Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Virtue Ethics: An Introduction—Part 3

‘Rules can be indispensable and yet indeterminate, they can be indeterminate and yet action-guiding. [….] Rules are not the enemy but the matrix of judgment.’—Onora O’Neill

‘…[T]he Aristotelian ancestry of the concept of (moral) virtue…traditionally consists—under one aspect—in a capacity for thinking correctly about how to respond to particular situations as they arise. (This is the capacity summed up in the concept of phronēsis, a “practical wisdom”—in Aristotle’s terms an “intellectual,” not a “moral virtue, but one that has to be understood by abstracting the common cognitive element from a range of different virtues that are genuinely moral: virtues consisting in the reliable disposition to deal in an appropriate, felicitous, or at least not contemptible way with the various sorts of circumstances attendant on human life.) The subject matter of this kind of correctness is not itself psychological: it relates, first, to the evaluatively significant features of situations and, second, to the identification and weighing of any reasons for action that these features may generate. [….] Virtue ethics, then, can be seen as aiming at the evaluation of the rational character ideal as it relates to practical rationality, and within practical rationality, to the proper appreciation of those (potentially action-guiding) values that lie beyond the range of ordinary self-interest.’— Sabina Lovibond

‘[W]e can begin with the idea…that the virtuous person has a distinctive way of seeing situations, persons, courses of action, or anything else that we regard as a logically appropriate object of moral evaluation. This way of seeing is objective in that those who become party to it are thereby alerted to genuine features of the world.’—Sabina Lovibond

‘Virtue ethics…offers a character ideal not just in the edifying sense (an example we should strive to imitate) but also in an epistemological one: it follows Aristotle in holding out a standard of correct judgement.’—Sabina Lovibond

‘[Phronēsis brings] together, on one hand, a general insight into what is of value or worth pursuing and, on the other, insight into the concrete possibility of realizing value in particular situations. People who have the quality of phronēsis will therefore excel in the construction of “practical syllogisms,” which we can think of as verbal representations of the thought expressed in an episode of purposive action. They will have a good eye for the evaluatively significant particular, and so will be among the active supporters of that structure of concern which makes such a particular “significant” (that is, potentially action-guiding) in the first place.’—Sabina Lovibond

‘[S]omeone who has been successfully initiated into a culture cannot make explicit all that she has thereby learned about the ethical—either about what counts as an instance of some concept figuring in the common ethical vocabulary, or about how to assess the relative “saliency” of different value considerations bearing on a particular case.’—Sabina Lovibond

‘Contrary to the common view, virtue ethics is not…starkly opposed to Kant and his followers on the issue of “moral motivation.” Virtue ethicists who rely on Aristotle’s philosophy of action rather than Hume’s need not, and should not, say that the virtuous agent acts “from desire” as opposed to reason, for…Aristotle and Kant share the non-Humean premise that we have two principles of movement, not just one. The virtuous Aristotelian agent does not characteristically act from the principle-of-movement-we-share-with-the-animals, as a child does, but from reason (logos) in the form of “choice” (prohairesis).’—Rosalind Hursthouse

‘[T]he territory of virtue is larger than that of action and tendency to action. Virtue involves and depends on appropriate emotions as well as actions. This is still true where the tendency to action is not an important aspect of the emotion, as in feeling sympathy for what deserves sympathy in the past, about which, in the most important respects, we cannot do anything. Even more importantly, virtue depends on motives and beliefs that shape actions. Claims about virtue and the virtues are not chiefly about the ethical classification and evaluation of actions performed, but rather about the ethical significance of what lies behind our actions.’—Robert Merrihew Adams

‘A view of virtue as a kind of goodness rather than a kind of rightness makes it easier to see how there can be quite different alternative ways of being genuinely virtuous.’—Robert Merrihew Adams

‘Moral virtue is excellence of moral character.’—Robert Merrihew Adams

‘One who enjoys the supreme benefit in loving the Good will have a motive to imitate the Good, and therefore to become as excellent as possible.’—Robert Merrihew Adams

‘Spirituality has long been considered to be a concept that is concerned in the first instance with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief.’—John Cottingham

‘There were many Stoic treatises entitled “On Exercises,” and the central notion of askesis found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much “asceticism” in the modern sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the “art of living.” Fundamental to such programmes was learning the technique of prosoche—attention, a continuous vigilance and presence of the mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques). Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the ordering of the passions—what has been called the therapy of desire [after Martha Nussbaum’s book of that title]. The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response [cf. the Greek term, metanoia].’—John Cottingham

‘[Aristotle] has quite a bit to say about what the virtue of phronēsis consists in, but he clearly is not confident that he can give a full account of it. …[H]e thinks that fundamentally it does not matter, because we can pick out persons who are phronetic in advance of investigating the nature of phronēsis. [As Zagzebski writes in a note, ‘Since Aristotle think that the virtue of phronēsis is both a necessary and sufficient condition of having the moral virtues, the truly phronetic person will always be paradigmatically good as well as paradigmatically wise.’] The phronimōs, can be defined, roughly, as a person like that, where we make a demonstrative reference to a paradigmatically good person. So Aristotle assume that we can pick out paradigmatic instances of good persons in advance of our theorizing.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘The function of an exemplar is to fix the reference of a “good person” or a “practically wise person” without any use of concepts, whether descriptive or nondescriptive.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘It is not implausible to think we are elevated by others who are more developed than ourselves in their striving for harmonious hierarchical development and for a valuable life. We are aided and encouraged along our own path of development by their striving for self-development and purer feeling; contrast the effects on us of encountering those with a sour mixture of one-upmanship, self-aggrandizement, desire to dominate or destroy, and other festering emotions, the effects of wending our way and bending our attention to their motivations and trajectories. [….] We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.’—Robert Nozick

‘First, the exemplar can serve as a standard of perfection against which the rest of us are measured. The exemplar may not be literally perfect, but he or she is close enough to determine what is good for us, on the Platonic interpretation. What is good for us in that sense is to imitate the exemplar. Second, human flourishing can be defined as the kind of life the exemplar desires or at which she aims.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘There are some individuals whose lives are infused by values, who pursue values with single-minded purity and intensity, who embody value to the greatest extent. These individuals glow with a special radiance. Epochal religious figures often have this quality. To be in their presence (or even to hear about them) is to be uplifted and drawn (at least temporarily) to pursue the best in oneself. There are less epochal figures as well, glowing with a special moral and value loveliness, whose presence uplifts us, whose example lures and inspires us.’—Robert Nozick

‘If all the concepts of a formal ethical theory are rooted in a person, then narratives and descriptions of that person are morally significant. It is an open question what it is about the person that makes him or her good.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘With respect to certain elements of human life, the terms of the novelist’s art are alert winged creatures, perceiving where the blunt terms of ordinary speech, or of abstract theoretical discourse, are blind, acute where they are obtuse, winged where they are dull and heavy.’—Martha C. Nussbaum

'[O]rdinary people—which means all of us—find [the] story mode of moral discourse [i.e., the form which includes parable, the play, short story, the narrative poem, the novel and the film] uniquely palatable and nutritious; it seems perfectly designed to engage our moral faculties. Our moral understanding and the story form seem fitted for one another. No rote learning is necessary: it all seems to flow quite naturally. This is the way our moral faculty likes to operate. It is almost effortless to take in a story, pleasant even, though the story may be replete with moral discourse. The novel, in particular, is a text of a very different kind from the scientific treatise. It is also very different from the philosophical text, which is what philosophers, naturally, are most comfortable with. Thus the novel form has tended to be ignored by moral philosophers: it is not, for them, the place to look for canonical expressions of ethical truth. Yet, quite obviously, it is for most educated people one of the prime vehicles of ethical expression. (Film plays a similar role for the less word-minded.) In reading a novel we have ethical experiences, sometimes quite profound ones, and we reach ethical conclusions, condemning some characters and admiring others. We live a particular set of moral challenges (sitting there in our armchair) by entering into the lives of the characters introduced. [....] Stories can sharpen and clarify moral questions, encouraging a dialectic between the reader's own experiences and the trials of the characters he or she is reading about. A tremendous amount of moral thinking and feeling is done when reading novels (Or watching plays and films, or reading poetry and short stories). In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for most people this is the primary way in which they acquire ethical attitudes, especially in contemporary culture. Our ethical knowledge is aesthetically mediated.'—Colin McGinn

‘Religious exemplars are sometimes useless for modeling virtue in the messy situations that ordinary, less-than-virtuous persons encounter in modern life precisely because what makes the religious exemplars extraordinary is that they know how to avoid such messes. Some of us want to learn how to avoid the messes, but meanwhile, we have to face them and need exemplars of how to do that.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘Emotions easily become dispositions. Human beings develop patterns of emotional response in similar situations. These circumstance/emotion pairs become part of a person’s character. They express the way she emotionally fits into the world around her. An emotion is motivating because of the combination of its affective component and its intentionality. Affectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a state’s being motivating. It is necessary because affect is what gets us going. Hume is usually associated with this point, but so is Aristotle [in De Anima], and I believe they are right that no cognitive or purely representational state can do so.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘The concept of a motive arises within the discourse of giving reasons in both the sense of precipitating reasons and the sense of justifying reasons.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘Motive dispositions are constituents of traits of character. A trait of character is the combination of a motive-disposition and reliability in acting in a way that expresses the motive and reaching the end (if any) of the motive. The good ones are constitutive of virtues, and the bad ones are constitutive of vices.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

‘I have proposed that “good” is defined by direct reference. If so, it is plausible that “good life” is defined by direct reference as well. It is a life like that, which is to say that we know it when we see it. Describing lives is one of the functions of literature and biography. [….] If we defined the good life as a life like that, we do not do it independently of referring to persons whose lives we want to imitate. We imitate persons we regard as exemplars, and we imitate lives we regard as exemplary, and these are not independent activities. [….] So what is a flourishing life? I propose that it is determined by what the exemplars say it is. [….] The exemplars make the determination of good lives in the hard cases. If “good life” is defined by direct reference independently of a “good person,” then the life of a good person can come apart from a good life. However, if I am right, that is not the way these concepts work. The lives we want to imitate are lives of persons we want to imitate.’—Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski

References and Further Reading:
  • Adams, Robert Merrihew. A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Annas, Julia. The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Aristotle (Roger Crisp, trans.). Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Athanassoulis, Nafsika. ‘Virtue Ethics,’ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
  • Baron, Marcia W. Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
  • Berkowitz, Peter. Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Broadie, Sarah. Ethics with Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Chong, Kim-chong. Early Confucian Ethics. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2007.
  • Crisp, Roger, ed. How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Crisp, Roger and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Darwall, Stephen, ed. Virtue Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
  • Dent, N.J.H. The Moral Psychology of the Virtues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • DePaul, Michael and Linda Zagzebski, eds. Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Engstrom, Stephen and Jennifer Whiting, eds. Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1978.
  • Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2001.
  • Galston, William. Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues and Diversity in the Liberal State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Geach, Peter. The Virtues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Goldie, Peter. On Personality. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Gonzalez, Francisco J. Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Hanley, Ryan Patrick. Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Hurka, Thomas. Virtue, Vice, and Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind, ‘Virtue Ethics,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003) Edward N. Zalta, ed. URL=
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind, Gavin Lawrence and Warren Quinn, eds. Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Kupperman, Joel. Character. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Lear, Gabriel Richardson. Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Lovibond, Sabina. Ethical Formation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair, 1985, After Virtue. London: Duckworth, 2nd ed., 1985.
  • McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • McKinnon, Christine. Character, Virtue Theories, and the Vices. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 1999.
  • Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
  • Norton, David L. Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • O’Neill, Onora. Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Sherman, Nancy. Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Sim, May. Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Slote, Michael. From Morality to Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Slote, Michael. Morals from Motives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Slote, Michael. The Ethics of Care and Empathy. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Sorabji, Richard. Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Taylor, Gabriele. Deadly Vices. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Tessman, Lisa. Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Van Norden, Bryan W. Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Wallace, James. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. What Did Jesus Mean? New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Wood, Allen E. Kant’s Ethical Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Yu, Jiyuan. The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Zagzbeski, Linda Trinkaus. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. Divine Motivation Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Image: Mending Clothes in the Early Morning Sun, © Smithsonian Institution


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