Nov 9, 2011

How Do We Get It Wrong? Let Us Count The Ways

One of the important aspects of a genuine Virtue Ethics approach that does not get as much discussion or examination -- and often isn't taught in Ethics courses -- is determining what ways, to what degrees, and for what reasons one has gone wrong, done wrong, morally failed.  All too often, we confine ourselves to thinking in terms of the virtues and the vices -- which, to be sure, is good, a better approach, one more adequate to the complexities of human beings and moral life than those oriented by other moral theories -- tending to confine evaluation to motives, actions, consequences, or social arrangements.

But, whether our goal is to fully understand the rich intellectual resources contained in the classic texts of Virtue Ethics, or to progressively develop and employ a coherent practical approach adequate to the complexities and demands of concrete moral life as we actually live it out, what is required is a well-differentiated grasp of how we go wrong, how we get things wrong, the range, differing seriousness, and types of moral failures.

Why is this necessary?  Let's look at what one ancient virtue ethicist and at one contemporary virtue ethicist -- both of them of the highest caliber -- have to say in response, starting with the present-day one.  Alasdair MacIntyre is perhaps - and deservedly -- one of the most celebrated figures in the "revival" of Virtue Ethics in the late 20th century (I set "revival" in quotes because it is such only from a certain common but provincial history of philosophy -- but that's a topic for another, later entry).

In After Virtue, he stresses a point which he approaches and elaborates throughout his work:  to progress as a person, towards one's own flourishing, requires the recognition that one not only is not as far along as one ought to be in moral life, in one's actions, emotions, patterns and tendencies -- along the practical axis, we might say -- one's very understanding of these matters is also likely skewed, underdeveloped, corrupted in certain ways -- introducing the theoretical axis.  And so, one requires others to model virtuous behavior, to tell one what virtue is or requires, to guide or compel one towards behavior in accordance with virtue and away from behavior in accordance with vice.

One needs others -- in a way all too rarely acknowledged or realized by modern moral theorists -- to guide, to be fellow-travellers and enquirers on the path to the good.  Guidebooks are all right, but don't provide everything needed or desirable for the moral life.  But, there's another aspect as well.  MacIntyre notes that engaging in practices or traditions by which virtues are learned, practiced, refined, understood involves
. . . accept[ance of] the authority of those standards [of excellence] and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them.  It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences, and tastes to the standards. . . .
An integral, and -- at least for someone like me, likely irreplaceable -- component of moral life and development is the realization and the attempted remedy of just how many flaws one possesses when encountering and employing a genuine rule, a proper standard, a justly strict interpretation of what a human life ought to look like and what a human being ought to do, feel, think, and will.  If the goal is in fact to move towards flourishing, towards the realization of the potential inherent in human beings, towards ultimately compatible but heterogeneous goodnesses to enjoy, produce, embody, and share with others -- well, then there's no point in sugar-coating matters, in taking it easy on oneself as a matter of course, in not facing oneself in whatever mirror would be less darkened and warped -- one's own reflection or conscience, perhaps, or the verdicts of certain others who eschew flattery out of genuine regard or love for another human, or the measures provided by evaluations or examples of those one respects.

When for instance, MacIntyre reasons that:
We have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty.
That of course challenges one to discern whether they do in fact possess those virtues, and to what degree, in way ways well and in what manners imperfectly?  In another essay, which I like to assign my students, "Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy," MacIntyre suggests two other virtues are needed in moral inquiry: temperance and prudence.  He also even more importantly points out that moral inquiry involves narrative self-understanding, being able to tell and understand a story about one's own successes, failures, choices, insights, misconceptions, commitments, waverings, sacrifices, relationships, disputes, agreements, and outcomes -- a story that can be compared with or against stories of others, and -- even when this remains merely implicit -- also mapped onto explicitly articulated moral theories.

To begin medias in res -- as we do once we begin to think explicitly in terms of what we are doing, whether it is right or not, what we want and desire, what the costs and consequences are or could be -- and this may be still only implicitly thinking in terms of any articulated moral theory, to begin from where we are -- for many of us -- is to take up the mid-point in a history of some successes but many moral failures, some of them formed as fateful choices, some consolidated and embodied in our difficult-to-change settled dispositions.

For many if not most, becoming good or progressing towards the better involves, requires, and is spurred at last by recognition at least to some tangible degree of how bad one is and has been and will likely remain unless something changes, how badly off one is, what vices one suspects oneself to remain in grip of, what virtues need to be understood and then deliberately cultivated, what instincts or appetites too long unchecked or indulged need to be examined and curbed, what relationships need to be restored.

So, its necessary to learn and discern how one ought to see things, evaluate matters, scrutinize oneself and others -- one must examine, so as to know rightly, the range and types not only of goodnesses but badnesses as well.  One needs to distinguish, as does for example Aristotle -- whose part in thinking this through, as this piece is already become over-long, I'll narrate in a post tomorrow -- between modalities of wrongdoing, for instance, between behavior that is vicious and behavior that is not vicious but in accordance with vice (because out of accordance with virtue).

Why is this needed?  Why some sort of complex differential scheme?  Precisely because good and bad, right and wrong is not so simple as many would like it, and often wish-fulfill-fantasize them to be.  More on this the next post.

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