Apr 162015

Here’s an interesting philosophical question, raised indirectly by philosopher Iskra Fileva on Facebook:

If a person refrains from doing a wrong act due to some wrong motive, does that person count as self-controlled (in Aristotle’s sense) or not?

For example, a married man wants to have an affair with a co-worker but he refrains — not because he’s pledged his fidelity to his wife, but due to fear of social disapproval if the affair is revealed because she’s black/Jewish/older/Catholic/wiccan/whatever.

I don’t think that this counts as self-control (a.k.a. continence) because the person is ignorant of and/or blind to the relevant moral considerations. On Aristotle’s descending moral scale from virtuous to self-controlled to un-self-controlled to vicious (explained briefly here), he’s in the vicious category, even though he happens not to have done the immoral act of cheating on his wife.

This is why — as I argue in my book on moral luck — we need to distinguish between judgments of actions, outcomes, and character. These judgments identify different facts and serve different purposes. A person can still be of vicious character, yet not perform any immoral acts. (At least, that can happen in the short term. Long-term, bad acts are pretty darn likely.) That’s only a puzzle if we’re not clear about the various purposes and bases of our various kinds of moral judgments.

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