Notes on Slote’s “Ethics Without Free Will”

The consequences of our actions are largely determined by forces external to our control as agents and thus whether or not one’s actions can lead to good or bad results is thought by many philosophers, and justifiably so, to be outside of one’s power. This entails that whether or not one’s actions are to be deemed morally right or wrong hinges on elements beyond the executive purview of the acting agent. Following Thomas Nagel, Michael Slote calls this phenomenon ‘moral luck’.
  If moral luck is an accurate picture of moral ascriptions then freedom to do otherwise is neither necessary nor sufficient as a condition for one action to be labeled right or good and another wrong. Slote points out that though this seems to vitiate deontic theories of morality it leaves utilitarian theories as well as virtue ethical theories in tact, for neither of these positions equates the right and the good with what an agent has as a duty to freely choose.
  For his own part, Slote takes it upon himself in his paper “Ethics Without Free Will ” to explicate briefly the virtue ethical side of this forked alternative to deontology.  However, it is unclear whether or not this alternative will do the work Slote would have it do.
  Slote implies that whereas deontic acts presuppose agential control virtue ethical acts do not. Slote believes we can coherently speak about morality (under a Nicomachean rubric) without tethering our concept of morality to our concept of control. Whether or not his argument is successful will depend then on our understanding of the notion of ‘control’.
Leaving for later an examination of the concept of control, we can say presumably,  that Slote thinks that virtue ethical acts presuppose conceptual and rational differentiation.  That is, in order to speak of morality within a virtue ethicist framework one must be able to distinguish what is prudential from what is rash and what it is to be a good father from what it is to be a bad one, for example. It was indeed Spinoza, whose ethical theory Slote looks upon favorably in this essay, who said that “omnis determinatio est negatio”. This means that for something,  anything, to be determinable even descriptively, it also must be distinguishable from any and all of those determinations that it is not. We must be able to say what something is not, in order to be able to say what something is. To be able to say what a red thing is requires that we are able to say that it is not green, blue, colorless etc. Applied to virtue concepts,  we likewise must be able to say that an act is not rash and not impractical if we are to say that it is prudential.
  If we assume Spinoza’s metaphysical principle, call it the principle of determinate negation, then it is also the case that a thing is only what it is insofar as it is distinct from what it is related to negatively, i.e., what it is not. Red is only a determinate quality in negative relation to other colours on the colour wheel; removing these rival colours entails that redness loses its qualitative determination as a colour. (It may retain its quality as a shade, however, but this would be to judge it under a different qualitative scheme which has its own continuum of possible determinations and negative relations, judged in this case under the magnitude of opacity rather than colour). The ability to see red things only makes sense in the context of the ability to see blue things, green things and yellow things. Red is only red iff it can be distinguished from the colours that it is not.
  Similarly,  when the qualitative scheme is virtue instead of colour, what it will mean to instantiate any one virtue, say, prudence, will include by necessity the ability to instantiate behaviour or demeanor that is not rash, not impractical,  not frivolous and so on, and to distinguish these instantiations. This principle of determinate negation only makes sense within the context of a power or ability to differentiate what something is from that which it is not.  That is, we can introduce the idea of a ‘virtue wheel’ that, like the colour wheel, allows us to measure determinations of qualitative virtue in relation to its ‘rival’ or alternative determinations flanking it and opposing it on the virtue wheel. A being unable to relate determinations on the wheel in this negative way would be the moral equivalent of colourblind.  To lack distinctness is to lack any quality whatsoever. Thus we can say that a theory of morality that exchanged prescriptive concepts of duty and moral obligation for ‘merely’ descriptive concepts of virtue still requires the capacity to judge qualities on the virtue wheel by relating them (comparing and contrasting them) to their relevant alternatives.  Such a capacity presupposes then the ability to discern what is actual (prudence) in any circumstance being judged by comparing it to what are its possible alternatives in that circumstance (rashness, impracticality etc.). Having this capacity to “tell the difference” is essential to the coherence of purportedly merely descriptive moral schemes such as Slote’s virtue ethics since this comparitive capacity is essential to any and all determinative (i.e. information-processing) mechanisms generally. If we do not have the ability to say that an apple could have been green or yellow then we can’t say that it is red. And biologically speaking, an animal that cannot see blue and green and yellow cannot see red either. It may see bright things and dark things and maybe even coloured things and uncoloured things but it won’t see them as red.
Likewise, if we can’t say that an agent’s actions could have been rash or impractical then we simply do not have the ability to say that the agent instantiated the virtue of prudence. When we say that a moral choice implies a free choice and that a free choice implies the ability to do otherwise we simply imply that a moral ascription is the kind of judgment that we can apply to agents that have the capacity to “tell the difference” between the moral quality of actions in the same way we know that colour ascriptions are the kind of judgments we can apply to instantiations of a power to tell the difference between a range of wavelengths and frequencies of light visually. This means that ‘control’ is nothing other than one’s having the ability to judge determinations that actually obtain by comparing them to determinations that do not obtain but could. 
  If the universe is determined in such a way as to allow for this kind of determinate negation, then this is the only concept of control that we need to rescue both moral prescription and free will from the clutches of certain morally nihilistic accounts of determinativist metaphysics.

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