Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Formulas, Virtues, and the Sage: Reflections On Moral Wisdom

by Matthew Spencer

Morality is uncodifiable. This is not to say that one cannot successfully attempt to codify it, nor is it to say that such attempts are entirely unhelpful. It means that no formula can ever holistically grasp the nature of morality. Every attempt is of its very nature fated to inadequacy. Yet in the post-enlightenment era, it seems only 'natural'1 that we eschew intuitive answers for more concrete, tangible, incontrovertible, effable, and error-free solutions to our moral problems. Many of us post-modernists have replaced religious with rational authority, and to our dismay, rationalist formulas have proven to be far from perfect. The formulas to which I am referring are the classic ethical theories thrashed in nearly every article on virtue ethics published from the 1950s to the 1980s: Kant's deontology and Mill's utilitarian consequentialism. (For brevity's sake, I shall refer to them jointly as formulism.)

The flaws of formulism are seen most clearly in two paradigm reductio ad absurdum arguments. Firstly, Kantian deontology is forever burdened with the following entailment. Suppose you live in WWII Germany and you are hiding a Jewish person in your basement. The Nazis knock on your door and ask if you are harboring a Jew. Knowing that the Nazis will surely kill this person if you tell the truth, you realize that this is one instance where telling the truth is not the right thing to do. Any theory which requires in this case you tell the Nazis that you are harboring a Jew is plain wrong. It is obvious to anyone but a Kantian that you should not send this innocent Jew off to certain death in the name of truth-telling. Since it prescribes you do just this, Kantian deontology, at least in this particular case, is wrong. 2

Secondly, consequentialists have thorny entailments of their own. Suppose you have been kidnapped by a renegade militia who has tied up and gagged 25 innocent people. The captain of this militia tells you that if you shoot 24 of these people in the head, he will let the 25th go. If you do not, he will personally kill all 25. The consequentialist concludes, in strict accordance with the utility formula, 3 that you shoot the 24 people, as 24 dead results in a higher net happiness than 25 dead. Yet anyone with the slightest grasp of morality knows that it is not right to shoot 24 people in the head to save one person. Therefore consequentialism too is attenuated by absurd conclusions.

Contrary to the beliefs of formulists, the lesson to be learned from the inability to arrive at a flawless theory is not that we should reinforce our efforts to find the perfect formula, but to realize that no formula alone will ever perfectly grasp the subtleties of moral expertise. Moral experts are not experts in complex, abstract thought. They are intuitive geniuses with a distinct ability to a) perceive the salient feature of a moral situation, 4 b) decide the appropriate response to the situation, and c) act on this decision with fortitude and grace. If you ask the moral expert how he knows 'x is wrong,' he will respond, 'because it is.' Our expert, let's call him a sage, will never tell you that he used the categorical imperative 5 or the formula of highest utility to determine the appropriate course of action-frankly, because he didn't. The sage knows and does the right thing with such ease that he does not have to think about it. E.A. Burtt eloquently describes the nature of the moral expert:

The [sage] is like a trained and skillful dancer who takes the appropriate steps spontaneously and gracefully but without the conscious effort to avoid mistakes that was needed during the period of his training.6

The sage practices morality with the effortless effort of a top-flight dancer. It occurs naturally for him. In John McDowell's terms, it happens from the 'inside out.' 7 Contrast that with the notion that formulists approach morality from the 'outside in.' The latter holds that the best way to determine right action is to contact a theory external to the particular situation and external to the person confronted with the situation. In this way, the formulist becomes detached from the moment occurring before him. For example, if he is walking along and sees one person cruelly torturing another, his formulaic approach requires that he stop, get lost in thought for a moment, and return, presumably with the correct reaction. However, this does not seem right. Not only because one could lose valuable time, but also because it is simply inappropriate. In fact, I dare say we might call such a person-who stops to contemplate in the middle of a vicious beating-loony. The correct approach is to stay within the moment, react instinctively, and trust t hat one's moral intuitions are good. This is the inside out approach. It consists of trusting intuition and not contacting some formula in the midst of heated action.

McDowell adds to this view another important feature of moral wisdom:
To talk of virtue-a propensity to act in certain ways for certain reasons-as consisting in a sensitivity, a perceptual capacity, is to amalgamate the required appetitive component into the putative sensitivity. 8

Moral wisdom is such that the sage does not require a non-cognitive desire to provide motivation for action. In fact, even if he was fueled by a burning desire to act morally, this would not be a necessary or sufficient element in the unfolding of his moral action. The 'appetitive component' needed for motivation is not in the perceiver, but in the situation itself. McDowell refers to this as the ability to discern the 'salient' feature of any moral dilemma. In short, it is the ability to instinctively weed through the myriad data of any given situation, discern the most important element, and silence all other information so as to allow the sage complete focus. He does not weigh pros and cons, he immediately sees what is needed and responds accordingly. 10 (However I exercise caution here, as I feel no one but a sage is qualified to give a detailed description of how the process works.)

In response, one may think that this does not coincide with the 'inside out' concept; for if the motivation to act morally is not inside the sage, it seems he must look to something exterior to tell him what to do. This is mistaken. The sage does not depend on the salient feature to help him calculate right action in the same way formulism prescribes. Rather, in moments when he spontaneously happens across a situation containing a salient moral feature, this will signal to him that he needs to act. To determine the best course of action, he combines the salient feature with the knowledge already trained within him.

A formulist will likely object by saying that while formulas are not perfect, they are our best sources of moral guidance. Certainly they are better than non-cognitivist and subjectivist views, but more than that, they are better than virtue theories on the grounds that formulas are more reliable sources than sages. They are available to everyone, and, despite apparent flaws, are notably more consistent.

Average people can rely on a theory more readily than a sage. Not everyone knows a sage, and furthermore, if one does not know a sage, simply asking, "What would a sage do?" does not, for obvious reasons, get the job done. Formulas are easily accessible insofar as, one, anyone with a middle school education can understand their basic tenets, and two, they are easily transferable commodities available to anyone near a library. But this defense does not get formulism far because, when examined further, this sense of 'reliability' does more harm than good. Such a claim entails that a moderately intelligent teenager can become a moral expert simply through mastering formulas. This account of formulism thus holds that it is possible for teenagers to be moral experts. Yet I think formulists would agree that even the saintliest teenager does not have the wisdom required of a moral expert. Since it is inconsistent to hold that one can be both a moral expert and not thoroughly wise, 11 formulism fails in this respect.

The second version of the formulist reliability defense carries greater weight. Virtue theorists must concede that formulism is quite consistent in a purely mathematical sort of way. Their equations have remained more or less unchanged over time, and for the most part, they produce consistently reliable solutions, save for few but major flaws. Whereas the virtue ethicist's approach can be summed up as: "Find a sage and do as he does"-which, it is safe to say, is not the most calculated of methods. The formulist defense can be rephrased into an attack on virtue theory in the following enumeration. (1) If the virtue theorist is satisfied when the sage says 'I know x is wrong because I see it,' he is in the difficult position of having to explain morality without utilizing explanatory means. (2) By suggesting that the best way to know morality is to find a skilled moralist, 12 virtue theory appears to beg the question since it seems one would already have to have moral wisdom to be able to tell who is morally wise. (3) Supposing one does find a sage, how does one then know when the sage is discerning correctly, since, as even the virtue theorist will admit, he is fallible?

(1) is an objection born from the formulist's prejudice toward reason and explanatory power. He believes that for any moral explanation to have value, it must demonstrate clearly and succinctly the reasons behind actions. Choked by the seductive hands of formula-based theory, he cannot see how an answer like 'because I see it' is sufficient. He is caught up in the view that a moral expert is something akin to a physics whiz who can teach his craft through explanatory means alone. On the contrary, the virtue theorist holds that a moral expert is more like a martial arts master. 13 He can teach what he knows, not just through words, but through demonstration as well. He shows by example and by providing helpful exercises with which one can train. Note the difference between explaining and showing. The former (formulist approach) purports to answer the question directly, but the latter (virtue ethics approach) purports to help the student arrive at cognitive understanding through indirect means.

For example, Bob watches Mary, a renowned martial artist, quickly and easily put three would-be attackers to their knees. Bob then asks Mary how she so effortlessly struck the attackers in precise and damaging spots. She replies, "I just saw it." Bob should be satisfied with this answer because i) he understands that there is no amount of textbook explanation Mary could give him that would allow him to have acted with similar expertise; ii) such an explanation would be misleading anyway. It is likely that a thorough analysis of the situation would warrant an hour long conversation, and since Mary certainly did not have an hour long conversation in her head before she put down the assailants, Bob concludes that this does not illuminate what Mary actually 'saw;' and iii) Bob knows Mary has been training for moments like these her entire life. Much of her understanding has likely come more as a result of the learning process than the knowledge learned. Without going through the learning process, one cannot render factual knowledge instinctive, and what Bob really wants to know consists in this instinctive, ready-to-go knowledge, but Mary cannot teach this to him. For these exact reasons, we should all be satisfied when the sage explains his moral capacity in the phrase, "Because I see it."

An objection might be raised concerning the nature of instinctive knowledge. For in normal usage, 'instinct' carries with it the connotation that something non-cognitive is taking place. I must confess, this objection exploits a breakdown in my martial artist analogy. The martial artist trains his mind and body, whereas the moral expert trains only his mind. The analogy is misleading because I hold, a la McDowell, that the sage's wisdom is purely cognitive; 14 but the martial artist trains extensively in extra-cognitive abilities. After countless punching bag repetitions, the martial artist instills in himself physical instinctive understanding, while the sage's regimen consists exclusively of mental exercises. Though I concede a flaw in my analogy, I can demonstrate that cognition is instinctive using other means. For instance, if I ask the reader to sing the ABC's song, and I ask you to do it instinctively and without the help of non-cognitive desires or abilities, I have no doubt you could fulfill my request. In the same way we simply know how to sing our ABC's, the sage simply knows how to act appropriately in all moral situations.

At this point, the formulist may claim that they can do the exact same thing. A formulist can become a sage strictly by frequent use of his formula. For example, a Kantian can learn the categorical imperative so well and have already calculated so many hundreds of different situations that he no longer has to contact the formula. He instinctively and cognitively knows how to use his formula like we know how to sing our ABC's. The virtue theorist's response? I am glad for you. This ability enables one to ascend the ladder of moral wisdom and become closer to a sage. For one who can do this is certainly wiser than a beginner who must go through tiring exertion. The problem is that it still does not escape the aforementioned downfalls of formulism. This ability would still result in absurd conclusions, as well as being too limited by the narrow scope of the formula. A sage acts in response to what the situation demands, not what a formula demands. A situation can often require a response that the formulist does not have in his repertoire of moral re-actions. Sometimes following duty is best, sometimes its consequences, and sometimes something else altogether. Sure a formulist could try to hold that he could come up with a formula to decide which formula to use, but then he would need a formula to decide which formula to use to decide which formula to use, and so on into absurdity. He would be missing the point, and I shall explain why in the conclusion of this essay.

The reply to (2) is that it does not require moral wisdom to see that someone else has it. If you see ten men get beat down simultaneously by one guy, you know pretty well who the martial artist is. Of course witnessing exemplary cases of moral wisdom is not the same as witnessing exemplary cases of martial artistry. Demonstrations of martial artistry are conspicuously visual, and consequently a three-year-old could decipher an expert from a fool. So the question remains: How does one see someone else 's moral wisdom? A common tactic is that whenever you witness compassionate outreach done in the face of great danger or humiliation, you have found a sage. Though ostensibly reasonable, this method is not adequate for a couple of reasons. First, what may seem like compassion may really be disguised greed. Take for example someone joining the fight against AIDS in Africa because their job promised to give them a $30,000 bonus when they came back. This person would not be a sage. Second, even a truly moral act can be just a one time deal. Think of a serial murderer who is momentarily inspired to save a drowning child, but then immediately returns to his murderous ways and remains so for the rest of his life. This person would not be a sage either. So how then can one tell who is a sage and who is not? To be sure, it's not easy. A true sage will never let you know he is a sage because, if he told you, the act of telling would suggest an unacceptably patent want of virtue. But he will always leave two clues. First, he is perennially consistent in virtuous action, and second, he keeps immoral slip-ups, quality and quantity, to a minimum. To find a sage, one needs patience and common sense. Patience to see long-term consistency, and common sense to spot basic exemplifications of good moral conduct.

The quick answer to (3) is to say to the dissenter: you are right, a sage is fallible, and though we would be ourselves wise to trust his judgment on all occasions-as a sage will always have a better answer than a fool-he can be mistaken. Upon offering this concession, I wish to turn the objection back to the formulist. I wish to say that while virtue theory may not be infallible, it is still utterly preferable to formula theory. This is not simply due to the absurd implications of formulism. It is because the act itself of contacting a theory is destined for error on the grounds that it fails in a serious way to capture subtle variances of practical morality.
Formulas only give the illusion of precision, as they do not apprehend the myriad nuances of individuals and situations.15 In Moral Philosophy and Moral Education, W. Prior writes, "People are differently endowed by nature with the basis for the virtues, just as we have different physical endowments." 16 He means that there is no one correct moral action for every situation because every person has different capabilities, physical and psychological. Recall the utilitarian case where the renegade captain requires that one shoot 24 people. But what happens if one has debilitating arthritis in one's trigger finger? Then shooting these people cannot be appropriate since the so-called right answer is not even physically possible.

The utilitarian will likely respond with the claim that the utility formula is designed to take that fact (the arthritic finger) into account. Just plug it in and you will receive a new answer appropriate to the situation. But the problem is, any new variable I bring up, the utilitarian will respond in the exact same way. Just plug it in. We could go on ad infinitum adding new variables to the moral dilemma. I suppose at some point the utilitarian will just have to concede that practically speaking, not every single variable can be plugged in. Then he will say that this is an acceptable flaw endemic to every ethical theory, i.e. the lack of absolute precision. Though this may be true, the utilitarian is missing the point. He should take this flaw to reflect a deeper problem. Formulas may be good for weighing two sides of a moral dilemma, but they are not at all equipped to perform the most important function of moral wisdom: perception of the salient feature, followed by the appropriate response demanded of the situation.

A one-sentence summary of the formulist problem? The focus of any ethical formula is the formula itself, but it is the situation that needs our utmost attention.

This paper by SCU senior Matthew Spencer, was presented at the 2005 Santa Clara University Student Ethics Research Conference, May 25.



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