McDowell on virtue and appetite

During a discussion that is primarily concerned with developing a reading of Aristotle’s conception of virtue and practical wisdom, John McDowell makes a suggestion, in passing, about a connection between practical wisdom and appetite. McDowell’s central aim is to develop an account of virtue on which possession of a virtue can silence for one features of one’s situation that might otherwise figure in one’s decision-making. That is, the virtuous person is not merely someone who balances considerations in favour of acting virtuously against considerations against so behaving in such a way that they end up behaving virtuously. Rather, the truly virtuous person acknowledges only reasons in favour of acting virtuously. They do not even acknowledge as relevant any counter considerations. McDowell writes:

“Consider a situation that calls for the most striking sort of exercise of temperance—abstaining from an available but excessive bodily pleasure. That the pleasure is available is a fact about the situation, at the disposal of the temperate person no less than anyone else. Such facts can engage a motivational susceptibility that is one of the standing concerns of a virtuous person. (Too little interest in the pleasures of appetite is a defect of character: see Nicomachean Ethics 3.11.) But on this occasion what matters about the situation, as the practically wise person correctly sees it, is not the opportunity for pleasure but, say, the fact that this would be his fifth doughnut at one sitting. The practically wise person registers, but counts as irrelevant to the question what to do, an instance of a kind of consideration (that pleasure is available) that does bear on that question in other circumstances.” (McDowell, “Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology”: 46–47.)

One question that McDowell’s discussion raises is the following. Would it be incompatible with virtue, in a situation in which one has already scoffed an adequate number of doughnuts, to take it to be a relevant consideration, in one’s practical reasoning, that further doughnuts are available? Presumably, the answer will depend on the answers to further specific questions about the circumstances: are doughnuts, or other foodstuffs, likely to be available in the near future; would eating further doughnuts deprive others of the opportunity, and so forth? McDowell’s proposal is that, modulo answers to those further questions, the answer might well be that the availability of more doughnuts should not figure. A more specific question we might also consider is this. What is the maximum number of doughnuts that a virtuous person can down before the potential charms of further doughnuts are silenced? The suggestion is that the answer will be different—and typically lower—than that for the corresponding question asked about the non-virtuous person, one for whom the doughnuts’ charms are silenced by the operations of a merely biological mechanism. It is part of McDowell’s larger project to defend the view that one might have to be virtuous, or on one’s way to becoming virtuous, in order properly to address such questions.

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4 comments
  1. NousBros said:

    I think I disagree w/McD abt Aristotle. I think the virtuous person in the doughnut case doesn’t have to deliberate at all. The person who has to use reason to subdue a desire for too much is not virtuous, on the Aristotelian picture. That’s Plato. No?

    • I think you’re right about Aristotle. I’m not sure whether the complaint sticks against McDowell. I think McDowell holds that deliberation needn’t be involved in silencing the attractions of the available doughnut (not, on McDowell’s view, I think, a matter of subduing a desire). Rather, that can be determined by the way the virtuous person sees the circumstances. That serves as input to deliberation about what to do. One might also worry that the virtuous person could act, on what they saw in the circumstance, in a way that doesn’t involve a process of conscious deliberation. But McDowell doesn’t think that deliberation, as he’s exploiting it, need be a matter of such a process in consciousness. Rather, an action, &c., could be the upshot of deliberation just in the sense that it is possible to reconstruct a deliberative route (presumably one to whose contours the agent is responsive) that concludes with the action, &c.

      • The Nous Bros. said:

        I don’t know McDowell at all, but that sounds like what you were describing in the original post: if I’ve got it right, it’s something like that the virtuous agent will just “see” – but cognitively – the situation in such a way that eating the doughnuts won’t be one of the options to choose between. I’m just always struck by the difference (it seems to me) between Plato and Aristotle on this point. I guess the issue is what accounts for the invisibility, as it were, of the over-eating option. Is it governance by a desire for Goodness (and, perhaps, the internal harmony that it delivers, says P.), which allows the desire for other pleasures to be tempered, or is it more direct, i.e., correct training of the appetitive part of the soul (in Aristotle-speak). I guess you can see the difference insofar as Aristotle seems to allow for a person who lacks phronesis but nevertheless has a good hexis. Such a person would have a moderate physical appetite but wouldn’t be able to make wise decisions about them pesky doughnuts in some particular complicated circumstance in which having moderate physical appetites wouldn’t be enough to tell you what to do. You get the idea with Plato that it’s all or nothing. This is good news if you’re a compulsive overeater, since once you have an Ah-hah moment about what’s really worthy of the force of your desire (in that it can satisfy it), you’re good to go. It seems like Aristotle has less hope for wisdom (as he defines it) being able to restructure one’s desire-structure, if that’s off.

        In any case, I agree that, for both, the option of eating all of the doughnuts is not even on the table, for the virtuous person as they both understand him or her. (If Aristotle too thinks that virtuous hers would effortlessly deline the doughnuts, that would be further suggestion that, for him, the non-deliberative deliberation in question is vested in the appetitive part of the soul, not in the power of phronesis) In both cases, the dramatic contrast for heuristic purposes I think is to Kant.

        Sorry to go on …

  2. Arash Thomas Afsahi said:

    I need some sort of therapy after certain deliberations I have in mind over eating the last one, potentially merely internal. I’d recommend energetic truth if I ate it and celebratory praise if I didn’t. Either way whatever I did was good for my life, retrospectively. I must be in dire straits if this decision, and not all the other things in life, is the decisive factor leading to the self-destruction that may be of concern. Perhaps I can perform an aerobic exercise routine while I think about it? A grand-master at chess burns calories just thinking at an uncanny rate. The body needs energy to digest food don’t you know? Yes, yes, I’ll eat it!

    Now for some post-event deontological theorising: does consumption of the doughnut seem to move the other-regarding sphere to the self-regarding sphere? If the answer is yes, then either it was never an other-regarding sphere issue or delectation has appropriative powers. If the answer is no, either it was always a delectable self-regarding sphere, or it was always an other-regarding sphere doughnut, in which case it is a matter of public morality (e.g. supply and demand, animal rights, social conditions I want to consider) that could colour my own perspective only in intellectually restricted circumstances. Given careful consideration there is little conceptual possibility for snacking having been a vice. Only if an aforementioned sphere was broken could I be left with a bad taste in my mouth! My palate adapts well.

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