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Courage the cowardly dog characters in order to make room for the heroes—in the film, for instance, the character of Oskar, whose heroism is to be explained and whose virtue is to be admired. That’s it—his heroism is to be explained and admired, as all virtuous conduct is, virtue is virtue, and he is virtuous.
This seems to be a standard reaction to the idea of moral worth: it’s not the idea of virtue that we should be after but the moral worth of people who are doing the right thing. In the end, virtue is not what it’s about, but what it’s for. Or, if you like, virtue is what virtue is.
This is more than a trivial question: it helps explain why so many people have a hard time understanding and appreciating the notion of moral character. The idea of an “innocent” character is incoherent. A character can be a coward without being a cowardly character, it’s a logical fact that the first can occur without the second. And by the same token, it’s a logical fact that the second can occur without the first. And there can be a coward and a hero and neither of them is a cowardly or a heroic character.
Moreover, these kinds of characters have a distinctive logical structure. A moral character is not the kind of thing that can be ascribed without qualification. In that way it’s quite different from, say, a mathematical character, like a number. A number is the sort of thing that can be described in a formula—“This formula evaluates to this number”—while a moral character can’t. Rather, the correct description is: “A moral character is the sort of thing which can be ascribed in context.” A character is the kind of thing that’s appropriate, or inappropriate, for a given situation.
This has something important to do with the idea of a state of mind. A character is, at least in the relevant sense, a mental state, not an object. To judge someone’s character, you have to have a grasp of her character, not just her conduct. For example, I might have a character objection to eating fish: I’m a vegetarian and therefore don’t like to see fish swimming around. On the other hand, you might have a character objection to not eating fish: you think fish are delicious and eat them yourself. You may both know you have character objections, but one of you is acting out of character and the other isn’t. In the first example, you’re judging your own character. In the second, you’re judging the character of your dinner partner, not your own.
This is closely related to the distinction between moral and logical rules. A moral rule is a reason to act or not to act. A logical rule is a reason to act, but not a reason not to act. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s very important. The difference between moral and logical rules is this: If you accept that you ought to obey the moral rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should obey the logical rules.
Take an extreme example: suppose that the logical rules are: “I should wear my seatbelt every time I drive.” If you accept that you ought to obey the logical rules, then it’s permissible to disobey the logical rules. The converse is obviously not true. This is what I mean when I say that your character is a reason to act or not act. If you accept the fact that it’s right to do one thing, it’s also appropriate to do the other thing.
There’s no contradiction between the claim that a person ought to act in a certain way and the claim that that person ought not to act in a certain other way. It’s only when you add additional premises to the claims that you begin to conflict. We can see this when we look at why some people want to change their behavior, or how others refuse to change their behavior.
If I say that I’m going to obey the rules, then it doesn’t matter what you say. You may tell me I’m wrong, but you’re not entitled to use force or other coercive means to force me to do what I say I’m going to do. On the other hand, if I say that I’m going to do something, then I’m going to do it whether you tell me I’m wrong or not. If you say I shouldn’t do something, then you don’t have the right to expect me to do it.
Your refusal to cooperate is not going to stop me from behaving in a way that you say I should not behave. The other guy may have a gun pointed at my head or something, but that’s only a threat. That’s something I must respect because, even if you’re saying it with your lips, it’s not really a threat. If I don’t choose to cooperate, then the only thing you’ve done is remind me of what you’d like me to do. You may not care what I do, but if you’re not making threats, then the other guy has no right to do anything to you. If you claim that I should change, and I don’t, you only have yourself to blame. It’s not an external force that’s causing me to act in a way you disapprove of, it’s your actions that are doing that.
Suppose I were a religious person and you were telling me not to have any physical contact with people of other religions. If I refuse to comply with your request, you’re not going to get your way by pointing a gun at me, you’re just going to have to respect my right to do what I choose.
I’m not a religious person so I won’t comment about that issue. (But if you’re telling me that I should not have any physical contact with people of other religions, then I would respectfully disagree.)
I think you’re being unfair to the religious people who try to work in the public sector, or try to do social work. And I think it is a good thing when religious people try to work in the public sector, because they believe it is their duty to serve the common good. You’re right to point out that they should be careful not to force their religious beliefs on others, but if that is all they are trying to do, there is not a big problem.