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.