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UserpicAristotle on Wild Justice
10.07.09

Skepticism concerning the moral status of Happy Dog's motivation is not restricted to those who adhere to the Kantian vision of morality as constituted by normative self-control over one's actions and sentiments. What is, for our purposes at least, a cognate view can be found in what is generally thought of as a diametrically opposing position: Aristotle's account of the virtues.

In this passage from the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasizes the psychological complexity of the virtues:

But for actions in accord with the virtues to be done transparently or justly it does not suffice that they themselves have the right qualities. Rather, the agent must also be in the right state when he does them. First he must know that he is doing virtuous actions; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and, third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state (1105a27-35).

For an action to be an expression of a virtue, it must not simply be an example of what would commonly be regarded as a virtuous action (have the ‘right qualities'). In addition, the agent must (a) know that he is performing a virtuous action, and (b) perform the action because it is a virtuous action (‘decide on them for themselves'), and (c) this decision must be an expression of a stable disposition on the part of the agent.
It is the conjunction of conditions (a) and (b) that are important for our purposes, because it is these that underlie hostility to the idea that in bringing the meaty bone to Sad Dog, Happy Dog is acting virtuously. Together, in a manner not dissimilar to that identified in Kant, they impose a minimal condition of reflection on the virtuous agent. To satisfy these conditions, the agent must understand what a virtue is, and be motivated by this understanding to perform a certain action because it would be expressive of this virtue. I shall call this - the conjunction of (a) and (b) - the reflection condition on virtue:

For action φ, performed by agent A, to be an expression of virtue, V, it is necessary that A (i) be able to understand that φ is an instance of a virtue, and (ii) A must φ because he understands that φ is an instance of a virtue and wishes to be virtuous.

Does Happy Dog satisfy the reflection condition?

I should add - I don't agree with any of this. But it is someting that needs addressing if we want to believe that animals can be moral agents.

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