Scrooge and Sudden Moral Change

Funny Ink Drawing of Scrooge

Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists, unlike Aristotle himself, seem willing to agree that significant moral change – a change wherein, for instance, a vicious individual becomes virtuous or vice versa – is possible.[1] They unanimously insist, however, that if and when such a change occurs, it can only occur over a prolonged period of time. A single experience or a sudden insight might lead to a desire or even a decision to change, but change itself is a slow and torturous process. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a favorite example of those who make this claim. Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors, scholars argue, might have inspired remorse and a desire to change, but (or so they insist) the Scrooge who wakes on Christmas morning is still – as far as his moral character is concerned – a mean and miserly man, and he will continue to be such for a long period of time, until his good actions gradually eat away at his vices and eventually replace them with virtues. Two related reasons are often given for this claim. First, it is said that experience is a pre-requisite of virtue: Scrooge’s character cannot change except via the experience of attempting to be kind or generous. Second, it is said that someone like Scrooge can have no hope of cultivating virtue unless his old vicious habits are lost. Since both cultivating virtues and eradicating vices are lengthy and time-consuming processes, it follows that Scrooge’s character can only change after a considerable space of time and a great deal of concerted effort.

While conceding that Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors might have brought about a conversion experience and a desire to change, scholars insist that Scrooge’s character itself could not have changed overnight; not, indeed, for a significant space of time afterwards. Why? Consider the following claims about why Scrooge (or someone like him) could not undergo a sudden change in character. Julia Annas says that Scrooge may well have recognized the value of virtue on Christmas Eve, but that he could not have changed, because “Coming to see that being loyal or brave is a worthwhile way to live is just the first step. Becoming virtuous requires habituation and experience…We need experience to understand what it is to be loyal or brave”.[2] Linda Zagzebski, similarly, argues that Scrooge may have had a “sudden insight or abrupt change of mind” but that he could not have undergone a sudden change in character.[3] Such changes are impossible, Zagzebski argues, because virtue presupposes a special form of moral knowledge, a knowledge that enables one “to know the right thing to do in a way that cannot be predicted in advance…an insight into particulars that may not be fully captured by any general rule.”[4] Such insight, Zagzebski argues, can only arise through experience.[5] Though Rosalind Hursthouse does not appeal specifically to Scrooge, she makes a similar claim about the space of time needed for moral change to occur, saying that an individual who decides to change nonetheless “has a lot to learn about people and about life before he acquires the sensitivity, perception, and imagination necessary for being thoroughly virtuous…one who has hitherto ruthlessly pursued money and power and now sees them as dross is not in the best position to deal with people of modest ambition as he should.”[6]

In all of the instances cited above, the argument for the necessity of experience does not center on virtue itself. The claim, rather, is that virtue presupposes a kind of moral understanding.[7] One might well wish to be kind (say) without any real understanding of what kindness is, but one cannot actually be kind without that understanding. What is kind will vary dramatically depending on the context and the person involved, yet genuinely kind people have no difficulty navigating these dramatically different contexts. Indeed, one’s ability to exercise the same virtue in dramatically different contexts is a mark of having it: kind people simply seem to “get” what kindness is.[8] The same can be said of other virtues as well. It is this – the understanding that virtue presupposes – that is asserted to be connected to experience.

If a kind of moral understanding is essential to virtue, an analogous kind of moral understanding seems equally essential to vice. The popular book (now an HBO series) Game of Thrones has a character, Ramsay Bolton, who is renowned for his cruelty. Ramsay is no mere bully. He delights in inflicting pain and enjoys devising ever more complicated and creative tortures. In fact, part of what makes him so despicable is the creativity of his cruelty. One of his favorite games is to allow his captives to think they have found a way of escaping, let them escape, and then recapture them just when they think their attempt has succeeded. In the season 6 finale, Ramsay has captured Rickon, the little brother of the protagonist Jon Snow. When Jon arrives with his army, Ramsay brings Rickon outside, tells him to run toward his brother, and begins shooting arrows at him. As Jon (of course) gallops to save his brother, Ramsay continues to shoot arrows, each time narrowly (and deliberately) missing Rickon. Only at the very last moment, as Jon is reaching down to sweep his brother up onto his horse, when escape seems imminent, does Ramsay allow his arrow to find its mark. Rickon dies, and Jon is forced to endure not merely the pain of losing his brother, but the additional pain of narrowly failing to save him. Mad with grief, Jon does exactly what Ramsay intended him to do all along: he orders his hopelessly outnumbered army to attack.

The example of Ramsay Bolton indicates that a kind of moral understanding is just as essential to Ramsay’s cruelty as it is to a virtuous person’s kindness. Ramsay is able to be extraordinarily cruel only because he has developed a thoroughgoing understanding of cruelty. His cruelty is creative, and his creativity stems precisely from his understanding of what will cause his victims the most pain. Among other things, he understands that if he allows his victims a hope of defeating or escaping him, it will make their inevitable failure all the more painful. Much as he enjoys inflicting physical pain, he also understands that one tortures more effectively by crushing spirits than by inflicting physical pain. He has enough insight, imagination and sensitivity to see that Jon cannot help but ride to save his brother and that he will blame himself for his failure to do so, however inevitable his failure might have been. Someone who lacked Ramsay’s understanding of cruelty could never be as cruel or as loathsome as he manages to be.

Cases like Ramsay’s indicate that moral understanding can play as much a role in vice as in virtue. It certainly does seem to be the case that virtuous action presupposes an ability to comprehend the morally relevant features of a situation. This comprehension may mean understanding what the actual practice of a given virtue involves, or it may mean exhibiting a kind of moral sensitivity or imagination. But a similar understanding is evident in vices like cruelty. The cruelest people manifest a deep level of understanding of how to inflict the most pain, and come up with tortures that others might never even conceive of. This very ability implies the possession of a sensitivity and imagination analogous to that possessed by the virtuous person. The thoroughly cruel individual is acutely good at understanding what will hurt his victims the most. For the remainder of our discussion, then, I will assume that vice involves a moral understanding analogous to that of virtue.

Is the moral understanding of virtue retained, even when one cultivates a vice? It is plausible to think that it is. In the first place, just as the virtuous man can put his understanding of his old vices to the service of his virtue, so too can the vicious man put his understanding of how virtuous people think to the service of his vice. In the second place, if we agree that conversions like Scrooge’s are at all plausible, then moral understanding must not be entirely lost. Scrooge’s conversion is made possible because he is reminded of how he used to see the world, and of how his old self compares to the new. Even if the reminder is not achieved by ghostly apparitions, I suspect most of us find it plausible that conversions can be achieved in this way. But this presupposes that the individual in need of conversion can comprehend those old emotions. If Scrooge had entirely lost the moral understanding he possessed as a child or a young man, his conversion would be impossible. He would be unmoved by the sight of his sister or his former self or the woman he loved. The fact that he can be moved, however, would seem to indicate that the understanding is still there, albeit buried under the weight of his vices.

I think that considerations like these make it plausible to think that moral understanding is not lost in the transition from virtue to vice any more than the understanding of a skill is lost when one ceases to use it. One might still argue, however, that the loss of a virtue or vice is importantly different from the loss of a skill, and that that difference means that the relevant understanding must be lost. I will conclude by considering some of these objections.

One difference between the typical case of the loss of skill and the loss of virtue is that ceasing to practice a skill might seem compatible with retaining understanding in the way that the loss of virtue does not. Suppose, having been a karate master, I stop practicing my art and become a maintenance man. My job as a maintenance man might well mean that I don’t think about my old skill and don’t practice it, but it is not antithetical to karate. I just now do something different. Consider, however, a rather different situation. The basketball great Charles Barkley was at one time a good golfer. Like many professional athletes, Barkley did not play golf often – so it would not be correct to say he had the “skill” of golf in the sense we have been using the term – but when he did play, he played well. But one day, Barkley developed what is known in golf as a “case of the yips”. The more he tried to fix his golf swing, the worse it became. Barkley is now spectacularly bad at golf, his swing the butt of jokes.

Barkley, of course, never developed the understanding of golf that a truly skilled golfer possesses. It’s not clear that it would even be possible, for instance, for Barkley to become spectacularly bad at basketball – a sport he does have the requisite understanding of – in the way he is bad at golf. But I raise the case of Barkley because one might argue that the loss that occurs in a significant moral change is more akin to the radical change that occurred in Barkley’s golf swing than it is to the loss that occurs when one simply ceases to practice a skill. That is to say, maybe the very process of becoming vicious necessarily drives out or eliminates one’s virtuous moral understanding in a way that merely ceasing to practice a skill does not.   Maybe the very process of becoming cruel means that kindness must become incomprehensible to me; maybe an inability to understand generosity is part and parcel of what it means to be greedy.

All that is required for significant moral change, however, is that the reasons characteristic of one’s former good habits cease to function as reasons, not that those reasons become incomprehensible. As Ebeneezer Scrooge became attached to money, his goals changed. In the light of his new goals, he came to view love as a frivolity and Christmas as an attempt to part him from his money. He created new habits and developed new ways of acting. The cultivation of those habits is, to be sure, incompatible with the actions characteristic of his old self. It is incompatible with Scrooge becoming a miser, for instance, that he regularly have generous or empathetic or loving thoughts or that he be moved by concern for others. On a daily basis, it even seems that empathy has become altogether incomprehensible to Scrooge: he tells the men who come to collect for charity that it would be better if the poor were to starve, and there is every indication that he means it. But that Scrooge acts in this way does not necessarily imply that his former moral comprehension has been irretrievably lost. It only means that it is not now action-guiding for him. Yet at the same time, the very fact that Scrooge can be moved by the sight of his former self and by the reminder of the sister who he loved indicates that his former moral understanding, however deeply buried, is still there. It is simply not an understanding that he has made use of. Scrooge’s conversion occurs not because his nocturnal visitors give him new reasons or a new perspective, but because they successfully re-awaken a moral comprehension that has long been dormant.

If virtues and vices are states of character that are permanent and difficult to change, shouldn’t what I am proposing already be ruled out? Isn’t the very notion of permanence incompatible with a relatively quick transition from virtue to vice? Not necessarily. On my account, an old vice or virtue is relatively easily resumed once the moral shift has been made. The now virtuous former philanderer can resume his old ways relatively easily if for some reason he is moved to reject his 30 year practice of chastity. Scrooge can resume the loving and generous practices of his youth if for some reason he comes to see his lifetime of greed as gravely misguided. Virtue and vice are stable states of character because the constant practice of them makes such moral changes deeply improbable. The more our former philanderer practices chastity, the better chastity appears to him, the more rewarding he finds the practice of it, the more difficult it will become for him to see his former life as appealing. Similarly, the more deeply the lust for money takes hold of Scrooge, the harder it will be for him to see the reasons that moved his former self as good reasons. In the end, it is the conversion experience itself that deeply ingrained habits render unlikely, and it is this that gives them their stability.

[1] Anton 2006; Bondeson 1974; Di Muzo 2000; Sielger 1968

[2] Annas, 12.

[3] Zagzebski, 123.

[4] Zagzebski, 119.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hursthouse, 159. See also Milgram, Practical Induction.

[7] Annas is the only one who uses the term “understanding,” but her term seems to encompass what Hursthouse and Zagzebski have in mind.

[8] Annas seems to think that virtuous people will also have a certain level of articulacy but I see no reason to insist on this.

Angela Knobel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.