Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Evolution of Virtue 7


Here I reply to a second question posed in my recent exchanges with Miranda: if virtuous deeds are what virtuous persons do and virtuous persons are those who do virtuous deeds (as I have argued) how do we know discover virtue is?  Surely we need to know that in advance in order to recognize the one and the other.  
In chapter two of Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm considers the nature and evolution of psychopathy.  The psychopath is a person who is incapable of “internalizing” the moral rules by which his social fellows live.  He doesn’t feel the least bit inclined to follow those rules and indeed may be unable to do so.  Nor does he feel at all distressed or regretful about the damage he does to his victims. 
Boehm considers first a number of cases where psychopathy was the result of an injury to the prefrontal cortex.  This is apparently the spot in the brain where our moral circuitry resides.  Whereas most of us are kept reasonable responsible and reliable by our moral emotions, these “morally damaged minds” could not provide such a service.   
The result is a life that is an utter mess.  Unable to evaluate and control their own impulses, they became friendless and wretched.  The most famous case, Phineas Gage, ended up as a sideshow freak. 
Here, I submit, both the beauty and utility of moral virtue is glaringly apparent.  Without it, one cannot be a good friend and partner, a good husband or father, or even provide well for oneself.  One cannot lead a decent human life.  All one needs to know to begin to recognize virtuous deeds and virtuous persons is the difference between sickness and health.  Given that, the difference between moral mediocrity and moral excellence (which is what virtue means) is not problematic. 
Boehm turns next to the “born psychopath.”  He notes an alarming estimate that such individuals may be as common as one is every seven hundred.  That suggests that some selection pressure is keeping their amoral traits in the gene pool.  What might that mean?
Consider the hawks in the previous post on the prisoner’s dilemma.  Unlike the cases mentioned above, born psychopaths are not always behaviorally dysfunctional.  They are often highly intelligent and can be very good at pretending to have moral passions that they do not genuinely feel.  They are nature’s conmen and predators.  I recall an episode of This American Life were it was suggested that they make very good CEO’s of competitive companies. 
Whether the advantages of intelligence and a drive to dominion outweigh the utterly alone and loveless existence that is the fate of such persons, I will not address here.  I would only note that I have trouble imagining that any morally healthy person would choose to be like that.  What I will submit is that, apart from a possible economic niche that might actually be useful to the rest of us, the born psychopaths are enemies of nearly all of us. 
Such creatures frequently become monsters.  They lie, steal, cheat, and kill without remorse.  Sometimes they become serial killers and there is no telling how many of them are out there.  They probably flourish in war and especially in civil war.  I don’t doubt but that they make excellent tyrants. 
For those of us who are not psychopaths, who have the normal pallet of moral emotions, who want to love and have friends and families and fellow citizens, the psychopath is an enemy.  If such a being is preserved by natural selection, then that is one of the burdens of our species.  It is no more difficult to see that he is bad than it is to see the difference between health and sickness.  Likewise, it is easy enough to see the virtues of ordinary morality and the utter beauty of moral virtuosity. 
Ps.  Tonight I reread Aristotle’s discussion of tyranny in the Politics, Book E, sections 10 & 11.  Aristotle considers how tyrannies are maintained and proposes two ways that are almost the opposite of one another.  The first is familiar to anyone who knows much about modern totalitarianism.  Keep the population weak, divided, and fearful.  Cut down any individual who shows signs of courage and independence.  Deploy your secret police to find out what your subjects are doing and thinking and to make it impossible for them to trust one another. 
The second way is to pretend to be a virtuous monarch.  Give to each subject as much security as you can safely allow.  Avoid lavish displays and instead cultivate a reputation for fiscal responsibility.  Present yourself as the protector of the people, responsible for their security and prosperity.  Of course this is mere pretense.  Its purpose is to keep you in power, not to promote the common welfare; otherwise, you might really become a virtuous monarch and that wouldn’t be preserving tyranny, would it? 
It’s not at all clear to me that the two modes of preserving tyranny are really at odds.  The most vicious tyrants usually try to do both in so far as they can manage.  Aristotle’s point is that tyranny is ugly even when it pretends to be beautiful.  Whatever the advantages of tyranny to the tyrant, it is clearly bad for almost all human beings under the tyrant’s power.  I submit that, in light of this comparison, virtuous persons, virtuous actions, and virtuous government are all easy to discern. 
Pps.  Salman Rushdie has a fine piece on moral courage at the New York Times. 


  1. Dr. Blanchard:

    Thanks again for your patience and thoughtful answers. I remember being both fascinated and by the story of Phineas Gage you told in Human Nature and Human Values. It disturbed me, not just because what happened to Gage was so tragic, but also because it seemed to suggest that it was possible that morality could be determined, not by choice, but by mere chance or physical health.

    Morality seems, I think, a little less beautiful when it becomes something that a person has because he is born with or without it or because his health or good physical condition permit it. It seems more beautiful and noble when you think of it as something people choose and work towards.

    Maybe this is one of those things that does not have to be an “either” “or”, but it seems to me that if physical health can determine how moral someone is, it might be easier to justify and excuse the behavior of tyrants. One can see someone arguing that Stalin and Hitler just couldn’t help the way they were or that Churchill was noble, not because he chose to be, but because he was born with physical or mental traits that made him especially courageous.

    I read the Rushdie piece you linked to and I think Rushdie confirms what I have said about virtue – that there is no consensus and that different people who believe in different religions and philosophies have very different versions of virtue. Therefore, I think it remains very difficult to know who to model yourself after,especially if you do not have a clear definition/set of of criteria to tell you what virtue is to begin with.

  2. Miranda: Your questions and comments have been excellent, which is to say, virtuous. Our running dialogue of late is what philosophy is supposed to look like. I don't pay you nearly enough.

    1) I think you misread the story of Phineas Gage. Any virtuous action requires a certain set of natural equipment. One cannot be an excellent runner without both legs and lungs. That doesn't mean that the equipment determines the outcome. It merely makes it possible. To proceed from potential to actual virtue, one has to choose to cultivate one's natural endowment. When that happens, it is beautiful.

    The story of Gage suggests that the mental equipment necessary for moral virtue (or even moral competence) lies in a certain area in the prefrontal cortex. I see no problem with this. Perhaps our souls can somehow be detached from our physical bodies, but in this world our thoughts, emotions, and sensations require a certain kind of brain with a certain kind of architecture and a specific set of mental schema.

    Having such equipment does not determine whether our actions are beautiful or disgusting; it mere makes both outcomes possible. If the great runner or tennis star is beautiful, then so is the virtuous person. In either case, she is the person who has cultivated her natural endowment with an eye to excellence.

    2) I concede your point that any doctrine of natural ethics such as I am advancing here can provide some excuse to miscreants. It is entirely possible that some people cannot help but be very bad, as in the case of murderous schizophrenics and psychopaths. That just seems to me to be true whether I like it or not.

    Likewise, it is possible that only a few of us are capable of excellence in anything. The natural endowment require for exquisite tennis play is probably rare and it may be that the moral endowment of a Churchill is also rare. It's harder to tell. Again, that does not mean that Winston was born virtuous; it only means that he had that potential. He cultivated it. I see beauty in that.

    3) Some moral principles are dependent on some kind of revelation. Some can be determined by an intelligent inquiry, or at least that is what Thomas Aquinas believed. I'm with Tom. The former may well vary significantly between religious doctrines or even within large religious traditions. Christians can eat pulled pork; I gather that Seventh Day Adventists cannot. As for the latter, the various traditions are much less at odds with one another. Find me a religion that endorses marriage between a mother and her son.

    Once you do begin an intelligent inquiry into morality, it doesn't seem to me to be difficult to know who to imitate. In the Gorgias, Socrates lays it out. The best kind of person to be is the person who can govern himself. The best kind of partnership or political community is the one that is collectively self-governed. I hold, with Socrates, that this is universal. It works well enough within the confines of any tradition provided that that tradition allows a rational inquiry into virtue.

  3. Dr. Blanchard: Thanks, once again for your patience and thoughtful answers.

    1) I like your reading of the Gage story better and maybe you're right that it's not troubling. I suppose being moral does require having certain physical traits, or else perhaps a rock could be moral. But when you've grown up with the idea that morality helps determine what happens to you after you die, it seems distressing to think that a person could be prevented from being moral just by a physical accident - so it still bothers me. Still, as you point out, that doesn't mean it's not true.

    2) This makes sense to me. I hope the second part isn't true, but I accept that it might be. I also agree with your assessment of Churchill and his virtue.

    3) I accept this as true. I can't think of a religion that does off hand. I think it takes more than being able to govern yourself. Someone who followed Machiavelli's ideas might very well be able to govern himself, but if he followed Machiavellian principles, I am not sure I would want to imitate him. There is - I think - some element missing here.

  4. Welcome back Miranda! As always I am energized by your questions and comments.

    1) Does morality determine what happens to you after you die? I thought that that was determined solely by the acceptance of grace. I am pretty sure that certain mental diseases can render one incapable of any loving relationship but I am pretty sure that God's grace is not limited by such things.

    3) Here we are getting somewhere. Socrates believed, as I interpret him, that all evil was a result of a failure of self-government. Men do evil because their appetites or their passions overrule their intelligence. Intelligence sees things for what they are and it sees both the idea of justice and of the good. A genuinely self-governed person is beyond temptation. Of course, Socrates may have been the only example. Perhaps there was another.

    Socrates, of course, believed that justice was something as real as gravity. It exists in itself, regardless of whether we recognize it or not. Socrates believed in natural right.

    Machiavelli did not. He supposed that nature was at best indifferent and at times actively hostile to human beings. All order and such salvation as we can achieve must be imposed by human virtue on the raw materials of history. Virtue is defined as that set of mental and spiritual (i.e., passionate) traits that can impose order on chaos. Accordingly, his ethics strictly subordinates character to politics. What is beautiful to Niccolo is the new prince.

    The question is: who is right? Plato's Socrates or the murderous Machiavel? I am with Socrates.