Julia Annas on the Many Ways of Life Consistent With Virtue

More weighty is the claim that to make human nature the basis for ethics is to accept something unacceptably constricting: the imposition of a single form of life and preferred set of dispositions on everyone. Nagel is right that we have reason to reject this picture; from the viewpoint of my own deliberations I know that an ethical theory cannot be right that would impose a single way of life on me and everyone else just on the grounds that we are human.

However, what is this ‘singleness’ of the ethical way of life grounded in human nature? Nagel and many other modern critics clearly think that it is something which constrains the range of specific activities in a single life and implies that individuals, however diverse, should aim at the same specific goal. If this were the case, criticism would be easy; but it is not how we find the actual ancient appeal to nature functioning. We have already seen that reflecting on our final end does not prescribe one range of specific human activities against another. The importance of reflecting on my life as a whole lies in the opportunity for clarifying and rethinking my priorities and the ordering of my values. To be told that one way of doing this, as opposed to another, is natural, in accordance with human nature, is to be told two things. One is that there are constraints which my reflection must respect and priorities which are not up to me to settle. If it is true, for example, that human nature is so constituted as always to seek only pleasure, then this rules out certain theories as to how I should live—the Stoic and Aristotelian, for a start. It also directs me as to where to discover mistakes in my life. If it is true that I cannot help seeking pleasure in all I do, and if I do not seem to be very successful in this, then I must be making mistakes as to what pleasure is and how to achieve it; and searching for these mistakes, and rectifying them, is bound to revise my way of life.

But the appeal to nature is also an appeal to an ideal, an ethical ideal, articulated by ethical theory, in terms of whic hI can locate, criticize and modify those elements in my ethical beliefs which rely merely on convention. For beliefs which I have acquired in an uncritical way from my social environment cannot be relied on to take me in the righ tdirection; indeed (depending on how revisionary the theory in question is) they can be taken to be faulty and misleading. Appealing to nature gives me an ethical ideal in terms of which to reject those of my beliefs which turn out to conflict with it, and better to understand those beliefs which are in fact in conformity with it. For what is natural about me is objectively so, whereas many of my beliefs may rest on nothing better than convention. But we plainly do not, just from a conception of human nature (as aiming for pleasure, say) conclude that we should all do the same specific things in life.

Ancient theories, then, do not use the appeal to nature to establish a single specific way of life, or to encourage people to ignore their individual differences.

From The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas. I’m not a fan of how she uses the word “values” here, but in context she makes it clear it’s not the same thing as subjective valuation, which is what we typically associate with the word today.

See Daniel Russell on why the nature-as-ideal is necessary in ethics, and how it works in practice.

This post also provides further exploration of naturalism of this sort.

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Toolkits: A Review of Economics and the Virtues

Economic theory today exists entirely within the narrow confines of utilitarianism, and positivism still reigns as the accepted philosophy of science. In philosophy itself, the former has been almost entirely abandoned as unworkable, and the latter has been completely demolished.

In a way, that makes the accomplishments of economists all the more amazing, given the materials they were working with. But these philosophies were discredited for a reason—they have serious problems which they lack the resources to resolve. You can see this in the critiques that economists themselves largely agree are merited, such as the results of behavioral economics. With the notable exception of prospect theory, it has proven unfeasible to integrate the insights of behavioral economics into economic theory.

When your theories lack the resources to overcome persistent problems, it doesn’t hurt to start looking at how other frameworks might address those problems. In this regard, the forthcoming Economics and the Virtues, edited by Jennifer Baker and Mark White, proves an invaluable resource.

The collection brings together thirteen different authors, some economists and some philosophers, who each make their attempt to bring the narrow framework of economics into dialogue with broader philosophical questions. As the name of the volume implies, this focuses primarily on virtue ethics, but not exclusively. Mark White’s essay, for instance, attempts to bring Kantian considerations into economic analysis, though he does do so through emphasis on the kind of person necessary to follow Kantian imperatives, bringing it closer to virtue. And Jason Brennan’s essay simply approaches the question of whether markets corrupt our character, a topic he has focused on a great deal lately.

But the rest of the essays focus particularly on how virtue ethics can be used to bring valuable insights and much needed sophistication to economic theory. One essay I would call out as likely to be of special interest to economists is Andrew Yuengert’s “The Space Between Choice and Our Models of It,” a powerful treatment of the limitations of economic models and how Aristotle’s conception of practical reason can fill the gap. Yuengert is the author of Approximating Prudence, where this and related topics are treated in greater depth.

The collection includes a great deal of history of thought in addition to attempts to synthesize different frameworks with economic theory; Eric Schliesser’s essay, for instance, details the way in which the subject matter of economics and moral philosophy went from being treated as one and the same, to distinct.

One criticism I would make of the collection would be that there were several essays that were stronger in their presentation of the history of thought they were interested in than in laying the grounds for a synthesis. The first essay, by Christian Becker, provides an excellent overview of economic rationality in Aristotle and in modern economics, but ends with talk about a “virtue of sustainability” and other such things. This seemed an awkward marriage of the modern notion of sustainability with the ancient notion of virtue—one that improved neither.

This does not, however, detract from the fact that the collection is a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework. For anyone looking to enrich their economic analysis with insights from frameworks that have been discussed for thousands of years, the essays in this book are an excellent place to start.

Economics and the Virtues will be out in March.

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.


Previous Posts in this Thread:

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.

The Singular of Data

My friend Jeff told me a story in response to a comment I made. I had just mentioned the travails of kid sports, especially since I enrolled my kids in a hockey program which includes one third more ice time than last year’s program. I sighed, “All consuming, you know.”

Jeff leaned back and intoned a story about his brother-in-law, whose boys were raised on the road to become hockey stars, but they were only so close to making it into the professional ranks, and now the anxiety is upon them, as young men in the late teens and early twenties, to acquire a meaningful vocation.

I said, “Can you imagine investing that much money and that much effort (giving away so much of the family life, in effect) toward a goal which has such a small chance of realization?”

Jeff shifted in his chair and recounted the tale of a dear friend of his who was a bona-fide rock star, in his own mind. He did nothing but play his guitar and practice with his band of fellow-travelers, living up the hedonistic ideal, touring Europe and Japan every year. “If you buy him a sandwich, he’ll take it home to his mom’s basement, where he lives, and save half of it for dinner the next day.”

Jeff rarely answers any question  with a propositional statement; he’s all stories, all the time. His experience is wide and varied, so I guess he can. What makes him especially delightful is that he doesn’t tell stories to fill empty space in a conversation, he’s answering a question. One story gives the answer, and then he’s done, no stringing endless tangential episodes ad infinitum.

I saw somewhere recently (and, forgive me, I can’t remember the context) someone mention that the Affordable Care Act might be screwing over huge numbers of people, but a) those numbers are still marginal, and b) the fundamentals of ACA are forged in good policy. I take that to mean, in other words, that as long as the proper number of people are served by this public policy, those who are hurt (ground to dust, more like it) by the same public policy are data. I’m under the impression that that number doesn’t even need to rise to a majority; it just needs to meet some data-triggered threshold which satisfies its designers. All others should be able to conform, no? If not, then selection has taken its course, alas.

It’s not that I’m against science, God forbid; it’s that I’m against its magisterial application in all aspects of the human experience. Public policy, public morality, public religiosity (for lack of a better word), public everything falls under the hegemony of science, as though science were some sort of impersonal absolute extracted by innumerable university studies from an easily-accessible material world. Science, in this manifestation, never serves; it is always master.

Okay, I yield the point: “ground to dust” is too much; there are worse things on this earth than ACA. Nevertheless, I will not yield the larger outcry, namely that this sentiment is a resistance to the notion that in our story-less data-gathering, individuals are being sorted in a grand perversity of science-wielding masters so that they lose their individuality, and thus their ability to serve on another. We don’t learn to serve each other by means of data; we learn by means of experience, which is brought forward through civilization through stories, wherein are the ties of myriad strands of data.

Queen Elizabeth was finally convinced that the monopolies, though they appeared to buy consolidation of her throne, were costing her far more than an open market would. The data had always been there, but the stories hadn’t trickled up to the throne.

Get Thee To a Nunnery

On the descent into madness

The contest for the greatest play in the English language comes down to one of two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and Macbeth. Both of these plays delve deeply into the psyche of ordinary men and women who enter the realm of madness. The plays themselves and the characters therein resonate deeply, crossing boundaries temporal and cultural. In our contemporary culture, the descent into madness is the theme of two of the most popular record albums ever recorded, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The former used to rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales, and is still the second most selling record of all time. I’m sure that as soon as either David Gilmore or Roger Waters dies (Rick Wright, RIP) many new fans will restore the rivalry at the top of the all-time charts

Shakespeare draws a picture for us: Hamlet, young Hamlet, possessed by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, has been veritably banished by his uncle to England, whereupon he will be murdered, as everybody knows. By some twist of fate and the adventuring spirit of young Hamlet, he escapes, making his way back to Elsinore. Upon his arrival at the outskirts, he stumbles across an open grave. Holding up the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, and a favorite person from his childhood, he says, “I knew him.”

Linear perspective insists that all parallel lines converge upon the horizon. Well, here at the open grave, the horizon been brought dramatically forward, and Hamlet experiences the confrontation which is a response to his melodramatic soliloquy: what dreams may come after we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel
Hamlet 1948: Laurence Olivier

Not for long, for the grave is not passive; it is active, yawning, galloping, devouring. In a brilliant interpretation of the subtlest kind, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, when he hears the approaching funeral procession, tosses the skull of Yorick back into the grave, just in time for old Yorick to receive the recently deceased and politically important Ophelia.

All the powers of the earth are here converging, with love, politics, royalty, vengeance, and that always-pressing anxiety intersecting over a grave. War is ever on the horizon, hemming everyone within easy reach of the same.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

Banquo’s ghost won’t rest, either, charging up from the grave to confront, wordlessly, the ambitious Macbeth.

Here’s a curious aside: Richard Burton, an actor of some note, refused to play Macbeth because, as he says, he cannot be dominated by a woman in that way. The irony is captivating once you come to the understanding that he drove himself to drink over his treacherous divorce in order to win for himself the great prize, Elizabeth Taylor, who dominated him.

The descent into madness, and its appeal to popular and literary culture, is not limited to obsessive thoughts concerning the grave. “This is the end. There is an end to me. Life has no purpose, no meaning.” No, that’s maudlin stuff. Pap. Child’s play. The descent into madness is the lonely individual coping with the active, ongoing confrontation of the grave, that all our evil deeds and the evil deeds of many others manage to wriggle free from death’s strong bonds in an effort to possess us ahead of time.

Ordinary people have a fascination with the exploration of the descent of ordinary people into madness. A playwright or musician will set the scene in extraordinary circumstances, by my reckoning, to sell tickets on the entertainment value. The literary value, i.e., its meaningfulness to the paying ordinary public, is its deep-seated commonality, the themes which grasp a deep-seated anxiety, an anxiety which many people would declare possesses us all. Some of us, for various reasons, cope better with that anxiety than others.

The meaning of life, in other words, is a question of how to maintain meaningful behavior even while under possession of the grave.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet gestures toward Ophelia’s womb, saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.”


What Then Are the Bourgeois Virtues?

What then are the bourgeois virtues? You ask me to preach. I’ll preach to thee.

The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high. I admit it. There. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence—Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing many Europeans from starvation after 1918.

Another bourgeois virtue is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here—Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

A third is the justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making capitalism work since 1776.

A fourth is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of the clerisy 1848 to the present. And so the bourgeoisie can have Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage, the pagan four. Or the Scottish three—Prudence, Temperance, and justice, the artificial virtues—plus enterprise, that is, Courage with another dose of Temperance.

Beyond the pagan virtues is the Love to take care of one’s own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace in 2006, and in a Scottish benevolence c. 1759.

Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Amsterdam and Chicago and Osaka.

Another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, ing, 1533 to the present. So the bourgeoisie can have Faith, Hope, and Love, these three, the theological virtues.

That is, the bourgeois virtues are merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society. They are not hypothetical. For centuries in Venice and Holland and then in England and Scotland and British North America, then in Belgium, Northern France, the Rhineland, Sydney, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Bombay, Shanghai, and in a widening array of places elsewhere, against hardy traditions of aristocratic and peasant virtues, we have practiced them. We have fallen repeatedly, of course, into bourgeois vices. Sin is original. But we live in a commercial society, most of us, and capitalism is not automatically vicious or sinful. Rather the contrary.

“Bourgeois virtues” is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.

-Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues