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Summary of Argument:

            The work to be reviewed here is a classic Aristotelian approach to moral theory. It holds that the typical, contemporary analytic methods are out of place in moral theory, since moral decisionmaking is far more complex than the interplay of words and propositions. In fact, moral theory should spend more time dealing with the psychological context of decision making. But even this is not deep enough: moral theory should deal with the social and cultural complex that creates a person’s basic moral make up regardless of individual moral choices.

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In other words, moral theory should deal with the complex of environment as it conditions previous choices in a person’s moral complex. “Involuntary sins” deals with this complex, rather than the bald and abstract analysis of actual moral choices.

            Moral choices are abstractions in that they are mere epi-phenomenon, they are expression of a deeper reality, and as such, are not real; they are manifestations of the moral complex of a person.

Hence, sins that are “involuntary,” that is, are not necessarily chosen, are still sins, because they are conditioned by previous choices and basic attitudes that are conditioned by these previous choices. Furthermore, the environment that one lives in to a great extent is also the product of these choices, since, in a bad environment, if no changes or moves were made, then even the environment, in a very real way, can be said to be based on the choices fo the individual committing the specific act.

            Therefore, this paper is making the cogent argument that the individual choice is not the real entity: what truly exists is the basic underlying attitude of the agent, an the environment that the agent has either made for himself, or accepted in one form or another. Either way, even the “environment,” long believed to be a simple “given” rather than a matrix of choices over a long period of time, is in fact a series of choices that leads to the moral center of the person. All of this exists prior to and independent of the actual free, chosen act. Hence, one’s involuntary sins are in fact voluntary, if these are considered the product of previous choices.

States of Mind and Moral Responsibility:

Adams, Robert. “Involuntary Sins.” The Philosophical Review. 94, 1985, 3-31

            Most moral theory does not get to the heart of the matter. After the word games, grammatical exercises and logic puzzles, very little is ultimately said. Analytic philosophy is unsuited for moral theory, since it cannot understand the nature of mental states and their complex relation to will, desire, social environment and habit. The interrelations are complex and embedded enough so as to make the rigid logical formalities of analytic philosophy out of place.

            As a matter of course, much post medieval moral theory has concerned itself with moral acts: voluntary acts that spring from, but are not to be judged by, internal states of affairs. So first, two things must be defined. First, the concept of the voluntary. For Adams (7), the idea of voluntary must concern itself with that which is under our immediate control. Acts that are externalized in space, and hence, can be easily evaluated from the moral point of view. This has been, by and large, the basic western approach to ethics regardless of any idea on internal states, habits or the social environment.

            Second, the concept of an internal state of affairs. In some ways the concept of Aristotle’s habitus, though not mentioned by Adams, makes some sense. For Aristotle an the medievals who followed him, habitus is an important element in moral thinking and evaluation. These are internal states of affairs themselves complex: desires, emotions and feelings themselves conditioned by previous actions, habits social environment and early influences. Generally, these are not considered amenable to moral evaluation precisely because they are not voluntary. The Aristotelian tradition says otherwise, and this is the tradition that Adams is trying to reinvigorate. In a real sense, such states, such as emotions, are voluntary in a less strict sense of the word defined above.

            More specifically, emotional states do not exist because we “try” to make them happen. Emotional states are not the result, by and large, of the voluntary will bringing something to pass internally that is at the will’s beck and call. Nevertheless, the concept of “involuntary” is also misplaced (defining these strictly), since mental states do not just “happen” either (13-15). They can be judged morally because they are neither voluntary or involuntary (in the strict sense).

            The basic Aristotelian position that Adams is working within goes like this:

            a. states of mind and emotions, including desires, etc., do not just happen. They are the result of previous habituation, a habituation conditioned by consistent voluntary acts as well as education and social environment.

            b. the habits are the crystallization of previous choices and the context in which previous choices are made. If one is habitually angry when something does not go one’s way, this anger, through an involuntary reflex in the strict sense, is itself not completely involuntary because it it the result of the prior refusal to repent of such a disposition. A consistent pattern of anger-reactions has gone unchecked, so that now, all that irritates the agent is returned with anger. This, stated this way, is morally judgable even if no external action occurs because it is a disruptive feeling and though process. It is not, to put it differently, a social response that does the agent any good (21).

            Hence, if we take this seriously, internal states, participating in the idea of habitus, are in fact morally judgable at least because one can be pretty sure such intense mental states will lead to external action. Adams will put the identical situation in a different way using the concept of self-righteousness (5). Think of an agent who is habituated to be angry. The agent is in a situation where he gets angry, but has the self control to do nothing about it. The motive that the agent might have is self-righteousness, that is, he is not reacting because not reacting feeds the ego: “I am in control, and a nonentity like yourself will never get me to break my cool demeanor.” Such a view if common enough, and in this case, the lack of external manifestation of anger is itself worthy of condemnation.

            But this is not the heart of the issue. There are five points here that make up the heart of the issue, each with its own drawbacks. The rest of the paper will deal with these.

            1. The existence of “involuntary” mental states is the result of habituation, that is, among other things, the result of many previous choices that manifested the same problematic response, anger, sadness, despondency, etc. But many will argue that such responses are not the fault of the agent if the agent has been poorly brought up, or in a community where such responses are typical and tolerated.

            2. Repentance: this is the key. There must be a recognition that such states are anti-social and must be eradicated. There must be a state that is more fundamental than the fleeting states of anger, despondency, etc. This is repentance, the idea of turning away from these common responses and treating mental states as voluntary. This might be an oblique reference to natural law, where such fundamental states are part of the social elements built into the human person, the innate relation to sociability so important to Aristotle and Thomas.

            3. Apart from repentance, or the actualization of this fundamental state of sociability (over and above one’s base responses), the idea that only external manifestations of actions are morally evaluatable is wrong, and leads to the ignorance of the root of bad action: habitus. Putting this differently, the true moral life means that good and social actions are done not from a desire to appear moral, but from internal states that voluntarily seek to do socially-useful actions. This is why Aristotle is right. In response, someone like Adam Smith will say that socially useful actions derive from the desire to appear moral and from nothing else, since human beings, while social, seek to use to social world for gain. The market is a mechanism where this schizophrenia is put to good uses, and hence, internal states can be ignored.

            4. Self knowledge. Adams is not satisfied with the utilitarian approach of Smith and the libertarians. The moral agent is made of two components: moral mental states, providing a solid, social response to irritants: understanding in the way Marcus Aurelius would view it, rather than anger and resistance. And, apart form ths fundament, moral action that derives voluntarily from these moral states. The mental state is voluntary on a very long fuse, that of upbringing and habituation. But the utilitarian would counter that such things are largely not voluntary, and hence, mental states are not so. But the idea of #2 then becomes more and more important: to access to “social programming” of natural law to revisit these states and pursue actions, friends and environments more conducive to social utility and virtue. In other words, even if we hold that such states are involuntary, that is an excuse: the reality is self-knowledge, to realize that objectionable states lead to objectionable results, and hence, repentance is not repentance for an individual act, but for a mental state or habituated, learned response to irritating stimuli. This takes ethics on a very different plane than the Kantians or utilitarians often admit.

            5. The nature of punishment (23). The idea of punishment is not to “make up” for external actions, but to inculcate repentance and sorrow, not merely for the external acts, but the nature of the personality (to use a “short-cut” term) that leads to the stats that then lead to the act. This is real ethics: a fully social, personalist and psychological approach to states as conditioned by habit, and habit by many prior (and maybe forgotten) previous actions and experiences.

            To conclude, there are two ways of reading Adams: the strong way, that holds mental states as morally culpable in that they are voluntary, and they are such because of prior actions. This is the classic Aristotelian understanding of virtue ethics. But there is a weak way: that there is a mental state more fundamental than the learned responses of anger, etc., and that is repentance, the desire to do “the right thing” for the right reason, not the Smith-ian idea of social utility through the market mechanism (that explicitly rejects the importance of prior mental states). Social interaction and integration makes more sense from the Aristotelian point of view than the utilitarian one: social schizophrenia (doing the right things in the face of the wrong state of mind) is never a good thing and leads to breakdown. Nevertheless, Adams and Aristotle can be convicted of a class bias (that only those from calm, suburban or aristocratic backgrounds have the pervious experience to learn right states from wrong ones), but this excuse cannot be allowed to hold.


Cite this Involuntarysins

Involuntarysins. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/involuntarysins/

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