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In Praise of Desire and Some

Interview by Richard Marshall.


‘A very tall man once asked a question after my talk. Before beginning his question, he explained that the reason he was standing up is not to be intimidating but rather to make eye contact. His question was essentially “are we really interested in moral motives? Isn’t it all about action?”. I pointed out to him that it was not enough for him to do the right thing – stand up– but he also wanted me to know that he is doing it from the right motive or for the right reason – to make eye contact, rather than to be intimidating. Voila, moral psychology.’

‘Suppose whether or not someone tells me a lie depends only on whether he wants to, but he is morally indifferent, he doesn’t care much about the truth or about me, and his self interest, which he worships, tells him to lie, and so it comes about that given his psychology, it is a forgone conclusion that he will lie to me. I think in this case he is still blameworthy, and that implies, among other things, that he did something he ought not do. This is of course deeply controversial.’

Nomy Arpaly taught at the University of Michigan and at Rice University before coming to Brown in 2003. Her main research interests include ethics, moral psychology, action theory, and free will. Here she discusses what ethical agency looks like, what moral psychology is and what it does, appetites and reasons, desires, whether an agent’s character matters in assessing her action’s moral worth, akrasia, inverted akrasia, whether akrasia is actually weakness of will, externality, whether responsiveness to reasons is possible in a deterministic world, romantic necessity, why ought doesn’t imply can, Olga the Optimist and Paul the Pessimist, and some cool comments on some cool books.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Nomy Arpaly: I was 13 when I decided to become a philosopher. At the time, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say that I wanted to write books – whereupon I would sometimes be told it was impractical – but I didn’t have anything more concrete to say. One day a strange person in my neighborhood said something about a guy named Spinoza, who was excommunicated by his Jewish community in the 17th century. On a whim – I was curious – I picked up a tattered copy of Spinoza’s Ethics at the small college library I liked to hang out in. It was difficult, it was mighty difficult, but by the time I was done I had decided to be a philosopher. I never looked back.


3:AM: You’ve investigated what ethical agency looks like. In your book Unprincipled Virtue you take issue with the paradigmatic picture of agency that requires autonomous rational agency – one who behaves as Christine Korsgaard suggests, someone who deliberates, possibly fights akrasia and then executes the practical conclusion of her deliberation. So what’s wrong with this picture – are you concerned that it just doesn’t do justice to the actual complexities of moral deliberation?

NA: The picture is simply inaccurate. Sometimes we deliberate – for example when we plan a long trip or – if we are not math wizards – when we solve long division problems. However, if we deliberated every time we acted we would never get through the day. Most of the time, we act for reasons without deliberation. I am not just talking about cases of simple, habitual action, like brushing your teeth, but also about more sophisticated action. For example, a person engaged in witty conversation doesn’t have time to deliberate about every sentence she uses – in fact the wittier she is the faster she is – and yet wisecracking is a complex action that responds to sophisticated aesthetic reasons.

3:AM: What is moral psychology as you conceive it, what does it do differently from meta-ethics, or normative moral theory and why do you think it is vital we address these things when considering ethical and moral life?

NA: “Moral psychology” is not a precise term. I use it to refer to morally relevant philosophical questions about the human psyche. It is not normative ethics (which asks what makes an action right) or metaethics (which asks about the nature of morality). It is often relevant to them. Kant’s Groundwork, known as a classic of normative ethics, begins with matters of moral psychology, such as the good will and the contrast between the motive of duty and other motives. Contemporary metaethics constantly engages with questions about moral motivation and its relations to belief. Yours truly is now arguing that various things about normative ethics follow from her view of moral worth.

But I would like to emphasize that moral psychology is interesting even apart from its impact on normative ethics and metaethics. A very tall man once asked a question after my talk. Before beginning his question, he explained that the reason he was standing up is not to be intimidating but rather to make eye contact. His question was essentially “are we really interested in moral motives? Isn’t it all about action?”. I pointed out to him that it was not enough for him to do the right thing – stand up– but he also wanted me to know that he is doing it from the right motive or for the right reason – to make eye contact, rather than to be intimidating. Voila, moral psychology.

3:AM: Your work in moral psychology takes sides in the dispute between appetites and reason. Are you saying that there’s no good reason to think of humans as divided creatures, as part beast, part divine, as Plato and Aristotle thought?

NA: I am an atheist. I don’t think there’s anything divine. Beautiful, impressive, awe-inspiring – sure, but not divine. As for “beast”, sometimes I suspect that there are two prototypes of philosophers who write about humans – I call them “celestials” and “terrestrials”, without implying that celestials have their heads in the clouds or that terrestrials have theirs buried in the ground. The difference between these two types is not so much in their theories but in whether or not they would find it a very sad thing if it turned out that the only way a human is superior to a wolf is this: the human brain is significantly more capacious and complex. Celestials would much prefer it if it turned out, for example, that humans have something special called “autonomy” which makes them categorically different from other animals. I, with a mostly terrestrial philosophical temperament, would be ok if I found out for sure that if I am in any way superior to a wolf it is simply in virtue of my brain’s higher capacity and complexity. A large difference – my cerebral equipment allows me to have such diverse concepts as “hope”, “funky”, “England”, “multiplication”, “three strikes” and “the categorical imperative” – but a difference in degree. Wolves, of course, are superior to me with regards to smelling, hearing, and running, and are generally superior to humans in that they don’t kill each other.

3:AM: You are on the side of desires aren’t you? Is virtue then just a matter of desiring the right things? Even if we aren’t divided beasts, doesn’t this approach tend to downgrade some of the things that make us special – such as our ability to think abstractly?

NA: Being human involves many things besides desires – I have just sketched the difference between us and wolves mostly in terms of our cognitive advantages. Also, I think the fact that only humans above a certain age can be morally virtuous, rather than babies or cats, means that that being moral requires some cognitive ability. If virtue is about desires, it is worth remembering that you can’t desire some things without being able to conceive of them. For example, suppose a virtuous person will desire to make people happy and desire to tell the truth. You can’t desire to make people happy without having the concept “happy” and you can’t desire to be truthful if you don’t have have the concept “lie”, so a cat or a baby cannot desire these things.

However, leaving the issue of other animals aside, it is important to me to emphasize that moral virtues and intellectual virtues are very different from each other, and moral virtue has to do with motivation, not cognition. Moral virtue requires a human level of intelligence, but it doesn’t require that one be an intelligent human. People of relatively low intelligence can be morally wonderful if they desire the right and the good (not necessarily under the description “right” or “good”). Their low intelligence sometimes results in their accidentally doing something wrong, but doing something wrong out of low intelligence alone is like stepping on a person’s foot because you are (literally) blind or missing a cry for help because you are (literally) deaf. We do not judge the blind or deaf person as morally bad. This is a lot of what motivates my view that virtue is about wanting right and good things, not about being particularly good at thinking.


3:AM: How important is an agent’s character in assessing the moral worth of their actions – even when they don’t seem motivated by morality?

NA: I am not committed in any way to the traditional concept of character – the concept of “character trait” as involving predictable behavior. I am committed to a view in the neighborhood – the view that the moral worth of one’s actions depends on the quality of will expressed in them. I sometimes use virtue terms as shorthands – e.g “benevolence” instead of “strong intrinsic desire for other people’s wellbeing”– but, as Timothy Schroeder and I explain in our book, In Praise of Desire, though we think intrinsic desires tend to be pretty stable, we do not think they imply anything like the amount of predictability in behavior that traditional virtue ethics requires for someone to have a one-word-in-English character trait such as “benevolence”. Other things being equal, a person with more of a desire for other people’s wellbeing will do more for other people’s wellbeing, but things are almost never equal.

3:AM: If an agent thinks that morally they shouldn’t do something but they do it, and we think that what they do is actually the right thing to do, then is this a case of ‘reverse akrasia’, and an example of what you call ‘deep virtue ethics’?

NA: Richard, “deep virtue ethics” is a term I used in my dissertation, which I finished when I was twenty five years old and, naturally, didn’t expect anyone to read. How would you feel if I dug up your baby pictures? Incidentally, people assume that a book called “Unprincipled Virtue” must be a book on virtue ethics, but mine is not. Anyway, “inverse akrasia” is what I call cases in which the course of action taken by the agent is superior to the course of action the agent thinks he should take. Pardon my pedantry, but contrary to what you say, the course of action has to be in fact superior – it’s not just that “we think” it is. As with ordinary cases of akrasia in the literature, the sort where what you do is less good than what you think you should do, some cases of inverse akrasia are morally relevant (the agent, like Huck Finn when he helps Jim, does what she thinks is morally wrong but is in fact morally right) and others are about rationality rather than morality (the agent does what he believes to be irrational but is in fact the more rational thing for him to do).

3:AM: Do you think that these acts of virtuous akrasia are rational?

NA: I think inverse akratic acts can be rational, despite being against our judgment as to what to do. Let’s talk about cases that aren’t about morality, to make it simpler. Sometimes, in cases of inverse akrasia, it’s just a lucky accident that the person does the thing that she would do if she were rational, and in these cases she is not acting rationally. If I make a stupid decision but don’t execute it because I’m, say, lazy, then I’m lucky, not rational. However, at other times a person acts for good reasons just as she does what she thinks she shouldn’t do, not knowing that they are good reasons. Just like sometimes we are a lot less rational than we think we are, it is also true that sometimes we are a lot more rational than we think we are.

Here is an example of being more rational than you think you are. Suppose you are a young person who is very impressed by Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand disparages probabilistic evidence. She says it would be irrational to follow such evidence, and you want to be rational. Not knowing yet that Rand had died prematurely for refusing to acknowledge probabilistic evidence for the dangers of smoking a few packs a day, you vow not to believe anything due to merely probabilistic evidence ever again, or at least never to act on the basis of such a belief. Yet, you cannot stick to your vow. Like the rest of us, you are guided by probabilistic evidence most of the time, though often without deliberation. Let us even suppose you are good at it, always responding to the evidence accurately. So naturally you think you are irrational, because your behavior is un-Randian, but you are rational just fine. When you find yourself reluctant to sit on a chair because it had unexpectedly collapsed in the past you might shake your head and think “there, I’m so irrational!”. But your reluctance to sit on a probably rickety chair is not irrational – you think it’s irrational because you have a false view of what irrationality is.

Some would think you are irrational in one way: it was irrational of you to be convinced by Rand’s argument. I don’t think we are all irrational every time we fail to see through an argument in a book, but suppose it’s true about you. You are still more rational than you think you are. You are irrational in a minor way – believing a misguided theory of the nature of rationality – but rational in a major way – you respond well to probabilistic evidence as you go through the day. You aren’t a completely rational guy, but your irrationality isn’t in what happens when you are, despite your fancy convictions, reluctant to use the chair. That’s called “common sense”. Your irrationality is rather in what happens when you follow your youthful Randian extremism, force yourself to dismiss your reluctance, sit on the chair anyway and quite possibly fall on your butt.

3:AM: So akrasia is usually thought of in terms of ‘weakness of will’ – hence the surprise when you argue that it can be rational. Does your discussion of harry Frankfurt’s notion of ‘externality’ help explain your angle here where you argue that although for Frankfurt externality is supposed to be about the structure of an agent’s will you take it to be about feelings of alienation instead? What follows from shifting understanding about externality from will to alienation?

NA: I don’t think any of my desires or beliefs or other mental states are external to me. Many people will occasionally feel alienated from the motives for an action – “whatever possessed me to do that?”. Note, however, that some people feel alienated from the white hairs that recently appeared on their heads – “who put them there?”, they might ask the mirror – but the white hairs are still theirs. Similarly, I might feel alienated from an action or a mental state because it does not fit with my visceral self–image. For example, I might think of myself as a calm and kind person and so when I suddenly feel very angry, the sharp contrast between the way I think of myself and the anger I experience can make me feel as if the anger was “external” to me (even if my friends actually think of my burst of anger in the opposite way, as “showing my true colors”). To say that the anger is actually external to me, though, is to take a feeling, and a metaphor, too seriously.

“Externality” is a different phenomenon from akrasia and doesn’t always come with it. The set of desires and actions from which one feels alienated isn’t always the same as the set of desires and actions of which one disapproves. It has been pointed out that you can disapprove of something inside yourself but still experience it as yours (“damn it, here I go again!”). In addition, you can approve of something inside yourself but feel like it’s not yours (“when the emergency sirens went off, it was as if someone calmer and more reasonable took over and knew just what to do”).

3:AM: Can you sketch out for us your account of moral responsibility that relies on notions of good and ill will, moral concern and indifference.

NA: I am not sure what I think of responsibility, but here is my view of credit and blame in a nutshell (I talk about worthiness of “praise” but I would have preferred to discuss “credit” or, in more Kantian moments, “esteem”). A person is praiseworthy for a right action to the extent that her action manifests, and is rationalized by, good will (that is, concern for the right and the good, not necessarily under the description “right” or “good”). A person is blameworthy for a wrong action to the extent that her action manifests, and is rationalized by, ill will (concern for the wrong and bad, also de re) or moral indifference (lack or deficiency of good will). Other things being equal, ill will is worse than moral indifference (as in causing suffering for money vs causing suffering to cause suffering), though things are rarely equal. I think of good will or moral concern in terms of desire, though this is not a necessary feature of a quality-of-will based view.

Can there be responsiveness to reasons in a deterministic world? How do you tackle this question? The short answer: when I see two owls and then two more owls and conclude that I see four owls, I am responding to reasons, and it better not be my choice to believe that two plus two always equals four. If I am a rational person, I will have that belief by necessity, whether I wanted to or not. So it’s not that strange to discuss responding to reasons out of necessity. My long answer – too long for this medium – is Timothy Schroeder’s and my theory of thinking and acting for reasons, articulated in In Praise of Desire. We don’t talk about determinism or freedom there but the theory is compatibilism-friendly.


3:AM: Does your approach help deal with the topic of romantic necessity i.e that a couple’s love had to happen, or seeing art as the result of something inevitable?

NA: The point I made about “romantic necessity” is this: some incompatibilists claim that if I love someone, but it turns out that I had no choice in the matter, it degrades my love or makes my love meaningless. However, many songwriters disagree. Consider Elvis Presley – ‘I can’t help falling in love with you‘. Or the jazz lyrics: it had to be you. If I am told my loving you had to happen because of some Freudian stuff about my childhood, that might be degrading or deflationary, but if I am told it had to happen because you are such a wonderful person that I couldn’t possibly resist your charms, or because we are so incredibly compatible, then necessity seems very romantic. Similar things are true with regard to art – incompatibilists will tell you that a work of art has no meaning unless the artists could have chosen to create a different one, but actual artists often say things like “the book chose me” – that is, the work had to be. Some philosophers would call it “volitional necessity”, and a similar case that’s discussed is the case of Luther saying “here I stand, I can do no other”.

3:AM: Why do you argue that ‘ought’ doesn’t imply ‘can’? How can anyone be obliged to do something they can’t do?

NA: Suppose a student of mine writes in her exam that “morality is completely relative to culture, so nothing is absolutely right or wrong. Because of that, it is absolutely wrong to be culturally intolerant”. This student, if she believes what she writes, believes a contradiction. She ought not to believe the contradiction – it’s a basic epistemic norm. This is true even if she can’t avoid believing it – no amount of studying will show her the light. Now, with moral duties it’s more complicated, because duties concern things that are voluntary. I do think that if you have a moral duty to bring me back the book you borrowed, that implies, roughly, that your doing so depends on your wanting to do so: if you want to bring me the book, you will. This is not the case if you are stuck at some airport due to a snowstorm, far away from me. This, however, is not the same as “ought” implying a metaphysical “can”. Suppose whether or not someone tells me a lie depends only on whether he wants to, but he is morally indifferent, he doesn’t care much about the truth or about me, and his self interest, which he worships, tells him to lie, and so it comes about that given his psychology, it is a forgone conclusion that he will lie to me. I think in this case he is still blameworthy, and that implies, among other things, that he did something he ought not do. This is of course deeply controversial.

3:AM: You say that there is something sad about our being as much a part of nature as the rattlesnake because we don’t have all the freedom we want. Have I got that right? And how can it make sense to wish for the impossible, or at least regret that it doesn’t obtain?

NA: I don’t think it’s true that everyone craves the kind of absolute freedom that incompatibilists call origination, but many people – including some of the “celestials” I mentioned earlier – do. Imagine two people arguing about free will. One of them, let’s call her Olga the Optimist, has just heard about compatibilism and happily accepts the view that of course she has free will – after all, if she wants to raise her arm she raises her arm and if she doesn’t she does not. The other one, let’s call him Paul the Pessimist, points out to her that she hasn’t chosen to want to raise her arm, and hence she lacks free will. Olga looks at him strangely: “choosing to want” barely sounds like English to her. She never expected to choose to want things. Paul in turn looks at her strangely: how can it not bother her that her desires are not of her own making?

And there you have the core of one of these staring contests that make philosophy interesting. I think some of us are naturally like Olga – it doesn’t matter to us if our love of Mozart or our hatred of the Yankees were not something that we chose to have. But some of us are naturally like Paul, and we want real free will – cheap will won’t do. For those of us who want to have control over all our mental states, compatibilist substitutes – such as desiring what we desire to desire – will always be like being told, when you desperately want there to be a God, that yes, God exists, as God is simply the good within people. A letdown! Now some say that the sort of free will that Paul is looking for, which involves a sort of exemption from the laws of nature, is something that cannot be – an incoherent proposition. That leads us to the second part of your question: does it make sense to wish for the impossible?

I think that if your tenure case depends on your proving what you thought was a mathematical theorem and the proposed theorem turns out to be false just before your tenure decision, and you want to get tenure very badly, there is a sense in which it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable of you to wish the proposed theorem were true and provable, even if it’s logically impossible for it to be. Heck, have you ever been up for tenure? The wish makes it the case that you have conflicting wishes, because in other ways you surely want the truths of math to stay as they are, but I think it’s ok to have wishes that conflict with each other – it’s irrational to try to make them both come true, but not irrational simply to have them.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books for the readers here at 3:AM that will take them further into your philosophical world?

NA: Here are five of the books reading which helped sharpen my sense of the complexity of moral psychology and of humans in general. To three of the five most of your readers will need no introduction, so I’ll just talk a bit about how they make me think as a moral psychologist. The other two are considerably less known but I recommend them passionately to anyone interested in the field.


Hamlet. Consider such questions as “is the main character basically a flawed but heroic idealist who rightly challenges corruption, or is he at heart a teenager who throws a really destructive temper tantrum? Or is youthful idealism flawed itself, and the main character should have gone for the lesser evil?” “Why is the most hypocritical character in the play the one who gets to say that one must be true to one’s self? Does the author think it’s nonsense? Is it in fact nonsense?” “Can we 21st century academics honestly project ourselves through imagination into a world in which avenging your father is the right thing to do?” “Of the 7 dead bodies on the stage, which is the result of the most blameworthy action? How about the second most blameworthy action, etc?” Some of my graduate students had a surprising answer to the last question: they said that the murder of Polonius is the worst killing in the play, because, despite being a pompous ass and a sleazy politician, he hadn’t really done anything terribly bad to Hamlet – eavesdropping is not a mortal sin – and thus there is something very narcissistic and cruel about killing him (speaking in favor of the tantrum hypothesis?). Others have said that though Ophelia hasn’t strictly speaking been murdered, the least excusable action in the play was Hamlet’s rejection of her. And which of the relevant judgments are about the severity of wrongs, which about badness of motives? It was a good discussion.


Crime and Punishment, which sadly I can only read in translations. This moral psychologist reader finds it a great exercise to try and answer the old question of what on earth motivates the main character to commit the murder. Some seemingly obvious answers suggest themselves and then look implausible – the character steals money from his victim, but he never uses the money for himself. He cites utilitarian reasons, but he never uses the money to do good in the world, either. He seems clinically depressed – note how little he eats and how much he drinks – but the great majority of depressed people only hurt themselves, not others. That he kills a loan shark reminds us that he is probably resentful of his abject poverty and frustrated at the failure of his attempts at social mobility, but the author provides him with a friend, another young man, who models a much better way to handle such circumstances. He wants to think that he is a great man and claims that great men, unlike others, are permitted to commit crimes and are up to the challenge of committing them, but this is sometimes true of undergrads who end up growing out of it or telling themselves that they could commit a crime if they wanted to but they just don’t feel like it. It’s complicated. Yet Raskolnikov strikes me – and struck many – as frighteningly real, and the author spent a lot of time in prison with criminals, after all.


Lolita: Nabokov would have treated with contempt and derision being listed besides Dostoevsky, whom he once called “Dusty” and whose book he once labeled “Crime and Slime”. Never mind that.

Lolita is widely misrepresented as a controversial love story, when it is in fact a story about an eloquent and erudite rapist, or as the author put it, “a cruel wretch who manages to appear touching”. So great is his rhetorical flair that for many people it takes a second reading to see that he is a monster. It’s a story told through the point of view of an incredibly egocentric person – one of the most chilling paragraphs in the Western canon is the one in which Humbert calls Lolita “atrociously cruel” because she never, ever, enjoys his sexual attentions (incidentally, this means that any movie or other adaptation that portrays the girl as having an orgasm has nothing essential to do with the book). One problem with the book is that, because of all the riddles in it, it has to be read twice or one does not know what’s going on (on second reading, hints to the answer to the reverse mystery – who gets murdered? – start quite early). It’s worth it, though – for many reasons, but as far as moral psychology goes, for the exploration of the near-limitlessness of our ability to rationalize, the nature of obsession, and the way one can genuinely feel all the traditional trappings of romantic enchantment without giving a damn about the person with whom one is besotted.

Now for the lesser known books:


Frauen by Alison Owings. This book is made up of interviews with German, non-Jewish women who experienced the Third Reich. Most of them occupied the position of “ordinary person” at the time – they were homemakers rather than war criminals. The author – who is not German, not Jewish, and not even a history major – asks them intelligent and candid questions about what their lives were like, and much of their answers is provided in a fairly candid manner, including possible Freudian slips, stammering moments, contradictions, awkward silences and so on. Of the women, there are very few saints and very few devils, all interesting, but the great majority of them sound like, well, normal people, weak and inconsistent and complicated, and so constantly raise those very uncomfortable questions concerning what you and I would have done in their place, and what we would discover about our neighbors if fascism rose or if we simply asked the right questions. Among other things, my skepticism about traditional ideas of character developed partially from reading about them. When you read, for example, about a person ranting against marriage between people of different races and the same person forcing her city to memorialize the concentration camp that existed in its vicinity because such crimes need to be acknowledged, you think again.


Explaining Hitler, by Ron Rosenbaum. Another book about Nazis – except that it is only partially about them. It is mostly about people – often very talented people who have worked very hard – who try to explain Hitler, their motivations in doing so, their theories, and how and why their explanations (mostly) seem to not work. Along the way we do learn a lot of interesting facts about Hitler himself, but the author maintains epistemic humility regarding whatever it is that explains how the baby on the cover of the book became Hitler. The philosophical questions and the philosophically relevant psychological questions appear quickly: does moral ignorance – as in the case of believing that you are doing right when you are doing wrong – excuse? Are some people utterly indifferent to morality? Can you understand evil without being a bit evil yourself? Can you understand evil without seeing it as less evil? Why is evil so interesting? Are there limits to how explicable people in general can be? Do we believe too much in the therapist’s cliché that all inflictors of suffering have suffered as children? Not to mention good old free will.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 22nd, 2016.