poverty, willpower, and virtue ethics

Recently, philoso­pher Michael Cholbi tweeted this story: “Why Can’ More Poor Peo­ple Escape Poverty?”, along with the sug­ges­tion that the find­ings described therein could have impli­ca­tions for virtue the­ory. To make a long story short:

In the 1990s, social psy­chol­o­gists devel­oped a the­ory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capac­ity for exert­ing willpower was finite—that exert­ing willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas.”

Rel­e­vant exper­i­ments have been exten­sively repli­cated, and the depletable self-control hypoth­e­sis seems rea­son­ably well-confirmed. The impli­ca­tion for poverty is this: the less money you have, the more sit­u­a­tions you will encounter in which you must restrain your­self and make dif­fi­cult pur­chas­ing trade­offs, and this means you’ll have less willpower left­over later to deal with other sit­u­a­tions in which you might need it. In other words, of two indi­vid­u­als who have the same base­line level of nat­ural and/or cul­ti­vated willpower (assum­ing there is such a thing), the richer one will make bet­ter choices, ceteris paribus, than the poorer one, where those choices require willpower and self-control.

In light of these find­ings, and to put some words in Dr. Cholbi’s mouth, we might won­der whether it is rea­son­able to main­tain a com­mon­sense view that willpower and self-control are virtues: sta­ble states of char­ac­ter with ratio­nal, affec­tive, and behav­ioral com­po­nents, and which agents cul­ti­vate over time. Instead, the depletable self-control hypoth­e­sis sug­gests that the behav­iors of indi­vid­u­als are largely sub­ject to the cir­cum­stances in which they find them­selves, finan­cially and choices-wise. The fact of the psy­cho­log­i­cal mat­ter may be that willpower is less of a trait that one devel­ops and more of a force to which one is susceptible.

How­ever, I think it makes bet­ter sense to think about the depletable willpower hypoth­e­sis not as evi­dence that willpower isn’t a virtue, but as sup­port­ing the view that devel­op­ing the virtues requires a suf­fi­cient amount of cer­tain exter­nal goods (such as money, health, being born into a good fam­ily, etc). At first blush, the exter­nal goods require­ment may seem as some­what elit­ist, entail­ing as it does that priv­i­leged peo­ple are more likely to become vir­tu­ous. But really this is a rea­son­able alter­na­tive to the Socratic-ish view that only morally bad acts can truly harm us, and there­fore that virtue can be devel­oped essen­tially inde­pen­dently of one’s cir­cum­stances. Tragic as it is, our life pos­si­bil­i­ties are in fact con­strained by the sit­u­a­tions in which we find our­selves, sit­u­a­tions that may not be entirely or even par­tially under our con­trol, and this includes our prospects for flour­ish­ing or not. If you are poor, the moral deck may be stacked against you when it comes to willpower (and becom­ing well edu­cated, and reserv­ing time for con­tem­pla­tion, and hav­ing aes­thetic expe­ri­ences, and so on).

But, even assum­ing that the exter­nal goods require­ment is cor­rect, we can and should take up the fur­ther ques­tion of the extent to which an indi­vid­ual bears respon­si­bil­ity for her con­tin­ued lack (or pos­ses­sion) of some exter­nal good or other. A clear exam­ple is to what kind of fam­ily  you’re born, an exter­nal good poten­tially con­tribut­ing to human flour­ish­ing for which no one ever bears respon­si­bil­ity. Peo­ple will be respon­si­ble for their finan­cial sit­u­a­tions (and, relat­edly, the extent to which their willpower is con­tin­u­ally taxed) to vary­ing degrees.

This pic­ture pretty much com­ports with stan­dard Aris­totelian virtue ethics, and with com­mon­sense moral­ity too, I think. Its most impor­tant impli­ca­tion for the depletable willpower hypoth­e­sis is actu­ally not related to under­stand­ing how virtue the­ory applies to impov­er­ished indi­vid­u­als them­selves, but for cor­rect­ing how we morally appraise those indi­vid­u­als. If the hypoth­e­sis is true, and a per­son is impov­er­ished for rea­sons sub­stan­tially beyond her con­trol, com­pas­sion and wis­dom require that we refrain from label­ing her as merely lack­ing in willpower, or as hav­ing ane­mic self-control. This may cause us to treat impov­er­ished peo­ple bet­ter (policy-wise or on an indi­vid­ual level) than we would if we were think­ing of them instead as weak, depraved, akratic, etc.

Finally, notice that there are still rich peo­ple fac­ing few willpower-taxing sit­u­a­tions who still make bad choices. The exter­nal good of finan­cial secu­rity sup­ports willpower, self-control, and tem­per­ance, but it doesn’t guar­an­tee them. These qual­i­ties may indeed be virtues, but virtues that are more depen­dent upon the hav­ing the exter­nal good of wealth than some other virtues.

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11 Comments

  • I always enjoy your blog posts. You’re a very good writer and I’m a lit­tle envious.

  • Good stuff. I’ve read quite a bit on willpower deple­tion as well as virtue ethics. I like to think of willpower (and there­fore, to some extent, virtue in gen­eral) as a scarce resource. And you might be right that we might want to hold back on judg­ing harshly for lack­ing a cer­tain quan­tity of it. How­ever, there might be another dimen­sion on which we can judge some­one for their willpower, namely on how efficiently/rationally/economically they allo­cate what­ever willpower they do have. This might even make for a (per­haps lim­ited and qual­i­fied) defense of local traits/virtues: one might only be able to act with willpower (virtue) to a lim­ited degree, but at least it will have some focus or pur­pose, instead of just being hodge-podge life of occa­sional willpower (virtue) with no rhyme or rea­son. I was even think­ing of pur­su­ing some­thing along these lines for a pos­si­ble dis­ser­ta­tion. Alas, I’ve dropped out of grad school. So, the idea is yours, if you want it.

  • Pam, this is an inter­est­ing study and I’ve heard of it before. Before I offer an opin­ion, how­ever, I want to a.) apol­o­gize in advance for the size of the com­ment I’m prepar­ing to dump here (I’m on a roll this morn­ing) and b.) empha­size that I have not read the orig­i­nal research results of the study or any sub­se­quent work on the topic. So, this may be a some­what une­d­u­cated posi­tion. Hav­ing said that, I con­fess that I won­der whether the issue is much more com­plex than pre­sented here and if it wouldn’t serve us well to pull it apart. Sam Wang, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist a Prince­ton gave a lec­ture (which, sadly, is no longer avail­able online) about this very thing and his con­clu­sion was that the deci­sion mak­ing cen­ters of the brain, includ­ing those func­tional cen­ters that respon­si­ble for our self-control, are highly plas­tic and can be built up, or exer­cised over time as we con­front dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions or com­plex prob­lems. The result is that over time, we are bet­ter able to han­dle prac­ti­cal prob­lems involv­ing self-control that have higher lev­els of com­plex­ity, some­thing that doesn’t require time for con­tem­pla­tion or self-reflection (in the way we philoso­phers tend to do it). Hav­ing grown up very poor, I can attest to the fact that you do develop a sort of dis­ci­pline out of sheer neces­sity that you tend to carry with you well into adult­hood. If what Wang says is true, then one might also con­clude that per­sons in deprived cir­cum­stances have greater oppor­tu­nity to develop cer­tain types of men­tal dis­ci­pline than per­sons in more favor­able circumstances.

    Two curiosi­ties: first, if one were to per­form a phys­i­cally tax­ing task and then be tested on strength after hav­ing per­formed that task, the “base­line” strength is going to be less than it would have been before the task. I find myself won­der­ing if there isn’t a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non hap­pen­ing neu­ro­log­i­cally and whether the con­clu­sion of the study is what it appears to be. Sec­ond, I am curi­ous as to whether any of the stud­ies have looked at what spe­cific psy­cho­log­i­cal fea­tures are at play in the decreased level of will power. Hav­ing been in some rather dire cir­cum­stances in life, I find myself reflect­ing on my own expe­ri­ences and won­der if the root of the issue isn’t some­thing akin to a belief about one­self and one’s ability/inability to escape the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Hav­ing the sense that one can even­tu­ally sur­mount the dif­fi­culty and hav­ing hope of improved cir­cum­stances seems to influ­ence how aggres­sively peo­ple per­sist in their endeav­ors. Mar­garet did con­sid­er­able research on this topic and con­cluded that oppressed per­sons are impov­er­ished in hope and that the lack of hope has dev­as­tat­ing results, and I tend to agree with her (I am tak­ing chronic poverty to be a type of oppres­sion). For this, and many other rea­sons, I think hope is wel­fare rel­e­vant and plays a crit­i­cal role in morality…and maybe some­day I’ll have enough will power to actu­ally get my the­sis on the topic fin­ished. ;-) But, in spite of my con­se­quen­tial­ist lean­ings, I think there may still be some­thing for Virtue Ethics here…

    I am sus­pi­cious that emo­tions play a sig­nif­i­cant role in will power (and, being the cog­ni­tivist that I am, I believe that beliefs about one­self are often con­sti­tu­tive of emo­tions and affec­tive atti­tudes). There is also good research being done on how emo­tion influ­ences what we pay atten­tion to (see the lab­o­ra­tory for emo­tion and cog­ni­tion at Indi­ana U, specif­i­cally with work of Luiz Pes­soa). We tend to give more atten­tion to sit­u­a­tions that are affec­tively charged. There has also been research done on chil­dren and will power (delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion — see the Stan­ford Marsh­mel­low Exper­i­ment) and the result was, con­sis­tently, that the chil­dren who dis­played the great­est will power were those who were able to dis­tract them­selves from the treat. Not sur­pris­ingly, the cor­re­spond­ing lon­gi­tu­di­nal study revealed that chil­dren with the most will-power early on were much more suc­cess­ful as young adults. Since emo­tions play a sig­nif­i­cant role in what we focus on, I’ve often won­dered if hope (an affec­tively charged atti­tude about future cir­cum­stances) doesn’t also play a big role in will-power by help­ing us dis­tract our­selves from “tastier” alter­na­tives that promise imme­di­ate gratification.

  • Under the assump­tion that willpower is con­nected to virtue:

    There’s another (more cyn­i­cal?) response to the prob­lem you’re try­ing to address. It goes some­thing like this:

    So it turns out that poor peo­ple tend to “run out of” self-control. This doesn’t tell against the idea that self-control is a virtue. This tells against the claim that they were vir­tu­ous to begin with. This just shows us how rare virtue is. Aris­to­tle remarks both that virtue is rare and that most peo­ple are some­where between con­ti­nent and incon­ti­nent. Per­haps he’s right.

    This doesn’t require say­ing that the rich peo­ple who don’t “run out of” self-control actu­ally are vir­tu­ous. Per­haps they’d “run out” too under the cir­cum­stances. Maybe they haven’t actu­ally devel­oped any more virtue than the poor, but have just been bet­ter shel­tered from things that would bring to light the lim­its of their char­ac­ter. They might pos­sess what Aris­to­tle calls “nat­ural virtue”-habits that they’ve been born in to that aren’t really their own and haven’t been prop­erly con­nected with the devel­op­ment of prac­ti­cal wisdom.

    So per­haps it’s true that most poor peo­ple aren’t vir­tu­ous, but it’s just because most peo­ple aren’t virtuous.

    Also, it’s worth not­ing that you to seem at times to con­flate flour­ish­ing and virtue. It is one thing to say, as Aris­to­tle does, that a good life requires, in addi­tion to virtues, exter­nal goods. It is another to say that moral virtues them­selves require exter­nal goods. The lat­ter seems more con­tentious. Think of it this way:

    Aristotle’s claim: you can be moral with­out exter­nal goods*, but you can’t flour­ish with­out them

    Your claim: you can’t be moral with­out exter­nal goods (fol­lowed by fudg­ing about appro­pri­ate reac­tive atti­tudes under the cir­cum­stances, which I worry calls into ques­tion the extent to which you’re actu­ally sug­gest­ing that the self-control in ques­tion has any moral import)

    Ques­tion­ing your assump­tion that will power has any­thing to do with virtues:

    The vir­tu­ous man has the right desires, so he does not need to have self-control. Self-control is nec­es­sary for con­ti­nence, not virtue. If this is the right way to think about the mat­ter, there still seem to be all the same puz­zles as you raise about virtue, and with­out think­ing about it too hard, I’m guess­ing both of our accounts would apply in the same way to the puz­zles raised about continence.

    *This may not be quite right. At least one virtue on Aristotle’s view, namely mag­ni­fi­cience (see NE IV.2), requires exter­nal goods, but I sus­pect most of us either find this virtue elit­ist or think it eas­ily assim­i­lated into a gen­eral notion of gen­eros­ity, a virtue which does not seem to be depen­dent on exter­nal goods (you can be gen­er­ous with your time, even your words). There is also the prob­lem of intel­lec­tual virtues (which of course is dis­tinct from the mat­ter of moral virtues). Aris­to­tle seems to sug­gest that we can­not pos­sess intel­lec­tual virtues with­out exter­nal goods (you can’t con­tem­plate with­out sig­nif­i­cant leisure time). I think Aris­to­tle is wrong here, but I’ve got an unusu­ally egal­i­tar­ian, so to speak, con­cep­tion of what con­tem­pla­tion is (a con­cep­tion that I owe largely to the work of Josef Pieper). Even so, your claim that we can’t be moral with­out exter­nal goods still seems to me more wor­ri­some than Aristotle’s that we can’t con­tem­plate with­out exter­nal goods.

  • @Jenni —

    Lot going on there! Cou­ple things.

    First, and obvi­ously, I was assum­ing that the depletable willpower hypoth­e­sis is true, or at least mostly/somehow true. I’m not really qual­i­fied to assess the exper­i­men­tal find­ings. That being said…

    Wang has an arti­cle here — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/02/opinion/02aamodt.html — that I like, and also a TED talk — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05vitpSY1vU — but I haven’t watched it yet. Any­ways, he def­i­nitely seems to accept the depletable willpower hypoth­e­sis, but goes on to offer some prac­ti­cal advice in light of it. In par­tic­u­lar, there may be more pos­si­bil­ity for strength­en­ing one’s willpower in the long run than in the short run, i.e. it is bet­ter just to plan ahead not to be in many willpower-depleting sit­u­a­tions in a row than try to exert super­hu­manly amounts of it, but for instance by focus­ing on suc­cesses we can increase willpower or help it to deplete less quickly in the future. If it’s true that we can improve our willpower over time, that may make appro­pri­ate plac­ing an increased amount of moral respon­si­bil­ity for con­tin­u­ous poverty with its suf­fer­ers, but the process may very well be medi­ated by emo­tions like hope and indi­vid­u­als’ con­stru­als of their sit­u­a­tions and prospects over which we have some con­trol. And this would be good news because, as the Mis­chel marsh­mal­low test (with which I’m well acquainted) shows, self-control seems cor­re­lated with mark­ers of life suc­cess and there is rea­son to believe that that rela­tion­ship is a causal one.

    What­ever the details of the depletable willpower story turn out to be, I still think its basics com­port with virtue ethics, rather than fun­da­men­tally chal­leng­ing it. We will just need to shift our moral appraisals/blame attributions/resultant actions to reflect what the facts of the mat­ter really are as to an individual’s own level of con­trol over her devel­op­ing and exer­cis­ing willpower.

  • pamela wrote:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks a bunch for these super pro­duc­tive com­ments. Cou­ple dis­jointed responses -

    You are def­i­nitely def­i­nitely right to point out that this may be the case: The vast major­ity of peo­ple may sim­ply lack the virtue of willpower proper (assum­ing it is a virtue), whether they hap­pen to be poor peo­ple run­ning out of it or rich peo­ple not run­ning out of it. The lat­ter may have the mere nat­ural virtue of willpower, but it’s not some­thing for which they bear respon­si­bil­ity or earn praise, just as the for­mer might not deserve blame for their lack of willpower (debat­able, depend­ing on the facts about the prospects for delib­er­ately strength­en­ing willpower over time).

    You are very astute to pick up my con­fla­tion between the good life/flourishing, and moral­ity, such that I appear to believe that *moral virtues* require exter­nal goods, when Aris­to­tle holds that the *good life* requires exter­nal goods. And you’re surely right that my appar­ent posi­tion is more con­tentious than Aristotle’s. Trou­ble is, I might actu­ally believe the con­tentious thing… need to think it over.

    Finally, I’m really glad you pointed out that willpower/self-control would really only be required for con­ti­nence, and not for true virtue, because a vir­tu­ous per­son has right desires such that willpower is not required. Here, I sup­pose I depart from Aris­totelian virtue ethics con­sid­er­ably in a way I ought to have men­tioned, owing to my deep pes­simism about our prospects for train­ing appro­pri­ate emo­tional responses into our­selves over time. It seems to me that this is such a dif­fi­cult task for peo­ple (per­haps even an impos­si­ble one) that it is not a proper require­ment of full virtue, or at least a very imper­fect one.

    Thanks again!

  • […] poverty deplete willpower? At This Field is Required, Pamela Stub­bart muses over a recent arti­cle in the New […]

  • I think I had a reac­tion some­what sim­i­lar to Jenni. But my the­o­ret­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion is more couched in cog­ni­tive (rather than neuro) psych. So I don’t know Wang’s work because my level of analy­sis is not the brain but rather the mind, but I am rea­son­ably famil­iar with the work in this domain done but social cog­ni­tion and cog­ni­tive researchers (essen­tially, the the­o­ret­i­cal base I assume Wang means to test). Any­way, “dom­i­nant responses” are cog­ni­tively cheap (I mean dom­i­nant as in dom­i­nant hand, as in most reg­u­larly employed, not as in behav­ing in a dom­i­nant fash­ion). In other words, they are not very deplet­ing. So to the extent that broke indi­vid­u­als undergo “train­ing” in self-restraint (as Jenni describes — and cer­tainly SOME of them do) it will change their dom­i­nant response and restraint will get eas­ier and eas­ier. We might think about and dis­cuss means to such train­ing. Also, Roy Baumeis­ter says self-control is like a mus­cle — yes it gets tired and can’t be exerted after deple­tion, but also it can be strength­ened with train­ing. So basi­cally this does not inval­i­date your essay or any­thing, it’s sim­ply this: Very wealthy peo­ple do not have to bother with this train­ing, all else being equal, because con­se­quences are not severe if they waste a bit of money along the way. Of course if they do, they will be well served and their wealth can grow even more. Poor peo­ple either learn and prac­tice this restraint train­ing until it’s sec­ond nature, or they con­tinue to suf­fer. And of course there is lots of other noise in the world which push peo­ple in one direc­tion or another, and lots of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ence vari­abil­ity (risk-seeking ori­en­ta­tions, etc.) But at the end of the day, like most healthy social cog­ni­tive the­o­ries, it is Per­son X Sit­u­a­tion: An individual’s dom­i­nant response inter­acts with the cir­cum­stances (s)he is in. You might find it inter­est­ing to con­sider the impli­ca­tions of ‘self-control as a mus­cle’ for par­ent­ing and/or education…

  • Virtue ethics with­out virtue? Fas­ci­nat­ing. So you think we need to have dis­po­si­tions act well, but not dis­po­si­tions to enjoy act­ing well? A few questions:

    Do you think that virtue (as Aris­to­tle under­stood it, i.e. a dis­po­si­tion to act well and enjoy it) is bet­ter than con­ti­nence (as Aris­to­tle under­stood it, i.e. a dis­po­si­tion to act well, but with­out enjoy­ing it) and is just unat­tain­able or do you think we have no rea­son to pre­fer virtue to con­ti­nence anyway?

    (relat­edly) Is some­one really liv­ing well if he does the things he should do but does not enjoy doing them? Is this eude­mo­nia? Surely the good life is not one of mere duty. Most of us may never live the best life or any­thing like it, but why be sur­prised or by this obvi­ous (if unpleas­ant) fact? And why change the stan­dard of good­ness in light of the fact that most if not all of us will never really achieve it? In fact, shouldn’t unat­tain­abil­ity be a rather unsur­pris­ing if not nec­es­sary fea­ture of an ade­quately ideal con­cep­tion of the good life?

    (I’m not sure I’m buy­ing the line of argu­ment I’m about to employ here. I’ve been puz­zling over pre­cisely what I think as I try to fig­ure out what Aris­to­tle thinks about this, as I’m work­ing on a paper on con­ti­nence in Aris­to­tle. I’m curi­ous whether this way of think­ing about the role of desire and plea­sure in virtue ethics seems as plau­si­ble to any­one else as it is begin­ning to seem to me.) Is it really pos­si­ble to have a sta­ble dis­po­si­tion to act well with­out also tak­ing plea­sure in doing it? Isn’t this an impor­tant impli­ca­tion (if one he might not see) of Aristotle’s claim that virtue con­cerns plea­sures and pains: that plea­sures and pains are so cen­tral to our moti­va­tion that we will only reli­ably act well to the degree that we have appro­pri­ate desires? In other words: is a reli­able con­ti­nent per­son even pos­si­ble? Can some­one for whom doing the right thing is painful actu­ally be expected to do so reli­ably? The con­ti­nent man will, of course, take plea­sure in the fact that he is doing the right thing (this is not in Aris­to­tle, but oth­ers have made such a claim and it seems right to me). This is, I sus­pect, why he is reli­able to any degree at all. But I won­der if it’s even pos­si­ble for a merely con­ti­nent per­son to move past a cer­tain thresh­old of con­sis­tency* in his behav­ior with­out begin­ning to take some plea­sure in the right actions them­selves and not merely in the fact that he is per­form­ing actions that he knows to be right but by which he is pained or at least not pleased. Any thoughts?

    The short ver­sion of this last ques­tion: you say that it’s unrea­son­able to expect peo­ple to have the right desires. I say that it’s unrea­son­able to think that peo­ple can pass some thresh­old of con­sis­tency in their actions with­out hav­ing right desires. What do you say to that?

    Sorry for del­ug­ing you with ques­tions. This is what hap­pens when I’m work­ing on some­thing and some­one says some­thing that raises the ques­tions that have been puz­zling me: I vomit the puz­zle all over the place.

    *[thresh­old of con­sis­tency in his behav­ior] – a bit vague. I’m not sure if it’s good vague or bad vague (isn’t good vague what virtue ethics is all about?).

  • Hi Ben —

    Here are some answers to your questions:

    1. Is virtue bet­ter than con­ti­nence but just unat­tain­able? Or is there no rea­son to pre­fer virtue to con­ti­nence anyway?

    –I do think there is some­thing the­o­ret­i­cally bet­ter about virtue, although I am also tempted to say that the rea­son to pre­fer virtue to con­ti­nence is merely pru­den­tial and not moral (i.e., we should try for virtue bc peo­ple have a gen­eral although over­rid­able goal to expe­ri­ence pleas­ant rather than unpleas­ant emotions).

    2. Is some­one really liv­ing well if he does things he should but does not enjoy doing them? Is this eudaimonia?

    –Because virtue is in some sense bet­ter than con­ti­nence, a con­ti­nent per­son is not liv­ing *max­i­mally* well (although liv­ing max­i­mally well may be lit­er­ally impos­si­ble for most peo­ple due to lack of exter­nal goods and/or con­straints of psy­chol­ogy, such that con­ti­nence may be liv­ing max­i­mally well within the realm of the pos­si­ble). In any case, even though the con­ti­nent person’s life would be bet­ter if she also enjoyed doing good, she still lives bet­ter than some­one who doesn’t do good, either enjoy­ing it or akratically.

    3. Is it really pos­si­ble to have a sta­ble dis­po­si­tion to act well with­out actu­ally tak­ing plea­sure in doing it? Is reli­able con­ti­nence even possible?

    You may be onto some­thing here; reli­able con­ti­nence may require more willpower than we even have. This would be a fur­ther rea­son to shoot for virtue: in addi­tion to being more pleas­ant, it may actu­ally be more real­is­tic and attain­able. (But there would be some­thing a bit strange if it empir­i­cally turned out for virtue to be eas­ier to attain than reli­able con­ti­nence. Maybe this is related to why Kant priv­i­leges the life of duty).

    Please feel free to call me out on any­thing ridiculous…

  • Noth­ing ridicu­lous here, but you do seem to be inclined toward a kind of fusion of virtue ethics with cer­tain Kant­ian impulses. You seem attuned to the context-dependence of good­ness that is cen­tral to virtue ethics, but it sounds to me like you’ve got sort of Kant­ian intu­itions about moral praise­wor­thi­ness. You seem to have at least a vague sym­pa­thy with what Carol Gould has called “the labor the­ory of moral value.” This helps make sense of the appro­pri­ate­ness moral praise and blame: praise seems appro­pri­ate for hard work. If virtue isn’t hard work, you may won­der, is it really praiseworthy?

    Virtue is, in dif­fer­ent senses, both effort­less and more dif­fi­cult to achieve than con­ti­nence. While the vir­tu­ous man him­self has no con­trary desires to bat­tle, achiev­ing such a state would doubt­less require far more effort than con­ti­nence. While the vir­tu­ous man acts effort­lessly, get­ting to a place where he can do so would require great effort. On the other hand, it may be the case, as I’ve sug­gested, that reli­able con­ti­nence is not psy­cho­log­i­cally pos­si­ble (though I’m not entirely sure what to think about that). If that’s so, it’s not entirely clear what some­one with the impulse to praise effort should think.

    That said, I’m not inclined to be espe­cially con­cerned about praise or blame track­ing effort. I’m con­cerned about good­ness. On the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, what is good for any­thing is for it to actu­al­ize the poten­tials appro­pri­ate to its nature. To put it in Thomistic terms, good­ness is being as an object of admi­ra­tion. Being is actu­al­ity. To under­stand some­thing as good is to under­stand it as some actu­al­ity wor­thy of admi­ra­tion. What is good for human beings is a mat­ter of actu­al­iz­ing the poten­tials of human nature, as Henry Veatch often puts it, “being and becom­ing more truly human.” Because the human mode of flour­ish­ing is ratio­nal, which means it involves, among other things, delib­er­a­tion and choice, it is moral. That is, we are rightly sub­ject to praise inso­far as we are respon­si­ble for being and becom­ing truly human and rightly sub­ject to blame when we are respon­si­ble for fail­ing to be and become more truly human.

    This view, of course, depends on an unpop­u­lar and rather thick meta­phys­i­cal view, a view I’ve done lit­tle even to abbre­vi­ate here, not to men­tion explain and defend. The point of sketch­ing this, how­ever, is only to sug­gest that ground­ing moral phi­los­o­phy in a Aristotelian-Thomistic meta­physics of good­ness leads to a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about the appro­pri­ate­ness of praise and blame than the vaguely Kantian-flavored (and cer­tainly much less con­tro­ver­sial and eas­ier to get away with in the cur­rent philo­soph­i­cal cli­mate) view you seem to have.

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