Friday, February 20, 2009

Harmlessly Manifesting Vice

Is it wrong to manifest a vice (or bad character trait) in transparently harmless ways? For example, consider the repressed racist, who reins in his ill-will towards people of other races so that he would never intentionally do harm or visibly express disrespect, but who secretly fantasizes about slavery and mouths racist epithets when nobody is around to hear him. He's clearly a worse person for his secret racism (though not as bad as a whole-hearted racist, assuming he's motivated to rein in his ill-will for moral and not just prudential reasons). But assuming this is a stable fact about his character, does it make any moral difference whether or not he goes ahead and secretly manifests his racism in these inconsequential ways? Does it make him more blameworthy, say, than having the exact same feelings but refraining from (even secretly) acting on them?

One can multiply examples: at the most despicable end of the spectrum, there's stuff like virtual child porn and virtual rape. For a more ordinary case, consider someone who fantasizes about punching someone they're angry with. Somewhere in between, perhaps, we find the fundamentalists who enjoy the torture-porn of Jesus boiling the blood of atheists in the Left Behind novels.

In all these cases we can imagine the agent deliberating about whether or not to secretly and harmlessly express their vicious feelings. They might acknowledge that it's bad (or at least morally imperfect) of them to have the desires that they do. But assuming that they can't change their desires, what should they conclude about the permissibility of harmlessly acting on them -- by daydreaming, simulating the vicious acts through video games, etc.?

I guess one thing to emphasize is the possibility of indirect harm: perhaps 'indulging' in such fantasies strengthens the vicious disposition of character in undesirable ways. (We are what we do?) Then again, for all we know the reverse might be true: perhaps expressing a vice this way serves as a kind of cathartic "release" that will help the agent behave better afterwards?

Either consideration, if true, could be morally decisive. But suppose neither is true, so that secretly manifesting vice in these ways would have no further consequences whatsoever. Is it bad just in itself, at least a little bit? Or is the badness exhausted by the vice itself -- which persists equally in either case -- so that it doesn't matter whether or not one secretly acts on it?

(Take care not to be confused by the merely epistemic factor that people's actions may serve as evidence about their underlying character. We may expect that a person who acts on a vicious desire likely has a stronger such desire than someone who doesn't, and so think worse of them for that reason. But to assess my question, we must hold the agent's character and desires fixed.)


  1. Text is less bad, I think, than photo-realistic images.

  2. Yes, it is wrong to manifest a vice, even if nobody is harmed. One ought to examine the psychological sources of the vice and make a serious attempt to overcome it.

  3. I'm not sure this is a meaningful line of inquiry. If the vice has no effect on action in general, then in what sense is it part of character? And if it's not part of character, in what sense is it a vice? It seems if you're going to bother talking about vice and virtue, then you're committed to a view of character that entails that vices really are bad for you and make you behave badly.

  4. I'm inclined to doubt that there are any cases of manifesting a vice that are actually harmless; there are no doubt cases where other people are more or less insulated from harm, but since the vice makes the person a worse person, every manifestation of a vice is a self-harm. I suppose that this view is something like the view you suggest about the badness being exhausted by the vice.

    I think one could press the issue even more than you've done here by considering manifestations of vice that are positively beneficial to other people; for instance, one possible form racism might take is very deliberately (but still secretly) only supporting charitable organizations that help one's own race as one's own small contribution to racial supremacy. But in such a case there's no actual harm done to people of other races, and positive good done to people who need it.

  5. One inevitable though slight consequence of secret indulgence is opportunity cost (in virtuous, or just happier, thoughts).

    It does seem self-harmful, as Brandon said. Could this be enough to make it wrong? The harmed future selves have no say in the matter, after all. (Also, not applicable to this case, but in general destruction of potential, even one's own, seems always bad.)

    Michael: The sex drive is, and is recognized as, as an uncommonly strong source of temptation, so it makes sense that fantasies of evil sexual acts would seem more threatening than evil acts in general (possibly also why rape is commonly seen as more shocking than murder). There's something to this, but there are other differences (at least, sexual fetishes aren't part of character), and the same strength makes "cathartic release" more significant.

  6. It seems to me that once we concede the proposition that the person who has the bad thoughts/disposition is a worse person than an otherwise identical person who doesn't, it's a short step to the proposition that the person who acts on them, even inconsequentially, is worse than the person who doesn't. After all, in accepting a judgment of bad character for the thinking-only racist, we've already accepted the proposition that there's some kind of intrinsic badness in racist character states -- why not extend that to racist acts as well?

  7. For what it's worth:

    If, as you claim, the secret racist will under no circumstances he might encounter perform any wrong action, I, for one, don't find it "clear" that he is a worse person. Maybe it's true, but I would need an argument for this...I'm not confident in taking it as a premise.

    And I'd be inclined to say that manifesting his secret racism in an inconsequential way wouldn't be bad. And the reason that it wouldn't be bad is that the action could not affect the welfare of any actual or possible being.

    Maybe it helps to consider the opposite case. Suppose that there is a person who secretly believes that the current distribution of resources is unfair and fantasizes about giving his money to Oxfam. However, under no circumstances that he might encounter will he actually make good on these beliefs and desires. And suppose that he never acts in a way that manifests these beliefs and desires. Is it clear that he is better than a counterpart without these beliefs and desires? I'm inclined to say that he isn't.

    Now, suppose that one time, in private, he manifests his desire by saying, "It would be so great for those kids to get oral rehydration salts or malaria nets." But suppose that his saying this has no further consequences for himself or anyone else. Is it in some way good that he did this? I'm inclined to say that it isn't.

  8. Yes, it is wrong to manifest a vice, even if nobody is harmed. One ought to examine the psychological sources of the vice and make a serious attempt to overcome it.

    Harmlessly manifesting a vice can be a way of examining its psychological sources and beginning to overcome it. I'll admit to having done this myself: I've written and destroyed nasty letters that helped me to understand and get over fits of wrath.

    I don't think all cases of manifesting a vice are like this, but I was surprised that nobody mentioned it as a possibility. (It strikes me as much more plausible than the "cathartic release" hydraulic model.)

    As to Richard's original question, I think the indirect harms or benefits resulting from the expression of vicious feelings are much more morally relevant than the fact that vicious feelings are being expressed. If your unsent nasty letters make you a better person and easier to be around, who cares about the nastiness of the letters? And if your nasty letters make you a worse person, isn't the harm to your character more relevant than the inconsequential letters themselves? I'm not sure there's much left to care about once you've cordoned off all the morally interesting effects of these actions on character.

    Also, Richard: been busy, getting busier, still enjoy your blog despite the paucity of my comments lately.

  9. Nick, that's an interesting move, but it seems like it's not going to quite work because in the opposite case we have concerns about hypocrisy. We don't think that the guy who thinks "wouldn't it be nice for those kids to get malaria nets" but does nothing at all about it really cares.

  10. Brandon and Nick T. - it's unclear to me where the "self-harm" is. Since it's bad to have vicious desires, it would be self-harmful to act in any way that would cause oneself to have (more or stronger) such desires. But I meant to stipulate that there are no such consequences to this act. Perhaps you mean to suggest that it is additionally bad to simply manifest or act on one's vicious desires. That's the question at issue. Is there an argument to support your answer to it? (The badness of having vicious desires does not strictly entail the badness of acting on them. Though, as Paul says, it does seem a fairly natural extension of the view.)

    Paul - one possible complication occurs if we distinguish attributive and predicative senses of 'bad' (roughly: 'inappropriate' vs. 'unfortunate'). That is, some vice X may be bad qua character trait yet indifferent - or even good - on the whole. We might then carry this over to the action, and say that there's something defective about the act (qua act), even though it's not bad (simpliciter) in the sense of making the world worse.

    Despite the formal similarities in the above two situations, a point of difference may be introduced by our patterns of concern. That is: it might be that we care about attributive evaluations of character but only predicative evaluations of acts. (We don't want to be defective people, but maybe it's not such a big deal if our acts are defective, so long as they turn out to be good/fortunate on the whole?)

  11. Thom and Nick #2 - we can change the case so that the person occasionally succumbs to their vice in ways that harm others. We're still left with the core question of whether any particular harmless manifestation of it is additionally bad.

    But for the record, I think the ineffective well-wisher (if sincere, as per Paul's response) is a better person than someone whole-heartedly dedicated to wrongdoing. The self-controlled evildoer is pretty bad either way, but still intuitively worse to have no conscience at all, right?

    Wizard - thanks! (And I'm currently leaning towards your diagnosis of the issue.)

  12. Richard,

    Surely not all harms are cases involving actual consequences? Some harms, for instance, are harms arising from omissions, i.e., from the fact that consequences that should have followed did not. So stipulating that there are no consequences of actions does not entail that there are no harms inflicted; you would have to stipulate that there are no harms of omission, either, and I'm not sure that that would be coherent given that the vice itself is something bad. Failure to take action to rid oneself of a vice is to continue the inflicting of a harm on oneself by failing to rid oneself of something that vitiates one's character; to act on the disposition seems to me to aggravate this bare failure, from the fact that one cannot simultaneously both rid oneself of a disposition and act on it. One can't quit a smoking habit while smoking a cigarette, or a drinking habit while taking shots, or a vice while acting on it.

  13. I think I'm inclined to draw a sharper line between fantasies and actions which genuinely affect other people than is mostly being implied here. I suppose the least controversial case is the classic case of tragedy, where we enjoy watching the suffering of others. It seems to be common to think that watching Shakespeare is "good for us" in some way, and so quite different from the fantasies you mention here, but I am suspicious; I don't think most of the explanations of why are very convincing. Perhaps they have the potential to teach us something about ourselves, but surely they usually don't (and if it's only the small chance of having such a beneficial effect, surely any fantasy has a small chance of that).

    Thus, I'm inclined to say that great tragedies constitute proof that fantasies of the suffering of others work very differently from actual suffering of others. The wrongness of the latter in itself tells us nothing about the wrongness of the former, and so until somebody has a much more sophisticated theory of fantasy to propose than any I've yet seen, or a better argument for worrying about a particular fantasy than some intuition that since it involves enjoying someone suffering it must be bad, I'm inclined to advocate completely withholding judgment concerning fantasies.

  14. Brandon - right, I meant 'consequences' in the broad sense (i.e. including omissions or opportunity costs). That is: suppose the time spent indulging one's vice would otherwise be wasted watching TV or counting blades of grass. Is the former option in any sense worse?

    Aaron - not so fast. Let's distinguish proximate emotional responses (i.e. direct responses to portrayed events) from broader (or indirect) evaluations that take into account the broader context and 'fictionality' of it all. A non-vicious person might enjoy a tragic fiction in the broad sense, but their proximate response to the portrayed tragic events is wrenching sorrow. If someone actually enjoyed "the suffering of others" per se, that would be far more disturbing!

    Another way to make the point is to distinguish 'internal' and 'external' desires about the fiction. (Internally, we sympathize with the protagonist and wish him the best. Externally, we appreciate that the story will be improved by a tragic ending.) It is only our internal responses to fictional events that reveal good- or ill-will, for obvious reasons. So that is why there's nothing blameworthy about an external desire or indirect "enjoyment" of tragic fiction. This certainly doesn't imply that 'internal' or direct enjoyment of (portrayed) suffering isn't vicious.

  15. Is it useful here to make a distinction between how we ought to judge the vice or the expression of it, and how we ought to react to the person who does it?

    It seems we might be able to make a distinction between badness and blameworthiness. I remember two cases that stick in my head of people who I have spoken two in the past. One was an older man, who despite his educated and enlightened opinions, was deeply and unavoidably homophobic. He never allowed this to show, because he rightly believed that he was in the wrong to feel like this. The other case was a female friend who had sexual fantasies about rape and worried about how this related to her feminism.

    I think in both cases, the appropriate reaction is pity, but also a judgement that they have some kind of flaw or vice of character.

    I am also a little unclear about what counts as an act or an expression in this case. Is the entertainment of a purely mental idea to be considered an act, and if so to what extent can we separate this from the disposition, character trait or vice?

  16. Hi Richard

    The answer to this question seems to depend on (or perhaps peoples answer to the illustrates) what one considers basic in ethical theory. To put a Euthyphro like question : Are character traits bad because they lead people to engage in harm . Is the action of engaging in harm wrong because it expresses a bad character trait. I suppose for consquentialists like yourself something like the former must be the case, which makes the issue of vices which do not result in harm to others or do so only occasionally hard to condemn. Virtue theorists like Linda Zagzebski however would maintain the second option, badness of character is basic and consequences are good or bad in terms of whether or not a good character person would bring them about.

    I myself have strong intuitions that incline me towards the latter position, and I suspect there could be theological reasons one could articulate for this position ( i.e that the badness of persons is somehow basic or primary in a theistic context) however I don’t know of a knock down argument for it certainly not one that appeals to premises accepted by all rational people, then again few philosophical arguments meet this standard.


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