Reaction, not reason, maketh moral

By Toru Watanabe


“Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just and temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.”

– Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b5.


Aristotle here offers a definition of both moral character and moral action: an action is moral if it is what the virtuous person would do; a person is moral if they perform actions as the virtuous person performs them.  Anyone can perform a virtuous action.  It is possible to do ‘that which is virtuous’ by accident, for personal profit, or even for the sake of justice.  A person cannot be deemed virtuous without consistently performing virtuous acts but “the measure of an agent’s moral character is not exhausted by or even always dependent on the value of the acts that he performs.”  (Robert Louden). 


What does it mean to perform actions “as just and temperate men do them”?  When actions lead to bad consequences, we often refer to the agent’s motives in order to see what they were trying to achieve.  If they were acting ‘for the right reasons’ then we can say there is something virtuous about their actions even when the results are bad.  So it seems plausible that an agent cannot be said to have acted virtuously unless his reason or motive for performing that action is also good.  It must be ‘the right action’ performed for ‘the right reasons’.


However, being someone who consistently performs the right actions for the right reasons is not adequate for the possession of moral character.  Moral character involves both action and motive, but Aristotle argues that on top these, moral character also importantly involves method (the right way).  “Pleasure in doing virtuous acts is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired.”  A person of virtuous character does not just act well; he acts well instinctively, almost unconsciously.  John Hersey tells the tale of a man who jumped in a swollen river to save a drowning boy: “His action, which could not have been mulled over in his mind, showed a deep instinctive love [and] compassion…”  A man who first mulled over the decision to jump into the torrent still acts compassionately (providing that his motivation is to save the boy and not ‘to appear brave’) but he himself (his character) is not compassionate in the way that the man in the story is.


Now this is indeed a strange claim; we seem to be saying that the possession of virtuous character typically involves not thinking in moral situations.  The reason why this odd claim seems to be right is that ‘doing the right thing for the right reasons’ is often not enough.  The portrait of a moral agent reasoning about the right course of action then acting effectively on the conclusions for good motives is inadequate.  Being a good moral agent cannot be simply involve being able to reason well ‘when the time comes’ (then act effectively on your conclusions) because often reasoning itself is the wrong thing to do.  “[T]here are wrong times for reflecting on the moral status of various forms of conduct… [one of which is] the period immediately prior to action…”  (Marcia Baron)  Many moral situations require that we act not reflect – often that we act immediately.  In Hersey’s example, there is something deficient about the person who pauses to reason whether or not he should save the drowning child, something praiseworthy about the person who does not think but simply dives in.


There are, of course, many situations in which it is perfectly acceptable for us to reason about how we should act.  However, the claim here is that it is better not to reason, that it is better to react well rather than to have to resort to reasoning.  Not only is it straightforwardly more efficient to react than to reason – reacting does not involve the additional exertion that reasoning does – but also there are many, many situations in which we typically do not reason but simply react to circumstances.  In which case, it is the refinement of our reactions that ensures we act well – and in this reasoning and critical scrutiny clearly play vital roles – but not the quality of our reasoning.


3 responses to “Reaction, not reason, maketh moral

  1. Well meaning actors may react without reasoning and it may well be the right decision if the situation is obvious as is given in the example of saving a drowning boy. Not all cases are straight forward. Have we understood the situation correctly? A situation may have been interpreted incorrectly. Other actors may have deliberately presented the situation in a way to elicit a reaction which suits their own purposes. Most decision making is not a life and death situation with little time to act and it is these situations which require thought. This does not mean that every situation needs prolonged reflection because if an actor has already established a moral framework in which s/he operates it only requires that it is modified for this particular situation.

  2. Rita makes a good point that needs to be developed, that of ‘Have we understood the situation correctly?’

    Reaction goes hand-in-hand with perception or interpretation. We react to what we see and can only react within our field of vision. The moral project is one of making sure we see clearly – and then making sure our reactions are appropriate to what we have clearly perceived.

    It is one mistake to see someone’s behaviour as aggressive when in fact it was accidental, another to respond to clearly perceived accidental behaviour with anger. It is all-too-easy to make mistakes of moral perception, to misinterpret the actions of others, to fail to see a person in need. We get wrapped up in our own concerns and our vision quickly grows distorted. Human, all-too-human. Reacting with anger to an action we know was accidental, however, seems to be a far more serious failing.

  3. Whilst it is indeed a failing to act with anger to an action we know was accidental the central issue is broadening our field of vision.
    How is it possible to see clearly.
    Part of the problem is taking time to reflect on the situation, and discussing it with individuals who can bring new insight to the discussion.
    It is of little use if the actors consulted are not in a position to clarify the situation, therefore they have to be carefully selected and they have to be able to debate the situation. Even then it is necessary for the first actor to decide if an appropriate decision has been made by others, if that person alone has to act.
    On what basis do we make those decisions? How do we know when we have clearly perceived. This is the primary concern, that it is not as easy to clearly perceive as is thought

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