21 Replies to “Are there (or could there be) moral prodigies?

  1. What is a moral prodigy, though? Is it a person who is particularly talented at discovering moral truths, a person who is particularly talented when it comes to figuring out what he or she ought to do in the circumstances, a person who is particularly good at doing what’s morally best, or what?

  2. Well, we also don’t talk about prudential prodigies. Maybe this is because we don’t think of practical reasoning as something that requires some special talent in order to excel at it. So whereas to be really good at chess, music, or logic, you have to have some innate talent for it, to be really good at morality or prudence you don’t need any special talent you just need to respond appropriately to the relevant moral/prudential reasons. Saints and people who floss twice a day don’t have some talent that I lack. They just respond appropriately to reasons that I decide not to respond appropriately to. I choose to act on my immediate desires rather than my reasons more than they do. So I’m guessing that we don’t think that the ability to respond to reasons is a talent. Rather, it’s just something that all rational agents have in virtue of being rational agent. Of course, some choose to exercise that ability more often than others, but not because they have some talent that others lack.
    Now all this is just pure speculation. I haven’t really given it that much thought. If I knew what hangs on this, I might be better able to determine what I think about the issue of whether or not there can be moral prodigies.

  3. Do you really decide not to respond appropriately to reasons? As opposed to just failing to do so?
    Why not describe lil’ Mozart as responding to certain aesthetic reasons, a decision that one set of notes is more worthy/beautiful than another when composing a symphony at the age of 5?
    Perhaps his talent is that he can see reasons where we can’t (it’s an epistemic gift). This is likely true of the chess savant. Perhaps then the issue for morality is whether there are reasons to which most of us have very little access. I suppose a consequentialist like you could say there are (e.g., ramifications upon ramifications of possible consequences), in which case a consequentialist prodigy would be like the chess savant. But of course motivation to bring those consequences about would be crucial too (just as the motivation to win is essential to the chess prodigy and the motivation to produce the beautiful score are crucial to lil’ Mozart).
    I’m just trying to get a bead on what it might be, precisely, that we view as top shelf moral agency and whether it’s available to gifted kids.

  4. Well if you adopt a care ethical view, esp Michael Slote’s more recent position, there might well be savants. Morality is grounded in empathy and it makes sense to think some could be extra good at being empathic or developing the skills to empathic. In addition there are sometimes thought to be gender generalizations here that might be genetic in part, and we can assume there could certainly be moral idiots, perhaps including psychopaths (but they might not be making stupid mistakes, of course…).

  5. The literature on empathy and autism is hard to read but it suggests that on a sentimentalist view, even one more moderate than Slote’s, there might be moral savants of a sort and they probably would not get counted as “gifted” in our current school systems. But of course it does not select for emotional intelligence.

  6. Come to think of it, even Kantians have recognized that empathy and sympathy have importance epistemic roles to play in the moral life, so I think this general thought about the possibility of empathic capacity (or excellent capacity to develop the capacity) might be a solid way to make sense of Savants.

  7. Sorry to add even another comment, but it is worth noting that Darwall pictures empathy as a good or even central epistemic mode of access to second-personal reasons, so it seems his view makes room for strong moral savants like Slote’s view (in a very different way, of course). On a weaker view, people with strong empathic skills will be able to better pick out morally relevant features but they would need some extra capacities (“rational” or “principled” ones, presumably) to figure out what is really moral and why. One the strong views the savant can track the morality of actions better, while on the later view she is just better at tracking the features that make actions moral (but not necessarily that they are moral or that they are made moral).

  8. Hi,
    just quickly to note that I’m with Brad here even if I would not want to put it in his theoretical terms. It just seems to me that some children are kinder, more caring, more worried about the suffering of others, more distressed if they hurt others, and so on than other children. Not that we tend to use the word moral prodigies but to me in this kind of cases it would not seem out of place.
    Here in the UK there is a nice example at the moment which probably most people know about. A nine year old girl, Martha Payne, started a blog called Never Seconds to evaluate her school meals. She also invited children around the world to send in pictures of their meals. The blog became a hit and that helped Martha to raise more than £120000 for charity to improve school meals in poor African countries. She’s been actively involved in these countries too. So, to me she counts as a prodigy.
    What slightly strikes me questionable about moral prodigies is the idea that there would be extra special children, almost like saints, who are way above others. This seems to ignore the fact that lots and lots of children are very, very good. So, maybe the base-line is higher with regards to morality than for instance with regards to playing piano or maths. This is probably what Doug had in mind.

  9. The talk of empathy sounds interesting, and I too think it’s a fundamental epistemic capacity of competent moral agency. Its relevance for such, however, requires two capacities: (a) the ability to take up the perspective of someone else, and (b) the capacity to be emotionally affected in a similar sort of way as the person whose perspective one takes up in response to various sorts of treatments. I suspect that developing both of these capacities (which implicate different parts of the brain, I think) sufficiently to get to prodigy status would be fairly remarkable, and may not be possible for humans as currently biologically constructed.
    However, I don’t see such a roadblock to significant and rapid emotional development along the lines suggested by Jussi, where there may be kids who just have much greater sympathy than others their age or even the rest of us. They wouldn’t be figuring out what’s moral in those terms, but they could be tracking many of the features that make actions moral (in Brad’s words). I’m not sure what to think about this, though.
    (And I hadn’t heard of the Payne girl, which seems a pretty extraordinary story.)

  10. I agree with the emphasis on caring, sympathy, and empathy.
    I think that there are at least three various aspects of moral engagement we could be talking about, and that empathic talent would help most with the third.
    ///1. everyday moral requirements/// I’m inclined to agree with Doug Portmore that there are not prodigies at knowing or doing what is morally required (or what is prudent). This is because the bare requirements of morality and prudence are pretty much known to everyone.
    ///2. moral quandaries/// Now, it’s easy to imagine certain children being good at solving moral quandaries. The problem here is that to resolve such quandaries, one has to know a lot of empirical information about how the world works. So the talent at resolving moral quandaries cannot come down to just some inborn ability (be it empathy, conscience, or whatever).
    ///3. moral ideals/// *Caring* about other people would plausibly engender empathic engagement, kindness, and the like. A strong *sense of duty*–a propensity to feel guilty for being disobedient, or for compromising on one’s principles–would presumably encourage doing the right thing. Combined with other virtues, it might also engender a certain tenacity or strength of will to (say) avoid teasing people or stand up for mistreatment of one’s peers. *Courage*, *self-control*, and other more general virtues would, in addition, help a boatload.
    There’s a further sense, however, in which a youngster might promote moral ideals. I just mentioned kids with morally ordinary projects but morally admirable traits. Call them Conscience-Prodigies. Next I’ll mention kids with morally admirable projects–projects which reduce suffering, enhance opportunities, or promote justice for the people in their world. Call them Justice-Prodigies.
    In addition to being caring and disposed to empathize, these Justice-Prodigies need to be [i] particularly knowledgeable about and [ii] sensitive to needs in the broader social (in our time, global) community. And they need to be [iii] motivated to take action to speak about and/or find solutions to see to it that those needs be met. They learn about all this either because of their emotional/motivational qualities, and/or because of contingent circumstances which inspire them.
    Examples of Justice-Prodigies might include (i) Martha Payne,
    (ii) Tarak McLain: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99478226
    (iii) Any of the kids who win the International Children’s Peace Prize: http://childrenspeaceprize.org/

  11. Great question. I’m hazy on the details, but the Gospel story of Jesus at 12 years old teaching the rabbis(?) seems to be a coherent example of a moral prodigy. And there are lots of fictional stories about worlds in which the adults have lost their moral bearings, but the young protagonist sees the moral truths.

  12. Eric’s example has some pull for me. But beyond that, I found myself having the hunch that the notion of a moral prodigy was problematic. On the other hand, I found myself worrying that it was somehow problematic for realism if there are no “moral prodigies.” So here’s how I resolved my tension, hopefully you’ll find it useful:
    The “thin” moral predicates, apparently have almost no descriptive content. So the claim that “x always does the right thing” or “always knows what the right thing is” allows us to say nothing much (further) about what x does, or what judgements x is reliable about. Consequently, there’s no substantively neutral way to characterize what task the savant would be good at, and thus (perhaps) it’s a category error to talk of moral savants (per se). However, once we index to particular normative theories, then it seems often easy to imagine what it would be–how to independently characterize–moral savants.
    What’s more, the relevant skill–even described most abstractly–may not be the same across substantive theories (e.g. “recognizing and doing what it right”). For instance, compare some virtue theories, traditional consequentialist views, particularism, and old fashioned Kantianism. Some, it seems, will insist the Savant must not only reliably detect his or her duty, but detect it AS SUCH. Others will regard this as a moral failing, or fetish, and still others will de-emaphsize the importance of cognitive detection, in favor of emotional/sentimental responses.
    Maybe, it’s for these reasons that Eric’s example works so uniquely well. Jesus gets to be a prodigy here, because (in the religious context) he’s to be imagined as a moral paradigm or perfect guide independent of any substantive view, i.e. one does not check their preferred theory to establish Jesus’ credibility, instead in the Biblical context the order is reversed.

  13. Jay, thanks. I think particularly interesting in your remarks is mention of strength of will, or a kind of moral commitment. This might indeed be a sign of moral prodigy, although it would be hard to distinguish it from mere willfulness/stubbornness in children, at least without evidence of great moral knowledge. But at any rate, it seems you’re on board with the thought that moral prodigies might be those of the aretaic sort.
    But then this leads to Eric’s excellent example (when I read it, I went “Yes!”). But the story itself, as it turns out, seems to suggest Jesus’s advanced wisdom with respect to understanding the relevant rabbinical texts rather than moral prodigiousness. But at any rate, we might propose an example along these lines, a young kid answering tough moral questions in a way that belies her years.
    But then what would her answers consist in? Here Christian seems initially correct: to identify a substantive moral prodigy, it looks like we could only do so within some substantive normative theory, given the real differences between them regarding, e.g., what doing things “for the right reasons” might mean.
    But now I’m not so sure, once we reconsider cases of prodigy in other arenas, e.g., chess or musical composition. There are competing substantive theories here too that might demand different procedures for arriving at the end product. But here there are clear prodigies, those who typically operate via a kind of powerful intuition. Others might get at the same end product eventually via mastering certain kinds of information and reasons, where failure to recognize or respond to these reasons AS SUCH is a genuine failure w/r/t the skill in question. But we don’t think this matters for prodigies simply because of the power and depth of their intuition.
    What this might, might, suggest is that there could still be moral prodigies that cut across all substantive normative theories in terms of the character revealed by powerful moral intuitions they might have. That is to say, I’m back to feeling some pull toward the possibility of aretaic prodigies, those who somehow come to see how to be kind, or loving, or generous. All substantive normative theories could agree on what this looks like qua behavior, even if they nevertheless disagree on whether taking certain reasons to count as such was necessary.
    So along these lines, I think of Huck Finn as a kind of a moral prodigy. When given the opportunity to turn in Jim, as he strongly believes he should (as Jim is someone else’s property), he resigns himself to going to hell, as he just can’t bring himself to do it. This, despite his moral upbringing that defends the morality of slavery. A prodigious feat, on any substantive normative theory.

  14. David, I agree with everything you’ve said. Your emphasis on the claim that being a moral prodigy is having certain virtuous character traits puzzles me a little, because I wouldn’t know how else to talk about a prodigy other than in terms of various excellent skills, abilities, and/or habits.
    Something to consider is that one can do a thing for multiple reasons.
    Suppose 10-year-old Timmy turns in his yard teacher to the school principal for being verbally abusive to some of his classmates. Timmy might have acted both [i] on welfare considerations AND [ii] on the motive of duty (supposing that, for this case, a kind of duty to look out for one’s peers outweighs the duty to obey one’s authorities).
    It would seem that both a welfarist and a certain sort of Kantian could agree that Timmy is exhibiting prodigious behvaior, on the basis of prodigious moral intuitions. It’s just that they would disagree about which of the reasons on which Timmy acted were the reasons on which it’s virtuous to act.
    And Timmy could be a moral prodigy if he consistently acts on both kinds of reasons throughout his life.
    Maybe the Huck Finn story has the same structure. However, my recollection is that Huck acts against what he takes his duty to be.

  15. Jay: You could’ve stopped after your first sentence.
    Regarding virtuous character traits, I was thinking that I might be less inclined to view someone as particularly a moral prodigy if they were simply skilled at calculating the consequences, say, of some action (contrary, perhaps, to my earlier suggestions in response to Doug).
    If the consequentializing folks are right, then presumably the deontic verdicts of all substantive normative theories are coextensive (despite differences in the relevant reasons for each theory). If so, perhaps all that would matter is that the prodigy be able to adhere to (or announce) those verdicts.

  16. Dr. Leta Hollingworth did research on highly gifted children in the early 20th century, and concluded that exceptional intelligence was strongly correlated with a highly developed sense of morals and ethics at a very early age. This heightened awareness of things that matter is hard on such children. For example small children who notice hungry people have trouble understanding why this problem can’t be solved easily by others sharing food; they angst over other creatures’ pain and suffering (getting early ulcers in some cases), and make decisions based on ethics that are not in their best interests.
    For example, a child I knew like this was in a classroom in which one student had written obscene language on a bookshelf. No one knew who did it. The teacher said if the student didn’t come forward by lunch, she would send notes home to everyone’s parents. After lunch, the graffiti writer had not come forward.
    So the “moral prodigy” student reasoned: it’s wrong for all the students to have to suffer through dealing with possibly unreasonable parents with the notes, when one person did the crime. But if it’s unavoidable an innocent person suffer, then It’s better for one innocent person suffer than 30 innocent people. She told the teacher she wrote the bad language. The teacher was stunned, but sent her to the principal’s office. After the moral student left for the office the real culprit, shamed, confessed.
    Is that the kind of prodigy you’re asking about?

  17. A fascinating question! I’m sure you all are already aware of this, but for what it’s worth this issue is discussed in Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics and then later mentioned in Annas’ “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing”.
    Both seem to claim that there could not be moral prodigies (they don’t use that term), and use this as a premise in an argument defending virtue ethics. However, it’s not clear exactly what conception of moral prodigy Hursthouse has in mind. It looks like it’s a “clever adolescent” who learns moral wisdom from books/manuals and is relied on by others for moral advice. She claims this sort of prodigy doesn’t exist, and so morality cannot be codifiable in a technical manual. Even if she’s right that *this* sort of prodigy doesn’t exist, this seems to leave open that a clever adolescent could achieve moral wisdom from unusual life experience and/or early development of certain emotional capacities.

  18. I’ve heard of neither the Hollingworth research nor do I recall the argument in Hursthouse, so thanks to both Alex and Vanessa. Just some off-the-cuff remarks about them here.
    Alex, your case is quite interesting and suggestive. I wonder if the seeming lack of examples of moral prodigies might then be attributed to the fact that kids typically aren’t in a position to engage in sacrifices in pursuit of some high moral demands, given their general lack of resources and/or authority to distribute them on their own. Your example is a rare one in which such sacrifices can be made.
    But then it looks again as if the kid is quite virtuous, in a way, so it surprises me to hear Vanessa’s mention of the impossibility of prodigy as being an argument given in favor of virtue ethics. Sure, moral wisdom may be lacking from kids if we think of that as requiring some technical facility. But kindness, generosity, and altruism aren’t, and it would seem such traits would cast doubt on such arguments. But again, I’ll have to refamiliarize myself with the Hursthouse. I think at the least that Vanessa is right to suggest the possibility of other sorts of prodigies (which has been one of the subjects of this ever-interesting thread — thanks to all who have contributed!).

  19. Imagine a 10-year-old who followed the guidance found in the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, etc. Would he be a moral prodigy or a prudential idiot?
    Or both?

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