Individuating the virtues

I’ve been working on a number of projects over the past few months, which I hope will spur me to write up more of my thoughts in short form here. One was my MPhil thesis, on intellectualism and moral education in Plato’s Protagoras and Republic. I hope this will be the launching point for a more comprehensive project on intellectualism and moral education from Socrates to the Stoics. I’d welcome comments on the current version.

Another was a paper I wrote for the MPhil and gave at the inaugural Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Politics conference at London Met in June. The paper tries to bring together some research in personality psychology with a (neo-)Aristotelian approach to virtue ethics to argue that one of the components of personality identified by psychologists, called openness to experience, constitutes in its developed form a virtue. In order to make the case, I found that I had to do some thinking about the nature of Aristotle’s list of virtues and what the structure of a virtue theory ought to be like. In a recent book Daniel Russell has argued that contemporary neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics can’t do without the concept of phronesis, and he makes a number of intriguing arguments about how we ought to individuate the virtues from each other, a problem Aristotle doesn’t explicitly wrestle with, and what work virtues in the plural do in such ethical theories [1]. Indeed, Aristotle’s list looks conspicuously flabby when compared to the taut tetrad of Plato’s Republic, and virtues like greatness of soul (megalopsychia) still cause headaches for Aristotle’s defenders. Can there even be such a thing as a canonical list of the virtues?

I have found myself inclining to the view that Aristotle’s discussions of the many virtues of character are crucially important for his normative ethical theory: they flesh out the doctrine of the mean, which Aristotle himself points out isn’t very helpful as action-guiding advice by itself (EN VI.1, 1138b25-32). But looking at things on the metaethical level, we could easily imagine a very different list with a similar structure – virtues that picked out means in feeling and action, but ones governing different spheres of life than those Aristotle identifies. What does this possibility say about the nature of Aristotle’s own theory and what we are licensed to do with it? I think we should see the various virtues in an Aristotelian theory as identifying characteristically important features of situations, isolating kinds of reasons for actions (Russell, following Philippa Foot, focuses on this angle), and serving as ideals for approximation. Hence, virtues-talk, as opposed to mere goodness-talk, lets us single out aspects of a virtuous action for praise or blame, an activity central to our communal or interpersonal ethical practices, and especially to moral education.

But the interdependence of the virtues and the central role played by phronesis in governing virtuous action, which seem to be important components of any recognizably Aristotelian virtue theory, should make us suspect whether there is such a thing as a courageous action simpliciter, that is, a courageous action as opposed to a temperate or wise or just one. The right habits of feeling and thought seem too intertwined to give rise to such neat categories. Seeing virtues-talk in this way, i.e., as a kind of short-hand, also lets us avoid the thorny question of the ontological status of the virtues, since robust, global character-traits of the kind we want to call virtues must be complex bundles of dispositions to feel, act, and think in particular ways.

Obviously, the importance of particular emotions (fear, anger, etc.) to our ethical lives means that there will be channels along which any account of the virtues will follow. But individuating the virtues strictly along such lines (which Aristotle does not do – witness close doublets like magnificence (megaloprepeia) and generosity, which vary only in the amounts of money involved) does not seem promising. Justice, for instance, seems too wide-ranging a virtue to be analyzed as a mean with respect to any single emotion. Even in the case of courage, which plainly has to do with fear, Aristotle signals that he has in mind fear of death, especially death in battle (EN III.6, 1115a24 ff.). The virtues, for Aristotle, are often identified as having to do with certain feelings or emotions, but they are individuated primarily by the sphere of life in which they are exercised.

In the paper, I suggest that there are other praiseworthy means in action and feeling that are not so easily individuated by a sphere of exercise, and that openness is one of them. These ‘higher-order’ virtues of character, in a manner akin to phronesis, may be exercised in any and all spheres of life. This raises the interesting question of how these virtues are related to phronesis, and in particular whether they can give us an account of how phronesis might develop from the virtues of character, a notable lacuna in Aristotle’s theory. But I’ll try to pursue that point a bit further in a separate discussion.

[1] Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (Oxford, 2009). Forthcoming in paperback (Oxford, 2011).

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