Virtue and the Knowledge Problem

Virtue and the Knowledge Problem

The antinomy between motives and tendencies is the first question of virtue: is a virtuous act one which springs from the right motives, or one which has beneficial effects? Broad theories notwithstanding, most people would consider both to be important in various circumstances. We don’t laud a shooter when the doctors catch an otherwise fatal cancer in the course of extracting the bullet from his victom, for example. And on the other hand we blame the man who, not knowing CPR, tries to revive an apparently drowned man but ends up killing him.

The definitive argument against pure consequentialism is that “it would lead to innumerable errors in action, from false estimates of what would produce the greatest happiness on the whole . . . Any thing less than [a perfect] intellect must necessarily be baffled by such calculations” (Rogers 1834, p. xlvi). Consequentialism of any significant strength simply cannot deal with the complexity of the world or the limits of the human mind within it. And sufficiently weakened, it becomes merely deontological.

But a pure virtue ethic fails to account for many obvious cases of blame. And not only this, but it’s extremely vulnerable to reductio ad absurdum – the “though the heavens fall” problem: can virtue be so strictly separated from consequences that horrifying results could ensue?

Clearly, then, a satisfactory ethic must have features of both. But this still leaves open the question of when to apply one or the other, or which is more fundamental.

In general it is more feasible to start simply and introduce complexity as it can be handled, than to start from incomprehensible complexity and simplify until it becomes manageable, lest we unknowingly pare out essential features. It is thus the strength of a virtue ethic that it can retain its essential features in the face of the “though the heavens fall” problem far better than can a consequentialist ethic in the face of the knowledge problem.

How much complexity can we introduce into a virtue ethic? Hayek (1960, p. 83) argues that a mans’s responsibility “should refer only to such effects of his conduct as it is humanly possible for him to foresee and to such as we can reasonably wish him to take into account in ordinary circumstances”. In this way, and to this extent, a virtue ethic can take account of consequences: we have, on the one hand, a duty to know certain things before acting, and on the other hand, a recognizable limit to what we can know. To fail the former or to transgress the latter are negligence and conceit, respectively.

Negligence vitiates an otherwise virtuous action within the scope of comprehensible consequences. It is a failure to gather information which would have changed one’s behavior. One is blamed by “He should have known”, but excused by “He couldn’t have known.” Even “he couldn’t have known to check” – where the information was readily available but its relevance was reasonably unknown – is intended to excuse, which suggests that the duty to be informed is not so onerous as to paralyze action.

Conceit, on the other hand, is when a man pursues virtuous intentions far beyond the bounds of his reasonable knowledge. It is a false pretending to know, seen all too often in politicians and visionaries. As noble as a project might be, the law of unintended consequences militates against grandiosity in scope. Who will excuse the philosopher king who plunges his country into ruin through “staying the course” toward his noble vision? Are not the prophets of foreign aid answerable for the strife and poverty which their programs foist upon already impoverished nations?

With these categories to leaven a pure virtue ethic, the limits of deductive and a priori theories of virtue become plain. We know that our minds can only deal with a certain amount of complexity, and can only foresee the consequences of our actions so far. But how far that limit is can only be determined by social experience. In other words, when the heavens do fall, what is the boundary between “he should have known” and “he couldn’t have known”? This knowledge is vital for virtuous action – indeed the first prerequisite if we are not to merely stagger about between virtue and vice. In other words, we must know not only what we don’t know, but also what we can’t know.


EpistemologyEthicsPhilosophyVirtueF.A. HayekHenry Rogers


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    Jun 09, 2013 at 1:11 | Reply

    Coincidentally Doug Wilson wrote this today:

    Since we don’t want to evaluate by the results, but rather by our intentions, it is not surprising that the Christian world is filled with people who have filled up their medicine bottles with various kinds of poison, and who then go around trying to create feel good stories for themselves. But good works are not to be measured or evaluated on the basis of whether or not they give the doer of the good deed a lump in his throat. The question of heart motive is an important one to consider, but only if we match it up with what actually happens.

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Jun 09, 2013 at 10:15

      Good point; having the right motive (even when it doesn’t fall into negligence or conceit) certainly isn’t equivalent to feeling good about your motives. It’s more objective than that; hence the continual self-reflection with fear and trembling necessary to establish habits of true virtue. And Doug is right that an orientation to results, at least within the bounds of our competence, is a good means of reflection.

      (Though I doubt the helpfulness of the comparison to God’s perfectly effectual mercy, God being omniscient and all.)

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