Friday, August 24, 2012

Some thoughts on vice and governing logic

Problems:  What is the moral significance of a resolution to "amend one's life"?  Disordered affections cannot easily be reformed, and not ordinarily reformed in one act.  Why?  On one hand we resort to thinking of vice as any habit: it is difficult to change because it is a settled disposition and has become inscribed (in some sense) on the person possessing it.  But in the case of vice, the matter is more complex.  The governing "logic" of a human being is multifarious, having many disjointed parts -- parts which are relatively independent, without direct reference to each other, and which function in some cases almost automatically.  The unity of the person is not grounded in a unity of will, because the will, as a secondary intellectual power, is informed by intellectual habits.  It is true that the will is the governing power of the rational soul, but also true that, just as our intellectual habits are not (except in unusual cases) monolithic or perfectly systematic, the moral habits of a person are not organized according to a perfect unity.  For a person resolving to reorder his affections to be effective in this resolution, that person already needs to have governance over those affections.  But this is often not the case, notably (in the case of vice) when the logic motivating the undesireable behavior is at odds with the logic motivating the resolution to change.  The problem is exacerbated when the former is unrecognized by the latter, giving us "compulsive" behavior.  The "hidden" (often because it is too obvious to be noticed) logic governs some set of behaviors or coping mechanisms which tend, in accord with particular judgments and circumstances, to kick in, contrary to broader principles of action.

It might be tempting, then, to assume that a "healthy" individual has an "integrated consciousness" or something like that.  But this seems to be unrealistic.  The field of interests and occasions encountered by the average person even in a single day is too diverse to be governed by one, monolithic logic of action.  Instead, what we have are diverse principles of order which come into play or fall out of use depending on the circumstances and prejudices at work in a given moment.  Virtue ethics, especially in Aquinas, respects this perfectly.  Notice how little time Aquinas spends on the questions of the universal goodness or evil of individual acts (4 questions), in comparison to the vast set of treatises devoted to the particular principles governing action: the Passions, Habits, Law, Grace, Gifts, Theological and Moral Virtues. 


  1. Well then, what *is* the moral significance of a resolution to "amend one's life"? To answer this question, we have to determine the source of the unity of the person. Most of what you say seems to suggest that there is no such unity. If that is the case, then the resolution to amend one's life is simply one mental faculty making a wish, and since the others may or may not agree, it is likely never to happen. On the other hand, if such a unity exists, as it certainly seems to given subjective experience, then the source of this unity is going to determine what the moral significance of a resolution to amend one's life is.

    I propose the following solution: Let us say that the unity of a person is found in the part of the person that understands. This seems to make the most sense given everyday experience and conversation. I might refer to "my arm" or even "my memory" or "my ability to do math." These things suggest that the part me that I identify as myself are not these things. There seems to be a certain connection between "me" and the part of me which understands. If this is the case, then it would be possible to organize the habits of a person around a certain unity. If the understanding part of me recognizes the logic by which I must govern my life and also recognizes the parts of me that do not follow this logic, it can influence the will to work towards a harmony among the disharmonious faculties.

    Therein would lie the moral significance. A resolution to amend one's life comes from the understanding part of a person understanding that the logic by which he should govern his life is not being followed by one faculty or another, and so he resolves to build the habits which will result in the obedience of the currently-disobedient faculties.

  2. You misread me. I don't deny personal unity, just that personal unity is based on a certain type of intellectual unity. I'm not sure your answer really handles my problem, either. When I talked about the "parts" of a logic above, what I had in mind weren't actual parts; they're sets of coherences and situational habits that deal with a particular object or set of objects. In other words, they're unrelated sets of prejudicial dispositions. I'm not talking about the physical habits either: just intellectual habits. The logic by which you cross the street is not related to the logic by which you decide when to eat. These habits don't refer to each other, and the thoughts elicited by one problem are not dependent on those elicited by the other. It's true: in most cases they can be organized by some grand narrative structure into a larger "governing logic", but that's a matter of reflection and not of ordinary life. It would be very difficult to reflectively order everything to that governing logic, and the fact that it would be difficult indicates that it is not normally the case that we think or act that way. Instead, I think there are different layers of thought that underlie action... It seems to me that without perfect wisdom it would be impossible to maintain a non-stop focus on the goal without passing intermittently into absorption with some lower-order task or situation. In other words, we shouldn't read Ia IIae q.1 as implying that everyone constantly has some object in mind that they're consciously striving toward. But really this all gets very complicated very quickly. It's a messy problem and this is just a blotting pad for some thoughts. (Which were originally motivated by the problem Rahner tries to solve with his "fundamental option".)