context and conditions.

Moral and psychological terms like "intention," "motive," "disposition" are deceptively easy to grasp and use, often seducing us into the mistaken belief that everyone means the same thing by them, so it seems prudent to specify that for Bentham, an intention is individual, something a particular person has for a particular action or course of action, whereas a motive is something more general.  Strictly speaking, a motive is actually a desire for a genre of pleasure or an aversion towards a genre of pain -- and while we may possess these with varying intensities, these are common to all of us human beings.

What determines the moral value of an intention?  Bentham tells us:
A man's intention then on any occasion may be styled good or bad, with reference either to the consequences of the act, or with reference to his motives. If it be deemed good or bad in any sense, it must be either because it is deemed to be productive of good or of bad consequences, or because it is deemed to originate from a good or from a bad motive.
Fair enough, what about motives then?
With respect to goodness and badness, as it is with everything else that is not itself either pain or pleasure, so is it with motives. If they are good or bad, it is only on account of their effects: good, on account of their tendency to produce pleasure, or avert pain: bad, on account of their tendency to produce pain, or avert pleasure. Now the case is, that from one and the same motive, and from every kind of motive, may proceed actions that are good, others that are bad, and others that are indifferent.
Some motives however -- benevolence, love of good name, friendship, for examples -- motives which are "social," can be more or less relied upon to produce good effects overall. Others -- "malevolence" -- are "dissocial," and will typically produce bad effects.  Those which are "self-regarding" -- desires for physical pleasures, wealth, power, or for self-preservation" are a bit more sketchy and bear close watching.

What about dispositions then?  virtues and vices, by traditional conceptions, are after all habitual dispositions to act, to feel, to consider things in certain ways.
It is with disposition as with every thing else: it will be good or bad according to its effects: according to the effects it has in augmenting or diminishing the happiness of the community.
How do you evaluate that?  This requires a bit of explanation of the interconnections between our three moral terms:
. . . the nature of a man's disposition must depend upon the nature of the motives he is apt to be influenced by: in other words, upon the degree of his sensibility to the force of such and such motives. For his disposition is, as it were, the sum of his intentions: the disposition he is of during a certain period, the sum or result of his intentions during that period.
Ultimately, for Bentham, the priority lies with motives -- intentions and dispositions get their force from, and their moral direction from motives.
Now intentions, like everything else, are produced by the things that are their causes: and the causes of intentions are motives. If, on any occasion, a man forms either a good or a bad intention, it must be by the influence of some motive.
And so, Bentham introduces another distinction between generally good motives -- "tutelary, preservatory, or preserving" ones -- and generally bad ones -- "seducing or corrupting" motives.  A person's dispositions then are to be evaluated on the basis of which kinds of motives they stem from, make central, give priority -- or give way -- to, whether seducing or tutelary ones.

What does this make of virtues and vices?  Well, they become merely utilitarian dispositions -- to indulge in a pun -- those settled habits, rooted in character, which tend towards overall good or bad outcomes, depending on what good or bad motives, which society-improving or self-indulging desires, one permits to run the show.

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