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Moral Incapacities

  • Ton Van Den Beld (a1)

There has been a time in my teaching career that I used to cite in my introductory classes ‘Moral Philosophy’ from Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (a best seller of the 1970's). The situation leading up to the quote is that the main character, Isadora, is asked a sexual favour by her brother in law, Pierre. Her answer and the subsequent dialogue read then as follows: ‘I can't’, I said. ‘Come on,’ Pierre said, ‘I'll teach you.’ ‘I didn't mean that… I meant that I can't; morally, I can…’

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1 Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, (Panther Book 1974), 221222.

2 Bernard Williams, ‘Moral Incapacity.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 113 (1993), 5970; reprinted in: idem, Making sense of humanity and other philosophical papers 1982-1993 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 4655.

3 Moral Incapacity,’ Philosophy 70, No. 272 (04 1995), 273285.

4 Williams, op. cit., 60 (47). Henceforth all page numbers in the text refer to Williams's ‘Moral Incapacity,’ first number to the original publication, second number to the reprint, see note 2.

5 Aristotle might be interpreted as taking the view that the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning is, at least in some cases, a decision; see Anthony Kenny, Aristotle's Theory of the Will, (London: Duckworth., 1979), esp. 142–143. Robert Audi holds that the conclusion is a practical judgment which has the power ‘to produce, or at least to trigger, intention, decision or action.’ See his Practical Reasoning (London: Routledge, 1989), 99; cp. 1819.

6 Cp. Audi, op. cit. 94-95, 118.

7 David Wiggins, ‘Deliberation and Practical Reason,’ Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.) (Berkeley: University of California Press), 233.

8 See Oberman Heiko A., Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel (Berlin: Severin, 1982), 216. Note that the order of Luther's words is not as is usually assumed.

9 Cp. Anthoy Kenny, Will, Freedom and Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), 123129.

10 Cp. Mele Alfred. R., Autonomous Agents. From Self-Control to Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6061.

11 Both the passive nature of a moral incapacity and the emphasis on the third-personal point of view somehow reflect Williams's sympathy with ‘the Greeks’ and his acknowledgement of similarities between ‘Greek [ethical] conceptions and our own,’ Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2, 10; cp. 8184, 103, 135139.

12 Cp. Aristotle: ‘We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done,’ N.E. 1112a31;see also Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause and Blame. Perspectives on Aristotle's Theory (London: Duckworth, 1980), 227242.

13 Cp. Geach P., God and the Soul (London: Routledge, 1969), 123.See also Aristotle, N.E. 1103a31-1103b3.

14 Taylor, ‘Moral Incapacity,’ 277. All further page numbers in the text refer to this article (for details, see note 3).

15 Taylor identifies, rightly I think, the considerations which play a role in Williams's account of deliberation leading up to the discovery of a moral incapacity, with so called ‘internal reasons’ as explained in : Williams's ‘Internal and External Reasons,’ in: Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 101113.

16 Let it be noted that there need not have been a prior connection between that moral ground and R's motivational set (his dispositions or whatever).

17 See Velleman J. David, ‘What Happens When Someone Acts?Mind, 101 (1992), 476478.

18 Eleonore Stump has identified the agent with her reasoning faculty, see her ‘Sanctification, Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt's Concept of Free Will,’ Journal of Philosophy 85 (1988), 410.

19 For more about the conditions of self-control, see Mele Alfred R., op. cit. (see note 10).

20 Cp. Velleman, op. cit. 479. It might be obvious by now that I am not paraphrasing Aristotle in his own terms.

21 John McDowell, ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’ In: The Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol. 52 (1978), 2629.

22 Op. cit. 27-28.

23 Op. cit. 28

24 Of course, if we take the course of action mentioned to an agent or crossing his mind to be an abomination, a real incapacity may be involved. Think, for example, of moral abominations such as having sexual intercourse with a dead body, or with an animal. Most of us, I presume, are psychologically incapable of doing these things. Note that these incapacities have nothing to do with deliberation. They are a matter of sheer impotence.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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