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Between Instinct and Habit
Moral Judgment and Dispositions
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 10 Mar 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Honors Thesis (magna cum laude)
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

Moral Judgment

The moral lives of individuals can be conceptually separated through the common division between theory and practice into moral principles and ideals versus the process of judgment by which those principles are translated into action. As such, the content of an individual's abstract moral commitments is distinct from (although often related to) the particulars ways in which those abstract commitments are implemented in real life. Although the actual line between theory and practice with respect to morality is often blurred, it nevertheless provides a method of simplifying an aspect of human life for the purpose of analysis and evaluation.

Moral judgment has been commonly defined as the process whereby a set of abstract moral principles are applied to a particular, concrete situation. It is, however, much more than a simple deductive process of employing a moral theory in a particular instance. Moral judgment also entails a number skills, particularly the capacity to accurately implement one's moral ideals and to spontaneously make moral decisions, integral to the process of judgment itself. Because excellence in these skills determines how well an individual achieves her moral ideals, such skills serve as normative guideposts to the innumerable possible methods of moral judgment.

(i) Accuracy in moral judgment through rational deliberation

Perhaps the most important aspect of moral judgment is that the actions which result from a process of judgment faithfully and accurately express an individual's moral ideals. A father who loves his daughter but unconsciously undermines her confidence and independence, a man who claims to respect women while treating them merely as sexual objects, a friend who is never willing to go out of his way when needed -- all these people have failed, in one way or another, to accurately translate their moral principles into action. The cost to themselves and others can be enormous.

An individual's faithfulness to her abstract moral ideals is largely regarded as a function of the amount of conscious, rational thought put into moral decision-making. From this perspective, the three examples cited above can all be viewed as failures to think through the proper implementation of their ideals or as failures to consider the non-obvious implications of their actions. In other words, such people act from a "gut feeling" rather than a rational determination of the proper course of action. Clearly, it is the case that often when individuals impulsively act on their passions rather than in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, they can harm themselves and others, because they do not look (or cannot see) beyond the obvious consequences of their actions. Those passions may arise due to mistaken beliefs, such as that a child is incompetent to decide with whom to be friends. They may even arise out of bad habits which were developed as "survival strategies" in an individual's earlier years, such as a propensity to refuse all favors for friends as a result of being manipulated by family members in childhood. As a result, even if an individual holds benevolence as an important aspect of friendship, she may find excuses not to help others out out of a fear of being similarly manipulated. Thus the passions can be great impediments to moral action.

The most obvious way to compensate for these deleterious effects of the passions is to advocate that individuals carefully and deliberately plan out their moral choices. On this view, an individual ought to rationally draw her moral decisions out of the facts of the particular situation and her consciously-held moral ideals. Intuitive feelings and passionate motivations to action thus ought to be ignored or downplayed in favor of the rational moral calculus, whether that calculus consists of determining the greatest happiness for the greatest number or universalizing the maxim of one's action. As a result, neither lack of forethought nor bad habits will substantially impede moral decision-making. (Mistaken beliefs are obviously still problematic, although rational deliberation may serve to eliminate many of those as well.)

This approach to achieving accuracy in moral judgments is not foreign to modern philosophy. As Martha Nussbaum points out, this type of emphasis on rationality and suspicion of the passions is present in both Kantianism and Utilitarianism (Nussbaum 76). Nussbaum writes, "for Kant, the passions are invariably selfish and aimed at one's own states of satisfaction" (Nussbaum 76). They prevent an action from being chosen for it's own sake and thus prevent it from having genuine moral worth. For the Utilitarian, the passions (particularly those involving personal attachments such as love) "lead us to emphasize personal ties and to rank the nearer above the further" thereby obstructing the "fully impartial attitude towards the world" required for rationality in ethics (Nussbaum 76). Thus attempting to achieve accuracy in moral judgment through a focus on rationality and a diminution of the passions is a commonly taken approach in moral philosophy.

Although this rationalistic method of moral judgment may be useful in particular situations, it overlooks the fact that moral judgment is not merely a deductive process which is easily learned or exercised. Rather, moral judgment involves a number of skills which do not necessarily emerge with a greater level of conscious deliberation, such as the ability to separate the essential details of a situation from the unessential ones. Moreover, as I argue in the next section, this approach also eliminates the important human need for spontaneity in moral judgment. Given these problems, "rationality" in moral judgment must take on a wider meaning than simply careful deliberateness and the capacity to correctly form syllogisms.

(ii) Problems of spontaneity in moral judgment with rational deliberation

Given the structure of human life, the ability to make spontaneous moral judgments is nearly as important as the accuracy of those judgments. Our daily lives require quick moral decisions, frequently under conditions not well-suited for moral deliberation. Individuals without the capacity for spontaneous moral action will inevitably have decisions made for them by others or by the progress of the situation itself.

The conscious process of deliberation discussed in the previous section, however, can take a great deal of time and concentration, or at least more time and concentration than most individuals can often afford to give. With rare exception, a person cannot spend much time deliberating about how to respond to a hurtful comment by a lover or about how to best intervene in a heated argument amongst employees. And when one child is beating up another, taking the time to rationally deliberate about what we ought to do will only result in unnecessary and painful punches. In other cases, an inability to decide quickly will render the decision actually obtained through rational deliberation obsolete, because the evolution of the situation will have, over a period of time, severely limited the available options. An emergency room doctor who spends too much time deciding how to treat multiple gunshot wounds will soon have a dead patient on his hands, to whom he can offer no treatment. In such a case, the window of moral choice had closed before a decision was made, rendering the choice finally made worthless.

In a broader sense, an individual who seriously tried to be very careful and deliberative in his moral decision-making would inevitably spend much more time deliberating about how to live life than actually living it. When a couple could be playing with their children or enjoying a night at the symphony, they would find themselves needing to deliberate about how to most effectively deal with minor conflicts at the office. To use an economic concept, this highly conscious approach to moral decision-making entails high "opportunity costs." Individuals would have to forsake many other valuable opportunities and uses of their time in order to engage in highly deliberative moral reasoning. This moral deliberation, notably, is not necessarily a more productive, moral, or rational use of our time and resources than all the other alternatives which face us.

Although a person using a very deliberative process of moral judgment could partially make use of past experience to guide present moral choices, such a path might substantially compromise the accuracy of the moral judgments without significant gain in the capacity for spontaneity. Essential but subtle details of two apparently similar situations could turn out to be different, such that the moral course of action in each would be radically different. In such cases (which would be, of course, difficult to identify), without a conscious and explicit process of judgment, the accuracy of the judgment would be seriously undermined. Such moral decision-making by analogy, so to speak, would not greatly enhance a moral agent's capacity for spontaneous action. After all, the process of sorting through and identifying previous, essentially similar moral situations would often itself require substantial deliberation.

This argument is not to say, however, that rational deliberation in morality is worthless or that any attempt to be faithful to our moral ideals is futile. Rather, it shows that the accuracy in moral judgment achieved through a high level of consciousness and rationality comes at a great price. Therefore, a different method of moral judgment must be found, one which achieves a sufficient degree of accuracy without such high costs, particularly one which enable us to respond spontaneously to the moral choices confronting us.

(iii) The passions and spontaneity in moral judgment

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the passions can and do provide us with the capacity for spontaneous moral decision-making. They are most often the strongest motivations of action (whether moral or immoral action), more powerful than any notion of duty or moral obligation, pushing us away from certain courses of action and pulling us towards others. These passionate motivations thus allow us to respond instantly to the moral situations in which we find ourselves.

Additionally, the passions play an integral role in the moral growth of individuals, because they can spark self-reflection and can allow an individual to take pleasure in virtuous action. The passions often serve as catalysts to moral development by providing an impetus to reflect and strong feedback upon our own behavior and the behavior of others. The experience of a painful emotion due to a vicious action can lead us to contemplate how we ought to act differently in similar situations in the future. For example, a feeling of guilt in response to our treating another person unkindly can motivate us to think about why we acted so callously and to take greater care in our dealings with others in the future. Or perhaps the way in which two friends amicably and painlessly settle a dispute might make us more conscious of how attentive we are to the feelings and perspective of another person. Our emotional motivations can also enrich our lives by providing impetus for us to explore new experiences, such as sculpture or hiking, and a motivation to share those new experiences with others. In these ways, the motivations for for self-reflection and action which the passions provide can help us grow as moral agents and as persons.

In contrast to acting solely our of a sense of duty, the passions, if properly ordered, allow us to take pleasure in virtuous action. For example, when we offer help out of duty or loyalty to utilitarian principles rather than a feeling of good-will and benevolence, resentment may build -- and possible explode -- towards the very people that we are supposed to be helping. Even with our best efforts to hide this resentment, it is frequently discernible, just by the tone or inflection of our voice or through our body language. As a result, we often do more harm than good by simply trying to act in accordance with duty. But by acting from a genuine feeling of benevolence and good will, in which there is no conflict between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do, there a much smaller chance of unconsciously doing damage.

In spite of these benefits of the passions as guides to action, as the previous section showed, emotions by themselves are not reliable guides to moral behavior. Individuals kill and batter in violent rages; even more mild forms of anger will push individuals to say deliberately hurtful comments. On the other hand, anger can be a powerful motivation to resist personal and social injustices. Thus the emotions, by themselves, often tell us little about the morality of particular courses of action.

A good method of moral judgment, then, must go beyond strict rationality or unchecked passions to an integration of the rational and emotional elements of moral decision-making. This method of moral judgment must take advantage of both the benefits of emotion and reason in moral decision-making, so that it may give rise to spontaneous moral action which faithfully reflects an individual's moral ideals. The concept of moral dispositions developed later in this chapter will serve precisely that function.

(iii) Other skills of moral judgment

A good moral judgment also entails a number of other important skills, such as being able to (1) separate the essential from the unessential details of a situations, (2) take into account nuances not explicitly addressed by one's moral principles, (3) concentrate in distracting environments, (4) detect the emotions of others, (5) find unique, non-obvious solutions to moral dilemmas, (6) endure disapproval from friends and family, and (7) persevere in spite of failure. These skills of moral judgment, in addition to being important in their own right, also contribute to an individual's ability to make spontaneous and accurate moral decisions, by making the process of judgment easier and more natural for the individual.

For example, the skill of distinguishing the important, relevant details of a moral situations from the irrelevant ones is often subtle and complex. Particulars which are insignificant on their own can take on a new meaning when found together. The actual intentions and motivations of others may be well-hidden, only emerging in patterns of behavior over time. For example, if we are trying to determine whether an acquaintance is lying to us, we must decide how much weight to place on her past behavior. Should her history of lying preclude us from believing her this time, even if what she says makes a great deal of sense? Because the particular details regarded as relevant will determine the moral principles or ideals employed, the importance of this skill ought not be underrated.

The other skills of moral judgment, however, are no less important. The capacity to account for nuances not addressed by our moral principles enables us to compensate for the fact that those moral ideals are abstractions, often omitting details which may, in certain instances, be important. Without the ability to concentrate in noisy and distracting environments, moral decision-making would often be impossible when most crucially necessary. The ability to endure criticism and even ostracism from family and friends when certain of the validity of a particular decision enables us to remain true to who we are as people.

These skills, among others, neither develop by nature nor are utilized on a conscious level. In fact, in many cases we might only be aware of the problem and our decision, not any intermediate processes of judgment. As such, an individual is unlikely to acquire such skills through "moral teaching"; a more subtle process of gradual learning seems to be required.

All of these aspects of moral judgment -- accuracy, spontaneity, and the innumerable skills of judgment -- seem to require disparate, even contradictory, elements of moral judgment. Accuracy requires reason, spontaneity requires the passions, and the skills of judgment must be acquired through a complex, gradual process of learning. However, these elements are all united by making use of the human capacity to form moral dispositions.

Moral Dispositions

The key to a good method of moral judgment lies in the nature and origin of those countless easy moral decisions we make everyday which pass us by without notice. We do not, for example, need to remind ourselves to be emotionally attentive to our friends; feeling no internal conflict, we naturally act with attentiveness. Nor do we struggle over whether to offer help to someone who just fallen on an icy sidewalk. In such situations, we do not experience a conflict between our reason and our emotions -- between the demands of accuracy and spontaneity -- in moral judgment, but rather an internal harmony, because the moral choices flow naturally from who we are as people. Additionally, such easy moral decisions both help give rise to and are the product of the gradual development of the basic skills of moral judgment, such as an emotional attentiveness and a clear focus on the relevant details of a situation. Thus although the difficult, conflicted moral decisions remain stuck in our memory, thereby making us associate moral decision-making in general with difficult moral decision-making, it is the more run-of-the-mill moral choices which provide insight into optimal methods of moral judgment.

It should be noted that the fact that some moral decisions come easier and more naturally to us than others does not imply that they are not really moral choices like the difficult ones we face. Both our conflicted and our harmonious moral decisions spring from our unique personality and perspective on the world, as well as from our past moral choices. The difficult choices do not reflect who we are as people any more than than easy choices do.

(i) Moral dispositions with respect to spontaneity, accuracy, and other skills

These common, effortless moral decisions are such because they arise out of an individual's particular set of moral dispositions, which entail little friction between the requirements of accuracy, spontaneity, and the development other moral skills. Moral dispositions are the stable states of character expressing an individual's moral ideals and giving rise to regular, habitual patterns of behavior. Because moral dispositions are connected to both moral ideals and behavior, they are intricately bound up with the whole of a person's self-conception. Additionally, they integrate both reason and the passions, such that although reason determines the ideals at which dispositions aim, it is largely the passions which govern the habitual expression of those dispositions in action. As such, dispositions (when properly formed and ordered) allow an individual to make spontaneous moral decisions which faithfully reflect her rational moral ideals. Two above examples of attentiveness to a friend and benevolence towards a stranger, for example, spring from moral dispositions, not an abstract theoretical commitment to such virtues from which the individual deduces what ought to be done or from unmoderated passions. Thus, through moral dispositions, the seemingly conflicting demands of spontaneity and accuracy in moral judgment have disappeared, because we have integrated the benefits of both reason and emotion in moral decision-making.

Additionally, the process of forming and refining our moral dispositions is the exact process by which we develop the particular moral skills required for good moral decision-making. (This will be discussed at length in the discussion of Aristotelian habits in the third chapter.) And so, unless we regard struggle and psychological discord as valuable for its own sake, moral dispositions ought to be viewed as a unique and valuable way to optimize the benefits possible to moral judgment.

(ii) Moral dispositions versus moral ideals

Moral dispositions might seem at first glance to actually be type of moral principle rather than a method of moral judgment; there are, however, substantial and important differences between the two. Although the moral ideals expressed through dispositions are a necessary precondition to moral dispositions, dispositions are not constituted by those moral ideals; they are conceptually distinct elements of the moral life. Additionally, moral dispositions are not explicit, conscious theories about the world or how we ought to act. They operate in the background of our consciousness, coming into our awareness generally only with the effort of self-reflection. Additionally, moral dispositions are not normative in the same way that moral theories or principles are. Moral dispositions don't tell us how we ought to to act; they reflect who we are, rather than who we think we ought to be.

An example might further illustrate this distinction, as well as concretely show some of the elements of moral dispositions. I do not particularly have, nor do I need moral principles to guide by actions towards animals. My concern for the well-being of animals is simply part of my personal identity, such that need not go through any rational calculus in my encounters with animals; my natural responses, my passions serve as a more-than-adequate guide. These dispositions, in action, make me run out in a rainstorm to put the horses into the warm, dry barn, take delight from watching fawns play in the fields during the summer, and cringe when I see an owner mistreating a pet. Because my concern for animals, like my other moral dispositions, is integral to who I am, the actions springing from it seem like the only conceivable options open to me. Unlike with many moral principles, I could not imagine acting otherwise.

(iii) The creations and effects of moral dispositions

Although certain dispositions have been with us for as long as we can remember, moral dispositions can often be created, modified, and even eliminated through conscious self-reflection upon our moral ideals. Throughout our lifetimes, we often find ourselves stimulated to reflect upon our personal ideals. A particularly caring action by a friend or the integrity of the hero in a novel allow us to see potentials for virtue which we had not previously explored. Or perhaps our own behavior sparks change; we might catch ourselves being unnecessarily rude to someone and decide to make an effort to be more polite and respectful in the future. Even more abstract thinking will often change us; reading in a subject like philosophy or education may allow us to experience an aspect of our moral lives from a new perspective. Whatever the catalyst for our moral reflection may be, that reflection upon our moral ideals can give us a new vision of virtue to incorporate into our own lives.

Over time, unless there is a substantial conflict between our new ideals and our old dispositions, those new ideals will become dispositions themselves, internal to our character and sense of self. Acting in accordance with those ideals thus becomes effortless, because we no longer have to consciously go through an explicit, conscious process of moral judgment. The more we develop our moral dispositions, the greater number of decisions arise out of subconscious thought and the passions. The conditioning of the passions which naturally results from the creation of moral dispositions helps make moral action habitual and second nature, so that we may faithfully implement our moral ideals in practice.

In addition to the accuracy and spontaneity made possible through the creation of good moral dispositions, by aiming at a moral ideal in the process of creating dispositions, we also learn the smaller skills of moral judgment. As shall be discussed in the third chapter, the habitual actions we take in order to achieve the moral ideal will slowly hone our skills of moral judgment, such as emotional attentiveness and empathy.

Thus moral dispositions allow us to achieve a balance between the need for spontaneity and accuracy in moral judgment. By consciously deliberating about what sort of person we want to be and by making those ideals integral to our character, we enable ourselves to act both rationally and passionately in our moral lives.

In the next two chapters, I will examine two different perspectives on moral dispositions, namely Nietzsche's theory of instinct and Aristotle's account of habit. In the final chapter, I will return to the conception of moral dispositions discussed in this chapter in order to further develop it through the Nietzschean and Aristotelian perspectives. In all three chapters, I will focus on the origin, the process of creation, and the results in action of the three differing conceptions of moral dispositions.

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