Where Do the Virtues Come From?

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Some ten years ago, a Catholic virtue ethicist group blog linked to something on my father’s blog, Vulgar Morality. So long ago was this in Internet years that I cannot even find the virtue ethicist blog in question, and my father had not moved to WordPress yet, but was using Radio UserLand—a for-pay frankenstein hybrid between desktop publishing and blogging.

It was my first encounter with the very concept of virtue ethics, but I didn’t really look into it at the time. I remember my dad remarking “there seems like there’s something to it, but I don’t really understand where the virtues are supposed to come from.”

It was years before I took any interest in the virtues again. I won’t bore you again with the details, but suffice to say that if you’ve spent any time at Sweet Talk at all, you’re probably aware I have a bit of an interest in the subject these days.

A year ago I attempted to think about this question of where the virtues come from.

David, sensing epistemological arrogance, was quite critical of my post:

How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust.

My response amounted to “something something historically contingent something something Heraclitus’ river.”

Having let that discussion sit for some time, I’d like to return to it again, now that I have a more hermeneutic understanding of virtue.

Now, like a year ago, I think the answer must be something like the version of naturalism elaborated by Philippa Foot. She speaks of “goodness” in the sense of “a good specimen of X.” A sickly, or uniquely asocial chimpanzee would not make for a good example of chimpanzees. It might be useful, for human purposes, if we wanted to understand the sicknesses that sometimes befall chimps or the range of social deviance from the norm, and what happens to such deviants in the wild. But we could not even do this without a sense of what a good specimen is like, in contrast to the deviant.

As Adam Sandel puts it, the way of life of chimpanzees points towards their good. A good specimen is healthy, pro-social, skilled at hunting and defending against rival groups, and so forth. In this sense the good chimp is “above average;” you cannot get a sense of it by merely averaging the qualities of the group.

These days I think what everyone wants is to be able to situate their moral philosophy in an evolutionary story. But David put it best; the question of what something is is distinct from how it came to be.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this?More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

The fact that we can discuss how father came to have the role of the one who carves the duck at Thanksgiving in terms of primal environments or sacrificial rites does not tell us what the nature of that role is now.

Consider a more straightforward example: the heart. Asking “what is the heart?” is much more straightforward than “how did humans evolve to have hearts?” We can observe the heart in action. We have a robust medical tradition of studying hearts in various states of health. We have a very good idea of what hearts do and what a “good heart” consists of. We do not have to answer the evolutionary question before we can answer the question of what a good heart consists of. If anything, our investigation takes the opposite direction; we use our stronger evidence and better information about what the heart is to try and figure out its evolutionary origins (may a thousand “just so” stories bloom).

So when we ask “what is virtue?” or “what is a good person?” we can put to the side, for the moment, the question of “how did virtue or ‘the good’ come to be?”

From Sandel:

Aristotle understands our comprehensive “situation,” or “life perspective,” in terms of the good life. The good (to agathon), he writes, is not some abstract form to which we look for guidance but a concrete end (telos) expressed in our action (praxis). Whenever we make things, put them to use, and live out certain roles, our actions aim at the good (whether or not we consciously reflect upon the good as our aim). For “the good,” Aristotle maintains, is the end of all ends— that “for the sake of which everything else is done.”  As such, the good is both the aim of our action and its condition. It is the ultimate end (telos) toward which we strive, and, at the same time, the source, or beginning (arche), of all striving.

Virtue and the good life exist in a holistic relationship. We try to become the person we need to be in order to get the kind of life that we believe we should have. We have to understand the life in order to understand what kind of person we should be, but we need to understand what kind of person we should be in order to understand what sort of life we should lead. Virtue and the good life are a hermeneutic circle.

But our understanding of this relationship isn’t stuck in an infinite regress. It is incomplete, projective, and revisable. This is why Aristotle insisted that a philosophy of ethics would be lost on the young, who as of yet know very little about life. As we grow up and live our lives alongside other people living their lives, and receive an education, we are exposed to countless stories in books, films, and even video games—and of course, stories told to us by people in our lives. We begin to adjust ourselves towards some understanding of a good life, however haphazard or tacit.

These experiences expand our horizon, giving us a fuller, richer picture of what the good life is and what kind of person it takes to live it.

We can get a sense of what the good is and what the virtuous person is from how people live their lives. But again, this is not an averaging. As with the examples of the heart and the chimpanzee, it’s a proper notion of a good based on an understanding of what people are.

And as with those examples, how we arrive at this understanding isn’t mysterious. Pay attention, live your life, read what other people have said on the subject, and use your judgment. Join the conversation; try to persuade but be open to being persuaded.

That is my understanding of what virtue is and how we come to understand it.

Edit: Found the original discussion mentioned in the first paragraph.

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Responsiveness to Reasons

The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.

What does it mean to act for the right reasons?

Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?

But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.

Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.

Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.

From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.

Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.

That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.

Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.

If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.

Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.

 

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Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

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The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”

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.

David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love

David Henderson is not happy with Richard Thaler’s potshot against neoclassical economics.

Thaler made a typical joke about economists—that if they treated their loved ones  the way their models imply they do, they would be very unloving, indeed.

Henderson digs his feet in and insists that expected utility calculations are central to evaluating a “potential romantic partner.”

You fall in love with someone. You start discussing your future. You find out that you’re a Bryan Caplan who wants 10 kids and she’s a career woman who wants $10 million. What do you do? You drop her, or she drops you. In other words, you’ve tried to get relevant information about this potential romantic partner and that information has led you to conclude that this relationship won’t work.

In another example, he explains how a specific preference that a potential partner has causes “Your estimate of the probability that this will work” to fall.

In other words, he presents us with a typical prudence-only story of how love works, going on to talk about the role of incomplete information and up-front investment costs, and so forth. Perhaps, beyond the narrow points he’s seeking to make against Thaler, he does not think that everything about love is so reducible to expected utility calculations. Keeping this possibility in mind, I’m going to respond to the version of love he actually presents in the post.

Continue reading “David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love”

Do You Even Telos, Bro?

So I’m reading After Virtue, surprisingly (shamefully?) late in my virtue ethics reading list. It’s living up to its reputation so far; I think it’s safe to say that there’s something in it for everyone here; history, philosophy, and social science.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the fall of virtue goes something like this:

  1. Aristotle and the ancients set up the virtue framework in which there is man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be, the latter defined by man’s telos, his purpose. The gap is bridged with practical reason.
  2. The scholastics came along, though this framework was pretty awesome, but added that man-as-he-ought-to-be is man acting in accordance with divine law. Despite later claims to the contrary, these guys are still all about reason.
  3. The Calvinists comes along and ruin everything (note: MacIntyre is Catholic). OK, not everything, but they set the stage for the decline: they reject the idea that reason can bridge the gap between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be. But they still believe the gap can be bridged—it’s just that only divine grace can get us there.
  4. The Enlightenment philosophers inherited the Calvinist-influenced version of this framework and agree with the notion that reason can’t bridge the gap. Only they’re a bunch of secularists, so they don’t think divine grace has any place either. The gap can no longer be bridged.
  5. Eventually, man-as-he-ought-to-be is forgotten altogether, and the idea of telos is rejected in basically all and any contexts.
  6. Enlightenment philosophers begin the work of constructing a framework in which moral law (inherited from the notion of divine law) is grounded in “human nature” (which is basically just man-as-he-is) without reference to a telos.
  7. Despite investing the greatest minds of the era, perhaps of any era, they fail miserably.

As a result, we’re stuck with a bunch of fragments of the old framework that don’t work well on their own, and attempts to make them stand on their own that simply don’t pass muster.

That’s all very interesting, and you don’t have to have MacIntyre’s point of view to agree that there’s at least something to that characterization of how events unfolded.

But my question, as a concerned virtue ethicist, is: can we resurrect a human telos?

Telos gets a bum rap because a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear about a human “purpose”. They think religion. But we needn’t have a religious notion of telos and Aristotle certainly didn’t.

The idea, explored at length by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness, is sort of functional. When we speak of “a good sailor”, we think of someone who performs a specific role well. When we speak of “a good wolf” or perhaps “a good example of a wolf”, we think of a wolf that is able to operate with its pack effectively, that isn’t self-destructive or likely to get the rest of its pack and its kin killed, and so on.

The crucial question for ethics is whether it is meaningful to speak of “a good human”. Foot and MacIntyre think so, as do most virtue ethicists in general. And it’s hard for me to disagree when I read, for instance, Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans:

So here’s a piece of advice: the person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.

Let’s taken as a given, for the sake of argument, that this quote describes the parameters of an ideal life. If this is the sort of life that “a good human” lives, it is also clearly not the life that all people are living. Let’s tentatively bring man-as-he-ought-to-be back into the picture then.

But where does this telos come from? A popular argument circulating on behalf of things like the paleo diet is that we evolved in one environment and since then have moved on to ways of life that are drastically different from that. I’m skeptical of the particular application (you can pry my processed sugar and carbs from my cold, dead fingers) but clearly the line of thought involves man-as-he-ought-to-be and an evolutionary story to justify it.

Certainly psychology, self-help, and happiness studies all have an implicit telos of the healthy, happy, fulfilled human in mind. There are plenty of problems with particular instances of each of these areas but all I’m attempting to demonstrate here is that telos need not seem so remote and ancient to us as it is often presented as being.

MacIntyre argues that the is-ought divide is an artifact of a specific history rather than an intrinsic gap. I’m inclined to agree. But that’s a much longer conversation, to be returned to at a later time.