Sunday, December 25, 2005

Wishing to be Brave

The apparent vulnerability of virtue to fate is not a new theme in these pages, but let’s see whether we can use an example to focus our intuitions.

Imagine a young merchant marine officer—call him Jim—serving as second mate on a dilapidated freighter sailing the Indian Ocean. This trip Jim’s ship has taken on a large number of passengers, Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca. A storm suddenly blows up and the old ship begins to founder. The crew panic and decides to abandon the ship & passengers. Jim does not panic and resolves to stay with the ship and to try to persuade the rest of the crew to do so as well. He rushes up to the deck where the crew is about to board lifeboats. He starts to address the crew when suddenly he has some kind of seizure and falls unconscious on the deck. The crew picks him up, puts him in a lifeboat, and sails away abandoning the ship & its passengers.

What do our moral intuitions say about Jim’s conduct? First of all, did he do anything cowardly since in fact he ends up abandoning the passengers? No. He was rendered unconscious by the seizure and carried off the boat by the crew. He did not abandon or desert the passengers. Then did he behave bravely? Unfortunately, no. He wished to behave bravely, and had decided to stay with the ship, and probably would have stayed were it not for the seizure. But in fact, he was unable to carry out his intention to stay with the ship and rally the crew. He did not act courageous, though he wished to.

I want to consider the Stoic reaction to this story, but first notice that we could tell a very similar story about any intended but frustrated act of virtue. We could imagine someone wishing to act temperately or justly or prudently, but frustrated in the event by some circumstance beyond his control. Our general intuition about such cases seems to be that they show that virtue, which is after all primarily a mater of taking action, can be frustrated by bad luck or fate. Unlucky people like Jim don’t fall into vice because they cannot do what they wish to do, but virtue escapes them because they cannot take the right actions.

For the Stoic virtue lies in the sphere of choice. If one judges correctly and makes the right choice, then one is virtuous regardless of what actions actually follow. Jim correctly judged that his duty was to stay despite the danger, and that is what he chose to do. He just couldn’t execute that choice, because, after all, our body is not something “in our power”. But he chose bravely, and that was all the counted.

The Stoic view of virtue is counterintuitive. We agree, in the example at hand, that Jim chose commendably. But bravery and justice and the rest require actually carrying out good intentions in appropriate actions. Intentions are not enough. Maybe, or probably, Jim would have stayed if he had remained conscious. But he didn’t, and that is the final word on whether he was courageous or not. Virtue is not decided by the counterfactual.

“But actions are not in my power and sometimes, as here, my good intentions are frustrated.” Yes, that’s how it is. Jim was unlucky, and we will be unlucky sometimes in our attempts to be virtuous. Virtue in this sense is not "in our power."


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