Saturday, May 19, 2007

Notes on Self-Formation

Here are some notes for a presentation I gave three or so years ago at a meeting of Davis's Moral and Political Philosophy Group (now defunct). The talk took as a starting point a paper by Bernard Williams called "Moral Incapacity". It's a brief hint of the self-formation view of persons that I've slowly been developing on the side. Here it goes:

Here’s my own quick characterization of moral incapacity: Your moral character can sometimes constrain the set of actions you are able to take in any given circumstance. You are said to have a moral incapacity to do those things outside this restricted set. If the set in some situation is reduced to include only a single action, this is what Williams calls elsewhere a case of practical necessity – ‘I can’t’ might be replaced with an ‘I must’. In this paper, Williams just uses the term ‘moral incapacity’ and leaves practical necessity aside since it is basically just a limiting case of moral incapacity, where there is a moral incapacity to do all actions but one. I will do the same.

Let’s assume there is moral incapacity. If there is, that seems to upset a very natural idea many people have about moral responsibility – the idea that I am responsible for only what I can refrain from. It seems to upset the idea that I can be evaluated morally only in terms of those actions or omissions for which I had the capacity to do otherwise – if I lacked the capacity to do something or omit from doing something then I am not responsible for such an action and am not blameworthy.

In the case of actions or omissions arising from a moral incapacity (call them m-actions), one does not in a sense have a choice over whether to do them or not. What is odd, though, is that such an action is more of a result or expression of one’s character and one’s self than almost any other kind of action. The individual seems very much responsible for such an action, since it is so intimately an expression of his moral self and can be praiseworthy or blameworthy for such actions and the moral incapacities which give rise to them. What I can or cannot do seems directly to bear on how I am to be morally evaluated. And this seems to conflict with the idea that we are responsible only for our free actions and that something’s being freely chosen implies an ability to choose otherwise. So we can have snappy names for everything, I’ll call this the “Incapacity Problem”.

Given his other writings, I am sure Williams would be quite happy with this result. You can see evidence of this in the first footnote of this paper. But I would like to see what kind of headway we can make on this problem. One answer that immediately comes to mind is that we are responsible for our m-actions since we are responsible for our current character and since our character is what gives rise to these m-actions, we are therefore responsible for the m-actions as well. Call this the “Character Response” to the Incapacity Problem. We might think that we are responsible for our character just in case we are responsible maintaining it – if I can change my character or was myself the cause of it, then I am responsible for it and for all actions that come from it. I’m going to spend the rest of my time focusing on this line of thought.

Now consider the following case: John has an incapacity to do a certain action, A, and so omits performing it. John’s character, however, is “fixed” – that is, he is not able through his own choices to change his character in any way. He therefore cannot get rid of his current character or any moral incapacities he has. The question now is whether John can still be held responsible. This could be a problem for the Character Response – call it the “Fixed Character Problem”.

One response is that John really is responsible for his omission. His character presumably was not always fixed, so previous to this fixing it must have been possible for him to influence his own character. Since his character in the past was formed or at least maintained by his own actions up to the point where it became fixed, he is therefore responsible for his current character and so for his m-actions – prior to the fixing of his character, he could have changed his character so that it might be different than it now is.

Before looking at objections to this, let’s look at one of the pictures of responsibility and moral development that this line of thought so far seems to suggest. This picture will be rather speculative and highly idealized, but perhaps helpful nonetheless. I’ll call it the “Self-Formation Picture”.

On this picture, freedom and self-determination go hand in hand and ultimately imply the freedom to shape my own decisions, my character, myself. True freedom involves the ability to build for myself what I will be – I can form for myself a certain moral character. Those who are young can affect the direction of who are they to morally become more easily than those who are older – children go through rapid moral development just as they go through any other kind of development. But as we get older, our character becomes more rigid and less easily changed – we have developed and formed ourselves more and more and what we have made of ourselves becomes less and less reversible.

Take the idealized limit points at either end of the process and pretend for the moment that human beings are actually able to occupy these limit points. At one end, the beginning of life, we have no moral character whatsoever – personality and other traits maybe, but no moral character. The other end of the spectrum is where a person’s character is fixed – they have formed themselves fully and the process is over. Such a person, I’ll say, is fully made.

True freedom or self-determination as it is idealized here, then, involves being able to go through this process of self-formation. At the beginning, freedom expresses itself through the ability to form different characters and take a wide variety of actions. At the end, freedom or responsibility expresses itself through the inability to form a different character or choose from certain actions – the fixed character is itself a result of this freedom. On such a picture, we are entirely responsible for our fixed character and the actions that flow from it. So John really is responsible for his omission of doing A.


Consider two kinds of perfection: perfection as original flawlessness versus perfection as completion. The person at the first limit point is perfect in the first sense – there are no moral flaws since there is no moral character and such a person is utterly blameless. Now consider the other end. At this end, one might be perfect in the second sense by holding a fixed, maximally good moral character. Say Jack is on the road to completion – his character is neither fixed nor yet maximally good.

Since Jack is morally incomplete in this sense, he may choose wrong or not. The complete, however, cannot – they have completed the ethical project. So freedom expresses itself in flawlessness through the possibility of falling into vice while it expresses itself in completion through the impossibility. Our time of making, however, can be ended with ourselves ethically incomplete and so not able to go on to completion.

Say that John has flaws in his moral character. One objection to the picture I just gave would be that, prior to being fully made, John might not have known the full consequences of his actions for his moral character or that they were wrong. And now here he is unable to do anything about who he is now and so unable to refrain from not doing A. How could he be held responsible for his character or m-actions?

I’m not sure how convincing it is, but one reply might be that almost everyone is reasonably expected to find out what is right or wrong well enough to find their way to a morally good character prior to being fully-made. If they fail in this, then they are culpable and so still responsible for whom they end up becoming and the m-actions that come from this.

Another sort of response is that it doesn’t matter whether John is really responsible or not, since there seems no evidence to think that anyone in real life ever really gets to the point where they are fully-made. Both the beginning and end points of moral development were, after all, mere idealizations. Maybe no one ever actually occupies either of those points. They might get closer and closer to the end point as they get older, but perhaps no one ever actually reaches the point where they cannot change their character as a result of their own choices or actions. Perhaps the amount of character fixation at any point in the process of moral development could be analogous to the value for any x on the number line of the function x/x+1 – as the x gets larger, the value of the function increases more and more and gets closer and closer to 1 without ever actually reaching it. So perhaps character is never fixed and even given an infinite lifespan we would never reach that end point though we would get imperceptibly closer and closer. In that case, we would always be able to change, though it might be incredibly difficult. So perhaps we always are responsible for our character and thus our m-actions after all.

The Self-Formation Picture, then, might be able to get the Character Response out of the Fixed Character Problem and thus dissolve the Incapacity Problem as well. But I think all of it would need more spelling out to see whether the Incapacity Problem could really be dissolved in such a manner.

2 comments:

Acolyte4236 said...

FYI-Here is the original source for the idea. I have a forthcoming paper that spells it out along with the historical background.

http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2005/01/30/simplicity-virtue-and-the-problem-of-evil-pt-1/


http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2005/02/12/simplicity-virtue-and-the-problem-of-evil-pt-2-3/

Ian said...

Thanks for the tip! I'll be sure to check this out.