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Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Beginning from the plain thought that some instances of good moral agency are better than others while some bad ones are worse, not just in degree but in kind, this dissertation adopts Aristotle’s taxonomy of agent states: virtue, continence, incontinence, and vice. Noting, however, that certain puzzles arise from the standard Aristotelian conceptions of these states, this project develops alternative psychological accounts of them, and the key differences between them, which together provide a framework for a comprehensive alternative theory of moral agency. Chapter Two notes that the psychological difference between virtue and continence is commonly understood, in the Aristotelian tradition, in terms of inner harmony versus inner conflict. Specifically, virtuous agents experience inner harmony between feeling and action because they do not care to do other than what their circumstances call for, whereas continent agents feel conflicted about doing what is called for because of competing concerns. Critics of this view argue, however, that when circumstances require sacrificing something of genuine value, virtuous agents can indeed feel conflicted about acting well. But if this is so, then what differentiates virtuous from merely continent agency? Chapter Two argues that the traditional distinction conflates two aspects of virtue—one motivational and the other evaluative—as well as two corresponding types of continence. And distinguishing between them provides resources for making sense of the complex relationship between inner conflict and good moral agency. Chapter Three turns to the distinction between continence and incontinence. On the Aristotelian view, continence involves self-control over motives that tell against acting well (enkrateia), while incontinence involves lack of self-control in this respect (akrasia). Critics have argued, however, that such self-control is neither necessary nor sufficient for a motivationally conflicted agent to act well. In fact, if one holds false moral beliefs, then one can evidently act well from lack of self-control (inverse akrasia) as well as badly from self-control (inverse enkrateia). Chapter Three rethinks continence, incontinence, and self-control in light of this line of argument. After developing a revised conception of self-control, it argues that inverse akrasia and inverse enkrateia collapse into continence and incontinence, respectively. The result of this exercise is a non-Aristotelian psychology of continence and incontinence, but one which explains how self-control does indeed distinguish good from bad moral agency in the space between virtue and vice. Chapter Four addresses vice, incontinence, and amorality. While both vice and incontinence are morally bad, because both involve acting for the wrong reasons, incontinence is better, since it at least involves feeling the right way about doing so—ashamed, remorseful, and the like—whereas vice involves acting wrongly without remorse. But since amoral agency, too, can involve remorseless wrongdoing, an explanation is required for how vice can involve the same without collapsing into amorality. The Aristotelian answer is that vice involves failing to recognize what one’s circumstances call for such that one takes one’s wrong action to be right. This chapter contends, however, that construing vice this way conflates recognition of what is called for with concern to do what is called for. And this distinction is needed to account for the varieties of vice as well as to systematically distinguish vice from both incontinence and amorality. Moreover, the conceptions of moral recognition and moral concern required for this important task are at odd with neo-Aristotelian as well as neo-Humean moral psychology. Thus, the conclusions of these three chapters hang together as a framework for a theory of moral agency which is substantively distinct from those advanced by prevailing approaches to contemporary moral psychology. Moreover, the alternative view developed in this dissertation has the theoretical resources needed to better capture the many complex ways in which moral agents can be good, bad, better, and worse.
Chair and Committee
Anne Margaret Baxley
Eric A. Brown, Julia L. Driver, Karen E. Stohr,
Schuster, Nicholas, "The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between: A Study of Moral Agency" (2020). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2241.
Available for download on Thursday, May 15, 2025