"Evil is unspectacular and always human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table."
W. H. Auden (1939) Herman Melville
MY REMARKS WILL FOCUS primarily on the connection between what I shall call the Thesis, meaning the thesis of the Guise of the Good, and actions under the Guise of the Bad. I will argue that to the extent that action under the Guise of the Bad is possible it does not contradict the Thesis. (1)
The Two Versions: Reason and Motive
The discussion will proceed on the assumption that actions (and I use the term to refer to actions, activities and omissions) can be bad in some regards, as well as bad all things told. Furthermore, the discussion assumes that the fact that an action is bad, or bad in some regard, is not a reason to perform it. So what would constitute an action under the Guise of the Bad?
The expression "the Guise of the Bad" is a stipulative one, whose meaning is not well-entrenched in the philosophical lexicon. Various theses can reasonably claim the name. But its meaning cannot be so wide as to include action taken for a reason that is believed to be defeated, meaning taken to be weaker than conflicting reasons that apply in the circumstances. (2) Ordinary akratic action falls under that description. It involves action done for what the agent believes to be a defeated reason, defeated by considerations that establish that the action should not be done, but it is done, and it is done for what the agent believes to be a reason that shows that it has some merit, that there is something good about doing it. The view that I will examine says that it is possible to perform an action that one believes to be bad (to have bad-making features) and for the reason that it is, as the agent believes, bad. (3) I will call that version of the Guise of the Bad Thesis the "normative version."
As is obvious, by "reason" I refer to a normative reason. Reasons generally are facts that explain. Normative reasons are somewhat different. They may explain nothing. There may be a reason for an agent to perform an action (that is not also a reason for any other action, nor for any belief, emotion, intention, etc.) and because that action is never performed the reason for it does not explain anything. (4) Normative reasons, however, can explain (or be central parts of explanations of), for example, actions that are taken for those reasons.
Normative reasons can explain various objects: beliefs, emotions, intentions or actions. Given our topic, I will ignore reasons other than reasons for action. The view that we examine is not about whether bad properties can in themselves provide or constitute a reason for an action, but about the possibility of actions taken in the belief that they are bad and that that is a reason to take them. One way of expressing the difference is that it is not about whether the badness of actions can be a reason for them (I proceed on the assumption that it cannot), but about whether it is possible to believe that the bad features of an action are reasons to take it. And that is close to asking whether actions taken in the belief that they are bad are susceptible to normative explanations. This oracular statement itself requires clarification.
Explanations are of various types. For example, Aristotle famously distinguished four types of causes and four types of (causal) explanations depending on which kind of cause features in them. Whether an explanation is a good or successful one often does not affect the type it belongs to. If it fails because it asserts the existence of facts that do not exist, it nevertheless belongs to the same type of explanation it would have belonged to had they obtained. Similarly, if it claims that certain facts explain in a certain way (e.g., are an efficient cause of the explanandum) while in fact they do not explain in that way, it nevertheless belongs to the kind it would have belonged to had its claim been true (i.e., efficient cause explanations in my example). To give an example, an epidemiological explanation is an epidemiological explanation even if the statistical connection it relies on does not obtain or the theory of statistical explanation it relies on is mistaken, with the result that the explanation fails.
Matters are a little more complex with what I will call reason explanations. Successful reason explanations are explanations whose core is expressed in statements commonly made using sentences of the form: "X (an agent) [??]ed because of F," where "because of F" means because F shows the action to be worth doing. For example: Jane ate the apple because it was tasty, watched Away from Her (a film) because it is insightful about the way advancing dementia affects couples, etc. In other words, reason explanations connect a reaction of the person (in the cases we are examining--actions) to features of the world that make the reaction appropriate, when that is why the agent reacts as he does.
But of course people may act because they are mistaken about how things are, or about what is an appropriate reaction to the way things are. In such cases, the action taken is not an appropriate response to the facts that prompt it either because those facts are not a reason for the action or because the belief that they exist is false. The agent is not connected to the world in the way he thinks he is. But in acting as he did he attempted to react as one does to normative reasons. That is why the explanation of such actions is similar to successful reason explanations. Of course, it is not a successful reason explanation because there is no reason that can explain the response. It is a failed reason explanation. But there is a successful explanation nearby. It contains a segment of a successful reason explanation: it explains the action by the agent's attempt to conduct himself in a way that is appropriate to how things are. Agents, we may say, take themselves to be normatively guided, guided by a reason, and that is what led them to act as they did. And even though they are not guided by a reason, they tried to be. The explanation, the successful explanation, of their action is therefore an explanation (of at least one kind of case) of attempting to be guided by a reason. Therefore, it is an explanation of normative guidance. As a terminological abbreviation (that roughly conforms to the way the terms are often used (5)) let me call explanations of conduct in which agents attempt (successfully or not) to be guided by reasons "normative explanations." Successful reason explanations, because they embed in them normative explanations, can also be said to be normative explanations.
So far I have been explaining the normative version of the Guise of the Bad. It says that there can be normative explanations of people's actions in which they take the badness of some actions to be reasons for their performance. Another version, which I will call the "motive version," (6) concerns the possibility of acting out of bad motives. That version asserts that an agent can, without having any relevant false beliefs, perform actions motivated by the badness of those actions--namely by features of the actions that make them bad.
The condition that the agent is free of relevant false beliefs excludes from the scope of the thesis those cases in which the agent believes that the features that motivate him are good, are features that make the action good in some respect. The condition may be too strong, as it excludes from the scope of the thesis cases in which the agent is ambivalent or self-deceived, cases in which he knows that the features are bad but deceives himself into believing that they are good, and other more complex psychological ambivalences. Later, other kinds of motive explanations are tacitly introduced.
Motive explanations are productive explanations. They explain what brought about the performance of actions. (As is the custom, I will sometimes refer to them as causal explanations, not meaning by that more than that they explain what produced or brought about the explanandum.) So do normative explanations, but, unlike the latter, motive explanations do not imply that the agents knew, or believed, that they had any particular motive, let alone that they knew or believed that they acted out of the motives that explain their actions. Motives can be guided or triggered by reasons and they can bring people to act for certain (believed) reasons, but they can also bring people to act without reason, as when they induce an accidental act, or a false and masking belief about one's reasons.
Let me explain: first, accidental actions, e.g., accidentally knocking over and breaking a wine glass, are not done for a reason (though they may happen in the performance of an intentional action that is taken for a reason, as when we break the glass while passing the salt, as requested). Needless to say, such accidental actions are...