Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Evolution of Virtue 2

Moral emotions develop prior to moral reasoning, appearing in a child around her first birthday‑about the same time as she begins to walk and talk.  Just as the capacity for language and bipedal locomotion are innate, so the moral emotions arise naturally.  In adults, moral reasoning is a necessary handmaiden to these emotions.  This is so, I submit, for two basic reasons.  First, it is frequently necessary for two or more human beings to reach an agreement about their mutual obligations, in order to promote cooperation and avoid conflict.  Second, human beings have a natural desire for justification, both because we want to feel that our own actions are right and that actions that offend us are wrong and also because we want to believe in the moral rules toward which our passions are inclined.  It is the latter that interests us in moral dramas, which are the larger part of the stories that we tell one another. 
This desire for justification is usually satisfied by appeal to some standard that we regard as impeccable.  So, for example, if I suppose that “all men are created equal” is such a standard, I may appeal to it in arguing against the institution of slavery or for or against affirmative action.  However, while there may be universally accepted moral standards (it can be argued that every human culture recognizes some form of reciprocity as a basis for justice) this does not mean that there is any moral standard that cannot be subject to challenge.  The history of moral thought has been driven by an attempt to discover the fundamental moral standard or standards. 
Despite the apparent diversity of moral cultures, there are really only two candidates for the foundations of morality.  Either the foundation lies in some transcendent, metaphysically impeccable act of legislation or it lies in some understanding of the human good that is accessible to our intelligence.  These are famously referred to as revelation and reason.  The two standards are not necessarily exclusive.  Someone who holds revelation to be primary may acknowledge that some moral principles have sufficient reason behind them.  Someone who holds reason to be primary may see utility in the belief in divine sanction, whether or not that belief is well-founded.  The primacy of revelation is necessarily theological in character whereas the primacy of reason is necessarily philosophical. 
Modern ethical thought was long dominated by two philosophical positions: utilitarianism, which ground morality in a lowest denominator of common interest, and deontology, which grounds morality in the passion for integrity.  Recently, however, classical virtue ethics has made something of a comeback.  It is with the latter that I am here concerned. 
Virtue ethics was originally articulated and defended by the classical philosophers Plato and Aristotle.  The latter’s account was so thorough that virtue ethics may never go further than crafting a series of footnotes to his Nicomachean Ethics.  Virtue, or areté in the Greek, means simply excellence.  Whenever anything or any practice may be judged to be better or worse, the possibility of the best or the excellent presents itself.  So, to use a familiar example, a racehorse will be in a bad, or good, better or best condition for running a race.  The best horse on the best day will be an example of the areté of racehorses. 
Likewise a human being may be better or worse at some essential activity.  Since the best human life requires a number of distinct activities‑for example, entering into cooperative arrangements with mutual obligations or defending the constitution against enemies foreign and domestic‑there will be a number of distinct human virtues.  In its larger meaning, areté can be displayed in any activity that admits of better and worse performance.  Thus someone might have a linguistic virtue if he speaks or writes very well in some language.  Both sports and military service will be fields for human virtue. 
In its narrower ethical sense, virtue means moral excellence.  Morality is another of those dimensions that define the human being.  It appears whenever there is a difference between what I am tempted to do and what I ought to do, what seems good and what is in fact good.  While there is a tendency in modern ethical thought to confine morality to the obligations that human beings have toward one another, this is rather two narrow.  I can be tempted to do what is bad for myself just as I can be tempted to do what is bad for another or for us, and human beings frequently feel shame and guilt when we succumb to temptations that harm only no one but the tempted.  Moral emotions are evidence enough of moral significance. 
Moral virtue is then a capacity for excellence in moral actions.  The virtuous person can be counted upon to do what is right in each situation.  She does so not only reliably but in a way that is natural or unforced.  She will recognize temptations to do wrong in others and perhaps even in herself; however, temptation has little or no power over her.  She has formed the habit of acting rightly.  She does this, moreover, knowing full well what she is doing.  In a morally significant situation she will not have to pause for reflection; however, afterwards she can explain exactly why what she did was the right thing to do. 
Julie Annas skillfully employs an analogy between virtue and practical skills in her excellent book: Intelligent Virtue.  Someone who begins to learn to play the piano begins by imitating his teachers.  He begins to acquire the skill of piano playing by playing the piano the way others, whom he admires, play it.  He can learn to play at all only because he possesses the capacity to learn.  If his talent is mediocre, he will not go beyond mere imitation.  If his talent is more than mediocre and her persists in developing it, he will eventually go beyond imitation to produce his own interpretation of musical works.  He will creatively respond to each passage in a way that makes sense of the work as a whole both to himself and to the skilled listener.  There is a reciprocal or better yet dynamic relationship between action and skill: one becomes a skillful player by playing skillfully and one plays skillfully because one is a skillful player. 
Likewise with the virtues, one begins to develop them by imitating others and following set rules.  To the degree that one acquires the virtues, one will go beyond imitation to respond creatively and appropriately to novel situations.  One will be admirable in the eyes of anyone who can appreciate virtue.  Such an admirer will recognize that one is a virtuous person because one does virtuous things and he will recognize that the actions are admirable and worthy of imitation because these are what a virtuous person does. 
If that looks like circular reasoning, look again.  It is not a circle but a dynamic.  One cannot understand what a virtue is except by understanding the dynamic process by which it is developed.  At some point one may ask, however, what it is about virtuous actions and virtuous persons that make them valuable.  What is the good of being good? 
Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics that there are three things that are intrinsically worthy of choosing or taking up and three things that are to be avoided.  The former are the beautiful, the provisional, and the pleasant.  The latter are the disgusting, the harmful, and the painful.  Virtuous actions are surely not chosen for the sake of mere pleasure.  Doing what is just or generous will often involve pain.  Virtuous actions are those mostly likely to be provisional in the sense that they are the actions most likely, in most situations, to achieve the best outcome.  The virtuous person will be best able to achieve the best human life.  She will provide for herself, her family and friends, and her polis.  She will beat the odds whenever the odds are beatable. 
Sometimes the odds will not be beatable.  Virtuous actions do not guarantee victory; they only guarantee that one will deserve victory.  A brave man or woman may be overcome by outrageous fortune; still, where the outcome is tragic the virtuous deed will be beautiful.  Moral virtue is valuable enough because it is useful.  The virtuous person is most likely to live the best life in any circumstances and most likely to help his friends to do the same.  The primary value of virtue, however, lies not in its usefulness but in its beauty.  The virtuous person is the beautiful person.  Her deeds are beautiful deeds.  The beautiful is not only the thing most resistant to ill-fortune; it is the best thing to which human beings can aspire. 


  1. I like the idea of learning to be virtuous, rather than just being either blessed with virtue or cursed with the lack of it. I do, however, have two questions.

    First, you write, "Virtuous actions are those mostly likely to be provisional in the sense that they are the actions most likely, in most situations, to achieve the best outcome. The virtuous person will be best able to achieve the best human life. She will provide for herself, her family and friends, and her polis."

    I would like this to be true - but is it? If so, how do we know? Many of the people in society who seem to be able to best provide for their families, friends and cities do not seem particularly virtuous - unless the version of morality you are writing about is Machiavelli's.

    Second, what exactly is "beauty?" and is it of more, less or equal value than usefulness?

  2. Miranda: thank you for the very thought-provoking questions. I have responded in a separate post.