Sins of Omission and Amoral Virtues

Some time back, I wrote a post on sexism and objectification where I made the following rather confused/confusing statement:

Curiously enough, the more I read feminist blogs, the less I am coming to think of “sexist” as a particularly strong insult… if only because there seems to be no way out of it, if one accepts their definition. You can of course disapprove of me or my actions because of perceived sexism, and if your approval is important to me I will take that into account, but I am becoming far less inclined to view this as a moral issue with the accompanying assumption of normativity.

I don’t think I expressed it very well, but this article says what I had really intended to say about the difference between “badness” in the moral sense of the term, which I didn’t think sexism was, and “badness” in a more aesthetic sense. I don’t think I would still be using that argument in this context, though. This argument, for that matter, is going to be a little difficult for a lot of people to swallow.

Rather long excerpt:

Let me hasten to say that I agree that the bystander who watches the child die is a sonofabitch.  I am happy to say  he is “a bad man”.  But the sense of “bad” in which this is true is not, I think, a moral one.

Moral right and wrong have to do with actions, with what people do.  But we do not think the bystander is a bad guy because he does something morally wrong.  Suppose the bystander had stayed at home to polish his shoes.  Then he would never have encountered the drowning child and would never had the opportunity to save or refrain from saving it.  If you count failing-to-save as “doing a bad thing” then you should agree that, had he stayed home, the bystander would have done one less bad thing that day.  If you think the bystander wrongs this child by not saving it when he can, then you should agree that the bystander would not have wronged the child had he just not been standing by.

But the world would not have been a better place— no one would have been better or better off— had the bystander stayed home.  The child would still be dead and the bystander would still be every bit as much of a sonofabitch as he is in the world where he can save the child but doesn’t.  He would still be the kind of sonofabitch who would stand by and watch a child drown when he could save it.  His actual behavior with respect to the child is relevant only because it reveals what a sonofabitch he is.

The  bystander is a sonofabitch because his behavior demonstrates that he has a bad character . I suppose a practitioner of “Virtue Ethics” would say that his behavior demonstrates that he lacks the virtue of “charity” or perhaps “empathy”. I don’t entirely disagree:  I think charitableness, in its place,  is a virtue.  But I don’t agree that it is a moral or “ethical” virtue….

Virtue Ethics goes wrong precisely when it aims to be a kind of ethics: as if we could assess the ethics of actions by examining the character of admirable agents…

…So if I don’t think the badness of the sonofabitch is moral badness, what sort of disvalue is it?

A.J. Ayer is reported to have once said, of a certain colleague, that he had  “…gone bad.”  Ayer explained, ” I don’t mean morally bad.  I don’t use moral language.  I mean he’s gone bad like an orange goes bad!”  I think that’s about right. The relevant sort of goodness and badness has more in common with aesthetic value than it does with moral right and wrong.  We think the bystander is an ugly customer.  He is, among people, as an ugly picture is among pictures.

In calling our evaluation of the bystander’s badness “aesthetic” I am not in the least trying to trivialize it.  I do not say (would never say)  “merely” aesthetic.  The measures by which we judge one person better than another are at the center of human life.  They are values by which we choose who to love, who to hate, who to befriend, and who to shun…

Moralists are in the business of dividing in twain: deontologists  between good and bad acts; consequentialists among outcomes.  But just as it is an aesthetic mistake to think that the job of the critic is to divide all art into two piles, it is absurd to think that  people monotonically range from saints to sons of bitches.  There are good people and bad, just as there are good and bad pictures, but there is more to it than that.   Lot’s more.  Though one will get little help from philosophical moralists in trying to sort it out…

And the rest of the article is quite fascinating; I’ve cut a lot of things in between and before and after because I didn’t want to just copy the whole thing, but do read if this is even remotely your thing.


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