Featured Philosop-her: Nomy Arpaly

Nomy Arpaly

Nomy Arpaly is a professor of philosophy at Brown University. She received her PhD from Stanford University in 1998. She has written extensively on moral psychology including her book Unprincipled Virtue in which she argued that philosophers make a serious error in failing to see that there are good people with bad principles and fairly rational people who think they are not. Her most recent work includes “Deliberation and Acting for Reasons” (with Timothy Schroeder), In Praise of Desire (with Timothy Schroeder), “Duty, Desire, and the Good Person – Towards a Non-Aristotelian Account of Virtue”, “Huckleberry Finn Revisited: Inverse Akrasia and Moral Ignorance”, and (forthcoming) “Moral Worth and Normative Ethics”.

Some of my Recent Work, or Shameless Self-Promotion: Not Just for Male Philosophers Anymore!

Nomy Arpaly

Thank you, Meena, for having me over on your blog. I am going to take this opportunity to introduce some of my work, ending with work in progress, if you can call it that. I will first explain why you absolutely should read my recent book with Timothy Schroeder, and maybe a related paper or two. I will then say a few words about my current philosophical obsessions, for I am getting, with trepidation, into normative ethics. I am not a Kantian, or a utilitarian, nor even, despite rumors, a virtue ethicist. I want to make up another view one day, but for the moment I am just trying to lay the ground for one.

As a student of mine sweetly put it, In Praise of Desire is pretty “action-packed”, so I will not attempt a synopsis. Instead I shall attempt something more like a movie trailer. Our book is meant to show that a picture of moral agency (and human agency in general) in which all important motivation comes from desire, where desire is a non-cognitive state, can do justice to the incredible complexity of moral life. I’ll now go over (most) topics we touch upon under three headings: ethics, reasons and rationality, desire/love/addiction. I will also mention related work on responsibility and moral ignorance.

Ethics: we argue that, contra Kant, the morally worthy person does not act out of a special motive called duty but out of an intrinsic desire (for the right or the good. But why does it feel like duty? We talk about that, too). We argue that, that, contra Aristotelians, virtue consists not of having wisdom but of having the right intrinsic desire or desires.

I must mention that I have recently developed and made explicit much of what we think about the motive of duty in a single-author paper called “Duty, Desire, and The Good Person: Towards a Non-Aristotelian Account of Virtue”. My attempt to explain why, exactly, we feel a sense of duty even though we always act on desire is summed up in 800 words here. I would love some Kantian feedback on the view and the above-mentioned paper.

Some of my anti-Aristotelian thoughts, as well as a short version of our account of virtue, are also developed in the above-mentioned paper, and recently I have been fascinated, in a related way, by the relationship between virtue and such conditions as low intelligence and autism. Some of this can be found here.

Back to the book: we give a detailed account of virtue and vice, including their relation to cognition – why virtuous people typically have different cognitive attitudes despite virtue being about desire – and even to dreams. Also accounts of some particular virtues and vices (modesty, closed-mindedness and prejudice). We defend my old contention that people with terrible views of morality can nonetheless be good people. We also attempt to provide some insight into the nature of blameworthiness and thus touch on moral responsibility.

Reasons and Rationality: we argue that contra people as diverse as Korsgaard and Dancy, our ability to act and think for reasons is not grounded on deliberation, nor does it depend on the ability to regard something as a reason. Deliberation is an action that is sometimes done rationally and sometimes not. Most of the time when we act for reasons we don’t deliberate at all – that includes sophisticated actions like intellectual conversation – and no, it’s not that we used to deliberate about these things and now are just skilled enough to do them fast! Our deflationary view of the value of deliberation is defended to some extent in our “Deliberation and Acting for Reasons”. We ask: if deliberation is not the basis of acting for reasons, what is it for? And hopefully we answer.

We also argue extensively that the good old belief-desire theory of acting for reasons isn’t dead yet (while some philosophers who wish to believe that they are still young and rebellious refer to belief-desire theory as “the standard theory” before attacking it, the theory has been sneered upon for decades, and it is up to rebellious youngsters to defend it again). The nature of believing for reasons becomes relevant there as well.

Desire, Love, Addiction: in addition to all that, we talk about love and caring (defending desire-based accounts of love from the dismissive treatment they receive from some), about addiction (explaining why being a Humean does not mean that it’s rational for a cocaine addict to pursue cocaine) and, last but not least, we provide a theory of what desire is. We think seeing desire as a disposition to act is simplifying it a lot, and desire should be studied as a thing, a natural kind, that causes dispositions to act (though not all such dispositions – there are other things like habit), and also causes dispositions to feel (as when we are happy to get what we desire) and some cognitive dispositions (for example, if I strongly desire to talk to you, I am much less likely to forget your phone number that I didn’t write down). What is the thing that causes all these dispositions? Our answer, as well as our treatment of the nature of addiction, is grounded in the nature of the human brain. Tim brings a lot of neuro-scientific knowledge to the relevant chapters, but the text of these chapters has been tested on humanities types such as myself and revised and tested again until it was pronounced clear.

Related Stuff on Moral Responsibility: on my view, moral ignorance does not excuse. I just came out with a paper arguing for this called “Huckleberry Finn Revisited: Inverse Akrasia and Moral Ignorance”. It’s in an anthology called The Nature of Moral Responsibility. The paper contains an updated and intense defense of the view that there is nothing good about concern for morality de dicto. De re is where it’s at. Moral expertise is also touched upon.

Towards Normative Ethics

Currently, I am working towards a view according to which morality has a justice or fairness component and a benevolence component that are not reducible to one another or to anything else. Moral duties might be possible to index – I am not going for incomparability or particularism – but there is no one thing, such as Kantian universalizability or the principle of utility, on which both duties of justice and duties of benevolence are based. I don’t have a detailed positive theory yet, but I am arguing for the general conclusion. 

I have a paper I am very, very excited about coming out in Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics. It’s called “Moral Worth and Normative Ethics”. In it, I argue from premises about moral worth (dipping into my theory thereof in Unprincipled Virtue) to the conclusion that the truth about normative ethics is pluralistic.

On the way to that conclusion, I have to disagree with Kantians about the moral worth of some actions performed out of sheer concern for someone’s wellbeing. Kantians tell you that a helping action for which the agent deserves esteem is motivated by something like the thought “how will I fare in a world in which nobody helped anyone”, but I argue that the person who does not think about her needs at all and simply cares about the other person’s wellbeing can be esteem-worthy. This is not a reason-vs.-emotions argument because the concern for a person’s wellbeing can be quite dispassionate, whereas concern for universalizability can be quite passionate. I then concede that there are many cases in which considerations of wellbeing are overridden by other considerations, of a more Kantian nature, and so cannot be all there is to morality: but I also show that a person who lacks a sensitivity to considerations of wellbeing is missing something morally even if she is sensitive to universalizability. This is of course quite a short and simplistic summary of what I hope is a more complex discussion.

I am now working on resisting the Kantian idea that considerations of wellbeing can be re-described as considerations involving taking on other people’s ends. I would like to argue that benevolence – concern for other people’s wellbeing – cannot be replaced with concern for other people’s ends as an attitude that a moral person has. People’s ends often conflict with their wellbeing, and in such cases we are required to respect their ends, but also, in many cases, to wish for their wellbeing. I would be delighted to get any feedback on this stuff, especially from Kantians, so ask me about it if you feel like it!

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