Mar 8, 2012

Teaching (Virtue) Ethics: Goods and Practical Reasoning

In an earlier post, I provided a peek into some of the introductory materials I provide my face-to-face or online students currently taking Ethics classes with me through Marist College.  This is the really basic, cover-in-the-first-week kind of stuff, but one of the things I like most about the discipline and the texts of Ethics is that you can keep going back to these key distinctions, concepts, objects and experiences -- because moral life is, after all rooted in the rest of our lives, and provides, you might say, the dimension without which that life would be less than human, impoverished in intelligibility, lacking a certain depth of meaning.

To push the metaphor -- which like other analogies will of course eventually exhibit its disappointing limits --  of dimension and depth, I suggest that Ethics or Moral Theory ( a great deal of which gets done outside of academic philosophy, by the way) provides the third dimension to what would otherwise be only two-dimensional, flat, restricted by its own planarity.  That not to say that everything needs to have and exhibit -- even have tacked upon it -- such a dimension of depth.  some things, like blueprints, are perfectly fine in two dimensions.  Paintings, photographs, even cartoons, though -- don't they possess the illusion of depth?  Yes -- by relying on a transfer from experienced depth and perspective -- which they don't posses but which they can mimetically evoke or represent precisely because of our experiences of that dimension in other settings.  Studying Ethics explicitly, deliberately, systematically, means devoting sustained attention -- alas for all too short an apprenticeship -- to the contours, the concealments, the criteria, even in some cases the charlatanry of those who work and warp and weft in this vital dimension of human experience. 

Good For:
There are many things which we regard as goods not because we desire or value those things for their own sake, but because that kind of thing is "good for" something else which we do in fact value or desire.  For instance, a train ticket has a certain goodness -- but not in itself -- it's good for taking a ride on the train.  Someone might look at another person in this light -- for instance wanting to be friends with someone else, not because they actually like and want to be with that person, but because that person can introduce them to other people who they really want to become friends with.

One way of speaking about this is to call the one type of good  an instrumental good -- it is good for something else, like a tool -- and the other good, desired for its own sake, what something is good for an intrinsic good.    Another related way would be to speak of the instrumental good as being a useful good -- sometimes you'll see people calling it "useful," "profitable," or as "having utility" -- i.e. being in that range of value, being that kind of good.

It is important to note that one thing might be able to be both an instrumental and an intrinsic good.  This could happen when:
  • something is an intrinsic good -- but it also leads to or produces other goods.  Knowledge might be this kind of good, for instance.
  • something is an intrinsic good, but it is also instrumental in leading to or producing another, greater intrinsic good -- Aristotle sees Virtue, for instance, as intrinsically good, but also as leading to Happiness, a greater intrinsic good
Something might also be a purely instrumental good which does not lead directly to an intrinsic good, but to another instrumental good, which then leads to an intrinsic good.

Different moral theories and different people will draw the line between instrumental and intrinsic goods in different ways.  Presumably some of these could be mistaken ways to distinguish between the two different kinds of goods.

Good As or Good In This Way:
Another important distinction is useful to make when the same thing can be said to be good in multiple ways or to be good in one way but bad in another -- and likewise, when something is bad in multiple ways or bad in one way but good in another. 

Quite often when  people get into arguments about whether something is a good or bad thing, or whether so-and-so is a good or bad person, they fail to make this distinction, to think about and specify what sense of goodness or badness they have in mind.

The different ranges of values mentioned above provide one set of lines according to which one might make these sorts of distinction.  One might grant, for instance that a medicine or regime of physical therapy is in fact bad in one sense -- it's unpleasant to experience -- but then say that it's also good in another, perhaps more important, sense -- it's useful because it leads to better health.

One might also acknowledge that something is good for this person, but also bad for this other person.  Or, good for society as a whole, but bad for certain members of society -- perhaps good and bad in the same sense -- or perhaps different senses.

To add yet another wrinkle to this, the same action might be both good and bad for the same person to do or to suffer, looked at from different perspectives.  An example Anselm of Canterbury gives is particularly apt:

A person who is bad is struck by someone else who does not have the right to punish that bad person
  • It is right for the bad person to suffer being struck
  • It is wrong for the other person to strike them

Ordering of Goods:
Each moral theory and each person in his or her own life, decisions, patterns of actions, orders various goods in relation to each other.  Some goods would be ranked higher in relation to other goods, and some would be ranked lower in the scale.

For instance, we can say that Virtue Ethics, while recognizing things like Pleasure, Wealth, Honor as genuine goods -- having some value -- will place Virtue (and also Friendship) higher in the ordering of goods.  Hedonism would place Pleasure highest in the ordering of goods.

You can tell how a person or a moral theory arranges goods in relation to each other -- what respective value it places upon those goods -- not only by what they explicitly say, but also by looking at what they in fact do, what choices they make, what goods seem to have priority.  A person who claims that spending time with their family is an important value to him or her, but who consistently sacrifices spending time with the family to making money is really showing that he or she ranks the good of Wealth higher than time with family.

A few important things are worth pointing out:
  • Sometimes, we're not entirely conscious of of ordering of goods.  There can be a disconnect between what we think or tell ourselves are our highest values and what actually do turn out to be such in our action s, in the choices we make, in the pattern of our lives and relationships.
  • Some people are inconsistent in their ordering of goods -- it may change from moment to moment, from situation to situation.  In fact, the freedom to change one's basic priorities might itself be what one values as one's highest good.
  • Our ordering of goods might also change in more significant ways, as when, for instance, we become aware that we had things wrong, that we now have a better understanding of the real values of things -- when, e.g. someone realizes that he or she has valued Reputation or Success far too much, and that other things, like Duty or Friendships are more important.

Practical Reasoning and Deliberation:
It is one thing to ascribe a moral value to a thing, to see it, e.g. as something good, and thus desirable, something that ought to be, or should be brought about, gained by oneself, etc.  It is another to actually determine how one ought to go about realizing -- producing, attaining, even increasing --  that good.  Oftentimes this requires a good bit of thinking, or reasoning, about moral matters -- and this is called practical reasoning or (by some) deliberation.

In practical reasoning, a person is using our human faculty of reason to think out what one ought to do -- or what one ought to will, desire, choose, prefer, sacrifice, etc.  A significant part of this involves thinking about what means would best realize or bring about the end which we have in mind, the goal which we desire.
One might have to choose between two different goods -- or between two different evils -- weighing which of them is the better good in that case.  This would be a situation in which one has to carry out practical reasoning about a particular case, a particular choice that lies before one.  One might focus just on some immediate end -- determining which restaurant the family ought to go to in order to have the best time for their money, or how one ought to respond to a bully, etc. 

It is also possible to reason practically about what we might call "bigger picture" issues.  One might realize that a particular habitual pattern has been holding one back from realizing one of the goals which one actually has and desires.  Then, one has to reason practically about how best to break that pattern and replace it with one more aligned with one's desires (and this will probably mean going against some of one's desires -- the one's associated with that habitual pattern).  Deciding what kind of life one wants to live is a matter (hopefully!) for practical reasoning.

We engage in practical reasoning and deliberation with each other about larger scale, more common issues as well.  What kind of society we ought to have, or who should be put in charge of things, whether we should enact such-and-such a policy or law, what to do with those who break laws, etc.  -- these are the kinds of issues that are also dealt with through practical reasoning in a group.

A last important point -- every single moral theory embodies a certain way of practical reasoning.  It tells one what one ought to value, in what ways, and why.  It provides some ordering of the various goods in relation to each other, and tells you what ends you ought to be desiring.  It also points out to you -- both by example and by argument -- how you ought to be reasoning about the good and how that good is to be attained, what principles or assumptions you ought to be relying on in your reasoning, how your reasoning ought to go.

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