Better Good Than Lucky

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Objection Three: “But I didn’t know!”

At this point, the defender of constitutive moral luck might raise the epistemic question of whether people know (or ought to know) that moral character is produced by corresponding action, i.e. that a virtuous or vicious character is the natural outcome of consistently virtuous or vicious action. Aristotle clearly regards such knowledge as elementary for any competent adult. As quoted earlier, he claims that only “a thoroughly senseless person” would not understand that “it is from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced.”86 Yet the defender of moral luck could plausibly argue that such knowledge, even if common in Aristotle’s day, is no longer widely known today. After all, it seems that many people do not grasp the virtuous or vicious cycle (so to speak) involved in the relationship between actions and dispositions. Many seem to understand that a moral character of a certain type produces the corresponding actions but not also that actions of a certain type produce the corresponding moral character. That view of moral character is not widely taught today, nor obvious from everyday experience. So we cannot reasonably expect people to know it. On this view, when people gradually form their characters by repeated action, they literally do not know what they are doing. Since their ignorance of it is not itself blameworthy, people cannot be held responsible for their moral characters.

In response to this objection, Aristotle claims that cases of repeated action altering a person’s capacities and dispositions are so common in life that any reasonable person ought to know general principle. The fact that “it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character… is plain from the case of people training for any contest or action; they practice the activity the whole time.”87 Aquinas elaborates upon this point in his Commentary as follows:

We see that things done in individual actions make men of that particular stamp, i.e. disposed to do similar things. This is clearly manifest in the case of those who are diligent in and take pains with exercise (like soldiering and wrestling) or any activity whatsoever. Everyone, from the fact that he does the action many times, becomes so adept that he can do similar things perfectly. Since then we see this happen in all cases, it seems that only a man lacking understanding would be ignorant that habits are produced by operations.88

Indeed, such knowledge is still quite commonplace today: people understand that prior practice is required to perform a complex action well. They know that a child must practice the piano regularly to play well in a recital, that a professional athlete’s game suffers if he misses practices due to injury, and that a student must do his calculus homework in order to learn the subject and excel on tests. By similarly ordinary reasoning, people know that a child who lies and manipulates others to get his way is in grave danger of becoming a chronic liar and manipulator, that a person living a life of theft, drugs, and prison will not cultivate or sustain the work ethic required to hold down a respectable job, and that a woman is draining the self-respect necessary to flee from her abusive husband every time she submits to his arbitrary demands. Of course, most people may only have a rudimentary understanding of the workings of mental and physical habits, including moral habits. They may not appreciate the full range of skills required to live an truly moral life. They are likely to think that indulgence in occasional immoralities will not affect their commitment to virtue. Despite such confusions, ordinary people do seem to understand that a person cultivates a character of a certain kind through repeated actions of that kind.

However, and far more importantly, any moderately self-aware person can readily observe and manage the development of his own dispositions in myriad areas of life. For example, a person might observe his own commitment to and techniques for punctuality—in contrast to the more or less lackadaisical approaches of others. A father would notice his children losing confidence in his promises as he breaks them with increasing frequency—and so resolve to think before promising, so as not to promise too much. A new skier would notice that his diligent practice on the slopes diminishes his fears of an accident, augments his confidence and ease, and makes the activity more enjoyable. A wife might see that her husband’s now-innocent flirting with a co-worker will eventually lead to infidelity if not ended now. By such everyday examples, a person can understand the basic workings of dispositions, including that they are developed by practice of the activity, that they require the cultivation of certain knowledge and skills, that they make the activity more natural and pleasant, that they can be helpful or harmful, and so on. Although a careless or insensitive person might not notice such facts, they are accessible to any reasonably alert person. Consequently, a person can be held responsible for a basic understanding of the fact that repeated action creates corresponding dispositions. So contrary to this third objection, a person cannot plausibly protest that he did not know that his years of unjust or intemperate actions would actually render him unjust or intemperate.

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