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NDPR Forum: Inner Virtue

Welcome to our forum on Nicolas Bommarito’s Inner Virtue (OUP 2017), reviewed recently by Brad Cokelet on NDPR. Please join in the discussion!

From OUP’s blurb on the book: “What does it mean to be a morally good person? It can be tempting to think that it is simply a matter of performing certain actions and avoiding others. And yet, there is much more to moral character than our outward actions. We expect a good person to not only behave in certain ways, but also to experience the world in certain ways within. Pleasure, emotion, and attention are important parts of our moral character despite being involuntary inner states. Inner Virtue defends a theory of why and how such states are relevant to moral character: These states say something about what kind of person one is by manifesting our deepest cares and concerns.”

From Cokelet’s review: “This clear, engaging book proposes a manifest care account of inner virtue and vice — an account explaining when and why inner states such as pleasure, pain, envy, and gratitude make us better or worse people. As far as I know, this is the only contemporary book devoted to the topic of inner virtue, and Bommarito admirably establishes it as an important and interesting one.

“Let’s assume that Bommarito can convincingly defend his claim that care-manifestation blocking ADD and Autism do not make us worse as moral persons. That still leaves open questions about how his manifest care account of inner virtue and vice compares with more rationalist alternatives. For example, consider a Foot (1987) inspired view on which inner moral virtue and vice are constituted by inner states that manifest good or bad will. On her view, having a good will is in part a matter of valuing the right things in a wise way, so the relevant view might hold that (i) inner virtue is constituted by inner states that manifest wise values and (ii) inner vice is constituted by emotions, pleasures, pains, and patterns of attention that manifest foolish or false values. Foot herself might resist the view because some of the relevant inner states are involuntary, but we can assume our Foot-inspired rationalist has good reason to hold that involuntary inner states are, in the relevant conditions, morally vicious, and turn to some cases that our rationalist could introduce to establish the superiority of her manifest wise value account.

“Consider, first, a depressed friend who values your friendship and your well-being but who is shocked to discover that he does not care when your marriage falls apart and then your friendship starts to suffer too. He believes, and takes himself to know, what it means to be a real friend. He believes he should care about your suffering and the dissolution of your relationship, but in the depths of depression he finds that these things just don’t matter to him in the way he judges they should. He can understand and even rationally accept that you are distancing yourself from him because he is unable to be there for you as you try to build a post-divorce life. Compare this tragically depressed friend with another, more bizarre “friend” who does not very feel bad about your hardships or the dissolution of your friendship but who also evaluatively endorses these inner sentimental responses. He judges that your suffering is nothing compared to that of the homeless people with whom he works and he denies that friends should care more about the suffering of friends than of strangers. On the manifest care account, these two people exhibit equally bad forms of moral vice. In each case, the friend’s lack of sympathetic concern for your suffering manifests a lack of care, so on the manifest care account they fall short of moral virtue to the same degree. But this is implausible. The friend who righty values your well-being, understands what it means to be a real friend, and judges he should care about your suffering even though he does not, exhibits less vice than the odd fellow who evaluatively endorses his unsympathetic response to your plight. Your depressed friend fails to manifest full virtue because he does not care about, or manifest care in response to, your suffering, but his lack of feeling for your suffering is less vicious than that of the odd duck who works with the homeless. As the Foot-inspired rationalist would point out, this is just what her manifest wise value account would predict: the second odd “friend” exbibits more vice because his lack of sympathy manifests foolish or false values, not just a lack of apt care.

“Second, consider Willis, who discovers that he cares about social status and social capital more than he thinks he should. When he is at conferences, Willis pays close attention to the famous and powerful people in his social networks, and he ignores those who are less well-known and well-connected. His friend points this out to him and Willis is dismayed because he judges that this is a bad. He believes he should care less about social status and social capital and more about the intrinsic goods of conversation and social interaction. According to the manifest care account, Willis’ patterns of attention at the conference are vicious insofar as they manifest his too strong care for social status and social capital and his too weak care for the intrinsic goods of conversation and social interaction. But now compare Willis with Donald. Donald also cares too much for social status and social capital but he rationally endorses these cares. When his friend draws attention to the way he snubs and ignores the people on the bottom of the social status hierarchy, Donald is not dismayed because he judges that those people are losers who are not worth talking to. His cares are in harmony with his values because he thinks it is better to get ahead than to treat others well. As with the previous cases, the manifest wise value account seems to do better than the manifest care account. Both Willis and Donald manifest vice in their patterns of attention, but Donald’s perverse values make his fawning attention to the famous and his insensitive snubbing of the relatively powerless more vicious than Willis’.

“I’m not sure how Bommarito would respond to the cases just given and I don’t think that, by themselves, they provide compelling evidence in favor of a rationalist account of inner virtue. But they illustrate the sorts of considerations and arguments that Bommarito and other defenders of the manifest care account need to engage with in order to make a strong case.”


3 Responses to NDPR Forum: Inner Virtue

  1. Thank you to Dave and PEA Soup for setting this up and of course to Brad for writing a very thoughtful review of my book.

    In a nutshell the book aims to show that inner states can be morally virtuous or vicious even when they are involuntary and do not lead to external behaviors. This runs contrary to a common assumption that virtue is simply a disposition to perform morally good actions. Such a view makes virtue parasitic on an account of morally good action: If we just figured out what makes action morally good then we’d get an account of which states and people are virtuous for free. In thinking about inner virtue I’m emphasizing the kinds of issues in moral theory that aren’t settled by getting an account of good or right action.

    I discuss three kinds of states that can be inner virtues and vices: pleasure, emotion, and attention. I give an account that explains various details about how these particular kinds of states work; so I use it as a framework to argue that irrational emotions can be morally virtuous, to explain why mudita (a Buddhist virtue of taking pleasure in others’ good fortune) schadenfreude can be virtuous and vicious, and discuss how modesty and gratitude can be inner virtues.

    The account also aims to be general in the sense that it explains what these different kinds of states share that makes them all able to be morally virtuous or vicious. Brad calls my account the “manifest care” account, which isn’t a phrase I use in the book, but is a good label for my answer: States are made virtuous or vicious by the cares or concerns that they manifest. As Brad helpfully notes, it’s in a family of accounts that make virtue a matter of a relation to the good (different in details but similar to those by Tom Hurka, Julia Driver, Robert Adams, Nomy Arpaly & Tim Schroeder).

    I should say that I also had some broader stylistic and methodological goals in writing the book. I tried my best to write the book in a straightforward and clear way that would make it readable and interesting for both specialists and non-specialists. This means, as Brad laments, I often did not devote much ink to describing and responding to particular rival views in detail. All I can say in response to this is that there is a trade-off here and I decided to privilege stating my positive view clearly and concisely and making it more readable over such engagement. I tried hard to footnote responsibly but decided to devote the main text to presenting and defending the positive view rather than why so-and-so is wrong. As Brad notes, I also engage with “non-Western” thought in a way that I hope non-specialists will find interesting. Lastly, I tried to argue in a way that takes people’s experiences seriously. That is, when I talk about Scrupulosity or ADD or Autism I spent a lot of time reading what people with these conditions actually say about how their own experiences. My claims about these things are, of course, rooted in my own theory, but they take into account what real people with these conditions say about their lives.

    Now I’ll say a bit about some of the particular objections Brad raises in the review:

    1) Your account depends on a distinction between moral and non-moral virtue. But you never give a principled way of distinguishing them.

    Guilty as charged I suppose. If I had a good principled way of distinguishing the moral from the non-moral I would have included it, but I just don’t have a principled answer. I feel strongly that some virtues are moral while others aren’t. Generosity, compassion and justice seem moral, while being witty, clever, or neat do not. The closest I get, I think, is that moral stuff involves concern for moral goods (things like fair distributions, maybe well-being?). That is probably too tautological to please anybody though. I’m curious if others have ideas about how to distinguish these in a principled way.

    Brad conjures up a kind of Pseudo-Foot who thinks virtues are states that manifest good or bad will. My initial reaction is that the will is too action-centric to work for the states I’m interested in (though some people who know their Aquinas have told me that his account of the will includes involuntary states; that seems to me like a weird way to use the word ‘will’ but maybe that could work). But I’d say the proposal sounds pretty close in spirit to what I’m defending. It’s not a natural way for me to talk (I’m not sure, for example, what a “wise value” is. I’ve just been calling them “values” – are there unwise values?) and there might be some differences in the details (I suspect that “manifesting” and “being constituted by” will end up being really different). But I don’t want to deny that others can alter their views to agree with me – if they do, great! I think I’m right about this so if someone wants to make Foot right too that’s okay with me. Part of my aim is to get people thinking about things in a less action-centric way, so I actually hope that people can modify their accounts to accommodate this (even if they end up sticking with a different account of moral virtue).

    One small clarification here. Brad says “Bommarito does not substantively engage with any of the rationalist moral philosophers who would grant that virtue has an essential inner component” – but my aim isn’t to just show that virtue has an inner component, I think most people with a theory of virtue would agree to that (think of when Aristotelians distinguish “virtuous action” from “action in accordance with virtue”). I’m trying to show that states can be virtuous without an external component.

    2) “As far as I can tell, Bommarito simply takes his claims about ADD and Autism for granted, so it would be interesting to hear how he would give them some support.”

    Brad is right that I don’t really argue for the claim that someone with autism is not morally vicious simply in virtue of having autism. Basically, I believe this because of the autistic people I have met and memoirs that I have read; they didn’t seem to be morally worse people because of their autism to me. In the context of the book, I intended this to be a desideratum for any theory of virtue to explain. I file this claim in the same mental folder as “homosexuality is not a moral vice” – it’s not the sort of thing I really argue for in giving an account of virtue, rather it’s the sort of thing that is a reductio for any theory that can’t accommodate it. I’m more sure of that than I am of any philosophical theory.

    Some of the discussion made me think that, to some extent, Brad and I are talking past each other. He says, “for when we judge that people with such care-inhibiting psychological dispositions have blameless moral vices that impede them from living up to saintly or heroic ideals of moral virtue, we are just judging that they are like the rest of us.” But I think that’s just what appears when you read memoirs and firsthand accounts of autism and psychopathy: Autism is not (or not always) a care-inhibiting disorder while psychopathy is. People with autism typically care about not hurting others but have trouble understanding when and why that happens, while people with psychopathy typically don’t care about others in a non-egoistic way. When I was thinking about this I was talking to Nomy Arpaly about it and I basically agree with what she says in her PEA Soup discussion on the topic here:

    (Her first comment on that thread quotes some of the support I give from memoirs that ended up in the book.)

    3) “Following Williams (1985), one could add that modern moral faith in the universal availability of moral virtue is a fantasy that undercuts realistic moral thought and practice.” – You’re living in a fantasy world, Nic. Full virtue isn’t open to everyone!

    I don’t think I’m guilty of this as I contrast autism with psychopathy, which I think is morally vicious and is not up to the person who has it. Someone who is constitutionally unable to care for others is morally vicious in a way that makes moral virtue unavailable. I thought that given my emphasis on the moral relevance of involuntary states, I’d be accused of the opposite here!

    4) What about the depressed friend and the “bizarre” friend?

    Brad describes some interesting cases for me. Since I’m running a bit long I’ll try to be brief and talk about how I approach the kinds of cases he’s interested in. They are, in broad terms, variations of cases where a person has some first-order state and then a second-order reflective judgment about that state.

    First, it’s important to be clear that there are two states we’re evaluating here. One is the first-order emotion (or lackthereof). Another is the reflective assessment of that first-order state. My answer to why each would be virtuous or vicious is the same: It depends on what underlying cares or concerns it manifests. As Brad’s cases highlight, these two assessments can come apart. One can have a virtuous emotional response and a vicious reflective judgment of it or a vicious emotional response and a virtuous reflective judgment of it.

    The second thing to note is that assessing when and why the states are virtuous or vicious is different from assessing the people themselves as virtuous or vicious. This assessment is complex and it’s possible that neither is worse, they just have different moral vices. In that way it could be a bit like asking, “John is greedy and Fred is arrogant. Who is more vicious?” Since the book’s focus is assessing inner states, I’ll focus on that.

    I think the cases are under-described in the following ways. For the depressed friend, if the lack of emotion is a result of depression and not a lack of concern, then it’s not morally vicious. Whether or not his reflective belief that this is bad is virtuous also depends on what it manifests. If it manifests a genuine concern for me and my friendship, then it’s virtuous. But it could manifest other things too. Here are some suggestions for some other things the reflective judgment might manifest: the person might care about the idea of being popular and having friends, they might have internalized a social pressure to be close to anyone they went to high school with, they might see the lack of emotion as a sign of depression and hate the thought that they might have a mental disorder. The reflective judgment can manifest a huge range of cares, not all of them morally virtuous. So my answer is “it depends” and what it depends on is the kind of underlying orientation to moral goods that the reflective judgment manifests.

    I think the “bizarre” friend is even more under-described. It’s not said why they fail to have the first-order emotions, but it seems quite different from the depressed friend. The depressed friend fails to feel anything despite their deep concern for me. This person seems to fail to feel anything for me because they don’t care as much about me and other things in life. It’s hinted at that both the emotional response and the second-order reflective judgments are because they think there are bigger fish to fry, morally speaking. Part of this is a substantive moral issue that’s not directly related to my claims about virtue. What you think of this friend will, in part, depend on the kinds of concerns you take morality to involve. Maybe someone like Simone Weil (the patron saint of hyper-moral weirdos if ever there was one) would make such a judgment because of her deep moral concern. Maybe friendship is a moral good, if so, then if her reflective judgment manifests a lack this concern it’s vicious.

    But again, this kind of reflective judgment could be rooted in things that make it much less virtuous. Someone might make a similar judgment because they like feeling morally superior to others and so care about reinforcing their own image of themselves as better than others by pointing out other people’s “first world problems”. If that’s the case, the judgment doesn’t seem morally virtuous at all.

    The basic idea is this: the first-order state and the reflective judgment about that state are independently assessible and so to figure out whether or not the reflective judgement is virtuous or vicious you’re going to need to know what cares and concerns it manifests. As I’ve suggested, there’s a wide range of possibilities there and that’s going to matter to whether or not it’s virtuous or vicious. These things are complex, but what they ultimately depend on is how the various states manifest a person’s cares and concerns.

  2. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Nic,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and fair-minded response to my review. I want to start by emphasizing that the book has tons of cool and insightful discussions of specific cases, so my point about lack of engagement with other general views was mainly meant as a point about what you need to do to fully defend your view. Given the book’s length and aims, though, I think it was very wise to leave such engagement for another time and place!

    As I see it, your response addresses two core issues that I think still divide us. Let me try to dig in a bit more.

    (1) Are ADD/Autism Moral Vices?

    I argued that we might think of psychological conditions like ADD and Autism as moral vices and that we could class them with various other psychological issues that we all have (attachment disorders, troubles accepting and expressing our emotions, etc). I am not seeing how you reject this claim and support your contention that any theory which tells us that ADD and Autism are vices is absurd (subject to a reductio).

    I argued that ADD and Autism should be considered vices by drawing an analogy between sports roles and vices and moral ones, and I still wonder how you would respond. Maybe it will help to sketch out the argument I was floating a bit more.

    First, consider some cases in which our characteristic psychological dispositions inhibit our ability to embody our cares or values. Specifically, consider sports and relationships cases.

    (Sports) I gave the example of the son whose poor concentration leads him to be a bad goalie. I said this is plausibly thought of as a sports vice because it entails that he lacks one excellence of a good goalie and therefore makes him a worse goalie (i.e. worse than ideal ones). We might add that this vice also makes him less able to contribute to the common good of the team.

    (Relationship) Next, consider a new case of a father whose attachment disorder renders him unable to express pride and love for his son as he thinks he should. He cares about his son and his son’s accomplishments just as he should, but his disorder inhibits him from expressing those cares. I can imagine him feeling bad or sad because his disorder blocks him from having one of the excellences of an ideal (or maybe “good enough”) parent. Perhaps his lack of expressiveness leads his son to struggle at some point or impedes his ability to navigate the challenges of parenting as well as he would like. I think we could then say that his inability to express love and pride is a parental vice that makes him a worse parent (worse than an ideal parent). We might add that this vice also makes him less able to contribute to his child’s good and the common good of the family.

    These two cases seem to support a general principle about when characteristic psychological dispositions are vices. A first approximation:

    (VICE) When someone’s characteristic psychological dispositions impede excellent fulfillment of a socially valuable role and contribution to relevant goods, they are rightly called vices. They make the relevant people worse than those who excellently fulfill the relevant roles.

    I take it that this principle supports my view that ADD/Autism are in some cases moral vices that make people morally worse. So I take it that you will reject it. My question is why, given its fit with the cases above and other related ones.

    — I am thinking you might reject VICE on the grounds that *moral* roles are different from sports and relationship roles. If so, then I think that the burden is on you to say more about moral roles and how they differ from others – I am thinking you need to say more about this to reject VICE and its application to moral roles.

    Hope this clarifies where I think we differ and why I think you need to do more to defend your claim that any theory that supports my view is absurd (faces a reductio).

    Finally, I am not seeing how the stuff in the old Arpaly Pea soup thread shows a way out, but there is a lot to take in over there so maybe I am missing it.

    (2) Manifest inapt cares are vicious, but manifest corrupt values are worse.

    You rightly point out that my first two cases for this claim are under-described. As a fan of realistic cases I am not happy with them! I think my second two cases are better.

    I was trying to come up with cases in which the level of inapt care is the same but in which the agents have more and less bad cognitive views on the relevant goods.

    I am not sure but I think your response is to say that in *all* such cases the cognitive differences are the result of background differences in inapt care. If so, I think it would be interested to hear why you think this must always be the case.

    Related thoughts: You make an interesting suggestion when you ask us to think about whether people’s judgments manifest inapt cares or not. I am not sure how to understand this because I am not fully clear on what cares are. When you introduced the concept of caring you suggested that they are in principle independent of our value judgments, but now I think you are saying that our value judgments manifest our cares? Or are you just saying that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t?

    Many believe that value judgments can go beyond current cares and even explain changes in care. Is this something you reject? Are you presupposing a broadly Human view in moral psychology?

    Maybe in the end my cases at the end of the review mainly raise questions about how you understand care, practical judgment, and its relation to care. I think it will be great to see you work more on these issues in future work.

  3. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for the comments. I think it’s helping me to see places where the account isn’t as fully filled-in as it needs to be. Here’s my current thinking on the two issues you raise:

    (1) Aren’t ADD/Autism actually moral vices? Isn’t moral virtue like sports virtue?


    I think there might be some deep disagreement here as I think that moral virtue and vice is pretty different from sports virtue and vice. I’m not a sports fan but I think there are some differences between sports virtues and moral virtues. I think sports virtues are more strongly tied to results (what’s a good trait? Whatever wins the game. You don’t win the game because of traits that are valuable, leading to wins is what makes a trait valuable).

    I think being a “good person” in the moral sense is different from being a good goalie. Partly because of the Foot-like things you mentioned in the review: Being a good person is about having your heart in the right place (which will mean that you try your best). Being a good goalie is about stopping the damn puck. So for a goalie a bunch of concern-independent (or if you’re Foot, “will-independent”) stuff will make you a better goalie – having quicker reflexes, longer arms, better vision, etc. But I don’t think those kinds of things are relevant for moral assessment. Being short or autistic or clever might change how well you succeed in your aims, but they don’t change whether or not you’re a “good person”. I’m very short. That means I have a basketball vice. It also gets in the way of my being able to help people when they need it sometimes. I don’t think that makes it a moral vice.


    You say the father can’t express his concern the way he thinks he should. Am I to assume for the example that the way he thinks he should is correct? Maybe he thinks he should express his concern by micromanaging his son’s life the way his father did for him or maybe he think he should express it in a strong “masculine” way via mocking his son? I think a failure to do that would make him more, not less, virtuous. So I’ll assume by “as he thinks he should” to be “as he should”

    Now if what is getting in the way is a mental disorder, I see that as more akin to being short than to things that say something about moral character. I agree that he’s a worse father because of it, but I’m not sure he’s a morally worse person because of it.

    I granted that the dad is a worse father, but consider another case where a feature of how someone is gets in the way of “impeding excellent fulfillment of a socially valuable role and contribution to relevant goods” – I’ve been on long and somewhat dangerous trips with people who were initially strangers, but that I became close with. However, despite coming to care for them, because of how my body is I cannot help them get their luggage down. On your account, I’m a worse friend because I am short. My shortness gets in the way of a valuable social role (helping with the luggage) and blocks my contribution to something good. Some friendships I developed were limited because I cannot speak Mandarin very well. My lack of mandarin ability prevented me from helping, comforting, and encouraging people on the trip that I really did care about. On your account, my lack of Mandarin ability makes me a worse friend (maybe) but also a morally worse person (I doubt it).

    One way to put this – your proposed account makes moral vice VERY cheap and makes things count as moral vices (shortness, language ability, and I’d add autism too) that are vices, but do not strike me as things that should make someone a morally worse person.

    A rough test for moral vice:

    So I think the “psychological dispositions” relevant to moral vice have to be connected to moral care and can’t just be things that get in the way from manifesting it. I don’t deny that there are sense in which someone with ADD or who is short or can’t speak mandarin are less than ideal in some way. I think that these things don’t reflect poorly on their moral character.

    Here’s a test for what I’m getting at. Being a morally bad person is like being an asshole. Other defects are bad, but they don’t make you more of an asshole. So the son’s clinically depressed dad seems like a non-ideal father, but if he genuinely cares about his son and has tried different treatments (as you would if you deeply cared) but nothing works his disorder doesn’t seem like it makes him an asshole.

    Again, to be a bit blunt: We may have a staring contest here. I’m taking it that any view that makes people’s physical and mental disorders morally vicious is absurd. You say I didn’t give an argument for claiming this (and I’ve basically said I take it as something to be explain), but you didn’t either – you asserted an abstract principle and applied it to cases. I think the result (that people with Autism/ADD are morally worse people simply in virtue of their autism/ADD) is enough to reject the principle and try to find another one. I take it as an illustration of how moral virtue and vice are different from things like sports virtues and vices. If you want to bite that bullet that’s okay, but all I can say is that I’m not willing to bite that one.

    (2) Manifest inapt cares are vicious, but manifesting corrupt values are worse.

    Caring about something is a way of positively relating to it. I do think that is distinct from reflective judgments. What we think about what matters is different from what matters to us. Caring is a general underlying orientation to this like when we say: “He cares about his kids” – he might even be wrong about how much his kids matter to him. Reflective judgments, like any other state, could manifest a variety of cares or could manifest none (think of how many judgments we make just because everybody arounds us does and there’s no obvious counter-example. Descartes sort of just says this about his beliefs in the first meditation). So caring, as I use it, is an underlying orientation to things and reflective judgments are particular states in the same way that emotions or pleasure are.

    So I think your second case is pretty easy for my account to explain. Willis and Donald both have vicious first-order states, that is their emotions and attention manifests a morally bad concern for social capital and social status.

    Donald reflectively endorses this and Willis does not. I should say, as described, I don’t think Donald is *necessarily* more vicious overall than Willis. If Willis’ reflective judgment that his first-order states are bad manifests a greater concern for moral good than Donald, then he is better. But maybe Willis’ just judges that way because he has a pathological hangup about success and feels guilty about *any* feelings that help his career, maybe he has so much contempt for others that he thinks caring about their approval or disapproval is beneath him. Willis can make the reflective judgment you mention for any number of reasons and that will matter to how we assess him morally. It matters what kind of concerns (or if you prefer, values) that his reflective judgment manifests. How we morally evaluate their reflective judgments is by looking at what kinds of concerns give rise to them.

    Part of the relevant background here might be this: I don’t think a person’s reflective judgments have any privileged role in moral virtue. This is because I’m persuaded by cases like Oskar Schindler / Huckleberry Finn, cases where a person seems good despite their misguided reflective judgments. I also don’t think that harmony between states is always a moral good – I don’t think of the coherent Caligula and think to myself “Well, he’s not all bad, at least his mental life is in harmony” – that might be nice for him, but I don’t think it makes him morally better.