Friday, January 4, 2013

Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas

I am reading Intelligent Virtue, by Julia Annas.  I gather from the review in the Times Literary Supplement and from the first chapter, that this is a forceful defense of the Aristotelian account of virtue.  I am all ears. 
Annas wants to press two points about virtue.  One is that virtue can be understood in terms of what she calls the skill analogy.  Virtue is learned in the same way as playing the harmonica is learned.  I use the harmonica as an example only because it is the only musical instrument I have ever made progress on. 
The second is that virtue is an essential component of happiness.  Happiness is here understood in Aristotle’s sense of eudaimonia.  This word, central to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, means literally “good spirited.”  That is, blessed by good daimons.  In ordinary Greek usage, it indicated a person for whom everything generally goes well.  In Aristotle’s hands, it comes to mean a life that is good as a whole. 
So a virtue is something that can be acquired by practice and that, as it is acquired, enables virtuous actions.  A person learns to play a musical instrument and then can be counted upon to play it well when it is appropriate.  A complete set of virtues makes for a person who is reliable and admirable and lives the best life that his or her circumstances allow. 
I will keep posting as I read along. 
On a very different topic, I see a big problem here for Barnes & Noble.  I downloaded Annas’ book for about twenty dollars for my Kindle.  B&N is offering it for $81.60 with no option to download it to a Nook.  I love Barnes & Noble bookstores, but this makes me wonder whether they can possibly survive in the current market. 


  1. Too many years ago, I took a course from Joyotpaul Chauduri (not sure of spelling after all these years). From his India perspective, one of the most important contributions of western world was the idea of contracts and limited liability of corporations. He left USD for the U of Florida and I think is now retired.

    Anyway, to what extent have contracts, including constitutions and oaths of office, employment contracts,etc. made discussion of virtue irrelevant (especially as contracts have more and more fine print aimed at covering every virtue or lapse of virtue)?

    Are their practical implications of the study of virtue for daily life and daily poltics?

  2. Douglas: good question. I answer: what good is a contract except with someone who is likely to keep the terms of it? Legal contracts often involve sanctions administered by third parties, such as governments. However, any businessman would prefer to make contracts with someone he doesn't have to sue every time he expects the other to perform some duty. There is a reason why Orthodox Jews dominate the diamond market in New York. They are perceived to be honest as a rule.

    The vast majority of contracts are not enforced by third party power but rest on trust. Every human community understands the concept of reciprocity and values those who reciprocate reliably. If you want to attract such reliable partners, it might be a good idea to cultivate the virtue of honesty in oneself.

    So I think that contracts make virtue more rather than less relevant. Likewise with constitutions. When Lincoln scrupulously respected the institution of slavery in the Southern States where it already existed, he was showing evidence of his virtue. Should we not desire Presidents who show such fidelity, even when they are inclined to hate the limitations of the social contract?

    I would go further and say that constitutional government is impossible without civic virtue. I did not vote for Barack Obama but I accept him as President. Why? Because I think that that is my obligation under the constitution. My southern ancestors participated in the election of 1860 and then withdrew when they did not care for the outcome. That is analogous to participating in a coin toss and then refusing to accept a loss. It is not how gentlemen are supposed to behave.