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The Voluntariness of Virtue – and Belief

  • James A. Montmarquet (a1)


This paper examines the relative voluntariness of three types of virtue: ‘epistemic’ virtues like open-mindedness; ‘motivational’ virtues like courage, and more robustly ‘moral’ virtues like justice. A somewhat novel conception of the voluntariness of belief is offered in terms of the limited, but quite real, voluntariness of certain epistemic virtues.



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1 ‘Virtues and Vices’, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press,1978); Foot, however, it is only fair to say, speaks of this contention regarding the virtues as a ‘first approximation.’

2 Aristotle's approach in Bk. III of the Nicomachean Ethics is to characterize a notion of the ‘voluntary’ and of ‘choice’ – then to explore the question of whether virtue and vice are voluntary. Regarding Wolf, see particularly her notion of a ‘Real Self’ conception of responsibility, Freedom Within Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). Regarding Watson, see particularly his notion of ‘aretaic’ responsibility – wherein questions of control are internal to questions of virtue and vice, ‘Two Faces of Responsibility’, Philosophical Topics 24 (1996), section 4 especially. Both Watson and Wolf, I should point out, ultimately reject such approaches at least as providing a full account of moral responsibility.

3 In terms of the ever-growing literature on the epistemic virtues, following Guy Axtell, ‘Recent Work on Virtue Ethics’, American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997), 1–26, I would distinguish ‘virtue reliabilists, e.g., Sosa, Ernest, Knowledge in Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) as emphasizing cognitive capacities and ‘virtue responsibilists,’ e.g. Zagzebski, Linda, The Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), as emphasizing qualities of character, more narrowly conceived.

4 Notice, this is not to say that very high levels of care are attainable by mere effort – or, still less, that a longer term disposition (becoming a ‘careful person’) is so easily attained.

5 For a related discussion – of the conflict between belief and regarding one's evidence as insufficient – see Adler, Jonathan E., Belief's Own Ethics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), chapter one.

6 Of course, it may be that one is being closed-minded in thinking that another's ideas do not deserve much attention – but, again, that is not one's conscious thought.

7 ‘Will Power and the Virtues’, Philosophical Review 93 (1984), p. 232. More controversially, Roberts goes on here to characterize the virtues of will-power as ‘skill-like’ in a way that more substantive moral and prudential virtues are not. Whatever the merits of the proposal, I must observe that cowardice is typically held blameworthy in a very different way from the way in which failures of skill are typically held so.

8 Notice in this regard that even Falstaff, while disdaining ‘honor’ and what he thinks of as a foolish courage, does not disdain courage as such. On the contrary, he makes considerable efforts to deny his own cowardice relative to the aborted robbery of the gold, Henry IV, Pt. One (II, 2).

9 At least a partial rationale of this difference, I suggest, is the following. Courage (and the motivational virtues generally) underlie whatever system of substantive (moral or prudential) values one has. Thus, a failure with respect to courage is, potentially at least, a failure with respect to the whole constellation of substantive values it sustains. It is quite different, then, from a movement from one substantive value to another. Relatedly, calling someone ‘a coward’ is, across quite a variety of cultures and cultural differences, a much deeper insult than calling that person ‘cruel’ or ‘unjust.’

10 From a Humean standpoint, insofar as justice is an ‘artificial virtue’ – one deriving from ‘an artifice or contrivance, which arises from the circumstances and necessity of mankind’ (Treatise, Bk. III, Pt. II, s. 1), its motivational energy is borrowed, as it were, from general, humanitarian impulses. However, injustice is not in the same way linked to general misanthropic impulses; hence, we remain unmotivated by injustice as such. But a contrasting deontological (broadly Kantian) account, however, of this asymmetry is also possible: one might hold that insofar as justice is grounded in an abstract regard for the absolute value of persons, we should not expect injustice (as such) to be motivating, for there is no corresponding disvalue associated with personhood – or its negation.

11 This was a main point of my earlier study, Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993).

12 See ‘The Virtue of Faith’, Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984), pp. 4–6. In a related essay, ‘Involuntary Sins’, Philosophical Review 94 (1985), 3–31, Adams explicitly rejects any reduction of the blameworthiness of beliefs to that of such voluntary behaviors as they issue in, suggesting that ‘among the states of mind that have intentional objects, the ones for which we are directly responsible are those in which we are responding, consciously or unconsciously, to data that are rich enough to permit a fairly adequate ethical appreciation of the state's intentional object …' (26). In ‘Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life’, Smith, Angela M., Ethics 115 (2005), 236–71 defends a similar, non-volitional view, in which what determines responsibility is one's evaluation of a certain attitude, and not any connection it must have to the will. Both Adams and Smith, then, provide ways for criticizing things like racist beliefs – even when their genesis appears quite involuntary. For my own part, I would insist that any such notion still requires a distinction between a morally bad belief, based on some cognitive incapacity, and one based on a deficient regard for truth (epistemic vice). We do not, after all, make anything like the same moral judgment concerning the ‘mentally challenged’ as we do of a thoroughly closed-minded racist – even if the former, quite as much as the latter, approves of his own racism.

13 ‘The Ethics of Belief’, reprinted in The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1999).

14 Aquinas here is an excellent case in point: for him, faith – or, at any rate, the ‘act of faith’ is an act of believing at will; see especially Summa Theologiae (2a2ae; 2,1). Among contemporary philosophers of religion, I would particularly draw attention to John Bishop, ‘Faith as Doxastic Venture’, Religious Studies 8 (2002), 471–87, whose voluntaristic views concerning belief we consider below.

15 In a sense, this point goes back to Pascal's famous advice (Pensées, no. 233) as to how the unconvinced might acquire suitable religious beliefs (daily masses, holy water, etc.). In a more contemporary vein, see such discussions as those of Smith, Holly, ‘Culpable Ignorance’, Philosophical Review 92 (1983), 543–71; Stocker, Michael, ‘Responsibility Especially for Belief’, Mind 91 (1982), 398417; Heil, John, ‘Doxastic Agency’, Philosophical Studies 46 (1983), 355–64.; Naylor, Margery, ‘Voluntary Belief’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 45 (1985), 427–36; and Leon, Mark, ‘Responsible Believers’, The Monist 85 (2002), 421–36.

16 Op. cit., 473. Bishop makes the point that we can reason with respect to content that we accept for certain purposes (but do not believe); however we may also ‘believingly accept’ such contents – which, he claims, ‘is the voluntary aspect of believing’ (474).

17 In The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, McDermott, John J., ed., (New York: Random House, 1967). On Bishop's employment of this theme, see op. cit., pp. 475–77.

18 Notice, one could hold to a somewhat weaker position, simply to the effect that a belief is voluntary insofar as it accords with reasons for thinking-true. Such a view is advanced by Shah, Nishi, ‘Clearing Space for Doxastic Voluntarism’, The Monist 85 (2002), 436446.

19 Nicomachean Ethics. Bk. III, 1: ‘Since we are concerned with feelings and actions and those that are voluntary deserve praise and blame, whereas those that are involuntary receive pardon and sometimes pity too, students of moral goodness must presumably determine the limits of the voluntary and the involuntary.’ (J.A.K. Thomson translation)

20 ‘Deciding to Believe,’ in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 148.

21 This is an appropriate place to respond to Jonathan Bennett's contention that dependence on the will – as a kind of fundamental truth – is a capacity to respond to practical and not evidential reasons; see ‘Why is Belief Involuntary?’ Analysis 50 (1990), 90. I concede the partial truth of this: in my response to the fourth point in section V above. For such responsiveness does not, as such, amount to an expression of the will. But, of course, this does not mean that epistemic as well as moral virtues cannot be directly responsive to the will.

22 I develop at least the beginnings of this standpoint in my “Epistemic Virtue, Religious Experience, and Belief,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005), 469–81.

23 The factors Clifford cites, at any rate, as responsible for the wrongness of a belief pertain to the immediate and longer termed bad moral consequences of being mistaken.

24 Among the leading works on this subject must be counted the various essays of Davidson, Donald, collected in his Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), Goldman, Alvin, A Theory of Human Action (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970); and Chisholm, Roderick, Person and Object (LaSalle, IL: Open Court).

25 To that extent the kind of ‘asymmetrical view’ Susan Wolf has advanced – see ‘Asymmetrical Freedom, The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980), 151–66; Freedom Within Reason (op. cit.) – according to which blameworthiness but not praiseworthiness requires an ‘ability to do otherwise’ – such a view gains support, at least in the specific case of the epistemic virtues. However, these, as we have stressed beginning in section II, are distinctly (and unusually) asymmetrical in their relation to the will.

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