Oct 5, 2013

Are the Virtues Already In Us?

In my Ethics classes, one type of assessment and exercise I routinely require my students to engage in is what I call an Application Assignment.  I provide them with a complex, morally ambiguous, problematic scenario, which they then have to analyze along various lines.  I'll write more about those parameters in a follow-up post, and discuss just how the assignments work to foster student learning at several different levels.  For now, what I'd like to focus on is one very interesting, common, and revealing mistake I see some students make semester after semester.

A key component of the assignment is competently applying three of the moral theories we've been studying to the case in question.  This requires that the students do a bit of explaining about the key concepts of the theory, and then go on to particularize these to the characters of the narrative.  Students do all right with Egoism, with the authoritarian Might-Makes-Right theory, and often enough with Utilitarianism.  Many of them run into problems with Virtue Ethics, and there are a variety of distinct misunderstandings and misapplications.  I'm particularly interested in one recurring way students get matters wrong.  Some students interpret Virtue Ethics as asserting that the virtues lie within each and every person, ready to be used when situations call for them.

Two Common Types of Mistakes

At times, the notion of virtue referred to in these ways remains rather vague and generalized.  These are the students who picked up on the point that virtues are good character traits, and also that they are generally socially approved, but didn't get much beyond that starting point.  There is a tendency among these students to view virtues as something personal in the same way in which they have been brought up to regard opinions -- sacrosanct, unquestionable, idiosyncratic, a matter of individual preference -- clearly so at odds with any traditional concepts of "virtue" as to make one wonder what mileage they think they are getting out of using the term.

That's one kind of mistake -- sort of a "race to the bottom" kind of error -- but I'm interested in another kind of mistake that does get beyond that first one, but has some interesting similarities in how and why it goes wrong. The kind of mistake I'm referring to, in its simplest, most bare bones form, runs like this:  The specific virtues are traits or capabilities any given human being already possesses, and in any given situation he or she needs simply to use their virtues to choose and act well.  So, there's really two claims being asserted, or more often, simply assumed on the part of the student.  Human beings already have the virtues.  And, whatever these virtues are, one just needs to use them.

Notice that that this second kind of mistake with respect to the virtues shares a few things in common with the first kind of mistake.  First off, both mistakes get the basic understanding of virtues wrong.  Consider the first one.  While it is true that for a person to have a virtue does not mean precisely the same thing in each individual person's character, life, attitudes, and choices -- virtue is indeed something individuated -- it's in many ways the diametric opposite of the sheer subjective, idio- (even idiot-)syncratic.  I can tell myself that I'm a great guy, that my actions are courageous, or that ironic lounging around, consuming, and opining is in fact virtue -- but that sort of self-assertion doesn't make any of that so.  Similarly, if virtues are taken to be some sort of universal endowment, implanted within every human being, we're clearly dealing with a concept of virtue radically divergent from any of those articulated within the traditions of virtue ethics.

I think a second feature these two sorts of mistakes have in common is a shared origin in a defective moral formation of the persons espousing these viewpoints by some of the lower common denominators of late modern culture.  It's not an individualism inherent in either point of view that I'd say is the problem -- really, there is nothing that makes one less of an individual than to adopt mass perspectives of these sorts.  It's rather that both of them reflect a superficiality that does not even suspect itself as such.  It's easy -- and often thoughtless -- in our culture to relegate moral values to the realms of the subjective or the available for everyone.  Both fit well with an enculturation of being afraid to judge, to tell anyone that they're wrong or morally bad, to discriminate between the better and the worse, the more or less adequate -- and both reflect an unawareness that what keeps a person from being merely judgemental, ideology-driven, oppressive is having and being able to provide some good reasons for the judgements one makes.

Virtues as Innate Traits or Capacities

Moving on, let's ask this question:  would it actually make sense, if one thought it through, to regard virtues as something that any given person already possesses, ready at hand, resources within their character, their personality, needing only to be drawn upon, brought out of the storehouse, perhaps invoked into actuality by name?

Let's set aside one impediment from the start -- since this would doom such a thought experiment from the start -- namely that "virtue" as traditionally understood by the theories that we call "virtue ethics" simply isn't and can't be that sort of thing.  A virtue is, after all, some sort of developed trait, habit, disposition, hexis. It reliably inclines a person to behave in a certain way, a way that is generally good or right, in a variety of different situations.  Does it make sense to speak of virtue as not needing to be developed, but simply being universally available and accessible?  Let's pretend it does. . . let's imagine that a virtue just is some sort of disposition, and that everyone possesses a whole panoply of such virtues, ready to whip out whenever an occasion requires.

We're confronted immediately with one problem, which is that in any given person's experience, they can call up many, perhaps innumerable instances of either their own, or other people's failures to act in ways one would call virtuous -- in the parlance of this point of view, to use one's virtue of courage, or justice, or generosity, or truthfulness, or temperance.  Now, this seems to be something that calls out for some explanation.  What went wrong in these sorts of cases?  Why did the person not act the way they ought to have?  Why didn't they use their universal endowment, open up their characterilogical tool-box and take out the right instrument for the job?  That remains a murky, even mysterious sort of matter in this point of view.

One wonders as well what "vice" means in this sort of perspective. Perhaps, since the virtues all lie within us, all the vices do as well -- so when we make a bad choice, acting like a coward perhaps, or like a stingy person, we pull out a vice instead of the appropriate virtue and then go to town with the wrong tool for the situation?  Or are "vices" merely the fact of not using the right virtue -- so that if I don't choose to use the virtue that is entirely available to me at any given time, I then lapse into a "vice"?

In his Discourses, Epictetus talks sometimes as if we do possess ready at hand all the moral resources we require to do the right thing in any given situation.  Here's just one exemplary set of lines:

Well, then, and have you not received faculties by which you will be able to bear all that happens? Have you not received greatness of soul? Have you not received manliness? Have you not received endurance? 
If one actually reads Epictetus, however, one comes away with the impression that in order to be able to use these Stoic virtues, not a little cultivation of one's capacities is required.  Although the virtues for Stoics are understood differently than from, say Platonists, or Aristotelians, or Augustinians, there is a significant role accorded to development, to habituation, to training that places all these views on one side, and my students' mistake on the other.

What Does This Viewpoint Leave Out?

If students were to question themselves on precisely this point, and correlate these questions to the very texts they study in my class -- Plato, Aristotle, and later on Thomas Aquinas -- thinking about the nature of virtue and virtues, they would gradually become aware of what they've missed about these thinkers' treatments of virtues and vices. . .  and they will hopefully also become a bit cognizant of what they might have also missed out on in their own moral education.

One key problem is that this point of view really tells us little about what virtuous action looks like.  It gives us no sense, no feel, for what specific situations might morally demand of a person.  By making the virtues a sort of automatic inheritance of the human person, it also renders virtues something within yet extrinsic to the person, not something integral, incorporated within the structure of their personality, the pattern of their choices, their publicly observable (thought privately motivated) character.

The biggest problem, though, in my view is that it entirely removes the vital dimension of development from virtue -- and a corresponding awareness of the dangers, the seductions, of vice.  We do in some sense possess all of the virtues by being human beings -- but only as potentials.  Even in the most realized of us, there remain some areas undeveloped or underdeveloped.  For the rest of us, we still have to struggle towards virtue, not simply whip it out entirely developed, at our disposal.

This brings up an important pedagogical point about moral development and education.  When it comes to virtue and vice -- and everything in between, not only the cognitive and the affective, but theory and practice, understanding and action, need to go hand in hand.  To be further on the way in developing a virtue means also to have some better sense of what that virtue looks like, what it demands, and how it differs from the facsimiles and simulacra one's culture invariably calls by its same name.

And this is why the "everyone has the virtues" view is so stultifying.  If you really believe that you've already got the virtues, then you needn't spend any time, effort, or thought developing and coming to understand them. And aside from being coached deliberately in the wrong direction, there's no better course one could take in order to guarantee one will not understand or develop the virtues requisite for a fully moral life.


  1. I recently read a portion of Joel Kupperman's "Character" where he promotes a 'character ethics' over a 'virtue ethics', but I am still a bit uncertain as to the distinction that would occur between these. My understanding is that the exercise of virtuous action develops a person character so that there behavior comes to consistently apply these virtues. Character and virtue would seem to be integrated. Could you perhaps shed some light into where a division between these two approaches could occur, and how character could be considered 'above' virtue?

    1. I can't say I know his work, or the approach of "character ethics".

      From what I can gather, he's situating his work within some contemporary, rather abstract, ways of doing ethics (e.g. thinking things out in terms of varieties of consequentialism, writing to analytic philosophers), rather than through some sort of reinterpretation of classical moral theories.

      I suspect that, if I spend the time to study his works, I'll come away with the impression that I'd have better spent the time reading Aristotle, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or Macintyre, or. . . . .