We make resolutions at the new year in large part because we wish to change our character, to open up new possibilities for our lives than we might currently enjoy. Not being particularly adept at piano, we commit ourselves to practicing. We create ideal versions of ourselves, ideals that provide continuity and coherency to our plans and projects and that help us undergo the strain and stress required to actualize them. The ideal provides content for our choices; it guides and directs us, determining (we hope) the path our life takes.
For some moral theorists, reflecting on the excellencies of a character—on the virtues—provides substantive moral guidance for us in a way that, say, abstract considerations about what is just or good or right to do in a particular situation might. In other words, reflecting on courage, or humility, or temperance, helps us know what sorts of possibilities we could actualize in a way that considerations of moral rules or other norms does not. As Kent Dunnington puts it, “one of the contributions of virtue theory to moral philosophy has been the insistence that our moral possibilities are more tightly linked to our characters—including our sense of who we ideally are—than to the application of a decision procedure to our moral options.”
The thought goes something like this: if you’re faced with a difficult, morally ambiguous choice, don’t try to identify the right choice by lining up the benefits and drawbacks of each option in a chart and tallying them up. Instead, (I think) such decisions need to be made by reflecting upon our own life course and history, and how the ideals of justice, modesty, and so on might be uniquely exemplified or instantiated by us. As I understand Dunnington’s point, what is ‘morally possible’ is indexed to and constrained by the accumulation of habits and vices which we have experienced.
That our possibilities are constrained by our character is doubtlessly true as a matter of description. But Dunnington seems to mean something stronger than this: he seems to be endorsing the idea outlined above, that reflection on the future as it relates to our existing characters is a superior form of normative moral reasoning than applying rules or other abstract considerations to choices. This is a much harder stance to accept, it seems to me, in large part because of the fact that our possibilities are practically constrained by our character. Characters are not destiny—but they are determinative in certain respects, for both good and bad. They establish a feedback loop, such that once we do something bad, bad choices seem more attractive in the future than they might otherwise. And most of the time, we tend to conform our ‘ideal self’ to our already-existing character. In that sense, reflection on possibilities in and through the lens of our characters risks delivering conclusions that are simply recapitulations of what we already know about the world. Character becomes destiny, in other words, or something near it.
In that sense, asking what should be done by applying an abstract decision-making procedure builds in the possibility of reformation and renewal by expanding the range of ‘moral possibilities’ beyond those that we might otherwise have. It also introduces into our lives the reality of judgment: by introducing a gap between the right and that which our character makes possible, we experience the reality of our own sin and shortcomings in a distinct way. The morally obligatory is, crucially, not equivalent to the morally possible.
This isn’t to say that we can get on without reflection about the virtues, or should even approach the future without reference to our own characters and histories. But it might mean that the latter is insufficient in some important respects for understanding the path we should take that lies before us.