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Between Instinct and Habit
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

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

When ethical disputes arise between individuals, people naturally tend to regard the cause as differences in the substance of the moral ideals. Political debates focus on differences in moral values; disputes between friends often center around each's different priorities. However, underneath the surface of conceptions of how we ought to act and of what constitutes the good life lurks the particular, divergent ways in which individuals apply moral ideals to their lives. Some individuals, for example, are extremely attentive to the emotional states of others, while others do not take much notice of even exuberance or distress in others; some cannot endure disapproval from friends or family, while others seem impervious to the judgments of others. These possible variations in methods of moral judgment are numerous; they include an individual's emotional sensitivity, attention paid to contextual details, willingness to persevere despite failure, and ability to endure social disapproval, among others. Because of these variables, the methods of judgment employed by individuals in moral decision-making can substantially impact the courses of action chosen by individuals.

Additionally, the particular method of moral judgment utilized determines both the faithfulness of a person's choices to her moral ideals and the degree of spontaneity possible in moral action. For example, the very methodical agent who writes out lists of pros and cons in order to make her choices will likely be able to accurately apply her moral principles to particular situations. Nevertheless, she sacrifices a great deal of spontaneity in the process; she cannot decide the right course of action quickly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants moral agent is able to make spontaneous decisions, but is also more likely to make grave mistakes as a result of a failure to fully think through his alternatives and the practical consequences of his choices.

Given the impact of the process judgment on the moral lives of individuals, the possible methods of moral judgment are worthy of the attention of philosophers and lay persons alike. In particular, the development of both a descriptive and a normative account of moral judgment is imperative as a conjunction to a moral theory. As I argue in this thesis, an optimal method of moral judgment must not only maximize both the faithfulness and spontaneity of moral decisions , but also promote the particular skills of good moral judgment. Additionally I argue that all of these values of moral judgment are promoted through the proper development of moral dispositions -- those stable states of character which reflect and individual's moral values and which give rise to regular patterns of action.

In the first chapter, I examine the problems posed by moral decision-making and the needs of a good method of moral judgment, namely accuracy in the application of moral ideals to particular situation, spontaneity in moral choice, and the development of moral skills through moral judgment. I then offer an outline of account of moral dispositions designed to optimize the beneficial potentials inherent to the process of moral judgment.

Because this conception of moral dispositions is closely tied to Nietzsche's theory of instinct and Aristotle's account of habit, in the second and third chapters, I examine these two distinct perspectives on moral dispositions. I pay particular attention to the similarities and differences in each's account of (1) the origin of dispositions, (2) the process by which dispositions are created, and (3) the result of acting upon these dispositions. Additionally, I examine the weaknesses and strengths of both philosopher's accounts.

In the final chapter, I further develop my own theory of moral dispositions as an optimal method of moral decision-making, as one which promotes moral growth and enables spontaneous moral decisions faithful to an individual's moral ideals. It is the unique integration of the rational and emotional elements of moral decision-making achieved through dispositions renders it such an ideal method of moral judgment.

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