Monday, March 18, 2013

The Utility & Beauty of Virtue

Long time reader and very dear friend Miranda left a comment on earlier post and I thought it deserves a prominent response.  As usual, Miranda poses such penetrating questions that only a rash and presumptuous man would attempt to answer them.  Here are her questions with my answers. 
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.
There is actually a great deal of literature on this question in evolutionary science.  It appears that communities of human beings in which there are a lot of virtuous persons (= honest cooperators, willing to subordinate or even sacrifice their own interests for those of their fellows) do much better than communities in which such virtues are rare. 
It is true that in a generally honest community, a con artist will sometimes do very well precisely by exploiting the appearance of virtue.  On the whole, however, it seems clear that virtuous persons do better than less virtuous ones and partnerships between virtuous persons do better still. 
As for Machiavelli, he rehabilitated Callicles’ view from Plato’s Gorgias.  True virtue and vulgar virtue are quite distinct.  The truly virtuous man must appear virtuous in the vulgar sense (honest, trustworthy, generous, etc.) but must be the opposite when circumstances require it.  The person able to do that is truly admirable but can only be admired by the truly discriminating view (i.e., Machiavelli).  This view results from his fundamental disagreement with the ancients.  Machiavelli thought that all law and order was the result of an original act of ruthless power in resistance to nature.  Aristotle believed that law and order were more consonant with human nature, in the sense that we have both cooperative and competitive instincts.  The ancients were right and the moderns wrong. 
Second, what exactly is "beauty?" and is it of more, less or equal value than usefulness?
Some years ago I was listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on a Walkman and a short passage stopped me in my tracks.  The violin was going along in a merry, dancing way, and then suddenly plunged downward into a more serious mood.  It was like a dance party that suddenly turned into the Council of Elrond.  I found it utterly delicious and it occurred to me at that moment that something like what I perceived must have been perceived also by the composer, if from the other side.  It must also have been perceived by Anne Sophie Mutter who wove it out of her instrument.  That is beauty.  It is part of the design space opened up by the individual capacity of three people to compose, play, and listen and thus come to inhabit a common place.  I think that Plato is a better guide to this design space than Aristotle. 
We learn to appreciate beauty by exposure to beautiful things.  As we do, we usually discover that others have been there before us.  What is true of music is true of virtue, if Rudyard Kipling is to be believed.  I am going from memory here:
East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet
Till both shall stand alike before God’s great judgment seat.
But there is neither east nor west, border nor breed nor birth
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth. 
That stanza, which bookends his marvelous story poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’, suggests that virtuous men recognize each other even when they come from the most distinct cultures.  Moreover, even those who are incapable of virtue or perhaps only modestly capable can recognize the beauty of it.  You don’t have to be any kind of hero to be stirred by the story Kipling weaves. 
Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the border side
and he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride,
lifted her out of the garden gate between the dawn and the day
and turned the calkins upon her feet and ridden her far away. 
Then up and spoke the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride,
is there not a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides?...
You get the idea.  The beautiful is that which is it is good to look at, hear, and appreciate. 
Socrates held that the beautiful is rooted in the useful but is not quite identical to the useful.  In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates interviews an armor maker.  He admires a suit of bronze that seems so exquisitely fashioned that one could imagine the body of the man it is designed to fit.  The armor is obviously useful to the fellow who put down the deposit but it is not at all useful to Socrates.  It is however beautiful to Socrates.  Thus the beautiful achieves independence from the useful. 
I think Socrates was, as usual, dead spot on.  Our appreciation of beautiful instruments, gorgeous music, gourmet meals, and heroic deeds is rooted in what is biologically functional.  Our basic pallet of appetites (see Southern pulled pork) and emotions (see Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round About Midnight’) have their origins in functional motives that promoted survival and reproduction in our ancestors.  However, evolution works by endowing some animals with the ability to pursue their own agendas.  Human beings are the products of our evolutionary history but we do not serve that history or our genes.  Aristotle says that while the polis came to be for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of the good life.  We do not eat and love merely to survive; we survive in order to eat and love. 
I hold, therefore, that the beautiful is primary and the useful, only useful in so far as contributes to the beautiful life. I would note, in closing, that Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler successfully and Abraham Lincoln saved the union.  I would also note that both of these perfect examples of virtue would be beautiful even if chance had prevented success.  Virtue can never guarantee victory; it can only guarantee that one deserves it. 
I am deeply grateful for your excellent comments.  Please post more of them. 


  1. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I particularly like your description of beauty as dance party turning into the Council of Elrond.

    Now that I understand what you mean by beauty, I agree with your assertion that the victories of Lincoln and Churchill are beautiful; however, I'm still not entirely convinced that morality is as useful as you seem to suggest. Part of the reason, I think, that the deeds of Churchill and Lincoln are so beautiful to us is that they are rare. I think that throughout history, the cruel and corrupt have won out more than the virtuous. Perhaps I am wrong, but looking back at the history of Rome and its leaders, it seems to me that moral emperors were rare. Calligulas, Neros, and Diocletians ruled the day.

    When Churchill came to power, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler also reigned. It's true that Churchill and the allies were ultimately victorious, but was that really because of virtue or was it because of military strategy?

    In today's society, it's still difficult to find leaders or even people in high positions who are virtuous. Looking at the most powerful people in the world (I'll use Forbes's list) how many of these people got there because they were virtuous? Bill Gates? Vladimir Putin? Xi Jinping?

    I think it's fair to say that the virtuous deserve to win more, and certainly, their actions are lovlier to look at.
    But when it comes to utility, I think that morality may be more of a liability than a benefit. Consider the Jews who died during the Holocaust - some because they continued to circumcize their sons out of obedience to God. Or consider Socrates with his refusal to deny his beliefs. Or Christ with his cross, or Maximilian Kolbe's martyrdom. What each of these men did is inspiring and touching. But I'm not sure morality left them better able to provide for themselves, their families or their cities.

    You mention that a great deal of literature has been written on this subject - is there anything in particular that you would recommend reading?

  2. Very good questions. Churchill saved Britain by raw courage in the face of overwhelming power and evil. No strategy would have worked without that courage. Lincoln saved the United States by much the same.

    I would tease apart three things here. One is that more or less virtuous communities thrive at the expense of less virtuous ones where the odds are not overwhelming. One of the secrets of the rise of capitalist societies is that they fostered ethics of honesty and gentility (transcending merely tribal or nepotistic alliances) that allowed businessmen to trust one another. I also think that British and American power that resisted the Nazis and that won the cold war are rooted in the same.

    Another is that many virtues are context specific and may be developed in the absence of others. Military virtue is expressed in training and war and is obviously not always accompanied by the other virtues. The same may be true of the virtues of the entrepreneur. I don't know about Bill Gates, but I am sure that successful businessmen almost always develop some virtues. Among the ancients, it was a familiar tale that the generation that achieved wealth and power did so through the practice of ancient virtues while the generation that fritters it away did so because they lost those virtues. Who was more virtuous, the Roman founders or the Romans in the waning days of empire?

    Finally, Aristotle distinguishes between the utility of virtues in promoting success (the accumulation of wealth and security) and the ultimate aim of the virtues. That aim is the best human life. Who would you rather be: Churchill or Lincoln, or Stalin or Hussein? Uncle Joe was paranoid to the end of his days and had no friends. Saddam H. found it necessary to consider assassinating his own sons. Churchill and Lincoln were happy and saved their respective republics.

    I think Socrates was right and Callicles was wrong: it is better to be just even if one suffers Socrates fate than to be tyrant with injustice. I cannot agree that Socrates or the Jews and Christians who stood up the Nazis weren't able to better provide for themselves, their families and their cities. I think that this is exactly what they did.

    ps. This exchange is approaching Platonic levels.

  3. ps. On the utility of morality, I recommend Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue and Lee Dugatkin's Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees. Michael Tomasello has a lecture with lots of illustrations at This focuses on the primate roots of altruism but that is very important. It suggests that the utility of morality is rooted in our primate natures which is a very strong indication that morality is indeed more useful than its absence. Of course I can also recommend Plato's Gorgias and Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.

  4. I apologize for taking so long to get back to this discussion. I have been thinking about it, but none of the responses I thought of seemed quite right.

    I agree to some extent with what you are saying about Churchill. I certainly think that if Neville Chamberlain had continued to lead Britain, the results would have been very different. On the other hand, Stalin, too, was a winner of World War II and I have never considered him particularly virtuous. Did Churchill’s virtue, then, really make him more successful than someone without many virtues or might he have been just as successful if he had been as unscrupulous as Stalin? Might vices that give a person an advantage not make up for lack of virtue or might they not even, in some cases, be more useful?

    I find your treatment of virtue interesting. You note that some virtues are context specific. I wonder if all virtues are equally valuable and if everything we are calling a virtue really is one. How many virtues does one need to be considered a virtuous man? How strong do these virtues have to be? If you have the moral courage of a Churchill, does that outweigh your vices? In Churchill’s case, beating the Nazis certainly seems to outweigh being a drunkard, but how do we know when someone is actually virtuous and when he is not? That might be helpful in deciding how useful virtues actually are.

    I concede that the Roman founders were probably more virtuous than those during the last days of Rome. I also agree with you (and Aristotle) that it is better to be just than a tyrant – and that it would be better to live the life of a Churchill than a Stalin. But that may be because I find their lives more beautiful, rather than because they are more useful.

    I would also rather be a Wiesel than one of the Nazis who persecuted the Jews, but I think in many ways the Nazis were better able to provide for their families.

    If a person’s goal is to live the “the best life”, then I agree with you, being virtuous is useful. But if living the best life means living the most virtuous life, then what have we really actually said?

    I am still not entirely convinced that the virtuous man is more likely to be able to provide for his family, but I will have to read up on virtuous communities.

    Finally, I was a bit wary of your warning that this discussion was approaching Platonic levels, as it might have meant I was about to be Euthyphroed. Then I remembered that Socrates was the one who asked most of the questions.

  5. My apologies for the belated reply as well. I was in New Orleans presenting my paper. You raise large questions. I will attempt some small answers.

    1. I think that Winston Churchill was an example of a virtuous man. He possessed the virtue of prudence, which allowed him to see what was coming when others did not. His steadfast courage no doubt backed up his prudence, protecting him from the wishful thinking that infected nearly all British intellectuals and politicians in the interwar period. It came in very handy when he had to lead his nation in its finest hour. He was also trustworthy, something that made it possible for him to hold Parliament and nation on course. Chamberlain was not such a man. Churchill's virtues did not guarantee victory, but for heaven's sake what kind of character would be more likely to achieve it?

    2. As for Churchill's fondness for brandy, I will believe it was a vice when I see evidence that it got in the way of his heroic aims or his satisfaction in his own life.

    3. Churchill won by leading a much reduced nation to stand in a moment of supreme danger. Stalin won because Russia was bigger and colder than Germany. I am unimpressed. No one doubts that the vicious often win. The question is whether the virtuous man makes better use of whatever resources are available. I think it clear that he does.

    4. Rome's founding generation was more virtuous than the generation that frittered away its glory in large part because the former were more ready to sacrifice their individual self-interest to the common interest of their civitas. Of course, virtue on the part of the citizens can be exploited by vicious leaders. Both Stalin and Hitler relied upon the courage of ordinary citizens in defense of their fatherlands. The latter also benefited from the protestant virtues that continue to make Germany a more productive nation than many of her neighbors.

    5. A virtuous man in the most obvious sense is a person who possesses a complete package of virtues. This does not require perfection; it does however require a well rounded character.

    6. You raise the circular reasoning objection to virtue. I consider that in my paper. Use the piano player analogy: what is a virtuoso piano player? Someone who plays the piano brilliantly. What is brilliant piano playing? Playing like a virtuoso. That this is not circular reasoning is evident to anyone who progress in the art of piano playing and even to those, like myself, who progress only in the art of listening. The beauty and perfection of brilliant music is a great space in the collective human soul that players and listeners gradually discover. The relationship between brilliant pianists and brilliant playing is not circular but dynamic: each is enlarged and defined against the other. The usefulness of the art is in the beauty of the music.

    I hold with Aristotle that much the same is true of moral virtue. They are virtuosos who do virtuous things and virtuous things are what they do. That the virtuous life is the best life is evident even to the vicious. The Hitlers and Stalins produce enormous propaganda regimes to sell the notion that the supreme leader is a man of virtue. Neither Churchill nor Lincoln had to bother with that. The poets did it for them, spontaneously.

    7. Yes, I think that a man or woman who is honest, industrious, and courageous (to mention only three of the virtues) stands a better chance of living a good life (including providing for her friends and family) than someone who is a lazy and cowardly snake.

    8. Euthyphro was an adolescent twit. You, my friend, are anything but. And yes, Socrates asked the questions.

    1. Dr. Blanchard: Congratulations on your presentation and thank you, once again, for taking the time to respond to my questions. I have been trying to figure out why your description of virtue troubles me so much. It is not, I think, so much because I think you are using circular logic as it is that I am not sure your definition is particularly useful.

      If someone was interested in becoming a virtuoso and they asked you what a virtuoso was, you might tell them a virtuoso was someone who played brilliantly. But what is brilliance? How does one go about playing brilliantly?

      I suppose you could say that he might imitate another virtuoso, just as you might tell someone who was interested in being virtuous to imitate a virtuous man – but without having a more defined idea of what actually makes someone a virtuoso or a virtuous man, how would you really know that the person you copied was a virtuoso or a virtuous man?

      Suppose your argument that being virtuous increases ones chance of providing for his or her family appeals to me and I decide I would like to live that life. I would need to find someone virtuous to model my life after. The problem is, different people have different views on what virtue is. To some, a virtuous man looks like Barack Obama. To others, Obama is anything but a virtuous man. To some, a virtuous woman looks like Mother Theresa. Others see her as wicked.

      Some people have many virtues, along with many vices. Most people are a mix or virtue and vice. How do we know what criteria to use to determine whether or not we are actually following the example of a virtuous man? Is it all subjective?

      Regarding your individual arguments, there is much I agree with and some I don’t.

      1-2. I think Churchill was a fine man and I agree with your assessment. I also agree with your point about his fondness for brandy. In fact, I suspect he would be a less beautiful character to us if he had not had it. But Lady Astor would have considered it a vice and I’m not sure she would have considered him virtuous.

      3. I think this is a fair statement and concede the point.
      4. This also makes sense to me.

      5. How many virtues make a complete package? How can we tell if the package is complete?

      6. I have said enough on this above, so I will not object anymore here.

      7. Maybe. But might not a woman who is ambitious, cruel and uncaring provide for her family better than a woman who is kind, humble and empathetic? I think the problem here is that "virtue" is too broad a term. Some virtues may be useful. Others may be liabilities. Meanwhile, some vices may hurt us, but perhaps some give us a better chance of survival.

      8. Then the trick is probably to avoid giving any answers. However, I distinctly remember being Euthyphroed during one class while discussing a similar question. “Is the pious loved by god because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by god?" I still don’t know.

  6. Miranda: I think that people who play the piano brilliantly and those who listen at least intelligently generally agree on what beautiful music is for the same reason as those competent in philosophy generally agree on what is a brilliant philosophical work. It is something that a community of virtuosos discover as they develop in virtue. Good music and good philosophy are realms that open up as they are explored. Since I am by hard inclination a Platonist, what else would you expect me to think? Great works of philosophy, literature, and music are enduring because they are intrinsically excellent. One begins to progress in any of these fields under the guidance of a canon of works. One finds out why the works are in the canon.

    Likewise, one develops in the moral virtues by imitating virtuous persons and as one develops one discovers why those persons were worthy of imitation. Aristotle observed that a good life (blessedness, or eudaimonia) is in part dependent on good fortune. However, in any given circumstances, a virtuous person lives a better life than someone who is less virtuous.

    What is question here is not my definition of virtue but my account of how virtue works. I hold that it is useful because it tells you how to proceed if you want to develop in virtue.

    I suspect that you want to know more about specific virtues. What is courage, for example. Aristotle covers this better than I ever could in his Nicomachean Ethics. Courage is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. The only way to get a grip on what that means is to look at the deeds of courageous persons. Oscar Schindler comes to mind, along with our agreed models Lincoln and Churchill.

    Yes, there are debates about who is genuinely virtuous. These disputes indicate a large agreement about what virtue is. Partisans of Obama will compare him to Lincoln or Churchill. He will constantly present himself as a truth teller, as someone who makes the hard decisions. Whether he is genuine or not will become apparent to anyone who pays attention. However, the affectation, if that is what it is, points to an agreement about what virtue is. Over time, the truth becomes apparent to almost everyone. Churchill is not universally admired, but he is ubiquitously admired. Who admires Chamberlain? One composer is widely admired in his time. A century later he is all but forgotten, while we still listen to Mozart. That is why virtuosity is not subjective.

    1-2 Lady Astor was wrong.

    5. See Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

    7. Who would you rather have as a mother? I think we can agree that while we need to provide some material conditions for our children, the most important things we provide them with, if we can, are not material. If we can, we help them become self-governing human beings. To the degree that a person's intelligence governs her passions and her passions govern her appetites (Plato again), that is achieved. What is the point of survival? To lead a good life (Aristotle again).

    8. According to Thomas Aquinas, the answer is yes.

  7. But they don’t agree. Even great musicians disagree about one another’s greatness.

    Meanwhile, while one scholar hails Schubert as a musical genius, while another calls him sloppy. There is not a consensus on what makes great music.

    With philosophy there may be even less consensus. Some consider Marx great, while others cannot fathom why his works inspired a revolution when his writing is dreadfully dull and many of this ideas are stolen from far more interesting people.
    And then there’s Socrates himself. We know how Plato viewed him. We also know how Aristophanes viewed him. Did they agree on his greatness? “I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.”
    “Good music and good philosophy….”
    I have no objection to your first sentence and would not expect another view. However, the rest of the argument here reminds me a little of Nancy Pelosi’s “We have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what is in it.” I am wary of progressing in a field without first having some idea of what’s in it.

    Endurance seems like a good standard by which to measure things; however, I’m not sure that it is enough on its own. Many things that are not great endure and many things that are do not. We don’t know what was lost in the library at Alexandria, for instance, but I suspect some great works were lost. Meanwhile, Marxist theories endure today and so do some of Hitler’s in some circles.

    Furthermore, much of what has endured contradicts other enduring philosophy. Islamic views on the virtuous life contradict Judeo-Christian views. Randian virtue conflicts with Christian virtues. Dawkins’ version of morality conflicts with most of the aforementioned views.

    How do we know which version of virtue we should trust? And if these views on virtue – enduring as they may be – conflict, then how do we know which of them will lead us to the good life? Does anything we call virtue lead to the good life or is there some sort of standard?

    I had the privilege of reading Nicomachean ethics for one of Dr. Schaff’s classes. I loved it then and I am happily rereading it now, but I was not trying to find explanations of individual virtues (Especially not courage - I remember poor Laches!). Rather, I was arguing that sometimes vices give us advantages virtues do not. But as I find I largely agree with you on this part of the question, there is probably little point in dragging out the argument.
    “Over time, the truth becomes apparent to almost everyone.”

    I want to believe this, but the reactions to Thatcher’s death might suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, Chamberlain, himself, may not be admired, but his ideas (appeasement, in particular) have endured.

    I agree on your points regarding Lady Astor and the two mothers and I will have to read Aquinas’s full answer – but he will have to wait in line behind Aristotle and the bonobos.

  8. Miranda: what a great thread!

    1) Consensus does not mean unanimity. I think you are flat wrong about music. Have you seen Amadeus? Salieri fades away while he still alive; Mozart grows steadily in fame after his death. Walk into a classic music store (if you can still find one). You will see Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and, yes, Schubert. There are certainly disagreements among musicians but they tend to be relative(yes, he's brilliant, but over-rated) or they occur where someone is pushing the boundaries of music (as in Trane went off the rails with his album Ascension). However, I doubt you could find very many people who could read the sheet music produced by any one of the above who would not acknowledge their place in the canon. At any rate, across centuries, continents, and cultures, there is a remarkable consensus about who are the virtuosi among composers.

    As for philosophy, there are indeed many philosophers who disagree with Plato (that would be most of them), but very, very few who do not acknowledge Plato's greatness. More than two thousand years after Aristotle died, he is still read and taught in a wide variety of languages. Time is the best test of virtuosity in philosophy.

    2) Without endorsing Ms. Pelosi, if you are indeed "wary of progressing in a field without first having some idea of what’s in it" then I advise against the study of medicine, music, and certain philosophy. I argue that these are all examples of exploration and the whole point of that is to go where you at least have not been before. I would not say, however, that we have no idea what is in virtue. Lincoln, Churchill, Thatcher, Schindler, all give us a pretty good idea.

    3) Marx is fading fast. Hitler's speeches and writings are studied by historians who have no sympathy while the yahoos who wear swastikas on their tee shirts have only the vaguest idea what Hitler said. The jury is out.

    What comes to my mind here is the argument between creation scientists and intelligent design theorists, on the one hand, and evolutionary biologists on the other. ID includes a few people who are well informed and intellectually serious; however, while it has produced some interesting critiques of Darwinism, it has altogether failed to give rise to any serious research programs. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists have produced and immense and rich field of theories, hypotheses, and experimental findings. By their fruits you will know them.

    4) On the distinct traditions, again I must dissent. Basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, courage, loyalty, show up in all the great religions. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between moral laws that depend on access to revelation and those that are accessible by reason alone. The former necessarily differ among faith traditions. The latter are largely universal. I think that virtuous men from different faiths often recognize each other. That, at least, is what Kipling teaches. I stand with Rudyard and Tom.

    5) I am not convinced that there are distinct "versions of virtue", though there are certainly disagreements about which persons are virtuous and which actions in which contexts exemplify virtue. We try to answer these questions by reading history and philosophy and, to be sure, by trying to be better persons.

    6) I have been surveying the reactions to Thatcher's passing and it looks to me like admiration is overwhelming the sniping. Yes, we may find ourselves acting like Chamberlain but we do not admire him and we will not admire ourselves for it.

  9. Dr. Blanchard: I agree! Thank you for your thoughtful answers and patience with my slow responses.

    1) All of these points seem reasonable to me and I am nearly ready to concede this point, however, curiosity prompts me to ask one last question. Are these consensuses always right?

    2) Fair enough, but I would advise against practicing medicine without first having some idea of what it is. I would not trust a doctor whose only definition of medical care was “what doctors do”. Few, I think, would.

    I am not objecting to the idea of exploration or arguing against progressing past what is already known. But if we don’t have any better idea of what medicine is than that it is what doctors do, then how can we be sure our doctor isn’t instead a musician? I think there has to be more to the definition.

    3) I disagree. Some of Marx’s ideas may have faded, but as the father of socialism, I think his influence is very strong over most of Europe. Many, I think, agree with Marx (and Rousseau) that values are decided on by society rather than derived from natural laws. Many still take his ideas of collective labor seriously.

    Take a look at our unions, Obamacare, the British healthcare system, etc. His ideas of struggles between classes have not died either. The Democrats still use such imagery regularly. Tax the rich!

    Really, all one has to do is look at the major political parties in the most prominent European countries to see how powerful socialism and socialist parties remain. Socialism may be playing a larger role in the world now than is capitalism.

    I am not familiar enough with intelligent design theory to offer a defense of it; however, I suspect that one reason proponents of intelligent design are not coming up with a “rich field of theories” is that they believe they already have the answer.

    Suppose two men are discussing how a vase happened to get onto a table. Both could come up with a variety of guesses. But if one man happened to see a third man place the vase on the table, he might reasonably conclude that he knows the answer and no longer needs to keep guessing. I suppose he could still sit around coming up with theories, and maybe he would accidentally discover something interesting by doing so - but I’m not sure it would be the most efficient use of his time.

    Darwinian biologists have also had a lot more time to come up with theories and they have the findings of their predecessors to build off of. Intelligent design theories are still in their infancy. Perhaps in time they will become more impressive. Then again, perhaps not.

    4-5) But the great religions disagree on those topics. Yes, they mention honesty, but they have different versions of honesty and different expectations. They also disagree on major moral issues, such as when it is alright to take a life and when it is not. If there are not different versions of virtue, then, I would still suggest that it is, nonetheless, difficult determine which model to follow without having a clearer idea of what virtue actually is.

    6) This is probably true.

  10. Miranda:

    1) when a work or a piece of music or a scientific theory keeps coming back (or never goes away) over long periods of time, it is very probably because it has some enduring value. When something is supported by mere fashion it will fade when fashion changes, much as Machiavelli says of principalities established by good fortune. I think that the work generates the recurring examples of consensus, but the cause is always known by the effect.

    2) Who would you rather treat you: a doctor who is well versed in theory but who has never actually practiced medicine or a doctor who practiced successfully for years and learned his trade by imitating what other doctors did? Today biology provides a rich ground of explanation for medical practice; however, an awful lot of successful medicine is just trial and error with only a dim idea why the therapies work. Medicine is what doctors do.

    3) Marxism was tried and failed. Even the North Koreans have largely stopped talking about it. It is dead, practically speaking, in China. I suspect that the only place that Marx is taken seriously anymore is in schools of theology.

    I concede your point, however, on socialism more generally. Yes, it is still powerful in Europe. However, even there it has faded dramatically in the course of a few decades. The most successful economies in Europe have begun to reign in their more collectivist institutions. At any rate, European socialism looks like a brilliant idea with a great future behind it. We passed it and now we are finding out what is in it.

    As for intelligent design, yes: the proponents think they already have the answer. Failing to generate research programs because you think that you already know what you need to know is not science. Meanwhile, Darwinian biology continues to generate thousands of research programs along with mountains of data supporting a wealth of findings. There is no question who is winning.

    4) There are disagreements both in practical arts and in theoretical sciences. I concede your point that the various interpretations of virtue differ between religions. The Buddhist interpretation of morality is dramatically different from the Christian interpretation.

    However, I think that the virtuous Buddhist and the virtuous Christian would end up doing much the same thing in most situations. Consider Jean Valjean's dilemma when he discovers that a fool has been made a scapegoat for his crimes. All he has to do is ride away, back to his factory where he is doing much good. He knows what he has to do. I have been privy to similar dilemmas faced by Buddhists and can tell you that they see the issues in exactly the same terms. I doubt very much whether a virtuous Muslim would behave differently.

    To be sure, many and perhaps most people would take the money and run. The rationalizations and lies that they weave prove virtue just as effectively as the virtuous action. I think we all know what virtue is.

    Theoretical questions can ultimately be answered, if at all, only in thought. Practical questions have to be answered in practice. The dimension of morality opens up whenever there is a difference between what we ought to do and what we want to do. Excepting psychopaths, all human beings are aware of this dimension. It is one of the things that make us human. Virtue does not consist in a number of rules that tell us in advance what to do (don't eat pork). It consists, according to Aristotle, in discovering what kind of person we want to be. To be courageous is to find the mean between cowardice and recklessness. To be generous is to find the mean between stinginess and extravagance. I happen to think that Aristotle is correct. These terms are abstract. Jean Valjean's dilemma is concrete. It is hardly the case that we have no idea what virtue will turn out to be. We have a very good idea. Only in practice, however, can we see what it really looks like.

    1. Thanks again for your time and patience!

      1)This makes a good deal of sense to me and I think (to some degree) you are right. But there are many things that keep coming back that are not right or virtuous. Tyranny and cruelty are among them. Do they come back because they have enduring value?

      2)The second, but I’d be much more comfortable with a doctor who had both theory and experience to boast of and I would be very skeptical of a doctor who mimicked men he believed were good doctors, but did not seem to have any criteria by which he judged their value.

      3) I agree with your assessment of socialism’s merits; however, whether or not it actually works, I think the world has embraced it more than it has capitalist democracy. The United States has, I think, the closest thing to it, and as far as I can tell, it is relatively unique in the world and in history. But I may only hold that view due to ignorance.

      If I am right and the United States is unique, what political ideology IS enduring? What is the consensus?

      I agree that intelligent design as a “science” probably isn’t a science. It is probably a political maneuver that I might argue is as fair as some of the political (not scientific) maneuvers used to exclude discussions of God(s) and intelligent design from classrooms.

      However, believers in intelligent design have come up with many of science’s greatest theories, i.e., Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes. Some based their theories off of their faith.

      Who is winning?

      That depends on which playing field you’re looking at. Are Darwinian biologists coming up with more theories and research programs? Almost certainly. But many of them (or at least their proponents) also have political goals that involve shutting down the discussion of God/gods and intelligent design, at least in public school settings.

      I think the main goal of the proponents of intelligent design is to allow discussions of those ideas to take place. Here, I think, intelligent design’s proponents have made some progress. But I also think that by trying to turn intelligent design into a science, proponents of intelligent design may very well end up developing rich theories and programs. Some, no doubt, do actually mean to treat it as a science. Time will tell.

      4) I think that you’re right as far as some dilemmas are concerned, but I also know that this is not true of every dilemma. One of my very good friends was a Buddhist for many years. We disagreed vehemently on what to do in many scenarios, most notably this one:

      You are taken prisoner. Your captors tell you that if you do not steal a vase they will kill ten children. If you steal the vase the children will be spared. You know your captors are telling the truth. What do you do?

      In his view, the moral thing to do was nothing. He would not engaged in an immoral action, even to spare the life of ten children. Inaction, for him, was not immoral, even when it meant people died.

      For me, the lives of ten children were worth stealing for, even if that meant that my soul were a bit blacker.

      Maybe both views are legitimate, but they are certainly not identical. The consequences of decisions made based on these two different views would be very different. Then again, perhaps in practice those who hold different theoretical views would really act in much the same way.

      The last part of your argument makes perfect sense to me, and I certainly concede that it might not be possible to really understand virtue without experiencing it. But I still think you need to have a pretty good inkling of what it is before you leap in, lest you discover midway through your journey that you’ve been modeling your life after a Stalin, rather than a Churchill.

  11. 1) Virtue is possible because human beings can achieve some degree of moral excellence. It is admirable because it is both beautiful and difficult. Morality in general, like religion and politics, invites certain persistent evils. If human beings were unable to form political communities, then tyrants could not hijack them. Of course, neither could we live the kind of life that makes possible human greatness.

    2) The merely imitative doctor has a very good standard by which to judge the doctors he imitates: they heal the sick more often than not (or at least more often than people heal without doctors). For most of human history doctors have very little theory to go on. Trial and error is still the bigger part of medicine. Most therapies are developed by trying everything that seems like it mike work. Theory primarily serves to guide the search.

    3) I don't think the US is all that unique. Socialism has had a powerful grip on Europe, to be sure; however, it has served to redistribute the bounties of private enterprise, at least in the West.

    Did a belief in intelligent design contribute anything to the scientific and philosophical achievements of Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, and Descartes? I can't think of an example.

    I certainly agree with you that Darwinian partisans have been just as political as critics of Darwinism. I would go further and say that, if anything, Darwinists have more close minded. I have written here about the nasty reception of Thomas Nagel's book. That, however, is politics, not science.

    Unfortunately for the intelligent design movement, their opponents do have research agendas; the ID people do not. Nor do I see any sign that they are developing any such thing. Perhaps they will do so in the future, as you suggest. For that to happen, they would have to open themselves up to the possibility that their approach is wrong. All science must do that. I wouldn't hold my breath.

    4) The point of a consensus in moral philosophy or in science and philosophy in general is not to end disagreement but to focus it on something we can usefully argue about. The example you present is a version of the infamous trolley problem. You can google it if you want more detail.

    Your Buddhist friend was taking what is called the deontological stance, which holds that justice must be served regardless of the consequences. You seem to prefer the utilitarian solution, according to which it is the consequences of your actions that matter for morality. Yet you seem to think that doing the right thing will "blacken your soul" at least a bit.

    I prefer virtue ethics (Aristotle). What would the best person do in such a situation? We know that she would not choose to steal in order to enhance her reputation or make a little cash on the side. She might well risk her reputation for virtue in order to do the right thing. Stealing is something to be avoided but children are infinitely more important than vases. I think you can steal the vase without any fear for the quality of your soul if you act precisely out of the quality of your soul.

    It is hardly the case that someone developing in virtue, or music, or philosophy doesn't have "a pretty good inkling of what it is before he or she leaps in." The examples of virtuosos gives everyone a very good inkling of what it is.

  12. 1) This makes sense to me, but why do the evils persist?

    2) This seems true and I concede the point.

    3) I think it is very unique - especially if you consider living elsewhere. Maybe that is because I am biased. In terms of freedom, which states would you say are comparable?

    On intelligent design: I think it did. Copernicus, for instance, based his helio-centric theory off of his belief that God was perfect and would create perfect shapes and motion in the heavens. He considered the sphere the perfect shape and regular spherical motion the perfect motion. I think his theory was a major contribution to science, and it certainly seems to have paved the way for other thinkers.

    I agree that most people involved in the intelligent design movement are motivated by politics rather than science. I do not think that they would be involved in it at all if they had not felt as if they were being silenced.

    However, I also think that the theory they present is a fair theory to try to prove "Certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process." While, as you say, Darwinian biologists have produced (and are producing) more theories and projects, it isn't fair to say that the ID crowd isn't producing any. Here are some of them:

    Maybe these researchers aren't open to the idea that their approach is wrong. On the other hand, some may just want to be allowed to present another theory. I would say most are at least as open to the idea that they are wrong as is, say, Richard Dawkins.

    4) But you can't actually know what the best person would do without knowing what sort of behavior makes the best kind of person. According to both my version of virtue and yours, the right behavior here is to save the children. But according to his version not engaging in an evil act is more virtuous. This is my point. Different religions/schools of thought are different. They differ on very major issues. Without knowing which version of virtue is right and without having some sort of criteria by which to judge the behavior of prospective models, I think it would be foolish to just begin copying them. Otherwise, we might end up with a lot of vases and very few children.