Nov 13, 2014

Does Virtue Help Make Us Aware of Our Vices?

Some time back -- while I was grading some student essays from the Spring 2014 semester -- I posted an insight one of my students had expressed, but not entirely developed, on my Facebook page.  It then spurred a short but very pregnant discussion with one interlocutor, one which I decided I ought to keep, file away, and then return to think out more later on.

It's now later on -- time to revisit this interesting original remark, "virtue works in ways that makes non-virtuous people aware of their viciousness," as well as the comments and questions by my interlocutor, and my own off the cuff remarks.  But first, let's take a look -- and give a read to -- the conversation under discussion:

The Facebook Conversation

Awareness of One's Own Vicious Tendencies

My Ethics student can certainly be forgiven for getting a few basic things about Aristotle's moral theory wrong -- at least in how he or he (I've forgotten by now which student it was!) expressed the insight.  For, of course, Aristotle does distinguish several different moral states we human beings can occupy besides just those of virtue and vice.  So, there's no reason to assume that simply because a person lacks a virtue, that means that such a person actually possesses a vice.

Strictly speaking then, non-virtuous people aren't necessarily vicious people.  There's plenty of people in between those two states -- the self-controlled, who know what is good and make themselves do it, even though they don't yet (since they're not virtuous) really want to do it, and the uncontrolled, who also know what is good, but find themselves unable to actually do it, and do something else, something bad, instead.  Of course, the category of the "non-virtuous" does include the vicious -- it just can't be identified with that group -- so one can't assume that a non-virtuous person has viciousness to become aware of, not if that viciousness means actually having a vice.

But perhaps that's not at all what my student was trying to say -- and if so, the insight becomes a much more interesting one.  Let's say that we distinguish between vicious dispositions and vicious tendencies.  The former are what Aristotle calls "vices," kakiai or mokhtheriai in Greek -- actual bad habits established in a person's soul or personality, reliably leading to characteristic patterns of bad choices, evaluations, desires, attitudes, and actions.

The latter, however, are simply the tendencies that a non-virtuous person has towards being drawn into or towards the kind of desires, the kinds of evaluations, the sorts of choices and actions that are typical of a vicious person.  In fact, if the person continues in that line, "keeps it up," as we say, those tendencies will eventually consolidate, condense, coagulate into more robustly established and eventually habitual dispositions.  But that needn't be the way things go -- and that's part of what my student was getting at.

For Aristotle, if we're not already vicious, we still retain a capacity to recognize our desires, our behavior, and our choices for what they are -- and to see, even feel, how they fall short, how they tend towards the bad, looking a lot like the sort of thing one would ascribe to -- and expect from -- a vicious person.  The vicious person, as Aristotle says, suffers a certain kind of moral blindness or delusion -- he or she actually comes to think that the bad is really the good, and vice versa.  The higher principle -- practical rationality, or moral reasoning -- becomes damaged, or one might say, dislocated, in them.

How Does Virtue Bring Badness to Light?

My interlocutor in the Facebook discussion framed matters in a way that I think tends to reflect more of an encounter with a textbook or an encyclopedia reconstruction of Aristotle's virtue ethics than one grounded upon engagement with Aristotle's actual texts, like the Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, or the Rhetoric and Politics.  That's not a complaint, by the way, since what he's bringing up and inferring is not bad -- it's just not the whole picture.

It is worth thinking through, though.  It's right to think of virtue not just as as state -- like something governed by an on/off switch -- but as dynamic, developmental, the sort of thing that might have relevant thresholds but which for the most part does indeed play itself out upon a continuum.  We can be more or less virtuous -- the virtue can have a stronger or weaker hold upon our structures of motivation, desire, reasoning, and choice -- and a nascent virtue might have some weak points or blind spots that need some shoring up, and get it in time, with enough consistent practice.

What does that have to do with the non-virtuous person?  Well, where do virtuous people come from?  You'd be right to say "from other virtuous people" -- in a sense, because the virtue of others does have some sort of causal or at least supportive role in the development of virtue in a person.  But, what I'm really asking is this:  people aren't born or created virtuous -- so what are they before becoming virtuous?  What is the raw material upon which virtue does its transforming work?  A personal condition of being neither virtuous nor vicious -- being somewhere in between.

So, presumably by practicing virtue -- which means, for the non-virtuous person, precisely that, practicing, doing the moral equivalent of musical scales and exercises, over and over -- one becomes better off with respect to the kinds of matters, the sorts of situations, the desires, pleasures, emotions, actions, goods and evils, that particular virtue has to with.  And, some of that betterment has to do with our intellectual condition.

There's a lot of intellectual "moving parts" to virtue, you might say.  Figuring out what the right thing in the determinate situation, what's called for -- that's one bit of it.  Knowing what else one ought to attend too -- that's something that comes over time as virtue develops as well.  But, we can also speak of a person developing an important kind of self-knowledge, an awareness of one's own limitations, the areas where one has to really watch out for temptations, rationalizations, moral failures.

So, when my interlocutor poses a seeming dilemma about the role of repetition, he's onto something important:
Does it directly change one's nature such that they might be more naturally inclined towards virtuous action?  Or does it simply produce a greater awareness in the being, thereby enabling them to make virtuous decisions?
I'd say that these aren't mutually exclusive.  In fact, the second -- producing some sort of greater awareness, better attentiveness to what matters -- might well play a role in, or at least support, this inclination of a "second nature," stemming from developed habituation.

As a side-note, in better accounts of moral virtue, habituation is not the development of some mechanical reflex, but is connected with -- and continues to involve -- moral insight, attentiveness, practical reasoning, and deliberate choice.  So, it is indeed right in some sense to speak of a virtuous person as "inputting" an "intention" into their actions -- as well as into their associated choices, perceptions,  and rational reflection.

How Else Does Virtue Bring Badness To Light?

Whereas my Facebook interlocutor seems to focus on what the beginnings of virtue might do in a person who is just starting to possess it, I think that my student had a different process of contrast in mind.  For, we not only encounter virtue (or at least the beginnings of it, or the capacity for it) in ourselves -- if that was all we could rely upon, most of us would be very badly off indeed!

Our encounters with virtues occur in our interactions with other people, and in the very language, society, institutions, and culture we move within.  To be sure, quite often all we're encountering is an appearance of virtues, sometimes just the mere words -- the fact that you can purchase flash cards (from multiple companies, with varying lists of the virtues!) should be something that alerts us to just how debased much of the "virtue talk" we encounter really is these days.  Then again, it was no different in the times of classic virtue theorists, since they painstakingly clarify just what particular virtues really are, contrasting them to more popular misconceptions.

The good thing about virtues, though, is that they're not simply culture-dependent.  As excellences, in their exhibition or their performance, even in the (sometimes puzzling) patterns of behavior they promote, virtues stand out with a kind of prominence, they impress themselves upon those who are not entirely sunken into vice, they signal that there's something real, something good, something true here -- and they do this whether we are well equipped to recognize them or to articulate what we're perceiving.

There's probably nothing more powerful, when it comes to this, than the role of a virtuous example -- another person who is "the real deal" -- who actually has developed, possesses, and acts through dispositions like courage, moderation, generosity, honesty, charity, or good temper.  Whether the non-virtuous person engaged with them does recognize their virtue as such, or just suspects that something is different and attractive, though sometimes difficult and demanding, about that virtuous person, is a highly continent matter -- I can say that from experience myself.

But -- even if the virtuous person does not give advice, instruct or guide, sit down with and call out, the non-virtuous person, their very way of being can start to raise questions or worries for the non-virtuous person -- concerns about their own tendencies to do the wrong thing and then write it off as what one has to do, or just a momentary lapse, or. . . . In short, the virtue of another person can make one more aware of one's own lack of virtues, and even one's tendency or trajectory towards vices.


  1. Have you read (or heard of) a book called "Character Strengths and Virtues" by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman? It's an attempt to define and classify the virtues that have been admired across cultures and eras and present the existing empirical research on its assessment, development, and its relationship with other virtues and psychological factors.

  2. I have indeed heard of it -- and skimmed bits of it. What I did read didn't make me want to keep on with it.

    I've never been very impressed with Seligman or the entire positive psychology movement, I have to admit. I do get why people tend to be attracted to that sort of approach, but I find it pretty superficial and prone to oversimplifying, particularly when it comes to their understanding of just what virtue and vice might actually be.

    Perhaps down the line, I'll do some blogging about that. . . .