Friday, October 09, 2009

Virtue Ethics: An Introduction—Part 1


Virtue ethics
…begins with the question: ‘What is a worthy life for a human being?’
…is preoccupied with the moral growth and character of individuals.
…postulates, in its classical Greek version, four principal (or ‘cardinal’) moral virtues: wisdom, justice, temperance (or moderation, sōphrosynē), and courage. Of these four virtues, sōphrosynē is the most difficult to render adequately into English. It implies mastery of the art of self-control, excellence of character and soundness of mind; it further connotes the qualities of wisdom and eudaimonia. In Plato’s triune soul, it represents reason ruling over the ‘spirited’ and ‘appetitive’ parts. In social and political terms it suggests balance, proportionality, and judiciousness in action. Indeed, as with all the cardinal virtues, we might examine it in terms of thought, feeling, speech and action, for it (they) has (have) both intra- and interpersonal application. Christians, while acknowledging the significance of classical Greek virtues, recognize the following (cardinal) specifically theological virtues: faith, hope and love [agapē, also ‘charity,’ Gk. charis, L., cāritās]; other theological virtues include goodness, humility, chastity, and poverty. A Buddhist list of virtues would include wisdom, compassion, generosity, patience, perseverance, concentration and non-attachment. The Confucian cluster of virtues is relatively unique as well, although all of these lists might plausibly be said to have more than strong family resemblance to each other, as some virtues, notably wisdom and some form of self-control, are common to both religious and non-religious worldviews.
…is ‘agent-centered.’ While modern moral theories, like utilitarianism/consequentialism and deontology/Kantian ethics, are largely or conventionally ‘act(ion)-centered.’ It is certainly possible to imagine an ethical life that appreciates and integrates the virtues of all three ethical theories, even if that means giving (lexical) priority to one theory over the others. The leading notions of eudaimonist ethics are, typically, not those of obligation, duty and rule-following but rather goodness, worth and value, although the endeavor to be good or to realize value(s) is certainly conceived as obligatory. And indeed, there’s nothing that precludes obligations, duties and rules, imperatives and commands, from playing an indispensable role in virtue-ethical training and moral growth.

A virtue is a settled (i.e., reliable) disposition to act in a certain way. It expresses an ideal as much as an achievement.

The qualities of moral character, however fragile, are a (spiritual, ethical, cognitive and affective) developmental outcome. These virtues, as excellent qualities of character, are intrinsically valuable for those who exemplify them while at the same time being extrinsically valuable for others.

Virtue ethics is perfectionist or, better, perfectibilist (in the Godwinian sense): it demands of individuals a continuous moral growth, a ‘self-surpassing’ with no endpoint, and commitment to an askēsis familiar to Hellenistic ethics, Christianity, Islamic humanism and mysticism (Sufism), Indian religious worldviews, and some forms of Daoism. This perfectibilist ethics in the ‘art of living’ involves a training dedicated to techniques of mental attentiveness or presence of mind and focused on learning those methods necessary for ordering the passions or mastering the ‘therapy of desire.’

Because virtue ethics are dispositional, there’s a significant difference between a ‘virtuous act’ and ‘living virtuously.’ Cultivating a virtuous disposition entails habituating our emotions in particular ways as well as the exercise of practical reasoning (deliberative judgment, phronēsis) so as to learn how and why to act the right way in any given situation, as well as, more broadly, conduct our lives in such a way as to reveal our dedication to (the fundamental value of) the Good. Developmentally speaking, the virtuous person comes to learn how to intuitively and spontaneously respond to the moral dimensions of any circumstance or situation: ‘The better I get at deliberating and working out what to do, the less I will need to deliberate, for the more obvious it will become to me what the morally salient features of the situation in front of me are.’—Julia Annas

The virtues are rational states generated from repeated choices and the fruition of a developmental pattern or habit (in the Aristotelian sense) of consistent and coherent reasoning about the right and proper thing to do, the right and proper way to live. Acquiring a virtue is often compared (keeping in mind the analogy is not perfect) to acquiring a skill (e.g., becoming an artisan), or learning to play a musical instrument. The emulation of one’s betters enables on to eventually progress to the point where one acquires an understanding of what one is doing and has the ability to freely act (perform) on one’s own in a self-directed fashion. One’s parents, teachers, and peer group all affect the trajectory of ones’ character development, all can work with our natural endowments and tendencies in the arduous process of chiseling, cutting, shaping and polishing this raw material through habituation exercises and (formal and informal) educational practices. In the first instance, virtue ethics is beholden to the presence of virtuous agents as intimate role models fit for direct and indirect emulation.

‘One might think that the demands of morality conflict with our [enlightened] self-interest, as morality is other-regarding, but eudaimonist ethics presents a different picture. Human nature is such that virtue is not exercised in opposition to self-interest, but rather is the quintessential component of human flourishing. The good life for humans is the life of virtue and therefore it is in our interest to be virtuous. It is not just that virtues lead to the good life (e.g., if you are good you will be rewarded), but rather that a virtuous life is good because the exercise of our rational capacities and virtues is its own reward.’—Nafsika Athanassoulis

Human nature contains innate potentialities and capacities that can come to fruition with careful cultivation, proper habituation and education. The actualization or realization (or expression) of such potentialities and capacities is experienced as affording that sort of happiness, contentment or satisfaction that is peculiar to self-fulfilling conduct, otherwise known as eudaimonia or ‘human flourishing’ (living well).

Our innate excellences or virtues (aretaiē, s. aretē) come to fruition as a result of a proper orientation toward ‘the Good,’ for in our heart of hearts, we are lovers of the Good.

Eudaimonia, awkwardly translated as ‘happiness,’ but better rendered as ‘human flourishing,’ identifies the condition of living in truth to oneself, and requires a deliberate process of self-discovery and self-examination as integral to that form of self-knowledge that is part and parcel of virtuous living.

‘In an ethics of virtue there is no room for supererogation. There is no “floor” of minimal moral obligation for the agent to rise above; being a fully virtuous agent is an ideal for everyone. The development of virtue is a process that everyone starts and continues to go along, there are no levels that only moral heroes are supposed to reach. However, there is an analogue to the problem of supererogation: the thought that there is a distinction between the virtue that we all may be expected to achieve , and the virtue which only exceptional people may be expected to achieve.’—Julia Annas

‘The eudaimonistic handling of supererogation is discernable in the testimony of heroes and saints that their heroic or saintly conduct was perceived by them as their duty; yet at the same time, they typically do not universalize their heroic or saintly duties. [….] We can think of their situation on the analogy of the skilled swimmer who can accomplish a deep-water rescue that is beyond the capabilities of a novice and a non-swimmer. As moral development increases, so do moral responsibilities, and in recognition of this the hero or saint demands more of himself than he asks of other persons, and more of himself than he asked at prior levels of development. In sum, eudaimonism’s thesis is that some of what is obligatory at later stages of moral development is supererogatory…with respect to earlier stages, while moral development itself is a universal demand upon humankind.’—David L. Norton

For eudaimonistic individuation or self-actualization it is the responsibility of persons to actualize objective value(s) in the world. (David L. Norton)

Whatever one’s projects and commitments are (apart from specifically moral ones), they cannot be identified with character, but how someone maintains or fails to maintain commitments and responsibilities normally counts heavily toward character, as do the sorts of commitments and responsibilities someone takes on.’—Joel Kupperman

‘Strength of character is independent of goodness of character, in the deeply wicked people have strong characters. Indeed, a strong character is required to be either extremely good or deeply wicked.’—Joel Kupperman

‘A person’s character is a complex of innate dispositions, shaped by environmental influences, as well as traits acquired through habituation, reasoned assessments, and voluntary choices. A character is not something that comes ready-made and can just be put on. It is a complex individuating feature of persons and cannot be hived off from the person. It provides a source of continuity throughout a person’s life. Thus, characters are not to be thought of as simply a collection of moral virtues. Further, virtues, unlike characters, can be specified independently of persons who instantiate them. If two people have the virtue of courage, it is the same virtue they have. Characters are inextricably linked with the persons who create them.’—Christine McKinnon

‘We value traits, calling them virtues, because they are dispositions reliably to recognize what is of value or disvalue in the world, and reliably to respond appropriately in thought, feeling and actions. Intellectual virtues, such as wisdom, and moral virtues, such as benevolence and being just, have precisely this feature. We value wisdom because we value truth. We value benevolence because we value such things as security and comfort, and we disvalue cruelty because we disvalue such things as pain and needless suffering. And so on for justice and the other virtues. What you value in the world will determine what character traits you value in yourself and in others. Another way of putting what is at the heart of virtue is that a virtue is a trait that is reliably responsive to good reasons, to reasons that reveal values; it is reason-responsive in the right way.’—Peter Goldie

‘Character is fragile.’—Peter Goldie

‘People who exhibit quite different traits in different spheres of life are often seen as not typical, let alone successful, in their inner fragmentation, but as having pervasive failings of character and feeling and as susceptible to swings of judgment and action. A rigid distinction or disassociation between spheres of life is often maintained at great psychic cost, and frequently fails: the impartial severities of the “public” person carry over into intimate relationships; the indulgences or bullying of “private” life become the corruptions of “public” life. Habits of dishonesty or of callousness, of friendliness or of courtesy, are not easily kept within distinct departments of life; nor are sensitivity and lack of sensitivity to others. Without some very general inclusive traits of character, patterns of action, attitude, and feeling within spheres of life, even psychological stability, can fail. Inclusive principles of virtue are no more dispensable than inclusive principles of justice.’—Onora O’Neill


Please Note: A list of 'References and Further Reading' will be appended to the third and final post of this series.

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