Apr 19, 2012

Yves Simon on Moral Virtue (part 1 of 2)

Recently, I had the opportunity to indulge myself in a bit of reading of an author I'd long ago enjoyed, the 20th century French Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher, Yves Simon, whose course on "Virtues," taught at the University of Chicago, was later edited into the book, The Definition of Moral Virtue, by Vukan Huic. Simon is a competent and quietly imaginative interpreter of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition in philosophy, and his reexamination of the very notion of virtue, digging out its contours from within, scraping off the varnish-turned-plaque of certain modern reinterpretations or reductions, while at the same time connecting it unnostalgically just as much with the flows, courses, and preoccupations of modern life as with ancient or medieval modes of existence -- his work is eminently worth the hours it requires.

In addition to pointing out three typically modern responses which effectively attempt to substitute for the virtue that we human beings need in order to do well, act well, live well, Simon also introduces, or perhaps much better and more accurately put, briefly elaborates, several distinctions very useful for thinking out more fully what virtue actually is, what it does, how it works within and without it, what it calls forth from us.  Two of those in particular -- ideas admittedly stock in trade for virtue ethicists, but which, like any other inventory, lie unexamined upon the shelf -- the relationship between nature and use as dimensions of the goodness or badness of things, and the difference between mere habits and the difficult-to-translate habitus, are key for any practical, not merely academic understanding of virtue and vice. This post will discuss the first distinction, and the followup post will dig into the second, more complexly developed distinction.

Three Mistaken Attitudes Towards Virtue

Simon does also situate these concepts and distinctions -- as well as others, e.g. disposition, qualitative and existential "readiness," sociability, spontaneity, intentionality, affective knowledge or knowledge by inclination and its relationship with prudence, even the unity or rather interdependence of the virtues -- in relation to the three main substitutes proffered in place of a traditional conception of virtue, with three general options set out in modernity's "common understanding":
These days. . . discussing virtue requires also that we be aware of certain important development in the modern history of ethical ideas.  Thus we must realize that a number of influential writers, even as they use the term, actually want to do away with virtue, because they expect better results from something else.
Do his diagnoses discern tendencies as common and problematic today as they were in the middle of the last century?  Well, what are these ersatzes on the levels of both moral theory and popular culture and consciousness? the first is a belief in a natural goodness of human beings, requiring only that the deformations of upbringing, conventional education, society, rules, laws, roles and expectations.  Deep down inside, such a view goes, we're all basically good.  We just need to get ourselves back to the garden -- not Epicurus' one, mind you, nor perhaps even Eden.  Simon mentions two classical modern thinkers easily associated with such a stance, Emerson and Rousseau, but also sets Descartes in their camp, rightly, I think.
[A]ll that Rousseau or Descartes wants is to liberate native energies.  True, Rousseau and his followers never stop talking about "virtues." But if we go beyond mere words, we quickly realize that what they are after is something else.  Their idea of how to achieve moral excellence is not to work for it but rather to tap in the individual a  natural spontaneity towards goodness, which they take to be antecedent to both rationality and social order.

This novel meaning of virtue is, if anything, even more exalted in the works of Emerson, who sees human goodness not only as antecedent to both rationality and social order but as also superior to voluntariness.
So far, nothing foreign to our own cultural, even political and pedagogical situations of late modernity -- also the case, I think, with the second substitute, social engineering.  If the general thrust of the first tack is that an already existing goodness, latent, just waiting to be brought to light, allowed expression, simply has to have its social, rational, cultural impediments removed -- the second recognizes more realistically that we are not all angels incognito, but hopes that by proper management, through social transformation and reorganization, aided by the human or social sciences scrutinous categorizations and calculations, the development and imposition of a higher degree of rationality permeating and reshaping the human being will make us all good.

Marx and Fourier are Simon's stand-ins for this general tendency of thought and action, but examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely down to the present of those who think that social engineering renders the traditional conception and aim of virtue (along with so many other things!) obsolete, irrelevant, even meaningless.

The third substitute Simon calls "psychotechnology," an interesting choice of neologism, given that he could easily have spoken of psychoanalysis, still fairly dominant within the expanding domains of psychotherapy in his time.  Interestingly, Simon recognizes the relative legitimacy, even necessity and desirability of harnessing psychotherapeutic theory and practice:
In the last fifty years or so, great progress has been made in distinguishing all sorts of human tendencies that were previously summarily classified as moral faults, and procedures have been developed to deal with them rather effectively. . . . [D]espite all their eccentricity, lack of moderation, lack of judgement, and lack of taste, there is no question that modern psychologists have produced treatments of undesirable human tendencies that often work.
He notes -- as have many other modern members of that tradition -- that psychotherapy and virtue ethics (which, when it is any good, is at the same time eminently classical and contemporary) not only bear on many of the same matters -- to the adequately trained eye, they actually exhibit a kind of complementarity in many dimensions.  The problem Simon wants to point out is that psychotherapeutic approaches end up being accorded a kind of exclusivity in our culture:
Today few people seek moral counsel; most seek medical help. . .  But can we be absolutely sure that all those tendencies, inclinations, obsessions, passions, neuroses -- not to mention "hang-ups" that are routinely brought to psychological experts and technicians, are never anything more than psychological tendencies, inclinations, etc.?
Today, of course, we would frame all of this (at least here in the States) in DSM-IV-language of "disorder" rather than, say "neurosis," but the point is clear enough:  the moral dimension, and with it, any useful conception of  virtue and vice, gets ignored and overlooked, perhaps even deliberately dismissed as reflecting an unhealthy approach, begging all sorts of questions at best half-asked.

Varieties of Goodness: Nature and Use

Turning now for the moment from these attempts at substitutes to thinking about the virtues, we have, Simon argues, to consider two different, and often interelated, ways in which we can say that a thing is good -- an important distinction, for virtues are after all modes of goodness, in the cases of moral or intellectual virtues modalities of the goodness of the person who possesses these traits.  The distinction to be made is between the nature of a thing and the use of the thing

Simon tentatively defines "use" as "the application of a thing to an operation" -- and a further distinction can be made, splitting use into particular use and human use. A piano and its playing provides a very useful example:

First, of course, there is the piano itself, which can be either a good or a bad piano, say a cheap piano well tuned or an expensive piano out of tune. . . . It is a good piano if everything is in order and it has an especially clear sound.

Second, and assuming that ours is an excellent piano, there is the question of how well or how poorly, one can play it.  For clearly "playing the piano" means "using it" in relation to the specific, particular purpose of the piano player, in which the skill of the artist is matched to the nature of the instrument. . . . We are talking about the artist's art, not his character.

Is he also a good man?  I do not know.  . . . [T]here is also a third question, in which piano playing is referred to what I will call its human use.  For instance, a great artist might play a beautiful but loud piece on his concert piano long past midnight, when his neighbors have a right to peace and quiet. . . . Suppose a death had occurred in the apartment next door, and the artist plays light, cheerful music all night long.  This would be a bad human use of a good instrument of which the man knows how to make good human use.
Before we get to applying this very useful set of distinctions to cases where we are focused specifically on the nature of the human being or parts the human being, and then their uses, it is worth reflecting a bit more on how this distinction plays itself out in cases where the human being is using something else.  Simon outlines four general possibilities of interconnection between nature and use, and then notes something very interesting:

Any thing in good shape can be put to both good and bad human use, and the same holds for things that are not in such good shape.. . .
What I have come to appreciate more keenly during these years is that in some cases a things in good condition may involve something like a tendency towards good human use, and that conversely, a thing in poor condition may involve something like a tendency towards poor human use of it.
An example of this would be a car in poor repair -- a danger to oneself and to others if routinely driven, something that a person who is in general morally good would feel pangs of conscience for not attending to properly, but which a morally bad person, one unconcerned about others, for instance, would have no problem with using.

Not everything outside of us or inside of us works this way -- Simon brings up memory as on example.  Poor memory does not have any intrinsic tendency towards being used badly by the person who suffers from it, nor does good memory bring in its wake any natural tendency towards steering its owner into good uses of it and away from bad uses.

With other human faculties, however, poor condition -- or development, direction, formation -- does carry with it a tendency towards bad use, not just in the sense of poor particular use, but in the broader, more encompassing sense of bad human use.  A poorly developed will, in the sense of weak, unable to stick to and stick through commitments and choices renders the person who has it unable to really flourish, do what needs to be done, even follow through on what they want to do.  A strong will, of course, is not necessarily a morally good one -- not a will of which morally good use will be made  -- suggesting a point which we will come back to momentarily.  Simon also discusses "the tendencies which make up our emotional life":
We all know that perfectly normal tendencies -- say ambition to excel, enjoyment of pleasure, sex drive, or high spirits -- all need to be disciplined to make sure they will serve only good ends.  What, then, can we say about abnormal tendencies. . . say obsession with dominating people, or literally murderous sexual desires.  Clearly, what we have here is something of which no good human use can be made.
If only for these reasons,  it would already be clear that in order for a person to be virtuous, to be and do well as a human being, in all of the dimensions of one's existence, including the affective ones, one's emotions, one's manifold, so to speak, of desires, feelings, loves and hates, could not be in such a pathologically bad condition. But there is a problem even more pressing, and Simon picks out a very important characteristic of our affective drives, tendencies, desires, emotions:
[E]ven though incapable of good human use a diseased emotion also refuses to stay quiet.  Being a tendency, it demands, it insists on realization, on being satisfied.  And that is why, in the theory of virtues, this is the decisive case.  When it comes to emotional tendencies, their condition can never be neutral with regard to their use.  To make good human use emotions, they must be sound.

Interplay Between Goodness of Nature and Use

The relationships between good condition or nature and good use, and correspondingly between bad condition and bad use, are not solely one-way.  If good condition may be needed in some cases for good use, or in others may tend towards promoting good use, good use -- even deliberate, consistent, principled good use --  may in its turn be necessary for, or at least produce a better condition in what is being used.  And, likewise, there can be cases in which bad use -- particularly repeated bad use, careless, making excuses, deforming things from their legitimate purposes might make those things worse in their condition.

Playing the keys of a piano by smacking them with a hammer -- perhaps excusing oneself by noting the analogy between one's own deliberate action and the mechanical effects within the instrument, in which its own myriad felt-tipped "hammers" strike upon the strings! -- is likely to damage the piano, not only to break they keys, but to damage whatever balances within the wood have managed to survive thus far.  All of this goes all the more for the uses we make of our own faculties, our talents, our loves and aversions, our emotions and desires -- the better use we make of them, the better they become with time and effort, and the worse use we make of them, the worse they get.  There is a dynamic, even dialectical relationship involved here.

Consider, for instance, someone trying to wean himself away from a quick-tempered, grudge-holding, all-too-easily offended disposition with respect to the emotion of anger -- a poor condition, reflective of what we can call a vice.  That person will have a much harder time determining when he ought in fact get angry and when it would be the wrong thing to do.  He will face many more temptations, and the road to virtue is a longer, more arduous, and ironically more frustrating one for him than for someone who has a better temper.  In Simon's terms, it will be harder for him to make good use of his own emotions, and even his will -- though not impossible, and if he sticks with it, making the right decisions, resolutions, using what helps he needs, he will produce changes towards the better in those very emotions and will.  Keep at it long enough (so I'm told -- I can hardly say this from experience about anger myself!), and one's temper will end up in good condition, much less troublesome for oneself, much easier to make good use of, perhaps even resistant to being turned to bad use.

Simon does not leave "particular" use out of this dynamic:
What, then is the connecting link between the tendency to good human use and the improvement of the condition of the things we use?  It is nothing else than their specific technical use.  Rebellious rejection of fundamental rules of doing things. . .  may well lead to the deterioration of the "natural" condition of things used. . .  By contrast, deliberate acceptance of proper particular use of things, supported by a strong tendency towards good human use, may well lead to their improvement, especially when these "things" happen to be the internal powers of the human soul.
In light of this distinction between nature and use, we can turn now back to limitations Simon sees in the three putative replacements for virtue, aspects of the full picture which the lenses and blinders they impose deform or shutter out. I'll have to summarize very briefly, by way of quotation of passages rich in implications:
For the tasks of man to be properly fulfilled , there has got to be  something rational in the way the way they are fulfilled.  Indeed this may be the most telling argument against the Romantic illusion that what is best in man is anterior to the work of both society and reason.  The truth of the matter of that insofar as it anterior to the work of reason, human fulfillment lacks the rational modality which belongs to it precisely as human fulfillment.

Man is indeed a social and sociable animal.  But he is sociable in more ways than one, and what we need to understand better is how society and morality relate to each other under various types of sociability. . . .  [B]ut in order truly to understand the human condition, it seems to me that we need to identify at least one other form of sociability, which I should like to call, for lack of a better term, sociability by way of inspiration. . .  there is a form of sociability characteristic of man that promotes his freedom and is indispensable for his becoming an unique individual, that is a person.

My reservations about "psycho-technology" should also be clearer now.  Its main fault is that it tends to ignore the notion of use, which is crucial in any realistic understanding of human dependability.  Again, modern psychology has made great strides both in treating diseased emotions and in assertive  training, that is, in methods for strengthening the will.  Yet over and above what psychology can do for the powers of the soul, there looms the vast world of human action proper, consisting of the human use of these powers, for whose problems psychology has no answers.

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