Between Virtue and Vice: Moral Worth for the Rest of Us
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Most of us fall short of virtue—we are, at various times, weak-willed, selfish, self-absorbed, hypocritical, morally complacent, cowardly, and self-deceived. But most of us are not vicious, either. In this dissertation I argue that the actions of flawed, morally imperfect agents can be as praiseworthy as the actions of more perfectly virtuous people. The first, introductory chapter explains my account of moral worth, which depends on the assessment of an agent’s deliberative outlook in acting. In the second chapter, I argue that being praiseworthy on every possible occasion is not a precondition for being praiseworthy on any particular occasion. This may seem obvious, but it is also inconsistent with a common interpretation of the nature of virtue. The third chapter argues that someone’s actions can be morally worthy despite displaying a failure of practical rationality quite similar to weakness of will, or akrasia. By exploring cases of so-called inverse akrasia, I argue that sometimes, an agent can be praised for acting in ways that he himself believes are morally wrong, and that while these actions display serious failures of practical reason, they can still be both done for a good reasons and deserving of praise. The fourth chapter explores the moral status of hypocrisy. I reject the standard interpretation of hypocrites as blameworthy manipulative deceivers, and argue instead that they are people who misdirect their ethical attention by caring too much about their image for having certain values, and not enough about the values themselves. The second, third, and fourth chapters draw a close connection between moral imperfection and failures of self-knowledge. The fifth and final chapter therefore considers the nature of such failures of self-knowledge by exploring the moral significance of self-deception. I argue that, in a central range of cases, it is impossible to be self-deceived about the content of one’s own mind. Instead, I argue that the morally relevant form of self-deception is a failure of self-assessment. This has important implications for our understanding of moral development, since it means that such development centrally involves the cultivation of a specific kind of self-knowledge.