06 April 2007

On Being Properly Affected (by Vice)

What is our reaction when we recognize that someone else has a vice?

I doubt that this question has an answer, as it is poorly formulated. To recognize that someone has a vice, presumably we must recognize that there even are vices, and we cannot do this, I think, without our being committed to some system (even if only commonsensical) for identifying and categorizing vices. And not everyone thinks in that way; and there are different systems, and that which we accept can vary, even, depending upon our own character. And then our response to vice will also vary depending upon our relationship to the other person--we respond differently to vices seen (if we can see them) in those under our authority, or those we love, than vices seen in strangers or enemies. Again, we react differently depending upon whether we think we have the same vice ourself, or could have had it.

But Thomas Hurka is certain that we all react to vice in the same way--with hatred. It's all very simple, apparently, and this forms the basis of his main objection to what appears to be a very subtle book by Gabriele Taylor on the 'seven capital vices' (pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, anger).

Taylor maintains that what principally makes a vice bad is the harm it constitutes to the person who has the vice. Hurka argues that, if that were so, our reaction to a vice would be pity; and yet that is surely not the case:

If the key feature of vice, the one that makes the vices vicious, is its frustrating its possessor's desires, then our primary response to vice as vice should surely be pity. 'He's arrogant and condescending, the poor man,' we should say. Or 'She wants our happy marriage to end -- how awful for her.' Now if we believe the vices can harm their possessors -- and one cannot finish Taylor's book without having that belief strengthened -- then we may indeed feel some pity for a vicious person. But that is surely not our principal reaction to his vice, and surely not the one we have to it as vice. Our principal reaction is hatred, with the more specific forms of anger at vices like arrogance and envy and contempt for ones like gluttony and sloth.

He tries to buttress his argument by a consideration of malice, which Hurka maintains is the worst of all vices and therefore the central case of vice. What holds for malice, then, apparently holds for all other vices:
Malice is arguably the worst of the vices, and therefore the central case of vice, yet it is surely not made such by its effects on the malicious person. And our principal response to malice, say to a sadistic torturer's glee in his victim's pain, is hardly pity... if [Taylor] retains her general view that what makes any vice such is the harm it causes its possessor -- and there is no indication that she does not -- she seems committed to holding that malice is vicious primarily because it makes the person who feels it unhappy, and that is surely not the intuitive view.
But his objection has clearly gone off the rails when he starts speaking of the 'feeling' of malice, and when he gives the example of some particular act of torture--since to consider someone else's feeling or action is definitely not to consider his "vice as vice", which is what was at issue.

Frankly, I don't know what to say to the view that anger and contempt are 'specific forms' of hatred. Is Hurka supposing that there we have only two ways of responding to things, pro (love) and con (hatred)? Perhaps someone who sees things in that way does react only with variations of hatred to the faults and vices of others.

And I suppose I'm included in Hurka's readership when he writes that "our principal reaction" to someone's vice is hatred. But if so, then I can report that his claim is false. When I reflect carefully on my own reactions, I would say that I feel the following. (I assume that it is the seeing of a vice in a bad action that is the occasion for the reaction.)
  • First, perplexity and astonishment--because I cannot usually understand what it would be like to be the sort of person who would act that way.
  • Second, fear, because I next consider that I and the other are the 'same stuff', and that what he does reflects on the sort of being that I also am.
  • Third, fear once more, from a combination of my first two reactions, since I next consider that perhaps my perplexity is unjustified, given that I am of the 'same stuff', and that I might be ignorant of a similar vice in myself, as presumably that other person is.
  • Fourth, sometimes pity, sometimes sorrow, for the other.
  • Fifth--very often--in my mind I qualify the preceding reaction by looking at the vice in a larger perspective, and then I view the other, as having that vice, as ridiculous, or absurd, or tragically brought down by something he cannot control. That is, I have a humorous or resigned reaction.
To the extent that I identify with the victims, if there are any, of actions which result from the vice, then I feel also anger and indignation. But I believe that nowhere in this tangle do I feel what I would describe as hatred.

But of course these descriptions of how we do feel have little weight; what is relevant is how we should feel. Yet no light is supplied in that regard by assertions about how we all, surely, feel.


Tommy B. Stoffel Jr. said...

I understand his argument about pity, however he really lacks the connection between injustice and vice. Justice is for all intents and purposes, order. Order in one's soul, character, order in the state, in the laws etc. etc. Injustice, being the opposite of justice, is disorder; disorder in one's soul, character, disorder in the state, in the laws etc.

What is the proper (right and natural) response to injustice? Anger. Anger is the natural human response to injustice because it motivates us to end the injustice and restore order.

Vice, in action or possession is primarily a form of injustice because it is a disorder that one has acquired (to the destruction of their selves) and is now the principle of action by which they interact with others.

Vice therefore is the manifestation of the injustice one and done to themselves, and because of it a foretaste of the injustice they will do to others.

Why do we feel angry towards vicious people? Because they are and act contrary to virtue; they are and produce disorder and injustice. We are angry because it is nature's way of stopping them.

Brandon said...

Hurka does indeed have a view in which our responses are largely pro and con (positive and negative); it's a major part of his utilitarianism. Indeed, although it doesn't come out explicitly in the review, it's pretty clear to someone acquainted with his work that all his objections to Taylor are that she doesn't have the sort of account of the virtues (utilitarian, and involving the common appeal in Anglo-American ethics to intuition) that he does.

Leon said...

I don't see how anger is the natural human response to disorder; I would rather side with Mr. Pakaluk and emphasize anxiety and fear as the likely more common affects, with anger proceeding only on certain conditions. After all, can't the two be said to underlie all angry outbursts?

Leon said...

and wouldn't it be incredibly vicious to become angry at every sign of disorder/injustice/vice?

Michael Pakaluk said...


It seems one thing to wonder what our reaction to a vice recognized in another should be, when we are attending to it; it seems another to consider on what occasions, or for what reasons, we should be reflecting on the vices and shortcomings of others at all.


There would be no objection if Hurka pointed out only that one could hold a different view from Taylor's (such as Hurka's own view). But he goes beyond this unobjectionable point and holds additionally that his comments raise reasonable doubts about the correctness of Taylor's view.


Leon said...

I agree, but do not see how the remark applies especially to my comments. I did not mean to question whether or not we should pay attention to everyone's vices, simply how we do/should respond to whatever perceived vice; to clarify, my second note was something of a joke, directed at those who seem to regard any (perceived) sign of vice as a warrant for attending (angrily) to it, such as Taylor who says that we respond with hatred to vice per se. It smacks of heavy metal moods, no? even worse perhaps - Christian hardcore a la Demon Slayer (I spent some time in a dysfunctional Catholic youth group).

Brandon said...


I had much the same impression; since I've read Hurka's work (and taken a class on it with him), it was a bit odd reading the review, because it was clear that it was a review entirely from that perspective, without much of an indication that there are other perspectives.