Philosophy Tag

Gillian Russell (Washington University in St. Louis) was tagged last week by Franz Berto (Amsterdam) in the logic playground, where the game has been playing for a while now. Let’s see where Russell’s tag takes us.

There’s a pervasive thought in many cultures and religions—one that I’ve found attractive in the past—that moral anxiety in human agents is a lamentable and unfortunate thing, a sign that something is wrong.  The ideal moral agent might be either stoic, calm, and decisive—someone to whom the right path is straightforward—or alternatively someone who feels two things very strongly:  horror of the pain of others and a deep-seated eagerness to help.  But the person who spends time anxiously mulling over their moral options might be suspected of attempting to cook up a justification for the wrong action, or regarded as weakened by that anxiety, since it impedes their ability to act decisively when the moral situation demands it.  However, I saw Charlie Kurth (Washington University in St. Louis) present a paper last semester arguing that moral anxiety was good and should even be cultivated—and now I can’t stop thinking about it! I suspect he’s right.  So I’m tagging Charlie and his paper “Moral Anxiety and Moral Agency,” which is in preparation for Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics (edited by M. Timmons.)  It’s a paper with a very high “fascination score” and I strongly recommend it.  Charlie draws on work in psychology that shows that anxiety in general—including non-moral varieties like social anxiety—can help promote better decision making.   He argues that moral anxiety arises naturally in situations where we really need to think more about what the right thing to do is, and perhaps go out and acquire more information before we make a decision.  Moral anxiety motivates those behaviours and so tends to lead to better moral decisions. So it’s ok to be anxious—it’s a normal part of being a good moral agent. Charlie Kurth, you are it!

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