Friday, December 21, 2012

The Evolution of Virtue

I will deliver a paper this spring at the Southwestern Political Science Association meeting in New Orleans.  My topic is the evolution of virtue.  I was trained in political philosophy at Claremont Graduate School.  My teachers were Harry Jaffa, Bill Allen, and Harry Neumann among others.  Claremont, when I was there, was home to a hotbed of Straussians. 
Most Straussians are very resistant to Darwinian explanations.  They suppose that Darwinian thought is rigidly reductionist in a greedy sense, which is to say that it reduces the high to the low.  All things that are apparently noble and free are in reality base and mechanically determined.  Like my friend Larry Arnhart, I disagree. 
Classical virtue is prominent in the political thought of both Plato and Aristotle.  Virtuous actions are noble and nobility is defined in contrast to the vulgar.  Recently, virtue has enjoyed something a renaissance under the heading of “virtue ethics”.  Is it possible to deploy Darwinian explanations of the evolution of virtue without denying the nobility of the virtues?  I think that it is possible.  Here I will lay out the classical view. 
What is virtue?  Our word is built on the Latin term which indicated manliness.  The Greek term was areté.  This word is most clearly translated into English as “excellence”.  Whenever something can exist in states that are recognized as better or worse or perform an action in a way that is better or worse, the best state or performance can be called excellent.  A pasture that is best for horses and a horse that is best at running or some other task might both be described as possessing areté.  The better and the worse are defined according to some concept of the good. 
What is the good?  The good is the choice worthy.  If I choose something to eat or someone to be friends with or decide to take some action, it is because I judge all these to be worthy of choosing.  The good in them is what makes them worthy of choice.  Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics that everyone does everything for the sake of what is good. 
Both Plato and Aristotle divided the good things into three categories: things that are good in themselves (pleasure and happiness); things that good merely because they are instrumental in securing the former (paying bills or taking unpleasant medicines); and things which are both (an act which is satisfying to two lovers and productive of the children that they want). 
Areté does not mean simply being in the condition that makes something choice worthy.  It implies a power to produce or to assume that condition.  Thus a virtuous horse possesses inherent speed, stamina, etc., which make it good at running or pulling or whatever.  A virtuous man is inherently loyal, honest, and whatever else is good in a friend or fellow citizen. 
It would be a mistake to define virtue in direct relation to the good.  The finest horse might not win the race if an unfortunate accident occurs.  The best person may come to ruin or bring his friends to ruin for the same reason.  Accordingly, virtue must be defined in direct relation not to the good but to the beautiful. 
What is the beautiful?  According to the classical philosophers, the beautiful is that which tends toward the good.  The beautiful horse is the horse that deserves to win the race because it is strongest and fastest.  The beautiful man deserves success and the beautiful deed ought to have the best outcome because both are inherently oriented toward the good.  The beautiful body may be hit by a truck, but that possibility does not detract from its beauty. 
What then is virtue?  To focus on the most important case, it is a power in human beings that is productive of beautiful actions.  The virtuous woman or man is someone whose character makes it likely that she or he will do the best thing in every situation.  Because of the role of chance, virtue may or may not achieve the best outcome.  However, it is always choice worthy in this one respect: it inspires admiration. 
Can we understand the evolutionary origins of the beautiful and good without diminishing that admiration?  I think that we can. 


  1. Does virtue become irrelevant in populations under repressive regimes or social systems that narrowly constrict behavior?

  2. Doug: Surely not. When the Thirty Tyrants ordered Socrates to arrest suspected enemies of the regime, he ignored the order and went home. When he was President of the assembly he refused to put a matter to a vote contrary to the Athenian constitution, even though the passion of the multitude was behind it. In both cases Socrates did the virtuous thing at great peril.

    Socrates demonstrates that it is possible to be virtuous in any circumstances.

  3. Well, if we have to go back a few thousand years to find virtuous behavior under tyranny, that may be a bit of a problem. I was really thinking of one of those perhaps hypothetical situations in which no independent thought is possible. Something in the neighborhood of is virtue meaningful in a situation where free will is impossible or terribly repressed.

    I am reminded of an SDSM&T prof who told the tale of the man pressed with the hypothetical situation of being chased by a tiger and asked what he would do. He said, shoot him with my rifle. But you don't have a rifle. Well, then, I would stab him with my knife....etc. Finally in exasperation the man said, "You want that tiger to eat me."

    IN that vein, Is virtue something like pornography in that you know it when you see it?

  4. Doug: You yourself suggest a good test for virtue. It includes, among other things, traits of character that are resistant to tyranny. Socrates was offered as an illustration more than as evidence, though his case is well-documented. I would offer more: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These men seemed to know what to do about it and they had the spiritual resources to act on their judgments. If you are suggesting that virtue is merely in the eye of the beholder, this seems clearly wrong.

    I don't doubt that there are situation where virtue is insufficient to secure a good outcome. As Churchill put it, is it is not always possible to achieve victory but it is always possible to deserve it. I do not understand what you mean by a situation where neither independent thought nor free will is possible. Testimony from those in the Gulag or the Nazi camps provides plenty of evidence that resistance is possible even under the most repressive of circumstances.

  5. How in these situations does an outside observer separate virtue from courage?

    And, when conscience provides individual awareness of virtue, is it relevant without courage to act?

    I know you are trying to separate this discussion from politics, but it seems to me there may be many modern politicians whose conscience makes them aware of virtue, but whose partisan cowardice prevents them from acting in a way they know is correct.

    On the other side of this, we might consider virtue sticking to marriage vows, but it might also be cowardice that prevents straying from those vows.

    Obviously, this is your blog, so if my diversions here are something you do not wish to tolerate, let me know. (That made me feel so damn virtuous.)

    Happy New Year.

  6. Douglas: your comments are welcome. Virtue is not the same thing as morality or justice. Virtue is one interpretation of what justice is and how is possible for some people to be just.

    The classical thinkers recognized a number of virtues, of which courage was prominent. Courage means the ability to do the right thing regardless of fear. Aristotle further refined it to a mean between extremes. If someone cannot do the right thing because of fear, he is a coward. If he behaves recklessly when caution is more reasonable, then he is foolhardy. If he does the most courage thing that is practical in any situation, out of resources of character, then he has the virtue of courage.

  7. I don't know if the idea of integrity as a oneness was part of early discussion. It does seem to me that some correlation between conscience, values and behavior is very important.

    How that impacts definitions of virtue and courage is perhaps another area.

  8. I think that integrity is essential to any account of virtue. The virtues are a package deal.