A Recipe for Counterexamples to Slote's "Sentimentalist Virtue and Moral Judgment"
In his 2001 book “Morals From Motives,” Michael Slote undertook a project to defend a virtue-based ethics of caring within the domain of decisively normative ethics; since then, and particularly in his essay “Sentimentalist Virtue and Moral Judgment”, he has attempted a broader project, which is to defend ethical sentimentalism (with an emphasis on the role of empathy) within a metaethical--and not solely a normative--domain.
In this essay, Slote highlights what I think are some accurate and insightful facts about human empathy as it is manifest in moral evaluation. (See, for example, his comments on temporal immediacy and causal immediacy of potential sentiment-invoking states of affairs, and their relationships to our empathic responses to such states of affairs with these properties of immediacy; his points on this score seems to me correct and, descriptively, helpful). This aside, I want to focus on a concern I have with Slote’s project, which pertains to an amendment Slote makes to Adam Smith’s response to Humean sentimentalism. Hume had, rather famously, maintained the descriptive claim that we tend to approve of traits in proportion to the beneficial effects (we believe) that they produce. Hume holds, as Slote puts it, that we have “empathetic pleasure or displeasure at those (likely) effects.” (Epistemic and Moral Virtues, Pritchard and Brady, p. 123).
Adam Smith had criticized this position by arguing that it cannot account for the fact that we do not approve or disapprove of inanimate objects “for their predictable effects on human happiness” (123). Smith, in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” offers an agent-based, rather than an effect-based, alternative:
“We approve of someone’s motives if, when we put ourselves in their position, we find that we would have the same sort of motivation” (123, Slote’s précis of Smith’s position).
Smith’s descriptive position is failure, and Slote rightly points this out. This is because it cannot account for our approval of the motives of agents who act supererogatorily. Slote writes: “After all, I might view someone else as, say, more forgiving than I would be about some matter, yet this need not prevent me from approving of the person whom I view as different from myself (and perhaps as more admirable than myself” (123).
Slote thinks that Smith is correct focusing on properties of agents rather than of potential effects as being that which engenders moral approval or disapproval, and offers a variation of Smith’s position that (Slote) thinks is immune from counterexamples like the one he mentions. Slote (importantly) writes:
“Approval and disapproval of actions and their agents, I want to say, involve (the sentiment and mechanism of) empathy, but to put the matter somewhat too baldly, the empathy involved here is empathy with the agent’s empathy or lack of it.” (124).”
Slote explicates this suggestion more carefully in the subsequent paragraph:
“When I, as judge or non-agent observer, empathetically feel the warmth of an agent as displayed in a given action, then the derivative or reflecting warmth that I feel is a (morally non-judging) feeling of approval toward the action or its agent qua doer of that action; and, similarly, when the agent’s actions display an absence of warmth/tenderness, my observer empathy will register or reflect with the contrast with agentive warmth as a cold feeling or (as we say) “chill” of disapproval (124).
Slote’s own position is, I think, subject to just as serious problems as is the view he rejected of Smith’s. I’ll propose a counterexample to Slote:
What form would such a counterexample take?
Consider that Slote holds the following two conditionals:
(i) If an observing agent empathetically feels the warmth of (another) agent as displayed in an action A, then the felt warmth is a feeling of approval toward the action or its agent qua doer of that action.
(ii) When the (observed) agent’s action A displays an absence of warmth/tenderness, my observer empathy will register or reflect a cold feeling or “chill” of disapproval.
A counterexample case to the first conditional would be one in which the antecedent is granted, and neither of the disjuncts in the consequent hold. And so, a counterexample would be one in which an observing agent empathetically feels the warmth of another agent as displayed in an action A, and yet, that felt warmth is neither a feeling of approval toward the action or its agent qua doer of that action.
A counterexample case to the second conditional would be one in which the antecedent is granted (i.e. the observed agent’s action A displays an absence of warmth/tenderness), and yet, it is not the case that (as the consequent claims), my observer empathy will register or reflect a cold feeling or “chill” of disapproval.
For the sake of clarity, I will offer a counterexample first to the second of Slote’s two conditionals. I’ll then use a similar strategy to (more briefly) offer a counterexample to the first conditional. I then offer what I think is a general “cookbook” recipe for generating counterexamples to the conditionals Slote is defending.
And so, first, a counterexample to Slote’s second conditional.
Stabber Hans and the Closing Elevator
Hans, upon careful reflection, determines the following: “I shall attempt, with my knife, to stab the face of an innocent human being.” He determines, also, that he will attempt this plan only once, and that regardless of the result of his attempt, he will never attempt to execute it again.
Hans informs you of his plan, and when you decry it as “heinous and shameful,” he ties you up and stuffs you into a janitorial closet at a nearby University. He says he will not kill you, and that he will release you in three days.
Unbeknownst to Hans, there is a peephole in the closet, which provides you with a view of a portion of a the hallway, and an elevator. Hours later, you see a particularly virtuous classmate, Sissy, walk into the elevator. Sissy, out of routine, presses a button and continues to read a book she is holding. You notice, in horror, that Sissy’s reading her book has left her unaware of an approaching Hans, who is sneaking toward her with a butcher’s knife. He swipes at her, but the elevator door closes just in time to deflect his knife. “Oh well,” Hans says, tossing his knife in a nearby garbage can. “Like I said, that was my one attempt; I’ll never try that again.”
This would be a case, I suspect, in which the observed agent’s action involves a “lack of warmth/tenderness” and yet, it’s not the case that this lack of warmth/tenderness leaves you (the observer) with cold feelings of disapproval. Your sentimental response is not chilled, but rather, a blissful relief. And in fact, Hans’ action (the swiping and missing of Sissy), leaves you delighted to see that (for example) an injustice was not done, and that the goal of his malicious plan did not come to fruition. No matter how greatly an agent’s actions might lack warmth/tenderness, conclusions about an how an observer will respond sentimentally to an that agent’s action cannot be generated without consideration of the effects the observer accepts to be a result of the observed agent’s action.
We can generate a parallel counterexample to the first of Slote’s two conditionals:
Just suppose that Hans, who has undergone counseling and dedicated his life to altruism, decides that he wishes to make amends for his evil-intentioned, unsuccessful attempt on Sissy’s life. Hans decides to give Sissy a bottle of wine and a note of apology. Hans purchases the wine from a man name Franz, who (believing it will be consumed by Hans, whom he loathes) has poisoned it. Franz, tipsy from unpoisoned wine, tells you that he sold Hans poisoned wine. You then learn of Hans’ plans innocent plans to give the wine to Sissy. Franz, worried that you might foil his plan, ties you up and puts you back in the closet with the peep-hole. From it you witness yet another elevator scene: From your peeping view, you witness Hans handing Sissy that bottle of wine and an apology note. Sissy accepts the gift and disappears behind the closing elevator doors.
This revised case, I think, serves as a counterexample to the first of Slote’s conditionals for the reason that the observing agent (you) empathetically feels the warmth of another agent (Hans) as displayed in an action A (for certainly, you are empathetic to what you take to be his empathetic motives), and yet, that felt warmth is neither a feeling of approval toward the action or its agent qua doer of that action. Your approval, rather, is approval of agent qua the agent’s empathic motives in his action, and not approval of the agent qua doer of the action. (And hence, the antecedent in the conditional is granted, and neither disjunct of the consequent holds). To be clear, the only approval felt here is approval of poor Hans’ empathetic intentions in his gift to Sissy; you do not approve, however, of either the act of giving an innocent girl poison wine, nor Hans qua his giving an innocent girl poison wine.
What do these two counterexamples have in common? Both examples are ones in which what has a hand in generating in an observer a feeling of approval or disapproval is, at least partly, outside the domain of control of the observed agent.
In the first counterexample, that Hans missed Sissy with the knife was outside the control of Hans and his non-empathetically warm motive. In the second counterexample, that the wine was poison was beyond the control of Hans and his empathetically warm motive.
Sometimes, the empathy of our motives is not reflected in the outcome of the actions of these motives. We, as observers, are susceptible to approving or disapproving of others empathetic sentiments, and we are also susceptible to approving or disapproving of the results of others’ empathetic (or non-empathetic) sentiments. Some actions (like those in the counterexamples) incorporate mismatchings of agent’s empathetic motive (which invoke approval in an observer) in action coupled with effects that tend to invoke disapproval. Other actions, conversely, incorporate mismatchings of agent’s non-empathetic motives (which invoke disapproval in an observer) in action coupled with effects that tend to invoke approval. In such mismatchings, we have our recipe for counterexample to the position Slote avers.
One thing, I think, that can be learned from this is that no sentimentalist ethic should, when making descriptive claims about human psychology, fail to realize that properties of agents (such as whether we identify them as empathetic) as well as properties of actions (i.e. whether they produce effects of which we approve) are capable of invoking sentiments of approval or disapproval in an observer. Excluding either, I think, is a mistake.