an act is intolerable if and only if it is a duty not to do it – the inverse of an intolerable act is a duty

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The Social Importance of Deontic Terms

An intolerable Act

A speaker who fails to recognize many wrong acts is deemed linguistically incompetent in the use of the word “wrong,” and used to be called a sociopath. (Pg.192)

An intolerable act is an act that is wrong in the strongest sense of wrong. We demand that it not be done. The inverse of an intolerable act is a duty. A duty is what we demand of someone. So an act is intolerable if and only if it is a duty not to do it. In contemporary moral discourse, duties are often associated with human rights. The violation of a duty is a violation of someone’s rights. But the idea of an intolerable act preceded the idea of a human right, and it probably also preceded the idea of a duty. The duty not to do an intolerable act is a negative duty. Assuming that there are certain acts that we demand of ourselves and others, then there are also positive duties. (Pg.193)

Wrong and Duty

A duty in some set of circumstances C is an act that persons with phronesis (persons like that) would judge to be the only option in C. It is an act such that if they did not do it, they would feel guilty, and they would blame others if others did not do it. (Pg.196)

I said above that a wrong act is an act such that it is a duty not to do it. (Pg.196)

A Right Act

An act is not right because it is virtuous in some respect, but only if it is virtuous overall or in all respects (141). Since phronesis, or excellence in practical deliberation, is a component of every virtue (139), a right act involves excellence in practical deliberation. (Pg.198)

A right act for A in some set of circumstances C is what the person with phronesis (persons like that) would characteristically take to be most favored by the balance of reasons for A in circumstances C. (Pg.201)

Practical Advantages of the Exemplarist Definitions

In my opinion, getting agreement about duties within a pluralistic society is not very easily accomplished by argument. It is easier to get agreement by the agreement of exemplars who influence the beliefs of those who admire them. The exemplars need not even agree on the arguments. They need only agree in their responses to certain acts. Jacques Maritain, one of the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, liked to tell the story of a visitor at one of their meetings who was astonished that adherents of such strongly opposed ideologies had been able to agree on a list of basic rights. The man was told, “Yes, we agree about the rights, but on condition that no one asks us why.” (Pg.206)

Without using the concept of rights, respondents from these traditions thought that they could agree on the substance of the rights document because they agreed that there are certain classes of acts that any human being can demand from others. As I interpret their responses, they could agree on the document because they agreed that those behaviors are intolerable. They did not agree on the theoretical background of the moral prohibitions they agreed upon, nor was it necessary. (Pg.206)

In detail

3. The Social Importance of Deontic Terms

I think that once we have the idea of a moral linguistic network, we can see the difference between the function of deontic terms like “wrong act” and “duty,” and the value terms like “virtue” and “good life.” There are different linguistic expectations for the deontic terms and the value terms, and the division of linguistic labor differs for the two sets of terms. We have a social obligation to know the members of the extension of the terms “wrong act” and “duty,” and the linguistic community is much more demanding of competent users of those terms than of the value terms. The terms “wrong” and “duty” exist because no civil society can survive without agreement about a range of behavior that is critical to the basic functioning of the society. In particular, there are certain acts that we cannot tolerate, and it is crucial that we agree about what those acts are. A speaker who fails to recognize many wrong acts is deemed linguistically incompetent in the use of the word “wrong,” and used to be called a sociopath. In theoretical ethics, moral terms are associated with concepts that are imbedded in complex and subtle theories, but it is not necessary that individuals have the same concept of wrong or duty. All that is necessary is that they agree that acts like that should not be done. It does not matter why they think that those acts should not be done. A well-functioning society cannot tolerate theft, but if you ask people why theft is wrong, it does not matter whether they give different answers or no answer. Furthermore, it does not matter whether their behavior is virtuously motivated as long as they refrain from stealing.

An intolerable act is an act that is wrong in the strongest sense of wrong. We demand that it not be done. The inverse of an intolerable act is a duty. A duty is what we demand of someone. So an act is intolerable if and only if it is a duty not to do it. In contemporary moral discourse, duties are often associated with human rights. The violation of a duty is a violation of someone’s rights. But the idea of an intolerable act preceded the idea of a human right, and it probably also preceded the idea of a duty. The duty not to do an intolerable act is a negative duty. Assuming that there are certain acts that we demand of ourselves and others, then there are also positive duties.

There is more than one sense of a right act, but a right act in the sense I am using is the thing to do in a given set of circumstances. It is the act favored by the balance of reasons in the circumstances, where what I mean by a reason is any consideration that counts for or against the doing of an act. Sometimes wrong is treated as the complement of right, in which case we say that it is wrong to do anything else but the right act. This sense of wrong is weaker than the sense of an intolerable act since an act can fail to be the best supported by the balance of reasons in a set of circumstances without falling into the category of the intolerable or a violation of a duty. For instance, maybe the right thing for me to do is to take out the neighbors’ trash when they are out of town even though I did not promise to do so, but failing to do so is not intolerable. It is not a violation of a duty, and it is not a violation of the neighbors’ rights. For the most part, I will be using the term “wrong act” in the strong sense of the complement of “duty” rather than in the weaker sense of the complement of “right act.” I have said that it is critical that the terms “wrong” and “duty” are used correctly within a whole community. We must all agree that those acts are intolerable and that those acts are demanded. All societies include individuals with widely differing degrees of virtue and differing degrees of reflectiveness and understanding of morality. In addition, we cannot rely on the natural bonds of friendship, gratitude, and loyalty in a large, heterogeneous society, so the duties must be such that they can be done by the non-virtuous, and in interactions with strangers, and it is important that everybody can understand them. These reasons also apply to the term “right act” in the sense of an act that is best supported by the balance of reasons in the circumstances. Failing to do a right act in this sense is not intolerable, but we need a way to identify right acts that can be used by individuals with different levels of understanding, virtue, and attachment to the persons who will be affected by their acts.

I call the ideas of right, wrong, and duty “morality light.” Doing the right thing does not go very far in giving an individual a life that is either desirable or admirable. Even if most people act rightly, that is not enough to make a society flourish, but it is enough to make a society functional, and it gives each individual in the society the necessary social conditions for the development of admirable and desirable lives. In the rest of this chapter I argue that thinking of a right act, a wrong (intolerable) act, and a duty by reference to exemplars will serve three important social functions:

(a) It permits us to identify morality light without reliance on complex or disputed concepts.
(b) It helps us get agreement about the acts that fall into each category. (c) It motivates us to do the right thing and to avoid doing the wrong thing.

4. Wrong and Duty

In Chapter 1 I said that I think of a moral theory as a map that simplifies, systematizes, and justifies our moral beliefs and practices, most of which already exist. Beliefs about intolerable acts already exist, and for the most part, there is already common agreement about what they are. Our practices include reactive emotions such as indignation, anger, and feelings of guilt and blame, as well as admiration. In earlier work I proposed that duty can be defined by an exemplar’s feeling of guilt if she does not do an act of a certain kind.6 Generally, we think of a feeling of guilt as the appropriate response to the same kind of act for which we blame others, so the feeling of guilt is something like self-blame. I think now that there may be a difference between the exemplar’s reactive attitude toward her own failure to do an act of a certain kind, and her response to the failure of others to do acts of that kind. There might be acts that are such that she would feel guilty if she did not do the act, but she would not blame others for not doing an act of that kind in similar circumstances. Interviews with Holocaust rescuers reveal reactions like that. Almost all of them say they would not blame others for not doing what they did, but many say they think they had no moral option (Monroe 2004, 7). As they see it, their act was the only option permitted to them. Some moral philosophers might want to say that nothing can be morally demanded of one person but not another in the same circumstances, but generally the Holocaust rescuers did not adopt that view. I was not inclined to think of this position as coherent until I read the interviews with some of these people. Now I think that we should take their reactions seriously, given that so many moral exemplars have that attitude toward their own act. An advantage of exemplarism is that it leaves theoretical space for a type of first personal duty that applies to the agent but may not apply to everyone in the same situation. So there might be acts such that it is appropriate for an agent who does not do such an act to feel guilty, but it is not appropriate for one person to blame another for not doing it. This hypothesis can, of course, be tested by examining the attitudes of exemplars, particularly those to whom we attribute practical wisdom. Exemplarism permits this variation of duty, and clever readers will probably think of other variations as well.7

I propose, then, that the basic sense of wrong is the intolerable; it is an act that we cannot tolerate as a society. Clearly, it is socially more important to identify acts that we cannot tolerate of others than to identify any first person duties. So I aim to define a wrong act in the sense of the intolerable. The semantical context in which I offer these definitions is the same as the one in which I offered the definitions of the value terms in Chapter 4, only in the case of the deontic terms, the inadequacy of the descriptivist theory of meaning is even more obvious. People not only can succeed in referring to wrong acts without a descriptive meaning in the head, but they are expected to identify these acts no matter what conceptual framework they adopt, and even if they have no conceptual framework at all. I think also that there is no descriptive stereotype associated with the terms “wrong” and “duty.” But what we can do, and should do, is to point to these acts directly. Those acts are demanded. Those acts are intolerable. I think this means that even though stories can be useful in giving the extension of “wrong,” wrong acts usually can be adequately identified in a list of prohibitions. In contrast, it takes a story to explain what loyalty and disloyalty are. The value terms are part of a different kind of linguistic network from that of the deontic terms.

Most of us can find most of the intolerable acts, just as most of us can find most of the water. As I have said, the division of moral linguistic labor differs in some ways from the division of linguistic labor for natural kind terms. We do not rely on experts to tell us what the wrong acts really are, but I propose that what we cannot tolerate as a society can be determined by what exemplars cannot tolerate, particularly the subset of exemplars with phronesis, or practical wisdom. A wrong act is an act that is blamed by persons with practical wisdom, and such an act is blameworthy.

A duty is an act the non-performance of which is blameworthy. What is blameworthy is what is blamed by persons with phronesis, those whose emotions are most likely to fit their objects. Assuming that feeling guilty is self-blame, a positive duty is an act which is such that a person with phronesis would feel guilty if she did not do it and would blame others for not doing it, and a negative duty is an act which is such that a person with phronesis would feel guilty if she did it, and would blame others for doing it. So I suggest the following:

A duty in some set of circumstances C is an act that persons with phronesis (persons like that) would judge to be the only option in C. It is an act such that if they did not do it, they would feel guilty, and they would blame others if others did not do it.

I said above that a wrong act is an act such that it is a duty not to do it. That leads to the following definition of “wrong act”:

A wrong act in some set of circumstances C is an act that persons with phronesis (persons like that) would judge is not an option in C. They would feel guilty if they did it, and would blame others for doing it. Let me reiterate that these definitions are not constructed to give the content of a concept. Like the definitions of Chapter 4, they are comparable to defining “water” as “stuff like that,” where stuff like that is what the experts say it is. The existence of water does not depend on the existence of the experts. The existence of wrong acts and duties does not depend on the existence of exemplars of practical wisdom. What is wrong would be wrong even if persons with phronesis did not exist, or if they existed but did not have practical wisdom, or if they had practical wisdom, but on some occasion their reactive attitude of intolerance did not fit the object. Persons with phronesis are not infallible. Experts are not infallible either.

I hope it is also clear that when I define wrong and duty by reference to the emotional reactions of certain exemplars (those with phronesis), I am not offering a non-cognitivist analysis of wrongness and duty. When I say wrong acts are acts like that—acts that admirable persons of a certain kind cannot tolerate—I do not mean that the property of wrongness is identical with the property of not being tolerated by certain persons. As I said in previous chapters, my purpose is neither to give a conceptual analysis nor to give the nature of a virtue, a duty, a wrong act, and so on. My purpose is to map the terms “virtues,” “duties,” and “wrong acts” by finding the admirable persons—in particular, the persons admirable for their practical wisdom—and then looking at their reactions to certain classes of acts. An investigation of commonalities among the acts that admirable persons cannot tolerate will probably reveal properties that are essential conditions for the development of desirable personal and communal lives. If so, this would be a place in which exemplarism converges with neo-Aristotelian virtue theory.

How do we know that these definitions pick out the correct class of acts? Since the definitions are indexical—the judgment of those persons—the accuracy of the definitions depends on the reliability of our ability to pick out persons with phronesis. Of course, since a theory is a map of our moral practices and beliefs, we would not accept a definition unless it yielded a class of acts supported by our intuitions and common moral practices. Persons with practical wisdom would not be recognized for their practical wisdom if their judgments regularly deviated from the judgments of ordinary persons. The majority of their judgments coincide with our own, and they make judgments that we recognize as correct, at least in retrospect. But the acts identified by the above definition are not limited to the set of acts endorsed in common practice and ordinary intuition, nor would we would want them to be. The exemplars to whom we look for their practical wisdom can lead us to modify our responses, and they can lead whole communities to modify previous moral judgments. We modify those judgments in part because of our trust in the practical wisdom of moral exemplars. This is important, I think, because there has to be reflective equilibrium between theory and the practices the theory explains and justifies. We would not accept an exemplar whose judgment conflicted with judgments strongly embedded in our moral practices which were themselves developed in part under the influence of previous exemplars. But we also know that we can be mistaken, and the shaping of our moral emotions and alterations in our moral reasoning can lead us to adopt the point of view of an exemplar over conventional wisdom.

5. A Right Act

“Virtuous act” is the link between the value terms and the deontic terms since it is both a value term and a term for act evaluation. It is not surprising, then, that the relationship between a virtuous act and a right act has received quite a bit of attention among virtue ethicists. The easiest way to define a right act using virtue terms is to identify a right act with a virtuous act, the strategy of Daniel Russell (2009), among others. Russell argues that we cannot get an account of right action without referring to all practical considerations (what he calls the “account constraint”), and an act is right only if it sufficiently meets all practical concerns (what he calls the “act constraint” (Russell, 44ff). An act is not right because it is virtuous in some respect, but only if it is virtuous overall or in all respects (141). Since phronesis, or excellence in practical deliberation, is a component of every virtue (139), a right act involves excellence in practical deliberation.

I agree with Russell that we need the idea of an act virtuous overall or in every respect, and I certainly agree about the importance of phronesis, but it seems to me a duplication of terminology to identify a right act with a virtuous act. As I see it, the terms “right act” and “virtuous act” have different roles in our moral practices and are connected to different kinds of linguistic networks. I have said that there are reasons we want to talk about an evaluative category of acts that is thinner than a virtuous act, and which does not rely on any particular theoretical background, nor does it rely on a particular personal history of the agent for its understanding. The respective roles of these terms in our moral linguistic network can be discovered by investigation, but my hypothesis is that the issue of what act is right arises in contexts in which we want a verdict on what to do in a given situation. In many circumstances it is too late to go back and develop the perceptions, motives, and inner strengths necessary to act the way a virtuous person acts in both external behavior and inner motives. We need a category of act that applies to anybody in any situation, and I think that “right act” best serves this function. When we ask “What should I do now?” the answer cannot be, “Care about X and then, because you care, do Y,” nor can the answer be anything that requires that the past was different—I should have made different choices in the past, I should have acquired different emotion dispositions, I should have learned excellence in practical deliberation, I should have purified the mind, and so on. Since other people care that I know what is right and wrong, the criteria for a right act should be accessible to anybody. This leads to tying the idea of a right act to a kind of practical reasoning that can be used by many different kinds of persons, including persons who are not philosophers and who have little or no skill at moral reasoning, and who may not be virtuous. I think that this means that the term “right act,” like the terms “wrong act” and “duty,” needs to connect the users to the extension of the term through a linguistic network that makes minimal demands on the user, and the stereotype must be as thin as possible.

The idea of a right act dominates act-based theories but is not central in a virtue theory, and some virtue theorists prefer to ignore it. For instance, Julia Annas says (2011, 47) that doing the right thing is not a very helpful notion in an ethics that makes virtue central, and she refers to Elizabeth Anscombe (1958) and Iris Murdoch (1970, 42) for similar remarks (n. 36). Rosalind Hursthouse says she defines right act “under pressure” in order to maintain a fruitful dialogue with other contemporary ethicists (1999, 69). But if I am right that the deontic terms have an important social function that differs from the function of virtue terms, we ought to have a way to define a right act, and it seems to me that an exemplarist approach is well suited to doing so.

A good place to begin is with the well-known approach of Rosalind Hursthouse (1999). She identifies a right act with what a virtuous person would characteristically do in the same circumstances (28), and I proposed something similar in earlier work (1996, 235; 2004, 160). This way of thinking about a right act is not simply a theoretical move on the part of virtue ethicists because we see it in Zen Buddhism, where the disciples are set a problem: What would the master do? We also see it among Christians who ask themselves what Jesus would do. We see it among ordinary people who ask someone they morally trust, “What would you do if you were in my situation?”

A common objection to this definition is that there are cases in which exemplars would not be in my circumstances.8 Maybe I am in my circumstances because of stupidity or past wrongdoing, so there is nothing an exemplar would do in my situation.9 Daniel Russell handles this problem by distinguishing between a right act and what ought to be done. There are actions I ought to do to compensate for or to remedy past wrongdoing even though such actions are not right.10 I find this response rather implausible, but even if we accept Russell’s position, I think that it does not address the broader issue—that there can be many reasons that, given my past history, temperament, and moral development, I should not do what a moral exemplar would do in similar circumstances. I should not do what the exemplar would do if doing so would put me in the way of temptation that the exemplar could resist but I probably could not. Maybe if I said what the exemplar said to an opponent, then that would precipitate a response from the opponent that would make me angry, leading to an unhelpful altercation, although the exemplar would not get angry, or would handle the anger better than I would. There might also be promises I could not keep, although the exemplar could, or there are ways to express respect that would be appropriate for the exemplar but not for me. Furthermore, even when a person does what a saintly person would do, it can end up with no moral value if it is performed in a poorly constituted way, and the morally preferable action is not to do it at all. Martin Luther King Jr. made this point about people participating in sit-ins and marches, saying that the practice of non-violence requires both internal and external non-violence. If people are unable to abide by the totality of the non-violent approach to bus integration, they should stay off the bus and keep walking (King 2003, 459, rule 9). Similarly, Gandhi (1948) said that he would not reject self-defense, even to the point of bloodshed, for people who cannot master non-violence.11 What the person who cannot master non-violence should do is not what the non-violent virtuous person would do.

This problem reveals something important that we want in the definition of deontic terms in a virtue theory. I think that the insight that the virtuous exemplar is primary is correct, but we want to recognize the fact that there are reasons the act that is right for one person cannot always be the same as what the exemplar would do in the same set of circumstances. My approach is to define a right act, not by what the exemplar does, but by what the exemplar judges there is most reason for some person to do in a given set of circumstances, which may be different for different persons. One of the advantages of this approach is that it preserves the link between right action and practical reasons, but without requiring that the agent is adept at identifying practical reasons. The determination of a right act is the judgment of the exemplar.

We need not prejudge what is included in the exemplar’s deliberation. As I said in Chapter 5, the exemplar might act on reasons or on emotion; the exemplar might engage in a process of practical reasoning in deliberation, or she may not. She might not even deliberate. But I propose that the exemplar’s judgment determines what is right in that situation. It is not necessary that the exemplar actually be in the situation to make judgments about it. Given these constraints, let me propose the following definition of “right act”:

A right act for A in some set of circumstances C is what the person with phronesis (persons like that) would characteristically take to be most favored by the balance of reasons for A in circumstances C.

I assume that the majority of the time there is no unique act favored by the balance of reasons. There may be a set of acts equally favored by the reasons, and many acts that are less favored. If I am right that in many situations a number of acts would be tied for the status of most favored by the reasons, that is an advantage of defining a right act by what the exemplar judges rather than by what the exemplar does. The exemplar can only do one act in any given situation, but the exemplar might judge that a number of other acts would have been equally well supported by the reasons. All of them would be right.

On this definition, a right act is something that anybody can do, whether or not she is virtuous, and anybody can find out what a right act is. The degree of practical reasoning demanded of the agent is minimal since all she need do is find exemplars. But there are demands on the agent’s imagination because in most cases she is not in a position to consult an exemplar who fully understands her situation. But there are ways in which the exemplar’s emotions and reasons can be learned, and I discussed that in Chapter 5. An exemplar can teach us how to think like he does, as Confucius does with his students.

It might seem that the above definition is trivially true and uninformative. If a right act for A in C is the act (or one of the acts) most favored by the balance of reasons for A in C, then the act most favored by the balance of reasons for A in C is the act a person with the best judgment would judge to be the act that is most favored by the balance of reasons for A in C. If phronesis is a property that is or includes the property of having the best judgment, it follows that the right act is the act judged to be the act most favored by the balance of reasons by the person with phronesis. Notice that the definition is not trivial if we make the assumption I have been making throughout this book that persons with phronesis are identifiable in advance of knowing what they do and what they judge in particular circumstances. In Chapter 1 I mentioned the example of Simeon Stylites, who lived thirty-seven years on top of a pillar. Peter Brown (1971) describes him as a man of power who escaped to a high platform in an attempt to get away from the people who kept coming to him for advice. What is particularly interesting about him to me is that his wisdom led people to recognize him as an authority, and he reluctantly took on the role of a judge—mediating disputes, specifying interest rates one party should pay another, and so on. He is an example of the difference between the role of the wise exemplar and the role of the saint or hero. Saints or heroes are models for ourselves. Wise persons are authorities.

I know of one person who uses an imaginative method of determining a right act similar to the one I propose, only his method is much more elaborate and suggests a number of variations. Philosopher Charles Taliaferro tells me that when he faces a difficult decision, he imagines a discussion and verdict of the Council of the Wise in his imaginary alternative world, a world he first invented with his sister as a child. This world has at its center a Chair, selected by the Council of the Wise, the House, the Cathedral, several universities, and more, all populated by persons who are largely, but not always, based on persons taken from life or fiction. He borrows the neo-Freudian term “introjection” for his process of creating imaginary inhabitants of his world. His method for appropriating the virtues of those he admires is to “internalize the admired person (boots and all) and then have them play an imagined interaction with other characters.” The characters in Taliaferro’s imaginary world are not all exemplars, and it is important to him that they represent many different points of view. Taliaferro tells me that he thinks of the dialogues and personal interactions in his imaginary world as a cousin of the formal philosophical practice of displaying different positions in dialogue format. So he thinks it is not all that different from the dialogues of Plato, Anselm, Berkeley, or Hume.12 This approach suggests that the “verdict” of the wise person is often a verdict we arrive at in our imagination.

In Chapter 5 I argued that a moral reason is whatever an exemplar takes to be relevant to moral judgment. If so, we should leave open the issue of what counts as a moral reason in our definition of “right act.” A moral reason should include whatever persons with practical reason take to be relevant to the determination of what to do in a given situation. I argued that emotions can be reasons, and in other work (2012) I have gone further and argued that many psychic states can be reasons.13 So if a right act is an act that a phronimos takes to be best supported by the moral reasons in some situation, then that includes whatever the phronimos takes to be such that it supports a moral judgment about what to do.

By designating a right act for A in C as what a person with practical wisdom would judge A should do in C, I do not mean to identify a right act as what a phronimos would advise A to do in C. I think that many exemplars (and non-exemplars) are unwilling to give advice to others. It is difficult to fully grasp another person’s situation, and advice giving is risky when one has a personal relationship with the person asking for advice. This is one of the advantages of learning what is right by reference to judgments about what a fictional or hypothetical person has most reason to do. There is no relationship at risk, and because the situation is artificially constructed, it is often transparent. This is one of the advantages of literature and film. Compare the way we treat a character in a Jane Austen novel with Sartre’s famous example of the young man who asked Sartre’s advice about whether he should join the Resistance, or instead stay home with his ailing mother. Sartre connected his unwillingness to give the student advice with his existentialist approach to morality, but it seems to me that many non-existentialists would be equally unwilling for the reasons I have mentioned. Yet those same people would not hesitate to say what a fictional character should do. The principle here is plain enough. The act best supported by the balance of reasons in some situation depends upon shareable features of the person and shareable features of the situation, so the right thing for person A to do in situation C is the same as what would be right for persons like A in situations like C.

This approach leaves us with a degree of indeterminacy about an actual concrete choice. One reason for the indeterminacy is straightforward: There will always be vagueness in the idea of one thing being like any other. There are indeterminate boundaries. But I want to leave open another possibility. There might be something essentially unique about each individual person that can render it impossible to say that what Ann should do in some set of circumstances C is what any person like Ann should do in C. If persons are unique in this way, that would be a problem that could not be solved by making what we mean by likeness to Ann more precise. The problem here is that it is possible that nobody is like Ann in all respects. It might even be metaphysically necessary that nobody is like Ann in all respects. For many of life’s choices, Ann’s differences from everyone else do not matter, and that is why we can often confidently say that the right thing for Ann to do is such-and-such. But as long as it is possible that Ann differs from all other persons in some ways, and as long as it is possible that those ways are relevant to moral choice, then it is possible that the right thing for Ann to do in some situation does not reduce to what anyone who fits Ann’s description ought to do in situations of that kind.14 If we press this idea far enough, we get the view that the right thing for A to do is what an idealized version of A would judge should be done, where the idealized version of A is A with phronesis. This approach makes it clear that the right way for A to learn what to do is not by merely following someone else’s judgment, but involves an adaptation of the exemplar’s process of making a moral judgment to her own particular circumstances, with due regard for the fact that there is something uniquely different about each person.15

I think that the uniqueness of persons explains the germ of truth in Sartre’s view that only the young man who needed to choose whether or not to join the Resistance could know the right thing to him to do. But unlike Sartre, I think there are plenty of acts whose rightness can be determined for others by persons with the greatest insight into the morally relevant features of a situation, with appropriate recognition to variations in human ability and psychology. A person with phronesis (persons like that) is a person with such insight. As long as we can identify a phronimos in advance of judging that he or she makes the correct moral judgment, we have a way to determine the correct moral judgments. This way of identifying the right acts is obviously imprecise, but it seems to me that it is the best we can do, given human fallibility and the need to avoid false precision. (205)

Phronesis is an ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits. Sometimes referred to as “practical virtue”, phronesis was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy. Wikipedia

WE&P by EZorrilla.

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