Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Relative Virtue

At the close of chapter 5 of Intelligent Virtue, Annas raises the question whether virtue is “too ideal.”  She has argued that a Roman was capable only of a qualified virtue, since he or she lived in a society that was morally compromised by slavery.  In the context of that society, no virtuous person could challenge slavery and this limited his or her ability to achieve true virtue. 
Annas goes on to argue that this is true of our society.  The inequitable relationship between developed nations and undeveloped ones means that the former are exploiting the latter.  It is not clear that there is any remedy for this in the foreseeable future and so the virtuous person at present is in the same position as the more or less virtuous Roman. 
Annas resolves this by suggesting that perfect virtue might never be possible.  It is something a person aspires to, even if no one ever achieves it.  Using the skill analogy, it is possible or even likely that there is no perfect pianist.  That doesn’t mean that there are no pianists let alone that there are no great ones. 
I think that this solution to the problem is a bit stingy.  The virtuous person is the person who does the virtuous thing in every situation.  Situations constrain what is possible.  One way to put this is that while one can never guarantee victory, one can guarantee that he deserves it.  Virtue can never be judged by the outcome.  It can only be judged by the action in context. 
Abraham Lincoln is the best example of virtue that this Republic has to offer.  He achieved the salvation of the Union and the extinction of slavery.  He did not achieve the ultimate resolution of the race problem.  The latter failure was due to the limitations imposed by the historical context.  It was not Lincoln’s fault and shows no deficiency of virtue in him.  It is not clear to me that Lincoln falls short of the simply virtuous man that Aristotle offers us. 

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