Sunday, October 11, 2009

Virtue Ethics: An Introduction—Part 2

The image is of "Noah's Ark" (ca. 1590), a painting attributed to Miskin. © Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. I chose this for the same reasons Amyn B. Sajoo selected it for the cover of his Muslim Ethics: Emerging Vistas (2004), as explained in the Preface to the book.

The mature, self-responsible, self-actualizing individual is first and foremost self-governing. The art and science of self-government is for virtue ethical theory the paradigm of good government (or governance). We might imagine, therefore, that the primary task of good government is to assure that the opportunities and occasions of such self-governance are generalized throughout society. Owing to the human condition and reflective of our natural sociability, not all of the preconditions of self-directed individuality can be self-supplied by individuals. It follows that if we are to hold individuals morally accountable for self-discovery and self-actualization, they are entitled to the necessary conditions of same. In short, some of the necessary (yet not sufficient) conditions of eudaimonistic moral aspiration are best thought of as social and political conditions, the responsibility for which is everyone’s:

To say that all are responsible is not necessarily to say that each is responsible, though. Still less is it to say that each is necessarily responsible for attempting to do whatever must be done himself. [….] [W]e typically—and rightly—suppose that, when responsibilities have not been allocated to anyone in particular within a group, the most that can be said is that each of them has an imperfect duty to perform at least some (but not necessarily all) of the acts that we might ideally wish be performed. The same general principle gives rise to much stronger implications at the level of the group as a whole, however. When no one in particular bears responsibility for performing some morally desirable actions, everyone collectively has a strong, perfect duty to see to that those things are done, within the limits of the capacities of the group as a whole to do so without undue sacrifice. [….] [The requirements of strong collective responsibility are, from the perspective of individual action, a coordination problem.] [T]he solution to such coordination problems is, of necessity, a responsibility peculiar to the group as a whole (Robert E. Goodin).

While in the past it was the polis or city-state that provided (through its ‘constitution’) a solution to the coordination problem represented by the generalization of the opportunities and occasions for human flourishing, today that solution is provided by the State. The State bears ‘ultimate responsibility for providing the coordination that is required in order for people to be able do the right thing’ (Goodin). Virtue ethics can appreciate the fact that individual moral responsibilities give rise to collective moral responsibilities that cannot be self-supplied by individuals: Where shared collective responsibilities are concerned, it is—by definition—everyone’s business what everyone else does. And this tautology is far from an empty one. It is everyone’s business, first and most simply, because it is a responsibility that everyone shares with everyone else. It is everyone’s business, second and more importantly, because, for anyone else’s contribution to be efficacious, each agent must usually play his part under the scheme that has been collectively instituted for discharging that shared responsibility. [….] Failure to discharge shared, collective responsibilities…undermin[es] in certain crucial respects other people’s moral agency itself. [….] That is what justifies us, pace libertarian principles, in forcing people to play their part in collective moral enterprises—so that others may play their part in them too [….] All of this is simply to say that, where there is a collective responsibility to coordinate individual behavior in pursuit of some morally important goal, it is legitimate for the collectivity to impose sanctions upon individuals in pursuit of that goal. Of course, it is perfectly true that not all coordination schemes require such enforcement…[for]people are sometimes prepared to play their assigned roles without any external sanctions whatsoever. So my argument here is not that we should necessarily always enforce coordination schemes. It is, rather, that we should always be prepared to enforce them as necessary (Robert E. Goodin).

Eudaimonistic ethics is a valuable voluntary option for individuals only if the necessary social and political conditions for it prevail.

The eudaimonist conception of human nature and the good life entail enhancing the quality of life through the acquisition of moral virtues and the proper development of character. As dispositions of character, the moral virtues are (1) personal utilities, (2) intrinsic goods (i.e., of intrinsic or inherent value), and (3) social utilities (because morally ‘other-regarding’). Utility is understood here in its lexical sense, meaning fitness for some purpose or worth to some end.

To have moral integrity implies one is dedicated to the task of harmoniously integrating otherwise separable, conflicting and often fragmented aspects of personhood—notably, cognitive and affective faculties, desires, interests, roles, life-shaping choices—into a self-consistent if not harmonious whole. In the Apology and the Crito Socrates exemplifies moral integrity, conducting himself in a manner that vividly and exquisitely exemplifies the very conduct for which he is condemned (i.e., living a philosophical way of life).

The problem of moral development is the problem of discovering the conditions necessary and sufficient for the manifestation of the virtues and the actualization of value(s). Each person is morally obligated, from the perspective of virtue ethics, to sincerely and persistently endeavor to actualize, conserve and defend those values he or she identifies with as the product of self-examination and the prerequisite of self-direction. The specific cluster of values so identified may (and usually does) vary from person to person and no one individual is capable of realizing all such values, although one might nonetheless recognize and appreciate all values (or value as such), especially insofar as these values have become identified with other individuals. Individual values identification brings in its wake the intrinsic and intangible rewards of personal fulfillment and flourishing. We are all alike with regard to values-potentialities by virtue of our human nature, but we differ, owing to genetic inheritance, upbringing, circumstance and so forth in the manner of values-identification and actualization. We might see this as the interdependence of value-actualizers, serving to confirm our inherently social nature as human beings. Such interdependence, furthermore, is capable of (has implications for) filling out the meaning of true community.

Identification with particular values is a sign of moral integrity and entails ‘living in truth to oneself,’ where ‘the self’ is fulfilled in the actualization, conservation and defense of value(s). Such identification is of a piece with self-knowledge and simultaneously a ‘knowledge of the good.’

Eudaimonistic individualism supports and strengthens both community and tradition, these being in the course of any life ‘received’ and then ‘chosen.’ Individual moral autonomy here has a necessary connection to the identification and appreciation of the ‘right’ tradition and the ‘right’ community. Recall that the individual self-realization of eudaimonistic ethics is inherently a social enterprise, as virtuous individuals are the vehicles for manifesting objective worth in the world. Being objective, the worth of such values actualization and expression is incomplete without the recognition, appreciation and utilization by appropriate others; that is to say, by those individuals who comprise an individual’s ‘natural community.’ The obligation of the individual to relate to this community is one with the moral obligation of self-actualization, an inherently non-egoistic enterprise. In the same way, and as explained by Norton, there is a ‘natural tradition’ and ‘natural meta-tradition’ for every person, for we have predecessors in the general endeavor of self-directed living, as well as predecessors in a particular chosen course of life. Thus to ‘choose oneself’ inevitably and invariably entails the deliberative choice of one’s meta-tradition and tradition. Prior to this choice, one’s meta-tradition and tradition are central to what Jürgen Habermas has called the ‘lifeworld,’ the individuated (if not idiosyncratic) backdrop of personal and collective identity that symbolize one’s share of the cultural inheritance, and about which one may be only dimly (less than fully consciously) aware, yet with which (through its language, concepts and categories, etc.) one makes one’s way about in the world. With the age of reason, as it were, one’s involuntary affiliations are subject to reasoned choice, to deliberate commitment and self-imposed obligations, as one identifies with that tradition that becomes the backbone of one’s worldview (while one’s worldview may contain elements from more than one tradition, the nature of philosophical and spiritual discipline or praxis, the student-teacher relationship, and the sheer depth and scope of major religious and philosophical traditions suggests it is neither wise nor prudent to identify with more than one tradition) . The ‘choice’ and commitment to community and tradition assume a developmental period of inquiry and exploration, experimentation and uncertainty, the eudaimonistic equivalent of moral adolescence. Moral maturity is evidenced when one comes to identify with one’s freely chosen community(ies) and tradition, when one comes to appreciate the absolutely fundamental pride of place one’s tradition plays in providing propitious conditions for individual and collective flourishing. The eudaimonistic approach to community and tradition hopes to avoid the pitfalls of New Age dilettantism, the follies of faddish eclecticism, and the vices of rootless cosmopolitanism while not succumbing to a Burkean-like veneration of traditions that fails to subject their contents to a rational or reasonable scrutiny (‘critique’). Eudaimonist communities are self-defining, being predicated on the individual’s moral autonomy and her unique articulation and realization of values for herself and others (i.e., the common good). In such a community, individuals interact with one another as ‘whole persons,’ being greater than the sum total of their social roles, their social interactions characterized by a conspicuous exemplification of caring and compassionate relations understood as universalizable forms of erōs (in the Platonic sense) and philia (in both Platonic and Aristotelian senses).

Understood at a sufficient level of abstraction, the shared values and beliefs within such a community are perfectly compatible with diverse lifestyles or life-plans; to use Norton’s example, not every Transcendentalist need live, like Thoreau, for two years in a cabin in the woods. Indeed, think of the variety of individuals who were Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Sarah Margaret Fuller, by way of lustrous examples.

One learns from the aporetic dialogues, Socratic elenchus, and Platonic dialectic that knowledge of the virtues—and the Good for that matter—is neither simply the product of unreflective or untutored intuition (the ‘stuff’ of everyday experience), nor propositional knowledge (the claim of the Sophists; propositions ascribe predicates: qualities, properties or attributes, to an ‘object’), nor a combination thereof. (When we say that a person ‘knows that p,’ ‘believes that p,’ ‘doubts that p,’ ‘affirms that p,’ etc., ‘p’ stands for a proposition.) In Platonic thought, the fact that we have some ability to recognize instances and properties of a particular virtue, is due to our soul’s possession of (or prior acquaintance with)—however obscure or opaque in the present—the knowledge of that virtue, knowledge, if you will, of its essence. A propositional definition of virtue is partial and incomplete, incapable of expressing the true knowledge of virtue. However important in some contexts—after all, they express relative truths—propositional formulations should not be confused with the knowledge of virtue. One reason for this is that the knowledge of virtue is bound up with self-knowledge, and such knowledge effaces the boundaries between subject and object (for instance, one cannot communicate one’s self-knowledge to others). The knowledge of good (and evil) is directed more to, and evidence in, the ‘how’ of knowing rather than the knowledge ‘that:’ knowledge of the good means knowing how to be good (or how to do things well). As Francisco J. Gonzalez explains, the knowledge associated with the virtues and the Good is (1) a knowledge how (exemplified by Socrates himself in the course of a dialogue), (2) a self-knowledge insofar as it is ineluctably tied to the virtuous agent herself, and (3) non-propositional knowledge (hence the aporias, the Socratic method, and the philosopher’s ascent out of the Cave to a vision of the Agathon). Nonetheless, words, images (as allegories, metaphors, analogies, etc.) and propositions are dialectically essential to the dialogic process of evoking, remembering, or awakening that enables one to recognize, in some measure, that with which the soul has had prior acquaintance. In terms of the Platonic Cave allegory, the Good is the true cause of knowing and being known, and the knowledge of the Good is decidedly non-propositional. For example, our knowledge of beauty itself, as a ‘form’ or ‘idea,’ depends on illumination of the Good (the Sun) in the very way that our perception of beautiful sensible objects (as partial or instantiations or realizations of “beauty”) depends on the illumination of the sun. The Platonic ‘form’ of beauty is the ideal that all objects christened ‘beautiful’ must approximate or instantiate. Similarly, ‘we can know what a virtue is without reducing it to its imperfect and contingent instances only because our understanding of the good allows us to idealize’ (Gonzalez). Knowledge, on this account, is not simply or solely knowledge of how things are, but presupposes a desire to know how things (by nature) should be. Doxa, opinion or belief, does not become epistēmē or knowledge through syllogistic proofs or deductive justification (for the Good remains outside any system of deductive knowledge), as the former already presupposes the latter, its epistemic status owing to the fact that it is an implicit awareness of the (idealized) ‘form,’ albeit restricted to its incomplete instantiation or partial realization. Through dialectical ascent to the Good we learn to distinguish belief from true knowledge, to properly distinguish the ‘form’ from its instantiations, in Aristotelian terms, to distinguish the contingent from the necessary. ‘The soul can seek to understand what virtue is only because it already “divines” this in the words, propositions and images with which it deals’ (Gonzalez). So propositions are used in dialectic to attain an insight that transcends them (the Good, after all, is transcendent), an insight into that nature which they themselves presuppose but cannot adequately or definitively express. This insight is on the order of a ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ (not in the Russellian sense, which is an immediate kind of sensuous or empirical knowledge) but is more than that inasmuch as the virtuous individual exemplifies the proper praxis of a ‘knowing how,’ having artfully woven together insight, reason, and right living.

Plato is an objective idealist, for it is as a result of our insight into and reflection upon noumenal realities outside the Cave that we are able to properly re-order the concrete and phenomenal world of the political realm with that which is true and just, with that which is Good, thereby bringing the soul of man into proper harmony and proportion with the polis of men, and both in alignment with the macrocosm. The objective nature of morality assumes the integrity and intelligibility of a cosmic order permitting subjective views of the Good articulated by individuals capable of indefinite growth or perfectibility, relative views and formulations of the Good that are consciously distinguished from but inspired by absolute (non-propositional) truth and goodness (the Agathon).

After Plato and Aristotle, it is the Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome that provide the clearest expression of virtue ethics. These schools practiced what Martha Nussbaum calls the ‘therapy of desire,’ as the Epicureans, Skeptics and Stoics—among others—'all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful and pressing problems of human life. They saw the philosopher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. They focused their attention, in consequence, on issues of daily and urgent human significance—the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression—issues that are sometimes regarded embarrassingly messy and personal by the more detached varieties of philosophy’ (Nussbaum). In Platonic terms, this represents the dialectical descent back into the Cave following the ascent to the Good, the ascending and descending dialectics complementing each other not unlike the way in which political theory is dialectically related to political praxis. The goal of philosophy remains human flourishing (or the relief and prevention of unnecessary suffering), and the methods of this medical ethical philosophy make use of logical rigor, precise reasoning, rational arguments, yet these are valuable only insofar as they prove their ‘protreptic’ worth, that is, insofar as they prove helpful in turning the Socratic interlocutors toward self-examination and philosophy, toward virtue and the good life. As with Socrates, the premises of a therapeutic argument are not designed in the first instance to logically necessitate an indubitable conclusion, but rather to turn an individual in a certain direction, to convert her to a certain course of action, the measure of success being practical and ethical, rather than purely formal or theoretical. The conception of the philosopher’s mission a medical one, ‘compassion and love of humanity [are] central features of it. Having understood how human lives are diseased, a philosopher worthy of the name—like a doctor worthy of that name—will proceed to cure them’ (Nussbaum). This medical philosophy must therefore challenge and change the psychology of the interlocutor, must delve deep into her inner world with appeals to memory and imagination, relying on the techniques of narrative and rhetoric, and calling upon the resources of friendship and community. It is a therapy of desire because our emotions often have a cognitive dimension that helps us better perceive and assess what is deeply significant or important in our lives. In Nussbaum’s words, ‘passions such as fear, anger, grief and love are not blind surges of affect that push and pull us without regard to reasoning and beliefs. They are, in fact, intelligent and discriminating elements of the personality that are very closely linked to beliefs and are modified by the modification of belief.’

While virtue ethics has social and political preconditions, as well as political implications and importance, it is perhaps best viewed as serving parapolitical purposes, where parapolitics ‘signifies the imaginative application of seminal ideas vitalizing political theory and practice; the elaboration of fundamental principles into paradigms of relationships among persons and between civil means and humane ends; the quest for political understanding and action based upon the ever-receding perspective of ideals rooted in the ethics, metaphysics and psychology of self-transcendence.’—Raghavan Iyer

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


Blogger Tor Hershman said...

What is a worthy life?

Life: I could've lived without it.

Stay on groovin' safari,

10/12/2009 8:24 AM  

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