Wednesday, February 13, 2019

04 Thomas on the vices

Edited and updated 2019/02/14

… it is due to its [Reason’s] own weakness in not standing to the good purpose it has conceived …

For Jane Austen, sincerity is not a virtue. It it is only a simulacrum of a virtue. The real virtue behind sincerity is constancy. By way of example, she tells us the story of John Willoughby who is guilty of inconstancy.

In the story, Willoughby is involved in an intense courtship with Marianne Dashwood. He has not proposed marriage yet but it seems to Marianne that he will. Before she has a chance to find out, Willoughby’s past catches up with him. In the past he seduced the teenage ward of a neighbour and got her pregnant. His aunt, whose fortune he was counting on inheriting, finds out about his behaviour and insists that he do right by the girl. Although this would guarantee his inheritance, it would ruin him socially as this marriage would not be acceptable in the circles he travels in. Instead, he successfully woos a rich heiress, thus freeing himself from dependency on his aunt. Alas, this also necessitates his abruptly breaking off his courtship with Marianne, which has devastating consequences on her.

Marianne is also imprudent. She is constant but she tends to be precipitous. As her sister, Elinor says of her, "what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.” She spins wildly out of control. During her breakdown, she catches a fever and seems on death’s bed. Willoughby, learning of this, comes rushing to inquire, thereby revealing that he really does love her. This reassurance is important for Marianne (and, oddly enough, for her sister Elinor) for it confirms that her sensibility, what we would call her feelings that Willoughby cared for her, were indeed reliable even if  she did not show much sense in the way she responded. She is able to go on with her life now, understanding that sensibility must be balanced with sense, which is what the ancient Greeks would have called phronesis.

Several philosophers, most famously Alasdair MacIntyre, have identified Jane Austen as perhaps the last great figure in the virtue ethics tradition before the current revival. Let us consider, then, the case of Willoughby’s inconstancy in contrast to the analysis of this state we find in Thomas’s Question 53, article five, Secunda Secundae.

Now it’s interesting that in Austen’s story Willoughby has not made a vow of any sort to Marianne. Would we still say he was inconstant if he had declared his love to her? In the culture of the late 18th century declaring his love would have been a vow to marry. Marianne, we are told, was acting in a way that led others to believe that he had spoken as if he were about to and that the only thing that remained to do was to make it official and public. But what difference would it have made as regards inconstancy? The case would seem even clearer if he had made an offer to marry and then withdrawn it. Both such cases would no doubt be inconstancy on his part but it seems to me that we would be more inclined to condemn him for lying rather than inconstancy if a private promise had been made and then withdrawn. Could we imagine inconstancy to be making private promises to oneself and then failing to live up to them? That is, the sin we would accuse him of is of making an implicit promise and failing to live up to it. But, you may object, even if that is what happens, the vice of inconstancy is something other than breaking promises but rather something that goes on in the background. (If it is, what is the greater fault, the promises that are broken or the vice that makes us tend to break them? We can't say the vice causes us to break them for we can overcome our vices sometimes.)

The difference here, it seems to me, is that breaking a vow or leading someone on are both sins that directly afflict another person. Willoughby’s inconstancy leads him to act badly towards Marianne but his bad behaviour is not the inconstancy itself but rather a product of it; otherwise, why name the vice when you can name a sin? And Marianne is far from faultless herself. If her feelings about how he felt about her had been wrong, and they easily could have been, there would have been no fault at all on his part. The story concerns itself largely with the inner lives of these characters and it is in Willoughby’s inner life that he stands accused of inconstancy and not his outward behaviour, even though that outward behaviour is appalling by other standards.

Turning to Thomas, here is how he explains inconstancy in article 5:
Inconstancy denotes withdrawal from a definite good purpose. Now the origin of this withdrawal is in the appetite, for a man does not withdraw from a previous good purpose, except on account of something being inordinately pleasing to him: nor is this withdrawal completed except through a defect of reason, which is deceived in rejecting what before it had rightly accepted. And since it can resist the impulse of the passions, if it fail to do this, it is due to its own weakness in not standing to the good purpose it has conceived; hence inconstancy, as to its completion, is due to a defect in the reason. Now just as all rectitude of the practical reason belongs in some degree to prudence, so all lack of that rectitude belongs to imprudence. Consequently inconstancy, as to its completion, belongs to imprudence. And just as precipitation is due to a defect in the act of counsel, and thoughtlessness to a defect in the act of judgment, so inconstancy arises from a defect in the act of command. For a man is stated to be inconstant because his reason fails in commanding what has been counselled and judged.
Everything that happens here can be described in the terms Thomas sets out. “Inconstancy demotes withdrawal from a definite good purpose.” Willoughby has withdrawn from proposing marriage. “… man does not withdraw from a previous good purpose, except on account of something being inordinately pleasing to him.” Again, Willoughby is not prevented from marrying Marianne, he withdraws because he finds being wealthy inordinately pleasing. And the mere fact that he can stifle his love for Marianne in order to capture a rich heiress tells us that his reason “can resist the impulse of the passions.” We could say then that "his reason fails in commanding what has been counseled and judged.”

Logically, that seems sound but it doesn’t seem adequate psychologically speaking. For starters, we don’t typically speak of reason failing to do things. Nor, for that matter, do we speak of the will failing to do things. We might say someone didn’t have the rational ability to figure something out or that he didn’t have the will to stick to it. Blame attaches to the person and not their “faculties".

I suspect Thomas talks this way for he sees reason as a defining characteristic of what it is to be human. To fail to be reasonable is to act like an animal and thus to fail to live up to our nature. I haven’t looked up his argument but I suspect it would go something like that. I don’t see anything wrong with that line of thought. That said, to speak of reason as if it had agency strikes me as wrong.

There is also reason and its subject matter. In mathematics there is usually a right answer and only one right answer. Many of life’s moral choices, however, involve choosing an acceptable moral choice from a number of right answers. In a post-Nietzschean world we speak of “values”. Values are not like virtues in that there is less judgment involved. I can choose to value French music of the late Romantic era, Bourbon, Japanese gardens, marriage and Proust. There is a moral component in all these things and yet it is easily imaginable that someone might not value some or all these things and still be a good person. Jesus taught us to love one another but my spouse expects me to love her in an exclusive way. I didn’t have to choose to value her in this special way but, once I did, there is a reasonable moral expectation that I keep it up.

Willoughby's reason didn’t have to counsel and judge that he love Marianne. Yes, choosing her was a good choice but it was far from the only choice. Her sister Elinor would have been a better choice. That said, there is no rational obligation to take the best possible choice. And Willoughby is not a man who suffers from a shortage of people willing to fall in love with him. (There is no point in resisting the plausibility of this: there are people who have the sort of sexual power that Willoughby has and it is only a foolish spite to try to deny this.) No matter how we try to explain this all in terms of reason, the inescapable truth is that voluntarism enters the equation. Willoughby could have reasonably decided that while he might easily fall in love with Marianne, it would be better not to do so.

It seems to me that there were a series of judgments that he might have made about Marianne. He could have decided that she was a lovable person but that judgment does not require any action. His reason might have also told him that it would be good for him to fall in love with her and still not have required action. What is needed from reason is a judgment to the effect that he should fall in love with her so go and do it. But even then, he must assent to that judgment. 

We don’t have to imagine that the decision making process will literally consist in Willoughby literally making those mental judgments. Most people, even people who act prudently, rarely slow down and deliberately go through such a process. At one point in our lives we may have done so but we rely on habits of thought and behaviour on a  day-to-day basis. I think we can say that he made the judgment implicitly and that he implicitly consented to it.

Why do I think we can say such things? Because it is possible to pass moral judgment on Willoughby. That is the uniquely valuable perspective Austen gives us. Willoughby commits no clear sin towards Marianne, all that is exposed is his vice.

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