12 September 2006

Moderateness in Fear of Objects

I suppose in my friendly dispute with Giles Pearson I need to avoid going to an extreme. Will I adopt a safe position if I adhere to a middle course?


(i) All talk of degrees of fear of objects is meaningful and relevant to morality.
(ii) Some talk of degree of fear of objects is meaningful and relevant to morality.
(iii) No talk of degree of fear of objects is meaningful and relevant to morality.
I accept (ii), and attribute this to Aristotle as well--which is not shown false by examples that show that some talk of degree of fear of objects is incoherent.

This is perhaps the principal way in which Hursthouse, I think, goes astray. She proposes a certain construction of what it would be to show 'too much' and 'too little' in fearing objects: she construes this in terms of the number of kinds of things that someone fears. You go astray if that number is too large or too small. But--we all agree--that is a looney idea. And is there any evidence that Aristotle accepted it? Yet to reject that construction as absurd is to show only that (i) is false, which we knew anyway.

Here is an argument that talk of degree of fear of objects is sometimes meaningful:
  1. We don't fear objects, but we fear objects qua their being fearful.
  2. Fearfulness varies in degree.
  3. Thus fear of objects reasonably varies in degree.
(e.g. Fear of wolves is reasonably greater than fear of dogs, because wolves are more fearful than dogs.)

A mistake of too much: having more fear for an object than the fearfulness of that sort of thing warrants.
A mistake of too little: having less fear for an object than the fearfulness of that sort of thing warrants.

(This is all ceteris paribus, of course. Put aside variations due to circumstance, time, etc. which can be attributed to other 'parameters' of action.)

If this is accepted, then isn't (ii) vindicated? We can then dispute about how to handle cases of objects which are not fearful at all. These, I believe, are like 'degenerate' cases in mathematics. ("Are you suggesting that someone with no money at all has less money than someone with five dollars??"--From a certain point of view, this question can seem problematic.) With some artifice, perhaps, we can deal with them as similar to the other cases (as I suggested in my previous post). Or we could hold that, in those cases, the mistake is one in judgment, or a mental illness, and not a deficiency character. But I don't see (not yet) that the general thesis is much affected by them.


Giles Pearson said...

Dear Michael,

Very good, but aren’t you now nearly at the position I was advocating? I too argued that quantitative language is sometimes appropriate (and that Hursthouse goes wrong in suggesting that it is not). I don’t see how else the amount parameter can be understood other than in quantitative terms.

Where we disagree is in your last paragraph. For the reasons I gave, I don’t think your rephrase works; and I don’t think that every case that does not fit the quantitative reading falls into one of mental illness (it does not in my adulterous/unhealthy eater example) (I’m not sure what you mean by ‘mistakes in judgment’ in this context).

As to whether or not these points of disagreement ‘affect the general thesis’ depends, I suppose, on what you take that general thesis to be.

All best,

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Giles,

My impression was that you were wanting to deny that the 'quantitative mean' could have any application at all as regards the 'object parameter'. Do you agree that it sometimes does work there, as well as in the 'amount parameter'?

But I suspect we may continue to disagree on the following thesis. Call it the Strong Doctrine of the Mean:

Actions (and emotions) have 'parameters', and, whenever an action (or emotion) goes wrong, and its doing so is ascribable to a defect in character (not to a psychological disorder, or an error of judgment), it does so because it is too much or too little with respect to at least one such parameter.

For my part, I would prefer to handle fear of mice in an adult male (following Curzer, and I think Aristotle) as a psychological disorder. But fear of (say) a gentle dog, if it's from cowardice, would be 'showing too much fear, in fearing the dog'. I would want to understand that as a kind of spilling over of excessive fear, from appropriate to inappropriate objects (and thus as 'too much' with respect to the parameter, objects), but it won't affect the Strong Doctrine if we say it is not that but excess in some other parameter.

I'd like to consider your adultery/unhealthy eater example--maybe tomorrow. But, in a word, generally my view on that and similar cases is that Aristotle is implicitly relying on the injustice of an action to explain its wrongness (adultery is 'too much' in the way that an unjust distribution is 'too much').


Giles Pearson said...

Dear Michael,
No I don't deny that the quantitative mean can have any application with respect to the object parameter. In the paper, I wrote:

'Sometimes what is wrong with agents is that they fear too many or too few objects, and sometimes what is wrong with agents is that they fear on too many or too few occasions. For sure going wrong with respect to these parameters is not always a matter of too many or too few. And even when this quantitative characterisation does fit, it may not always be the best way to specify what is wrong with the agent. But still, somtimes the defect IS sensibly characterised in quantitative terms' (91)

I agree, though, that we do continue to disagree about what you call the 'strong doctrine of the mean'

All best,

Michael Pakaluk said...

Giles, Thanks, correction taken. M