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The importance of philosophy to lead future constituents in virtue

It persisted as the dominant approach in Western moral philosophy until at least the Enlightenment, suffered a momentary eclipse during the nineteenth century, but re-emerged in Anglo-American philosophy in the late 1950s. Neither of them, at that time, paid attention to a number of topics that had always figured in the virtue ethics tradition—virtues and vices, motives and moral character, moral education, moral wisdom or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of the emotions in our moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sorts of persons we should be and how we should live.

Its re-emergence had an invigorating effect on the other two approaches, many of whose proponents then began to address these topics in the terms of their favoured theory. It has also generated virtue ethical readings of philosophers other than Plato and Aristotle, such as Martineau, Hume and Nietzsche, and thereby different forms of virtue ethics have developed Slote 2001; Swanton 2003, 2011a.

See Annas 2011 for a short, clear, and authoritative account of all three. We discuss the first two in the remainder of this section.

Moral Character

Eudaimonia is discussed in connection with eudaimonist versions of virtue ethics in the next. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor—something that, as we say, goes all the way down, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways.

To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. A significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a distinctive range of considerations as reasons for action. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, practices honest dealing and does not cheat. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, tells the truth because it is the truth, for one can have the virtue of honesty without being tactless or indiscreet.

Valuing honesty as she does, she chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed through deception rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased as appropriate when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.

Possessing a virtue is a matter of degree. To possess such a disposition fully is to possess full or perfect virtue, which is rare, and there are a number of ways of falling short of this ideal Athanassoulis 2000. Most people who can truly be described as fairly virtuous, and certainly markedly better than those who can truly be described as dishonest, self-centred and greedy, still have their blind spots—little areas where they do not act for the reasons one would expect.

Political Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre

So someone honest or kind in most situations, and notably so in demanding ones, may nevertheless be trivially tainted by snobbery, inclined to be disingenuous about their forebears and less than kind to strangers with the wrong accent. I may be honest enough to recognise that I must own up to a mistake because it would be dishonest not to do so without my acceptance being so wholehearted that I can own up easily, with no inner conflict.

The fully virtuous do what they should without a struggle against contrary desires; the continent have to control a desire or temptation to do otherwise. If it is the circumstances in which the agent acts—say that she is very poor when she sees someone drop a full purse or that she is in deep grief when someone visits seeking help—then indeed it is particularly admirable of her to restore the purse or give the help when it is hard for her to do so.

But if what makes it hard is an imperfection in her character—the temptation to keep what is not hers, or a callous indifference to the suffering of others—then it is not. The concept of a virtue is the concept of something that makes its possessor good: These are commonly accepted truisms.

But it is equally common, in relation to particular putative examples of virtues to give these truisms up. It is also said that courage, in a desperado, enables him to do far the importance of philosophy to lead future constituents in virtue wicked things than he would have been able to do if he were timid. So it would appear that generosity, honesty, compassion and courage despite being virtues, are sometimes faults.

Someone who is generous, honest, compassionate, and courageous might not be a morally good person—or, if it is still held to be a truism that they are, then morally good people may be led by what makes them morally good to act wrongly!

  1. Book IV Adeimantus complains that the guardians in the just city will not be very happy 419a.
  2. It is also said that courage, in a desperado, enables him to do far more wicked things than he would have been able to do if he were timid. MacIntyre points out, however, that just because we haven't reached agreement on this subject doesn't mean that we can't, and he argues that the belief that we can't is a historically specific belief, rather than an objective and permanent truth about how the world works.
  3. Others assume that, if this is not what they are doing, they cannot be validating their claims that, for example, justice, charity, courage, and generosity are virtues.
  4. Both Marxism and Catholicism, for different reasons, critique the unbridled pursuit of wealth under capitalism. It is a noteworthy feature of our virtue and vice vocabulary that, although our list of generally recognised virtue terms is comparatively short, our list of vice terms is remarkably, and usefully, long, far exceeding anything that anyone who thinks in terms of standard deontological rules has ever come up with.
  5. This young man began training to be a monk at the earliest age, and has lived a very sheltered life. It is used this way, for example, commonly in literature.

How have we arrived at such an odd conclusion? The answer lies in too ready an acceptance of ordinary usage, which permits a fairly wide-ranging application of many of the virtue terms, combined, perhaps, with a modern readiness to suppose that the virtuous agent is motivated by emotion or inclination, not by rational choice.

Aristotle makes a number of specific remarks about phronesis that are the subject of much scholarly debate, but the related modern concept is best understood by thinking of what the virtuous morally mature adult has that nice children, including nice adolescents, lack. Both the virtuous adult and the nice child have good intentions, but the child is much more prone to mess things up because he is ignorant of what he needs to know in order to do what he intends.

A virtuous adult is not, of course, infallible and may also, on occasion, fail to the importance of philosophy to lead future constituents in virtue what she intended to do through lack of knowledge, but only on those occasions on which the lack of knowledge is not culpable. So, for example, children and adolescents often harm those they intend to benefit either because they do not know how to set about securing the benefit or because their understanding of what is beneficial and harmful is limited and often mistaken.

Such ignorance in small children is rarely, if ever culpable. Adults, on the other hand, are culpable if they mess things up by being thoughtless, insensitive, reckless, impulsive, shortsighted, and by assuming that what suits them will suit everyone instead of taking a more objective viewpoint. They are also culpable if their understanding of what is beneficial and harmful is mistaken. It is part of practical wisdom to know how to secure real benefits effectively; those who have practical wisdom will not make the mistake of concealing the hurtful truth from the person who really needs to know it in the belief that they are benefiting him.

The detailed specification of what is involved in such knowledge or understanding has not yet appeared in the literature, but some aspects of it are becoming well known. Even many deontologists now stress the point that their action-guiding rules cannot, reliably, be applied without practical wisdom, because correct application requires situational appreciation—the capacity to recognise, in any particular situation, those features of it that are morally salient.

This brings out two aspects of practical wisdom. One is that it characteristically comes only with experience of life. Amongst the morally relevant features of a situation may be the likely consequences, for the people involved, of a certain action, and this is something that adolescents are notoriously clueless about precisely because they are inexperienced. It is part of practical wisdom to be wise about human beings and human life. It should go without saying that the virtuous are mindful of the consequences of possible actions.

How could they fail to be reckless, thoughtless and short-sighted if they were not? The wise do not see things in the same way as the nice adolescents who, with their under-developed virtues, still tend to see the personally disadvantageous nature of a certain action as competing in importance with its honesty or benevolence or justice.

These aspects coalesce in the description of the practically wise as those who understand what is truly worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know, in short, how to live well. Forms of Virtue Ethics While all forms of virtue ethics agree that virtue is central and practical wisdom required, they differ in how they combine these and other concepts to illuminate what we should do in particular contexts and how we should live our lives as a whole.

A virtue is a trait that contributes to or is a constituent of eudaimonia and we ought to develop virtues, the eudaimonist claims, precisely because they contribute to eudaimonia.

It is for me, not for you, to pronounce on whether I am happy. If I think I am happy then I am—it is not something I can be wrong about barring advanced cases of self-deception.

Contrast my being healthy or flourishing. Here we have no difficulty in recognizing that I might think I was healthy, either physically or psychologically, or think that I was flourishing but be wrong.

Dating, editing, translation

Most versions of virtue ethics agree that living a life in accordance with virtue is necessary for eudaimonia. This supreme good is not conceived of as an independently defined state made up of, say, a list of non-moral goods that does not include virtuous activity which exercise of the virtues might be thought to promote. It is, within virtue ethics, already conceived of as something of which virtuous activity is at least partially constitutive Kraut 1989.

  1. The Ion considers professional reciters of poetry and develops the suggestion that neither such performers nor poets have any knowledge. There is also a determinate pattern to the life of each individual in the society, as each meets their obligations and fulfills their role like characters in a story.
  2. Absent any conception of what human beings are supposed to become if they realized their telos, there can be no ethical theory, because it simply has no purpose. Still, antagonists of the theory often object that this particular feature of the theory makes virtue ethics useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation.
  3. And if we believe that those activities are valuable independently of the pleasure we gain from engaging in them, then we shall probably gain more pleasure overall. There is a great deal of scholarly debate about what the phrase "lacks authority" means in this context.

Thereby virtue ethicists claim that a human life devoted to physical pleasure or the acquisition of wealth is not eudaimon, but a wasted life. But although all standard versions of virtue ethics insist on that conceptual link between virtue and eudaimonia, further links are matters of dispute and generate different versions. For Aristotle, virtue is necessary but not sufficient—what is also needed are external goods which are a matter of luck.

For Plato and the Stoics, virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia Annas 1993.

Virtue Ethics

According to eudaimonist virtue ethics, the good life is the eudaimon life, and the virtues are what enable a human being to be eudaimon because the virtues just are those character traits that benefit their possessor in that way, barring bad luck. So there is a link between eudaimonia and what confers virtue status on a character trait.

For a discussion of the differences between eudaimonists see Baril 2014. It is unclear how many other forms of normatively must be explained in terms of the qualities of agents in order for a theory to count as agent-based. The two best-known agent-based theorists, Michael Slote and Linda Zagzebski, trace a wide range of normative qualities back to the qualities of agents.

Similarly, he explains the goodness of an action, the value of eudaimonia, the justice of a law or social institution, and the normativity of practical rationality in terms of the motivational and dispositional qualities of agents 2001: Zagzebski likewise defines right and wrong actions by reference to the emotions, motives, and dispositions of virtuous and vicious agents. Her definitions of duties, good and bad ends, and good and bad states of affairs are similarly grounded in the motivational and dispositional states of exemplary agents 1998, 2004, 2010.

However, there could also be less ambitious agent-based approaches to virtue ethics see Slote 1997. At the very least, an agent-based approach must be committed to explaining what one should do by reference to the motivational and dispositional states of agents. But this is not yet a sufficient condition for counting as an agent-based approach, since the same condition will be met by every virtue ethical account.

For a theory to count as an agent-based form of virtue ethics it must also be the case that the normative properties of motivations and dispositions cannot be explained in terms of the normative properties of something else such as eudaimonia or states of affairs which is taken to be more fundamental. Beyond this basic commitment, there is room for agent-based theories to be developed in a number of different directions.

The most important distinguishing factor has to do with how motivations and dispositions are taken to matter for the purposes of explaining other normative qualities.

Aristotle: Politics

If those motives are good then the action is good, if not then not. Another point on which agent-based forms of virtue ethics might differ concerns how one identifies virtuous motivations and dispositions. As we observe the people around us, we find ourselves wanting to be like some of them in at least some respects and not wanting to be like others. The former provide us with positive exemplars and the latter with negative ones.

Our understanding of better and worse motivations and virtuous and vicious dispositions is grounded in these primitive responses to exemplars 2004: This is not to say that every time we act we stop and ask ourselves what one of our exemplars would do in this situations. Our moral concepts become more refined over time as we encounter a wider variety of exemplars and begin to draw systematic connections between them, noting what they have in common, how they differ, and which of these commonalities and differences matter, morally speaking.

Recognizable motivational profiles emerge and come to be labeled as virtues or vices, and these, in turn, shape our understanding of the obligations we have and the ends we should pursue. However, even though the systematising of moral thought can travel a long way from our starting point, according to the exemplarist it never reaches a stage where reference to exemplars is replaced by the recognition of something more fundamental.

At the end of the day, according to the exemplarist, our moral system still rests on our basic propensity to take a liking or disliking to exemplars.

  • Thus, for the city to be fully virtuous, each citizen must contribute appropriately;
  • This may be so, but it is important to understand why, and the contrast between Aristotle's beliefs and ours can help to bring the strengths and weaknesses of our own beliefs into greater clarity;
  • Consider a possible world that contains only a single item;
  • One is that it characteristically comes only with experience of life;
  • Since politics today is about using ideas and arguments not to search for truth but to manipulate others in the quest for power, we would expect the people with the most power to be the ones who are best at manipulating others for their own purposes and who have the greatest desire for power.

We already have a passable idea of which traits are virtues and what they involve. Of course, this untutored understanding can be clarified and improved, and it is one of the tasks of the virtue ethicist to help us do precisely that. It then examines what these traits involve. A complete account of virtue will map out 1 its field, 2 its mode of responsiveness, 3 its basis of moral acknowledgment, and 4 its target.

Different virtues are concerned with different fields. Courage, for example, is concerned with what might harm us, whereas generosity is concerned with the sharing of time, talent, and property. Courage aims to control fear and handle danger, while generosity aims to share time, talents, or possessions with others in ways that benefit them.

Epicurus (341—271 B.C.E.)

A virtuous act is an act that hits the target of a virtue, which is to say that it succeeds in responding to items in its field in the specified way 233. This is because a single action context may involve a number of different, overlapping fields.

Determination might lead me to persist in trying to complete a difficult task even if doing so requires a singleness of purpose. But love for my family might make a different use of my time and attention. There are at least three different ways to address this challenge. So it is clear that Plato counts as a virtue theorist. But it is a matter of some debate whether he should be read as a virtue ethicist White 2015.