Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Know-How of Virtue

This post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies, on her recent paper 'The Know-How of Virtue', published open-access in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. 

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

How can we be good people who do things for the right reason, when we very often confabulate a good reason for our behaviour after the fact?

Imagine, for example, that I do not give money to a person in need on the street, and instead rush home. But then, later on, my friend mentions seeing the person who needed help and I express that I saw them too. Then they ask me, ‘why didn’t you help them?’.

In these circumstances, we might confabulate. This means that, only upon being asked, do we start formulating an answer to that question. In that way, confabulation is post-hoc. We come up with reasons for our behaviour which protect our positive self-conceptions. So I might say to my friend, ‘Oh I was in a rush and the street was too busy for me to stop!’. This explanation protects my self-concept of still generally being kind and helpful. I explain away this instance with an ill-grounded claim, because in fact the street was not busy at all. This is a core feature of confabulations; they are not appropriately based on the relevant evidence, so they usually make false statements about the world (it is not impossible for them to be true by accident/mere luck).

Importantly, people confabulate with no intention to deceive. So, we believe our confabulations to be an authentic account of why we behaved in the way we did. In a way, this is surely what makes confabulation so worrying. When we are prompted to look more closely at our behaviour, confabulation seems to hide our shortcomings from us, because we immediately come up with a self-protecting story. We don’t notice that we’re doing this, and we don’t notice that we don’t actually have a good understanding of why we acted in some way.

So it would seem that confabulation is surely a worry for virtuous behaviour, which ought to be ‘for the right reason’. Virtuous behaviour should be a response to the values inherent in a situation, and the agent should have this right reason at the forefront of her mind when acting. But, in confabulation, we reverse this story and posit those ‘right reasons’ after the fact, believing that we were responding to those reasons at the time.

In my recent paper, I argue that confabulation is not necessarily such a barrier for virtuous behaviour, and is actually probably involved in the development of virtue a lot of the time. This is because confabulation actually has some benefits, which can be applied in the development of virtue. In seeking to protect our positive visions of ourselves, we can give them a more explicit space in our ongoing self-narratives. These self-conceptions are not passive, but also guide and influence future behaviour. So, engaging in the construction of good self-image, even at the expense of getting all the facts of the matter right, can be efficacious in making that image a reality. And therefore, in a sense, making it true. Maybe next time, you’ll actually respond to the reasons which you had previously only posited post-hoc in a confabulation.

This is quite an optimistic outlook for confabulation, though. Surely for some people, confabulation will mean that they just continue masking their bad behaviour to themselves, indefinitely. I agree that gaining these benefits from confabulation is far from guaranteed. I argue that what makes the difference, is having certain self-related skills and attitudes. These include attitudes such as being open-minded to what other people say to you in response to your confabulations, being curious about other explanations of your behaviour to the one you’ve given, and being attentive to your thoughts, feelings, and desires for your idealised self.

I use a mindshaping framework to flesh out how these attitudes, which require a skilful know-how rather than propositional knowledge about the self, play an extremely valuable role in the fundamentally social enterprise of sharing reasons for behaviour. Not only does this bring self-knowledge, but the process shapes and thus constitutes it. Due to our cognitive limitations and desires to have an understanding of our actions, the reasons that we share may well often be confabulatory. However, that doesn’t mean that this process of social shaping can’t take place and be valuable, particularly for the formation of consistent virtuous behaviour.

Finally, I posit that this know-how is a meta-virtue because the skills encompassed by it could be applied to the development of any other particular virtue. Patience, generosity, compassion, will all require the development of capacities to see specific values and needs in a situation, and we will need the help and input of others in the development of these capacities. Then, we can come to respond to them appropriately, as reasons for action. In essence, if you’re interested in being a virtuous person who acts for the right reasons, you should work on having these pro-social attitudes, rather than on trying to somehow never confabulate.

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