Incomplete Virtue

In his essential book on virtue ethics, Daniel Russell advanced two arguments that I found highly novel and provocative.

The first is that the virtues are what he calls vague satis concepts, something I explore in depth here. The short version is that they have a threshold beyond which “virtuous enough” just is “virtuous in fact.” And this threshold is vague, in the sense that there are boundary cases that cannot be resolved simply by increasing your level of precision. One example of this is the threshold beyond which one goes from having thin or receding hair to being bald. More significantly, the concept of personhood is a vague satis concept, with boundary cases including long term coma patients, the severely brain damaged, and embryos.

In such cases, Russell argues, we need a model. This model is not simply an averaging of the most representative cases. As he puts it:

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

The second argument of interest is that virtue ethicists need a limiting principle on the number of virtues there are. The Stoics and Aquinas resorted to a very limited set of cardinal virtues of which all others were but aspects. Aristotle, however, offered no limitations at all, and most modern virtue ethicists follow him in this. Russell finds this unacceptable. This argument flows from the first one—we need a model of the virtuous person. If the number of virtues approaches infinity, then how could we ever hope to model such a person?

It is this second argument I wish to disagree with. Russell thinks virtues need a limiting principle because the model of the virtuous person that he has in mind is a formally specifiable model. But this is precisely what Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, with its radical particularity, precludes.

What Russell seeks is explanation, rather than understanding, when the latter is more appropriate.

Let us say that virtue is like the infinite, fractal coastline of a finite island. How could we model such a thing?

Simply demanding the subject matter be finite will not help. Pointing out that there is more context than we can take in does not mean that the quest for more context is a bad thing—Russell himself makes a similar argument about all-things-considered rationality:

But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.

My argument is that even the constructing of the ideal itself follows a similar rationale.

Consider my recent exposition of the hermeneutics of novels:

After finishing a given chapter of a novel, we no doubt have certain expectations about what the book as a whole will be like, based not only on the chapter itself but on our understanding of the genre conventions the novel is operating within, maybe even of our familiarity with the author herself or what other people have insinuated about the book. Once we have completed the novel, however, our understanding will have changed—not only of the novel as a whole, but even of a given chapter and its significance. Rereading the novel, we may find the chapter discloses things to us that it didn’t the first time—and these new disclosures, in turn, inform our understanding of the whole novel. In this way, even after we have read the whole book, we can learn from parts of it.

Even something as seemingly finite as a novel we can only understand incompletely. Summarizing Derrida, Jonathan Culler adds to this picture of incompleteness by arguing that meaning is determined by context, and context is boundless. We can always revisit the context and find some new aspect which sheds light on a different meaning.

But Gadamer’s take on this incompleteness is much more optimistic than Derrida’s. It is also ultimately more optimistic than Russell’s, for the latter is forced to ask for models and limiting principles we do not have, implying that we haven’t had much of an idea about how to live virtuously until now.

For Gadamer, it is less about models than about stories. One such story would be the story of the good life. The same story, told differently, is the story of the virtuous person. People have been contributing to this story for thousands of years. Contra Russell, most people already understand virtue and the good life, their understanding is simply and necessarily incomplete. This understanding can be improved, and we should strive to be lifelong learners in this matter, rather than finding a particular understanding and then clinging to it out of a desire for a false certainty. A courageous virtue ethics is one that asks us to accept our inability to complete it, and the necessary day-to-day role that faith must play in filling in the gaps.

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