Virtue ethicists often appeal to practical skill as a way of understanding the nature of virtue. An important commitment of a skill account of virtue is that virtue is learned through practice and not through study, memorization, or reflection alone. In what follows, I will argue that virtue ethicists have only given us half the story. In particular, in focusing on outputs, or on the right actions or responses to moral situations, virtue ethicists have overlooked a crucial facet of virtue: namely, that through practice, virtuous agents develop a cache of perceptual skills that allow them to attend to, detect, and identify the relevant features of a perceptual array, the selection of which is central to recognizing and categorizing a situation as a moral situation of a particular type. In order to support this claim, I will appeal to empirical studies of motor expertise, which show that an expert's capacity to attend to and recognize relevant perceptual inputs differs in important respects from the layperson's. Specifically, I will argue that performing the right action in the right circumstances improves an agent's ability to attend to and identify the morally relevant features of a moral situation.
1 See, for instance, Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Annas, J., Intelligent Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); McDowell, J., Mind Value and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Stichter, M., ‘Ethical Expertise: The Skill Model of Virtue’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (2007), 183–194 ; Stichter, M., ‘Virtues, Skills, and Right Action’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 14 (2011), 73–86 .
2 I will discuss exceptions to this generalization below. See especially: Murdoch, I., Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1970) and Blum, L., ‘Moral Perception and Particularity’, Ethics 101 (1991), 701–725 .
3 Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 22–23.
4 ‘From the start then, the child will learn by copying the role model… But this will not lead to bravery, as opposed to foolish repetition’ (Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 23) and ‘virtue cannot be adequately understood just as a disposition to perform actions: the virtuous person is a person whose actions are performed for certain reasons’ (Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 28).
5 Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 20.
6 Likewise, Annas writes that, ‘the need to learn does justice to the fact that virtues are always learned in particular embedded contexts’ (Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 25).
7 Jacobsen, D. ‘Seeing by feeling: Virtues, skills, and moral perception’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (2005), 387–409 .
8 McDowell, Mind, Value and Reality, 85.
9 McDowell, J., ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist 62 (1979), 331–350 ; McDowell, J., Mind Value and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
10 ‘So the deliverances of this sensitivity constitute, one by one, complete explanations of the actions which manifest the virtue. Hence, since the sensitivity fully accounts for its deliverances, the sensitivity fully accounts for the actions. But the concept of the virtue is the concept of a state whose possession accounts for the actions which manifest it. Since that explanatory role is filled by the sensitivity, the sensitivity turns out to be what the virtue is’ (McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, 332). See also, ‘the position I am describing aims… at an epistemology that centres on the notion of a susceptibility to reasons’ (McDowell, Mind, Value and Reality, 162).
11 ‘The deliverances of a reliable sensitivity are cases of knowledge; and there are idioms according to which the sensitivity itself can appropriately be described as knowledge: a kind person knows what it is like to be confronted with a requirement of kindness. The sensitivity is, we might say, a sort of perceptual capacity’ (McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, 332).
12 ‘Moreover, the primary-quality model turns the epistemology of value into mere mystification. The perceptual model is no more than a model; perception, strictly so called, does not mirror the role of reason in evaluative thinking; which seems to require us to regard apprehension of value as an intellectual rather than a merely sensory matter. But if we are to take account of this, while preserving the model's picture of values as brutally and absolutely there, it seems we need to postulate a faculty – intuition – about which all that can be said is that it makes us aware of objective rational connections; the model itself ensure that there is nothing helpful to say about how such a faculty might work, or why its deliverances might deserve to count as knowledge’ (McDowell, Mind, Value and Reality, 132–3).
13 ‘In moral upbringing what one learns is not to behave in conformity with rules of conduct, but to see situations in a special light, as constituting reasons for acting; the perceptual capacity, once acquired can be exercised in complex novel circumstances…’ (McDowell, Mind, Value and Reality, 85).
14 McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, 333.
15 Wisniewski, J.J., ‘The case for moral perception’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14 (2015), 129–148 .
16 Jacobson, Seeing by feeling: Virtues, skills, and moral perception, 393.
17 Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 30.
18 Wu, W., Attention (New York: Routledge, 2014), 11 .
19 Wu, Attention, 11. More formally: ‘S's attention to X is top-down if and only if S's attention to x involves the influence of non-perceptual psychological state/capacity for its occurrence’ and ‘S's attention to X is bottom-up if and only if S's attention to X did not involve a non-perceptual psychological state/capacity for its occurrence’ (Wu, Attention, 30).
20 Selective attention can be defined as: the ‘preferential detection, identification and recognition of selected stimulations’ ( Woods, D.L., ‘The physiological basis of selective attention: Implications of event related potential studies’, in Rohrbaugh, J.W., Parasurasman, R. and Johnson, R. (eds), Event-Related Brain Potentials (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 178 .
21 Mann, D., Williams, A.M., Ward, P., & Janelle, C.M., ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology 29 (2007), 457–478, 459.
22 Mann et al., ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’, 460
23 In these studies, it is assumed that visual fixation is a sign of attention. For instance, as Just and Carpenter write: ‘The more information which has to be processed, the longer the fixation duration.’ ( Just, M.A. and Carpenter, P.A., ‘Eye fixations and cognitive processes’, Cognitive Psychology 8 (1976), 441–80). Though, not without its problems, this interpretation seems plausible. For problems see chapter 5 of Williams, A.M., Davids, K., and Williams, J.G., Visual perception and action in sport (New York: Routledge, 1999).
24 Bard, C. & Fleury, M., M. ‘Analysis of visual search activity during sport problem situations’, Journal of Human Movement Studies 3 (1976), 214–22.
25 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 157.
26 Tyldesley, D.A., Bootsma, R.J., & Bomhoff, G.T., ‘Skill level and eye movement patterns in a sport orientated reaction time task’, in Rieder, H., Mechling, H. and Reischle, K. (eds) Proceedings of an International Symposium on Motor Behaviour: Contribution to Learning in Sport (Cologne: Hofmann, 1982).
27 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 158.
28 Bard, C., & Carriere, L., ‘Etude de la prospection visuelle dans des situations problèmes en sports’, Mouvement 10 (1975), 15–23 ; Bard, C., & Fleury, M., ‘Analysis of visual search activity during sport problem Situations’, Journal of Human Movement Studies 3 (1976), 214–22; Bard, C.. & Fleury, M., ‘Considering eye movement as a predictor of attainment’, in Cockerill, I.M. & MacGillvary, W.W. (eds) Vision and Sport (Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes, 1981); Bard, C., Fleury, M., & Carriere, L., ‘La stratègie perceptive et la performance motrice: Actes du septième symposium canadien en apprentissage psychomoteur et psychologie du sport’, Mouvement 10 (1976), 163–83.
29 Tyldesley et al., ‘Skill level and eye movement patterns in a sport orientated reaction time task’; Helsen, W., & Pauwels, J.M., ‘A cognitive approach to visual search in sport’, in Brogan, D. and Carr, K. (eds) Visual Search vol. II (London: Taylor and Francis, 1992); Helssen, W., & Pauwels, J.M., ‘The relationship between expertise and visual information processing in sport’, in Starkes, J.L. and Allard, F. (eds) Cognitive Issues in Motor Expertise (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 1993); Williams, A.M., & Davids, K., ‘Eye movements and visual perception in sport’, Coaching Focus 26 (1994), 6–9 ; Bard, C., Guezennec, Y. & Papin, J.P., ‘Escrime: Analyze de l'exploration visuelle’, Medicine du Sport 15 (1981), 117–26; Hasse, H., & Mayer, H., ‘Optische orientierungsstrategien von fechtern’ (Strategies of visual orientation of fencers) Leistungssport 8 (1978), 191–200 .
30 Ripoll, H., H. ‘Uncertainty and visual search strategy in table tennis’, Perceptual and Motor Skills 68 (1989), 507–12.
31 Singer, R.N., Cauraugh, J.H., Chen, D., Steinberg, G.M., Frehlich, S.G., & Wang, L., ‘Training mental quickness in beginning/intermediate tennis players’, Sport Psychologist 8 (1994), 305–18; Fleury, M., Goulet, C. & Bard, C., ‘Eye fixations as visual indices of programming of service return in tennis’, Psychology of Motor Behaviour and Sport (Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 1986); Goulet, C., Bard, C., & Fleury, M., ‘Expertise differences in preparing to return a tennis serve: A visual information processing approach’, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 11 (1989), 382–98; Ritzdorf, V., ‘Antizipation in sportspiel-dargestelt am beispiel des tennisgrundschlangs’ (Anticipation in sport: investigation of the tennis ground stroke), Leistungssport 13 (1983), 5–9 .
32 Handford, C., & Williams, A.M., ‘Expert-novice differences in the use of advance visual cues in volleyball blocking’, Journal of Sports Sciences 9 (1992), 443–4; Neumaier, A., ‘Untersuchung zur funktion des blickverhaltens bei visuellen wahrnehmungsprozessen im sport’ (An investigation of the function of looking in visual perception processes in sport), Sportswissenschraft 12 (1982), 78–91 ; Ripoll, H., ‘Analysis of visual scanning patterns of volleyball players in a problem solving task’, International Journal of Sport Psychology 19 (1988), 9–25 .
33 Shank, M.D., & Haywood, K.M., ‘Eye movements while viewing a baseball Pitch’, Perceptual and Motor Skills 64 (1987), 1191–7.
34 Ripoll, H., Kerlirzin, Y., Stein, J.F., & Reine, B., ‘Analysis of information processing, decision making, and visual strategies in complex problem solving sport situations’, Human Movement Science 14 (1995), 325–49.
35 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 166.
36 For further support for the claim that expert perceptual skills are domain-specific, see section 2.b.
37 Mann et al., ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’.
38 Though there are task relevant differences depending on the nature of the sport. See Mann et al., ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’ for more.
39 Mann, et al, ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’, 458.
40 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 32.
41 See Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport.
43 DeGroot, A.D., Thought and Choice in Chess (The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1955).
44 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 98.
45 Chase, W.G., & Simon, H.A., ‘The mind's eye in chess’, in Chase, W.G. (ed.) Visual Information Processing (New York: Academic Press, 1973a); Chase, W. G., & Simon, H.A., ‘Perception in chess’, Cognitive Psychology 4 (1973b), 55–81 .
46 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 98.
47 For instance: ‘It appears that skilled basketball players encode task-specific information to a deeper and more meaningful level, thus facilitating the recognition of particular patterns of play. Similar findings have been obtained in American football ( Garland, D.J., & Barry, J.R., ‘Cognitive advantage in sport: The nature of perceptual structures’, American Journal of Psychology 104 (1991), 211–28), gymnastics ( Imwold, C.H., & Hoffman, S.J., ‘Visual recognition of a gymnastics skill by experienced and inexperienced instructors’, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 54 (1983), 149–55), snooker ( Abernethy, B., Neal, R.J., & Koning, P., ‘Visual-perceptual and cognitive differences between expert, intermediate, and novice snooker players’, Applied Cognitive Psychology 8 (1994), 185–211 ), and soccer ( Williams, A.M., Davids, K., Burwitz, L., J.G. & Williams, ‘Visual search and sports performance’, Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 22 (1993), 55–65 ; Williams, A.M., & Davids, K., ‘Declarative knowledge in sport: a byproduct of experience or a characteristic of expertise?’, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 17 (1995), 259–75), Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 98.
48 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 99.
49 For a recent review of visual perceptual learning, see: Lu, Z., Tianmiao, H., Huang, C., Zhoue, Y., & Dosher, B.A., ‘Visual Perceptual Learning’, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 95 (2011), 145–151 .
50 See, for instance: Snowden, P., Davies, I., & Roling, P., ‘Perceptual learning of the detection of features in X-ray images: A functional role for improvements in adults' visual sensitivity?’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 26 (2000), 379–390 ; and Parolini, B., Soardi, G., G. & Panozzo, ‘Do radiologists develop perceptual learning contrast sensitivity?’ Radiology Medicine 88 (1994), 852–6.
51 Georgetown University Medical Center, ‘After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures’, ScienceDaily (2015), <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150324183623.htm>
52 Jones, C.M., & Miles, T.R., ‘Use of advance cues in predicting the flight of a lawn tennis ball’, Journal of Human Movement Studies 4 (1978), 231–5.
53 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 106.
54 Abernethy, B., & Russell, D.G., ‘Expert-novice differences in an applied selective attention task’, Journal of Sport Psychology 9 (1987a), 326–345 ; Abernethy, B., & Russell, D.G., ‘The relationship between expertise and visual search strategy in a racquet sport’, Human Movement Science 6 (1987b), 283–319 ; Buckolz, E., Prapavessis, H., & Fairs, J., ‘Advance cues and their use in predicting tennis passing shots’, Canadian Journal of Sport Science 13 (1988), 20–30 ; Starkes, J., Edwards, P., Dissanayake, P., & Dunn, T., ‘A new technology and field test of advance cue usage in volleyball’, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 66 (1995), 162–167 .
55 Abernethy, B., ‘Expertise, visual search, and information pick-up in squash’, Perception 19 (1990), 63–77 ; Wright, D.L., Pleasants, F., & Gomez-Meza, M., ‘Use of advanced visual cue sources in volleyball’, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 12 (1990), 406–414 .
56 Abernethy & Russell, ‘Expert-novice differences in an applied selective attention task’; Buckolz, et al. ‘Advance cues and their use in predicting tennis passing shots’; Jones & Miles, ‘Use of advance cues in predicting the flight of a lawn tennis ball’
57 Mann, et al, ‘Perceptual-Cognitive Expertise in Sport: A Meta-Analysis’, 463.
58 Williams et al., Visual perception and action in sport, 104.
59 See for instance, programs like Step Up (http://stepupprogram.org), which conduct ‘bystander trainings’ that provide individuals with the skills to able to intervene in difficult situations, when appropriate. See the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault programs (http://www.wcsap.org/bystander-intervention-programs) for a list of bystander intervention programs.
60 Pylyshyn, Z., Seeing and Visualizing: It's not what you think (Cambridge, MA: MIT Books, 2003).
61 Abernethy, B., Neal, R.J., & Koning, P., ‘Visual-perceptual and cognitive differences between expert, intermediate, and novice snooker players’, Applied Cognitive Psychology 8 (1994), 185–211 ; Starkes, J., Allar, F., Lindley, S., & O'Rielly, K., ‘Abilities and skill in basketball’, Special Issue: Expert-novice differences in sport, International Journal of Sport Psychology 25 (1994), 249–265 .
62 Abernathy, B., ‘Visual search strategies and decision-making in sport’, Special Issue: Information processing and decision making in sport, International Journal of Sport Psychology 22 (1991), 189–210 ; Proteau, L., (1992). ‘On the specificity of learning and the role of visual information for movement control’, in Proteau, L. and Elliot, D. (eds), Vision and Motor Control, Advances in Psychology 85, 67–103 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1992).
63 Castiello, U., & Umilta, C., ‘Orienting attention in volleyball players’, International Journal of Sport Psychology 23 (1992), 301–310 ; Greenfield, P., deWinstanley, P., Kilpatrick, H., & Kaye, D., ‘Action video games and informal education: Effects on strategies for dividing visual attention’, Special Issue: Effect of interactive entertainment technologies on development, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15 (1994), 105–123 ; Nougier, V., Ripoll, H., & Stein, J., ‘Orienting attention with highly skilled athletes’, International Journal of Sport Psychology 20 (1989), 205–223 .
64 Pylyshyn, Seeing and Visualizing: It's not what you think, 85.
65 Marr, D., Vision (Cambridge, MA: MIT Books, 1982).
66 Murdoch, I., Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1970).
67 Blum, L., ‘Moral Perception and Particularity’, Ethics 101 (1991), 701–725 .
68 Blum, ‘Moral Perception and Particularity’, 701.
69 Blum, ‘Moral Perception and Particularity’, 703.
70 The same goes if we think of the capacity developed through learning and training as a refined sensitivity to reasons for action – that is, a sensitivity capable of distinguishing when it is right to and when it is not right to take steps in alleviating another person's discomfort. That is, if one has the ability to distinguish which reasons are legitimate reasons for action and which are not but one has not developed the ability to detect and identify when those reasons obtain, then one will not be poised to engage in moral situations appropriately.
It seems to me that McDowell's theory is the closest theory to getting this right – since we can naturally find a place for attending, recognizing and identifying moral situations on his account. Nevertheless, the features that one becomes sensitive to in order to detect moral situations and how that sensitivity develops needs to be added to the account that McDowell presents.
71 Blum, ‘Moral Perception and Particularity’, 704.
72 Think of Aristotle on virtue here: ‘To be virtuous is to feel [passions] at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way’ (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1106b, 21–23).
73 Railton, P., ‘The Affective Dog and Its Rational Tale’, Ethics 124 (2014), 813–859 .
74 Nichols, S., ‘On The Genealogy Of Norms: A Case For The Role Of Emotion In Cultural Evolution’, Philosophy of Science 69 (2002), 234–255 .
75 Prinz, J., ‘The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments’, Philosophical Explorations 9 (2006), 29–43 ; Prinz, J., The Emotional Construction of Morals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
76 Prinz, ‘The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments’
77 Prinz, ‘The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments’, 32.
79 As Prinz writes, ‘Psychopaths acknowledge that their criminal acts are ‘wrong’ but they do not understand the import of this word’, Prinz,‘The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments’, 32.
80 Prinz, The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments’, 31.
81 Dretske, F., Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988).
82 Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals, 63.
83 See Railton, ‘The Affective Dog and Its Rational Tale’ (Ethics 124(4) (2014)) for more on how affective intuitions are best construed as attuned competencies.
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