Aristotle and Autism: Some Thoughts About Moral Virtue

This is definitely work in progress, if you can call it that.

Tim Schroeder and I have defended a view according to which even though virtuous people seem different from the rest of us in many ways, it basically comes down to a difference in desires. A person who has a deep intrinsic desire for the right and the good de re (or desires for the various things that are right and good) is as a result not only disposed to act differently but also has a different mental life in many ways,  emotional and cognitive. For the purpose of this post, though, it doesn’t matter if we talk about what we intrinsically  desire or what we care about as long as we assume neither is a cognitive state.

I would like develop this view further, with attention to questions I keep getting.

 One is :“if a virtuous person does the right thing out of a desire, how come she often feels a sense of duty, not  desire?”  Warning: I plan to post my answer soon!

 Other questions concern the phronimos, but I have no view about the phronimos, only about the good person

When I think of virtue I start with the expression ‘good person’, which has equivalents in many languages and is often used interchangeably with ‘virtuous person'' and "moral person". 

‘Good person’ has different connotations from ‘phronimos’ – for example, the latter is more associated with wit, good taste, healthy eating habits and self-esteem. But some believe that the good person is nonetheless a phronimos.

 I used to. Aristotle is a hero of mine.  But consider good persons with fairly low intelligence, ADHD, or (especially) Autism. Being a phronimos requires intellect and various sorts of skill and competence. Just like blindness cannot make a person less good, a person is never less good in virtue of having a purely cognitive limitation  (note the word ‘person’  -  my cats can’t be virtuous, but they can’t be vicious either, as they cannot possess concepts like “harm”, “help”, “promise”, “deceive”, “unfair”, “happiness” “innocent”,  etc.)  If you care  (deeply) about the right things, you’re good.

 Some FAQ:

 1) Aren’t good people cognitively different?

I care about owls, so I notice the word ‘knowledge’ contains the word ‘owl’. Analogously, if you really care about wellbeing and justice, you notice the sad homeless man in the corner (“invisible” to most) or the sexist lyrics of a popular song. Such cognitive differences add up, compound even, resulting in a rather different view of the world. Another example: with strong interest in piano-playing, you’ll learn it better than without interest, even with the same practice time. Similarly, if really interested in sparing people’s feelings, you’ll pick up better social skills (ceteris paribus!).  However, noticing the homeless man purely because you are an observant anthropologist does not imply you are a better person, and you are not a worse person for social cluelessness due to autism alone.

2) People with autism lack empathy. A moral defect?

Two things must be distinguished: detecting that people are suffering and “feeling their pain”. These parts are connected through caring about them. If you – a neurotypical –  care about my wellbeing and detect my suffering,  you’ll “feel my pain”. If you are autistic, and you care about my wellbeing, you might fail to be sad for me – but strictly because you can’t detect my suffering. That’s no more a moral defect than being deaf and not hearing me scream.  That’s different from the other way to lack empathy – as in a narcissist detecting my suffering and, due to not giving a damn, feeling nothing. That’s a moral defect. 

3) Can a cognitive deficiency make your life worse in some respect?

 Sure!  So can blindness, which doesn’t make you a bad person.

 4) Isn’t wisdom different from being smart?

One can be smart without being wise, but…wise without being smart? Being un-smart limits the growth of one’s deliberative abilities, even with good will, experience, and practice (and why would deliberation about ends require less brain-power than deliberation about means?). Applying imprecise generalizations to unique situations requires intelligence  - and sometimes a type of quickness, even. If I overlooked a way to  have phronesis with low intelligence, could someone please help me? What about autism? 

 5)  Are you saying adolescents can be virtuous !? (see e.g Hursthouse).

I support a real virtue/"natural" virtue distinction. No child (or adult) is virtuous simply for being what personality psychologists call “agreeable”. Some sweet-tempered people don't care about the right or the good (and some natural grouches do). Many adolescents are selfish, but virtuous adolescents are not freaks of nature. I have had first-year undergraduates who worked closely with the homeless since highschool, or who wanted help with moral dilemmas stemming from the realities of political activism.  I, preoccupied at the time with whether I’ll get some paper into some journal, admired their moral seriousness. Maybe they needed this old bag's advice, but they were good people.

Questions? Comments? Wisdom? 

13 Replies to “Aristotle and Autism: Some Thoughts About Moral Virtue

  1. Hi, Nomy. Very interesting remarks. I am in agreement, I think, with the general distinction between a good person and the phronimos, that someone can be a good person with low intelligence/cognitive impairments. A few questions, though.
    First, I don’t believe you mean to suggest that those with autism generally are of low intelligence. It’s of course a spectrum disorder, and many high-functioning autistic people have a fairly high degree of intelligence. So I take it you have in mind those on the lower end of the autism spectrum? But then it may be harder to see them as good in the way you want. As Tori McGeer has alluded to, amongst those especially on the lower end of the spectrum there tends to be an overriding fixation on rules and order (obsession with train schedules often occurs, actually). This leaves real room to wonder whether their conformity with morality is less about a concern for other people and more a reflection of their desire to maintain order and minimize chaos, so noting and adhering to rules of “morality” is the best way of doing so.
    Second, there is some evidence (e.g., Hobson) to suggest that those with autism, even at the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, tend not to experience guilt. Regret, yes, anger, sure, but not guilt. I’m curious what you would think about this, were it in fact generally true of those with autism. Would it diminish for you their status as “good people,” would it be a moral defect, or would it be neither?

  2. Thanks, David!
    First, real quick: I was referring to two separate conditions: autism – one thing – and low intelligence – another. I suggesting ADD might be problematic to. There are plenty of intelligent autistic people in the world. None with practical wisdom, though.
    I think being a stickler for rules is morally neutral. Just like being what personality psychs call “agreeable” does not equal “kindness”, having what those psychs call a “high conscientiousness score” does not equal justice, respect for persons, or sense of duty. One might, however, be non-blameworthy for being too obsessed with rules, if, somewhat like in OCD, breaking routine causes you abject terror, elemental terror that has nothing to do with normativity, really – being overwhelmed and lost and frail. Some autistic people are like that.
    Why do I think some autistic people really care about others? Try reading a memoir. The plural of “anecdote” may be “not data”, but it isn’t “not a philosophical example”. I haven’t read everything by Temple Grandine (the autism advocate who, when she expresses herself in words, is really likable) but there is the chapter on Temple Grandine in Oliver Sack’s book “Anthropologists on Mars” and her own writings. She is very intelligent, but far enough on the supposed “spectrum” (later on why I don’t like that word) that she dislikes being touched in a friendly way and says she feels like an “anthropologist on Mars” in the world of normals. She points out that normal people are horribly lacking in empathy for anyone whose experiential world is unfamiliar to them and don’t understand, for example, the panicking autistic kid who suffers from sensory overload, and she has, over the years, worked very hard as an activist on behalf of people like herself, which has nothing to do with train schedules, I suspect. She also works to reduce the suffering of animals killed for meat. She says that she suspects nonhuman animals have similar psychologies to her own in some ways and so she can feel their pain to some extent.
    My former graduate student Nicolas Bommarito quotes one such memoir. Stephanie, diagnosed with Asperger’s and unable to read facial expressions despite her best efforts, says:
    “Many Aspies [people with Asperger’s Syndrome] tend to be very honest. You might think that that is a really good thing, but it has gotten me into trouble more than once. It has also caused me to hurt people’s feelings, which is something I never, ever want to do”.
    That’s from another interesting memoir, it appears in a book called “first-person accounts of mental illness and recovery”. Sure, it is possible that I am taken in by the touching nature of the monologue in the book, but I see no reason to think that the person in question doesn’t really mean it when she expresses concern with not hurting others, period. I can’t find my copy of the darn thing, but I recall a person who expresses a desire not to hurt others that isn’t that different from yours or mine, except that it is paired with bewilderment. When expressing it, she does not use the language of rules or even of morality de dicto. She doesn’t sound the least bit like the stereotypical old German who tells you that Order Must Be, though she might be separately concerned with that.
    Bommarito says:
    “Stephanie is clearly concerned not to hurt other people’s feelings, but simply has trouble knowing when that will happen. Part of the issue is a non-moral, social vice – one simply finds it difficult to tell when one has hurt another. This happens to non-autistics when they interact with a culture far removed from their own; they do something like stretch out their legs, buy a nice green hat for their newly married friend, or comfort a friend with a pat on the head”
    He then explains in a footnote:
    “In much of Southeast Asia, pointing your feel at something or someone important is offensive, as is touching someone’s head (especially when that person is more important than you). In China, buying a married man a green hat implies that you are sleeping with his wife”.
    (Bommarito’s comparison to travel in Asia fits pretty well with Grandine’s “Anthropologist on Mars” metaphor).
    Also recommended: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” (I think that’s the title). Fiction, but told from the point of view of someone who worked with autistic kids for many years. The narrator is very intelligent but profoundly screams-and-hits-you-if-you-touch-him autistic. The plot his moved by his feeling that the death of a dog is sad (though he has to deliberate in order to find out that “sad” is the right word for what he feels sad about it) and that killing a dog is as wrong as killing a person is (the language of morality does come into it this time). There are lots of plot twists – I’lll avoid spoilers because I really think it’s a great book. The kid also has an obsession with order (his schedule is super-regimented by choice and going on vacation with his parents drives him up the wall), but that is never put in terms of right and wrong, and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what he thinks about the wrongness of killing the dog and of killing persons.
    So my point was: a person who hurts people unintentionally only because she is condemned, despite much effort, to have about as much of a feel for the feelings of people of her own nation as you would have for those of people in Southeast Asia, is not thereby less good, and surely anyone who gets culture shock at her own back yard is not a phronimos. If it turned out that “aspies” don’t really want not to hurt people but only to avoid raising hell – which I doubt, as these people don’t lie – then ok, they are not good people. But then, they would fail to be good people NOT because of lack of phronesis, but because of a motivational deficit.
    And then, there will still be the question of good people of low intelligence, which DO exist. Everywhere.
    I need to get back to you on the guilt issue. If Stephanie or Temple Grandine don’t feel guilt, it would not change my opinion that they are not worse than you and me. This does, however, raise questions doe me about the nature of guilt. I used to think that guilt is just feeling bad about your wrong, or worse, blameworthy, action, because you generally care about not doing wrong things and being a good person. Therefore, I used to think anyone good who did something bad would feel it. But if it’s in fact true that someone like Grandine, would not feel guilt if she neglects her moral commitments some day, or that Stephanie, who really doesn’t want other people’s feelings, doesn’t feel guilty when she hurts someone, I am going to have to think about whether there is more to guilt – perhaps something more irreducibly “reactive”, more like self-resentment more than just self-blame (I always thought you can blame someone without resenting them). Of course, I only half-trust scientists on telling guilt apart from other things that psychopaths don’t feel – and which autistic people do.

  3. Thanks a lot, Nomy! I’ve read most of the material you’ve mentioned (I especially loved “Curious Incident,” which I also strongly recommend to those who haven’t read it). I also agree that anecdote/memoir is perfectly fair game in the presentation of a case where we are talking about real life agents.
    Temple Grandin is, I think, a somewhat tricky case, as she is so high functioning, and so articulate about her condition, that it is awfully tempting to read her as more representative of autism generally than she may be. But at any rate, that was in a way the point of my question, which was to press a kind of dilemma. Once one is near to Temple Grandin (and I didn’t hear why you don’t like the term “spectrum”), it becomes less clear to me that she lacks the relevant sort of practical wisdom to make your case compelling. Alternatively, once one goes a ways in the other direction, it may become harder to see low-functioning autistic agents as “good” or “bad.” Perhaps what you want, then, is someone in the middle range of the spectrum. There I can see how someone might be good without practical wisdom, but there it may be much more difficult to draw from memoirs and anecdotes, which are mostly by or about those from the high end of the spectrum.
    (One suggestion: Naoki Higashida’s “The Reason Why I Jump,” a book by a 14-year-old Japanese boy with middle-range autism, I think, who was taught to sign in a torturous kind of method that nevertheless enabled him to communicate one letter at a time.)

  4. Another awesome post, Nomy! I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through it, even though I’d never considered the view before.
    One question comes to mind: does it matter what the origin of the desire is? Imagine that I’m a heartless jerk given Clockwork Orange-style conditioning, so that I come to develop a craving for justice. Does the conditioning make me more virtuous? Or does it matter whether my desire for justice is a response to the right-making features of just actions?
    (One detail that might be tricky: for all I’ve said, the therapist might condition me to form desires in response to just-makers. I’ve got to stipulate that the therapist doesn’t do this—but maybe that’s a fishy assumption.)
    To put the point a little more ideologically, I might say that desires inherit their moral status from reasons. So it would be a mistake to put rational desires for the right de re on the same level as reason-less cravings for the right de re (like my craving for justice in the Clockwork Orange example).
    Anyway, I hope that the case can be of interest without all this reasons-theoretical baggage. The real question I’m trying to raise is this: To tell whether someone is virtuous, is it enough to look at *what* they desire, or do we also need to know *why* they desire it?

  5. Oh, and one related Parfit-ish question. What about desires that makes things go best, but that aren’t aimed at the best thing?
    In Surgery (if I’m going to rip off Parfit, might as well rip the writing style, too), it’s best that Janice has a strong desire to take care of her kids. Even though this desire sometimes leads her to do what’s worse overall, since it overrides her desire to help others in the community, her having the desire to take care of her kids enriches her life. In one instance, she does the wrong thing by refusing to subject her young child to a painful surgery. The surgery would extract some tissue needed to save another child’s life. (If you don’t think this is wrong, adjust the painfulness of the surgery and the number of lives saved.) It is causally impossible for Janice to subject her child to this surgery given her desire to protect him.
    So the thought is this: your view says that in Surgery, Janice doesn’t have a virtuous set of desires. Those desires don’t aim at the (most pressing) right-making features in her situation: the lives of the kids who could be saved. This suggests that your view may be insensitive to the importance of life-enriching desires. Having these desires might be intrinsically best, even if they don’t always aim at the intrinsically best.
    I think it makes sense that a theory of virtue should take into account whatever makes our lives good. (Plato certainly thought so!) But maybe this doesn’t apply to your conception of virtue. You might appeal to a distinction here between things that make the events of a life good, like life-enriching desires, and things that make for a “good person”—what you’re concerned with. I think it’s a substantive question whether life-enriching desires make for a better person.
    Anyway, thanks again, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these issues!

  6. Hi David,
    One clarification: I never said all autistic people are good. Only that being good and being autistic are preferably compatible.
    Have you read/ talked to Neo-Aristotelians lately? A neurotypical teenager whose intentions are as good as can be cannot not qualify as virtuous if cluelessness about the facts of human nature due to lack of experience – and only that – results in screwups on her part. Anyone who is anywhere on the autism “spectrum” is even more clueless. I keep being told – explicitly – that cluelessness is a moral vice…..
    Note again: if there are autistic people out there who don’t care about their fellow human being, they are not my example. There are plenty of those that care. In addition, I understand that kids regarded as “autistic” before the diagnosis became so fashionable were also often profoundly lacking in intelligence – perhaps too much to possess the concepts I think are necessary in order to desire the right and good even de re – concepts like “help” “harm” and so on. I don’t claim to be half as knowledgable as you are about the empirical facts.
    Why I hate the word “spectrum… Well, not quite on topic, but I can’t resist answering.
    I assumed there is an “autism spectrum” for the purpose of the post, but I am skeptic about the very concept.
    But I am a skeptic. Here is a thought experiment. Consider two children.
    1) The Loner. She can’t stand being hugged by her parents – a really alien thing for a child. There are strong emotions that she does recognize mostly because she never has them (Grandine says that as a teen she never had crushes and didn’t “get them” in others. When she gets a sensory overload, she panics and acts with violence. She would have been diagnosed as “autistic” 20 years ago.
    2) The Nerd. He longs to be hugged more. He wants friends. He can easily have a painful crush on the popular girl. Unfortunately, truly abysmal social skills and really “not getting” that science isn’t loved by all the way it’s loved by him make it impossible for him to get his wishes. He would not have been called “autistic” 20 years ago, but today Nerds are often told they are “on the spectrum”.
    Why assume that the Loner and the Nerd are on the same spectrum – i.e have the same problem to different degrees? The loner has problems or qualities that the nerd does not have to ANY degree. I have yet to be convinced that those problems are even the result of having the nerd’s problems to a higher degree, because no amount of social incompetence can make you dislike hugs from your mom. Maybe some evidence would convince me otherwise, but at the moment I just think the “spectrum” is a rash assumption.
    Thus I suspect sometimes that either there is no “spectrum” – though, among the genuinely autistic, those who are smart can handle their foreign travel lot better than those who are of average intelligence, not to mention low – or there is a spectrum but today’s psychiatrist think it’s much longer than it can possibly be.
    Remember some years ago when any kid who had more energy than her dad was considered ADHD? In cynical moments I suspect the spectrum thing is another example of the contemporary tendency to medicalize every problem a person, especially a kid, can have – partially because these days if you can’t call a problem a disease nobody would pay for help…
    But this is off topic…

  7. I don’t believe I said or suggested that you were saying that all autistic people are good (or at least didn’t mean to!). As I did say at the top, I’m in agreement with you on the substantive point of the post, that, as you say, autism is compatible with being good. I guess I haven’t talked to any neo-Aristotelians recently, or at least those who would insist on a high, thoroughgoing, level of knowledge about empathic or social facts. But I guess it doesn’t suprise me that some people would think this is what’s required for virtue and that it’s incompatible with, say, being a teenager. That does strike me as false. I’ve been writing for years about how people with mild intellectual disabilities, say, and those with high functioning autism could well be morally responsible in virtue of expressing certain good character traits. So I’m definitely on board. I was just looking for an example that might make your case even more compelling, as it might be thought that someone like Temple Grandin could be good, but nevertheless good in virtue of her having sufficiently developed cognitive capacities to meet the specs of being a phronomos.
    As for your thoughts about the “spectrum” (alongside the ADHD diagnosis), I think you have important things to say. I agree that there is surely overdiagnosis, and that the “spectrum” has widened sufficiently that we might have good reason to wonder whether there’s any kind of unified disorder at its base. But even in the old days, when diagnoses were more restricted, there was still a wide-ranging spectrum of cases that fit the bill, I would have thought.
    Anyway, thanks a lot for the post and your detailed thoughts on these really interesting matters!

  8. Another way to put my point, and then I’ll shut up. One might take away from Jeannette Kennett’s 2002 paper on autism and psychopathy that those with autism of the sort you mention are good Kantians, just via a non-standard cognitive (non-empathic) route.

  9. Daniel: Thanks. I’ll respond to the life-enriching desire thing first and to the clockwork orange later.
    You guessed right. “Virtuous” for me means a good person. I don’t think the fact that a desire makes your life richer ever, in itself, makes it morally good, or part of the motivational set of a good person. I admit the evidence suggests that people who never care about anyone or who only care about themselves (psychopaths, narcissist) have poor, arid lives – they even complain about it, wondering if they are missing something. Nonetheless, I would guess (with Michael Slote) that the life of creative, clever, imaginative, non-psychopathic property criminal (say, the guy who stole the Mona Lisa, gaining a lot of applause from his fellow Italians) can be much richer than a life free of crime or criminal desires but consisting of a boring 9 to 5 job, 8 daily hours of the inane sort of TV, some Budweiser, etc. I also think that for some people – artists come to mind – life can be greatly enriched by having morally dubious desires (whether they act on them or get tortured by them without surrendering to them). Can you imagine a person who never confronted demons, nay devils, writing Infinite Jest or Crime and Punishment? How about filming The Third Man? Maybe these artists were not happy, but their lives were rich.
    I don’t get your example. Either it is the right thing to do to protect your child even at the price of causing significant harm to strangers –you have some kind of special obligation – or it isn’t. If it is the right thing to do, the mother in your story, if she protects her child, would be responding to the right-making features of protecting her child. If it ‘s the wrong thing to do – and hence, the mother would do the wrong thing by protecting her child – then you are with me: a life-enriching desire does not always make you a better person.
    I’ll be back soon!

  10. Hi Again, Daniel,
    Ok, about my view that virtuous persons are persons who intrinsically desire the right and the good.
    First: I didn’t say “craving”, I said “desire”. At this moment I have many, many desires, but I don’t particularly crave anything. This was double-true at 9AM, because I was asleep. My desires for the well-being of my friends was still there when I was asleep, unable to feel cravings. I reserve the term “craving” for an emotional state, always at least partially unpleasant (“painful”), that can sometime happen when you have been deprived for a while or feel yourself to have been deprived for a while of something you deeply desire, especially (though not always) if the idea of the missing thing appears very vividly in your consciousness (e.g when you used to have and you remember it, or when it’s right in front of you and you can’t have it).
    Do I think it matters why you desire the right or the good? Well, yes. I think there ought to be no “why”. The desire has to be intrinsic. Not instrumental to anything else (e.g a desire to avoid horrible physical punishment) and not part of a desire for something else (i.e a desire that the Bible be obeyed). Note that I am with Pettit and Smith on “backgrounding desire”. That is, when you act out of a desire for your child’s wellbeing, your reason for action is not “because I desire my child’s wellbeing” but “because my child needs help”. It’s similar to the case of my seeing a cat with a large face and concluding “this is probably a British Shorthair”. My conclusion is only made reasonable by the belief “large-faced cats are usually British Shorthairs”, but my reason for believing is not “Nomy believes that large-faced cats are usually British Shorthairs” but simply “this cat has a large face”. Thus, me acting on a desire for justice does not involve my narcissistically thinking that “Nomy desires justice” is a reason to do it.
    Now, I don’t think any human starts out intrinsically desiring justice. Luckily, however, desires can shift from instrumental to intrinsic. Perhaps when I meet Peter for the first time I enjoy his charming company. I desire that he be happy because when he is, he is charming and he wants to see me more. Over the years, though, my desire undergoes a transformation: it becomes independent of my enjoyment of Peter’s charm. I find myself desiring Peter’s well being even when it dictates that I should help Peter move to Japan and I won’t enjoy his charm anymore (think of falling in love with someone who is beautiful and can dance but, if lucky, discovering by the time that she has grown too old to dance that you have come to love her independently of these things). A child starts by desiring to help her little brother because she adores the way her parents react when she does it and desiring to share the box of chocolate in a fair manner for similar reason. Overtime, though, the desire transforms itself, and by age 15 she finds herself desiring justice and the wellbeing of others even if her parents die or, like the parents in the novel How to Be Good, start wanting her to be less saintly.
    Does it mean that I think the Clockwork Orange method can make you a better person? I am too squeamish to ever watch such a movie, but my guess only if it can induce an intrinsic desire for justice (or wellbeing, or whatever). That’s important: a psychopath, congenitally incapable of desiring can probably be made to have the image of super-painful punishment so close to his mind when he contemplates lying that he won’t lie, or he can be made to develop a habit if not lying – the way that someone I know who grew up in a poor country maintained the habit of asking “is there hot water tonight?”, a question he was “conditioned” to ask because it saved him the pain of cold showers.
    Can an honest-to-God intrinsic desire for truth-telling (or intrinsic aversion to lying) be induced through torture? Well, my guess is it’s not. I received consistent harsh treatment as a kid (not physical, but excessive enough to give me nightmares) for some minor things. That included any minor messiness – leaving a bread crumb on the kitchen counter, say. God knows the harsh treatment did not develop in me the slightest intrinsic desire for cleanliness, though I still have a horrible fear of being judged harshly for minor things, and when I lived in rented apartments I was always afraid of being kicked out. Terror can be a great motivator, but it’s just not very easy to be confused, in the mind of the victim, with an intrinsic desire not to do the thing one is frightened into doing…..
    But yes, if your desire for justice is intrinsic, I think it doesn’t matter if the source of your intrinsic desire for justice is the unexpected neural effect of a blow to the head. I mean it! There was once an Israeli who was a virulent nationalist extremist who was beaten severely on the head and woke up a whole-hearted, deeply remorseful lefty! And, I think, a better person. I guess I am naturalist to the end.

  11. Oops! Please scratch the word “my guess” in the third paragraph from the bottom. Remained there from a previous thought…. I firmly hold that only an intrinsic desire can make you virtuous. I guess the empirical stuff.

  12. Thanks for the excellent replies! Your take on the Clockwork case (and your own experience) sounds right to me.
    Let me respond to the bit about life-enriching but non-consequence-optimific desires, since I wasn’t clear about it earlier. (Don’t feel any need to respond to this!)
    I was imagining two sets of desires, each optimific in different ways. Set A is aimed at the best/most right de re, so the actions of an agent moved by these desires will have maximally good consequences. No other actions open to the agent would cause as much goodness. In this sense set A is optimific. (If we were act utilitarians, we might think of set A as the singleton set containing the desire to do whatever creates the most happiness.)
    In another sense, set B is optimific. For some people, their having set B makes things go best, not because their desires make them produce the best effects, but because having B is intrinsically good for these people. The goodness of having B is so good that it makes up for the slightly worse consequences of actions produced by B-agents compared to actions produced by A-agents.
    The basic idea is that having desires aimed at the best things isn’t always best for us. (Think: “Moral Saints.”)
    Anyway, thanks again, and I’ll try to respond later to your points about the healthy development of intrinsic desires!

  13. Thanks, Daniel!
    I am not going to argue that being moral, having moral desires, or doing the moral thing is always the best for us! True, I always thought Susan Wolf mischaracterizes moral saints by making them all Ned Flanders clones who like to watch “Father Knows Best” and pass the collection plate at church. No morally perfect person would even enjoy a 1950s comedy – too sexist! – and the most moral individual I personally know does not do suburbs, ever. She rescued someone from a would-be rapist by attacking him with a broken glass bottle, and I would rather hear her fascinating adventures than hear most people discuss their tennis, oboe and cooking classes (or their rock band, to give an un-Wolfian example). Despite all that, Wolf is very powerful and persuasive when she argues that for man individuals, moral perfection is not the best life and not the life they want for their children and friends.
    I don’t use the word “virtuous” to mean “has the balance of moral and non-moral ingredients for a good life”. It’s just personal taste. I find it confusing in contemporary English, even if once upon a time it sounded natural to talk about “a virtuous knife” (try googling the phrase. All you get is a few people trying to explain Aristotle). As for the concept of a rich life, I am sure something good can be done with it, but whoever wants to do it will have to define it first. As things stand I am not sure I want a rich life.
    I am not a virtue-consequentialist. I don’t think what makes a desire virtuous is the fact, if it is a fact, that acting on it would lead to the best results. A desire is a a virtue because its object, the desired thing, is the good or right. Even if you account of the right is consequentialist, your account of virtue needn’t be. There might be an agent – dumb, autistic, inexperienced, strangely wired, or situated in a a strange environment – who, through no fault of her own, at least sometimes fails to maximize the good when she follows her virtuous desire, and who, unbeknownst to her, would cause more good if she just stayed home, as it were. That desire is no less virtuous in her.

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