Ethics of disposition, not decision

I’ve been thinking further on the decision/capacity distinction first articulated by Andrew Ollett, and I want to take a further step. So far Andrew and I have merely acknowledged the existence of this distinction – identifying different thinkers on either side and exploring the distinction’s implications for philosophical methodology. But I am, at this point, ready to make a more substantive claim: the “capacity” approaches are better. In ethics, we should be “capacity” rather than “decision” thinkers. I had stressed before that we can and should address the “capacity” approach philosophically and not merely historically; now I want to actually do so, and say that it is correct.

Before getting into the substantive issues, I would like to propose a revision of the categories that Andrew employed: the approach that we should juxtapose against individual choices or decisions is not capacity so much as disposition, predisposition, habit. It’s not just about what we’re capable of doing – the implication of “capacity” – but about those features of our natures and our personalities that lead to and constitute our actual everyday actions, the vast majority of them that occur without any “decision” or “choice”. Not just what we can do, but what underlies the things we actually do. In a sense, the “capacity” language is still too oriented toward decision – it suggests that we are thinking about capabilities we develop which we can then reflect on and make a decision one way or the other, such that the decision is what actually defines what is done. Rather, in most cases, there is no decision at all; there is more than capacity, there is a predisposition that leads to the action without thought.

Now to the reasons to advocate a disposition rather than a decision approach. I say this partially as a Buddhist and a wavering Aristotelian; both of these traditions put far more emphasis on our dispositions and habits than on individual choices. Śāntideva’s argument against free will, if successful, makes the concept of choice or decision meaningless outside of a larger context; in a very different Buddhism, Buddhaghosa too is concerned with capacity and not decision; Aristotle is considered the paradigm of a “virtue ethicist”. (I had previously argued that the term “virtue ethics” is unhelpful, but I suspect I was wrong; the term can be helpful in pointing out the ways in which premodern ethical traditions focus our attention on dispositions and character traits rather than moments of individual choice.)

But just as much, I say this because of the evidence from contemporary psychological observation and experiment. Last time I noted how Daniel Kahneman’s work shows us that most human thought happens at an unconscious level – including such supposedly rational activities as mathematical reasoning. As far as I can tell, this point applies just as much to reasoning we would consider ethical or moral.

Suppose we were actually faced with the trolley problem in real life: suppose we actually were driving a trolley about to hit five people that we could redirect to hit one. Would we consider the utilitarian and deontological foundations of our thought and weigh the different rational considerations for each in order to come to our decision on what to do? Of course not! We wouldn’t have time for that. Any “decision” – if that is even the right term, and it probably isn’t – would be a snap decision, based on our habits more than on any deliberative thought. The point suggests to me that the real focus of ethics and moral philosophy should be on the habits we work or do not work to train ourselves in, rather than on science-fictional thought experiments about extreme cases. And such habits are just where the focus of Buddhist ethicists like Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva lies. If we insist on “ethics” being about principles for calculated decisions, then, like Damien Keown, we may come to think that there is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. But I submit this is because Buddhist philosophers, unlike analytical ethicists, put their ethical focus where it should be: on dispositions of mind rather than on discrete decisions.

An analytic philosophy course I took once refused the question “How should we live?” as too vague, preferring “What should we do?” – the standard focus of analytical ethics, concerned as it is with questions of individual action like the trolley problem. But if “How should we live?” is indeed too vague, its replacement should not be “What should we do?” but “What sort of people should we be?” The former question is quite appropriate for a robot, which does indeed precisely calculate the most appropriate individual action to take in an individual case. But that is not how human beings work. If we were ever somehow faced with a trolley case in real life, we would not turn to our weighing of consequentialism and deontology to figure out what to do – or if we did, by the time we figured it out, the decision of non-decision would already have been made for us. Rather, we would make a snap decision based on existing habits, dispositions, of mind.

To think about ethics in terms of dispositions rather than decisions is not merely theoretical; it has practical implications. When we think in terms of dispositions, we see why it is morally wrong to eat one’s dead dog for pleasure: not because the action itself causes any harm, but because one is thereby the sort of person who would think nothing of taking such an action toward what should have been a beloved companion. The most fundamental thing to evaluate is not the action taken in isolation, but the person’s character.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

2 thoughts on “Ethics of disposition, not decision

  1. I am not sure I understand your differentiation of disposition from capacity. Using emotion as an example:

    To me, a disposition would be the nature of someone who is easily angered compared to someone who is slow to anger. It is a character trait. This is a relatively fixed nature.

    To me, a capacity is the ability to handle the anger once it arises. Low anger capacity would yell and loss their wits anytime anger arose. High anger capacity knows how to take a deep breath, not take the issue personally and to address the arising issue from its causative source. Capacity is often equated with emotional intelligence. This is something that can be taught, developed and has the ability to change.

    I am not a philosopher, but from the point of view of teaching ethics (in my realm) to psychologists, Ayurvedic practitioners, etc., it is often seen as a capacity along the spectrum of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Does that relate, or is there a different use of your terms.

  2. I think the above comment is onto something: insofar as we understand human dispositions (and tendencies, proneness, habits, inclinations, liabilities and susceptibilities) as traits of (both innate and acquired) temperament, character, and personality, which involve reference to doing and action (to be, feel, become or do) they would appear to conceptually presuppose or assume the notion of “capabilities” of various kinds (e.g., perceptual skills, emotional and intellectual capacities…).

    Be that as it may, and for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree that dispositions (including what A.O. Rorty defines as ‘magnetizing dispositions’) are far more interesting and important (than a focus on ‘decision-making’ or decisions) when it comes to questions of ethics, moral psychology, and human agency more generally. The focus on “decisions” may be in part owing to its amenability to experimentation, both simple “thought experiments” as well as the actual lab or lab-like behavioral experiments one finds in cognitive psychology (many philosophers like to cite scientific ‘evidence’ of this sort for their theoretical constructions or philosophical beliefs, as it accords them, rightly or wrongly, more of an air of professional and intellectual authority). Attention devoted to dispositions can better account for such pervasive psychological phenomena as self-deception, wishful thinking, states of denial, insufficient self-knowledge, akrasia, irrational conservation of the emotions (see Rorty again on this), etc., etc. I think it is also better suited to helping us appreciate the motley or heterogeneous character of the class of motives.

    Finally, and again after (the other) Rorty, the decision-oriented approach to ethics or moral theory exemplifies the continuing power of three myths in contemporary moral theory: (i) the myth of judicialism: “It treats the moral agent as a judge attempting to select the best action by determining which is the most justified” (includes evaluation of reasons and often conjoined with formalism); (ii) the myth of eminent domain: This “tells us that moral considerations and obligations are distinguishable from, and claim dominance over, those arising from personal commitments and loyalties, or from aesthetic and religious activity.” In other words, the domain of morality entails “a class of actions, principles, considerations, or motives, that are distinguishable from those which govern the rest of practical life” (as in the moral and political doctrine of double standards associated with forms of political and legal ‘realism’ as well as ‘dirty hands’ apologies or rationalizations); and (iii) the myth of apolitical individualism (this one has a bit more complex structure than the previous two): This myth views “the individual as the autonomous source of action (or at any rate of her morally significant intentional attitudes) and the ultimate unit of moral liability and responsibility.” Hence, “moral attention is primarily directed to the formation and reformation of individual attitudes and actions.” The causal arrow or our moral epidemiology and (and therapeutic regimen) is unidirectional: “social practices and institutions are evaluated primarily by their effects on individual thriving ….” (So, for instance, this myth can be ‘evasive about the extent to which conceptions of thriving [or flourishing] and of well-formed lives are socially formed, and the extent to which an individual’s thriving is a function of her conception of thriving.’) “While social and political structures do indeed have markedly different effects on individual psychology, those differences reflect differences in the ramified and socially structure etiologies of individual psychology.”

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