Monday, February 4, 2013

Virtue is Subversive

In Chapter 4 of Intelligent Virtue, Intelligent Virtue, Julia Annas considers another challenge to virtue ethics: that “thinking in terms of the virtues will be essentially conservative”.  Since different political and social communities will have their own conceptions of virtue, someone who attempts to develop the virtues will simply be following a template laid down by his or her own community. 
This will be so even if, as Annas frequently says, developing in virtue means more than doing what your teachers and role models do or say you should do.  Our family and friends and distinguished citizens may not live up to their own standards of virtue.  Someone who takes those standards seriously might well rock the boat by insisting that one ought to live up to those standards.  Yet in doing so, she might be accepting without reflection the moral principles that are specific to her tribe.  If that is all virtue amounts to, then it is indeed “essentially conservative”. 
Again, Annas skillfully employs her skills analogy.  When someone develops a skill (playing tennis or the piano) he is guided by the standards of that practice.  He then joins a community that is distinct from that of his tribe and likely larger than the tribe.  He may find that his commitment to this larger community comes at the expense of his commitment to his family and tribe. 
Likewise, when someone develops in virtue, she may find that she has more in common with and more admiration for the community of virtuous persons than she does with the folks at home.  She will recognize honesty in foreigners and will want to be more like such persons than like the models commonly accepted in her native circle.  She may come to realize that deeply held beliefs about honesty that are common currency in her tribe (perhaps, that one need not worry about cheating folks from north of the river) are in fact not honest at all.  Thus virtue ethics are not conservative at all, but potentially subversive. 
The skill analogy works because such practices as tennis and piano playing, while dependent upon seemingly arbitrary rules, are in fact about discovering rules that are not arbitrary at all.  Tennis works because it is built upon the architecture of the human body and mind, just like piano playing.  Anyone with the basic aptitude can learn the one or the other, regardless of where and how they were raised.  That is why such activities can be practiced in very different cultural settings. 
The same is true for virtue.  Honesty is not something that is culturally defined but something that is discovered by people in distinct cultures.  Someone desiring to practice it will recognize anyone else doing the same as a companion, even if he speaks a foreign tongue and is dressed oddly. 
Annas thinks that this is one reason that excellence in virtue is rare.  One’s own community is visible, tangible, and present.  The community of virtuous persons is scattered and intangible.  It is hard to break the bounds of the former in order to join the latter. 
Developing in virtue may make one a better citizen, depending on the moral condition of one’s civitas; however, it also makes one a potential challenge to the comfort of one’s fellow citizens. 

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