Sunday, January 6, 2013

Intelligent Virtue 2

In chapter 2 of Intelligent Virtue, Julia Annas explains two things.  One is that virtue is a reliable disposition of a person to perform virtuous actions.  This disposition must be cultivated.  A person is encouraged toward virtuous actions by her parents and her friends and associates.  She may consciously cultivate virtue in herself.  It is by doing virtuous things that one develops a virtuous character.  To acquire a virtue is to become a certain kind of person, which is to say, a person who tends to do virtuous things. 
Virtue does not arise abstractly, as if we decide in advance which actions are virtuous and then attempt to motivate people to do such actions.  Rather, virtue is developed by working on and with existing motivations, encouraging and shaping the ones that tend toward virtue and discouraging those that do not. 
She confronts a certain chicken and egg problem here.  If virtuous actions and virtues seem to produce one another, is one nonetheless primary over the other?  You might suspect that we value a virtuous character only for the sake of virtuous actions, and so the latter are primary.  Annas objects.  To employ a famous analogy which she does not employ, it like the saying that if you give someone a fish he eats for a day but if you teach him to fish he eats for life.  Just as knowing how to fish is more valuable than any single fish, a virtuous person is more valuable than any single virtuous action. 
I would add a couple of reflections at this point.  One concerns the classical view of beauty.  The beautiful makes it possible to appreciate virtue apart from the outcome of virtuous actions.  If we value virtue only for the sake of virtuous actions, and virtuous actions for the sake of the good things that they make possible, then we would value virtue only when it is successful.  Yet it is quite possible, perhaps unavoidable, to admire virtue when it cannot succeed.  We admire the three hundred Spartans even though they perished and their bravery had no significant strategic value.  That is because it was beautiful. 
A second reflection concerns the biological roots of virtue.  Annas acknowledges the existence or at least the possible existence of natural virtues.  We may be born with at least some tendency toward virtue.  Though he doesn’t use the same terms, Michael Tomasello’s excellent book Why We Cooperate? is addressed precisely to this question.  Here is a quote from a post at my old blog South Dakota Politics:
Chimpanzees are capable of cooperating but they lack any understanding of cooperation.  Two chimps can each learn to pull a bar in sequence, so that food is delivered.  But all each chimp knows is that if I pull the bar, I get the food.  Neither chimp understands that the other has to do his part, nor does either expect, let alone demand, that the other cooperates.  

Human children, from an early age, have a sense of “we-ness”.  Helping behavior, unlearned and not signaled, develops spontaneously.  When a child (about 3 years old) sees an adult in need of assistance (say, opening a cabinet door), the child is moved to provide it.  In one fascinating experiment, an adult plays a simple game with a child.  The child puts a block in one of two inclined tubes.  It slides down the tube and the adult catches it in a tin can.  It makes a pleasant ring and the adult shouts in satisfaction.  The game is obviously fun, so when the adult walks away the child will try to bring him back to the game.  The child understands that the adult is a partner whom he needs to keep playing, that the game is something that “we” are doing.  This is something that chimpanzees cannot grasp.  

I submit that this is evidence for natural virtue.  Young children spontaneously develop a sense of mutual obligations.  That is what we work on when we attempt to cultivate virtue in our children and in ourselves.  

The second thing that Annas explains in this chapter is virtue is not about routines.  A routine is something we develop so we can perform some task without devoting much thought to it.  Annas uses the example of driving every day to a certain location.  It becomes a routine when we always use the same route and do it so unreflectively that we often are barely aware of getting there.  

Virtuous action may indeed be quicker than thought.  Annas uses the analogy of the master piano player, who can translate his understanding of a piece of music into the work of his fingers very fast.  Unlike a routine, however, this work is essentially intelligent.  He has a conception of the work, what it means and how it ought to be played.  He is intensely aware of what he is doing.  He can do it well because he has cultivated his genius over a long period of time.  Like the ace tennis player, he responds creatively to every moment.  

Annas employs an important point made by Aristotle.  Courage is most evident in those who respond to unexpected situations.  Those who rely on routines are at a loss when a sudden alarm or something else unforeseen calls for a creative response.  Someone with the virtue of courage can respond more effectively to such surprises precisely because her virtue was developed in a long series of creative responses (dare I say, adapting) to circumstances as they arise. 

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