Acting Badly Does Not Equal Being Bad Person

 Posted by on 21 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Character, Ethics, Justice
Jan 212014
 

Too often, when I say something like, “Mr. X acted unjustly toward Ms. Y” or “Mr. X, I think that you were not honest with Ms. Y,” the reaction of Mr. X (and defenders of Mr. X) is something like , “SO YOU THINK THAT MR. X IS AN UNJUST PERSON!” or “HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A LIAR!” (Yes, they’re often angry and yelling.)

Alas, such inferences are wholly unwarranted. The simple fact is that a person might act wrongly — even perhaps violating the basic demands of a virtue — without being a terrible or corrupt or vicious person. Perhaps the person acted in haste, without sufficient forethought. Perhaps the person acted on a mistaken principle. Perhaps the person didn’t see the full effects or implications of his actions. Perhaps the person misunderstands the proper application of the principle. Perhaps the person was ignorant of certain facts about the situation. Perhaps the person thought the principle didn’t apply in that case. And so on.

Basically, a person can act wrongly — meaning, in a way harmful to self or others — without intending to do so. A person might act contrary to a virtue, yet do so honestly.

That’s part of why moral judgments of persons for their actions need to be distinguished from moral judgments of persons for their characters. These are two different kinds of judgments, and they serve two distinct purposes. (That’s a critical point for my case against moral luck.) Of course, these two kinds of judgments are related: judgments of actions are the basis for judgments of character. Nonetheless, a single bad action does not a bad character make — just as a single good action does not a good character make.

Aristotle makes a similar point in Book 5, Chapter 8 of the The Nicomachean Ethics. (Note that to act by “choice” means that the person deliberates beforehand about his best course of action.)

When [a man] acts with knowledge but not after deliberation, it is an act of injustice — e.g. the acts due to anger or to other passions necessary or natural to man; for when men do such harmful and mistaken acts they act unjustly, and the acts are acts of injustice, but this does not imply that the doers are unjust or wicked; for the injury is not due to vice. But when a man acts from choice, he is an unjust man and a vicious man.

Now, I make more allowances than Aristotle does here. Deliberation can go awry for many reasons, even in good people. Still, I agree with Aristotle that a person’s chosen actions reveal his character more clearly than do his hasty, impulsive, or rote actions. Often, when a person deliberates, he ought to know better, and he ought to have acted differently.

As for the people who assume that any moral criticism means an accusation of vice… well, that kind of defensiveness suggests that they damn well intended to do what they did — or, in any case, they’re sure as heck not going to admit that they were wrong. I’d consider that a major red flag in a person.

  • KindredAmy

    “As for the people who assume that any moral criticism means an accusation of vice… well, that kind of defensiveness suggests that they damn well intended to do what they did — or, in any case, they’re sure as heck not going to admit that they were wrong. I’d consider that a major red flag in a person.”

    Yes, defensiveness (especially involving anger) is a sign there is nothing more you can communicate. I can understand someone not being prepared to talk about the particular action, and refuse to talk until they have time to think – and patience is appropriate in these cases. But I’ve known people who just won’t let themselves be vulnerable or introspective – or use their imagination to put themselves in another person’s shoes. The worst is when they insist they are being attacked – and won’t stop emoting, awfulizing, or projecting negative motivations onto others. It’s a shame – but they do better people a favor by clearly indicating they are not to be dealt with.

   
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