Virtue and Vice

Virtue and Vice
Virtue and Vice

Assuming that human agents possess settled dispositions or character traits, some of which are especially deemed worthy of praise while others deserve blame or reproach, moral philosophers have long treated the first sort under the category “virtue” and their opposites under the general term “vice.”

The fin-de-siecle revival of the virtue tradition in normative ethics as a third force, alongside Kantianism and consequentialism, has resulted in focused attention by theorists of all persuasions on the nature and proper role of virtues and vices in any comprehensive treatment of morality. Thus, two consequentialists have produced full-length treatments of the virtues, and there has been a growing appreciation of the key role of virtue in Immanuel Kant’s ethics.

While the attention to virtue among Kantians and neo-Kantians is not too surprising, since much of Kant’s later work was devoted to working out the important role that virtue and character play in morality (the weighty concluding section of the 1797 Metaphysics of Morals is rightly titled “The Doctrine of Virtue”), the consequentialist turn to virtue is, perhaps, more surprising. Jeremy Bentham, for example, gave a rather rude treatment of virtue in his Deontology.

An Empirical Challenge to Traits of Character

Traits of Character
Traits of Character

This recent consequentialist vindication of virtue can involve a considerable departure from the paradigmatic picture of virtues and vices as traits of character, however. Tom Hurka (2001), for example, defines moral virtues and vices as responsive attitudes taken up toward intrinsic goods and evils, in explicit opposition to the view going back to Aristotle that treats them as stable dispositions or persisting states of persons.

In this identification Hurka is acknowledging a controversy stemming from certain results in social psychology that some philosophers have taken to rule out on empirical grounds any robust conception of personality traits.

Extreme situationists argue on the basis of considerable experimental evidence that the layperson’s readiness to attribute to themselves and others robust character traits that are stable across situations, both over time and in various circumstances, and that can be used to predict behavior, is undermined by what has been termed “the power of the situation.”

prison guards
prison guards

In experiments no longer permitted by twenty-first-century ethical guidelines, subjects were duped into administering what they were led to believe were severe electric shocks to their “victims” or invited to “role-play” as prison guards to such an extent that the subsequent sadistic behavior caused the researchers to abort the exercise.

In addition, we have increasing evidence from developments at prisons in Iraq and other places around the world that average American young people, in stressful environments, can engage in dehumanizing practices that shock almost all of us.

Gilbert Harman, considering both experimental and real-life examples of such catastrophic character failure, has forcefully pressed the negative implications he sees for the very foundations of virtue theory: “I myself think it is better to abandon all thought and talk of character and virtue. I believe that ordinary thinking in terms of character traits has had disastrous effects on people’s understanding of each other. ... I think we need to get people to stop doing this.We need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop explaining things in terms of character traits.We need to abandon all talk of virtue and character, not find a way to save it by reinterpreting it”.

simplified reading
simplified reading

Such a sweeping dismissal of all talk of character traits is, arguably, an overly simplified reading of the relevant personality studies. Yet even the more balanced presentation of a similar skepticism in John Doris’s 2002 study surely calls for critical appraisal by virtue theorists of any normative persuasion. Annas, Swanton, and other virtue ethicists have responded to the challenge.

There is also room for more detailed treatments integrating social psychology, personality theory, and ethical theory, preferably by collaborating researchers with relevantly different research interests and, perhaps, in newly designed psychological experiments designed to test for cross-situational attribution of virtues and vices (see Cawley, Martin, and Johnson 2000).

The exploration of this basic challenge to virtue theory promises to carry on the pioneering work of Owen Flanagan, who first brought philosophers’ attention to the situationist challenge and who championed what he labeled the “Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism”: “Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behavior prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible, for creatures like us”.

metaphysics
metaphysics

This call for ethicists to take note of social-scientific findings dovetails nicely with recent philosophical calls for naturalist or science-friendly approaches to the philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics. The principle is best thought of as giving contemporary substance to the familiar principle that “ought” implies “can.”

Virtue Theory as Distinct from Virtue Ethics

A distinction should be drawn, then, between virtue theory taken quite generally and virtue ethics proper, where virtue theory covers any theoretical treatment of the nature of virtue and vice, even if their role in the theory is not central, and virtue ethics privileges them in some way or other. In Christine Swanton’s self-consciously pluralistic conception (2003), virtue ethics, like consequentialism, should be seen as a broad genus encompassing various species.

Thus, alongside the familiar neo-Aristotelian varieties of virtue ethics (Foot 2001, Hursthouse 1999), there is room for Michael Slote’s “agentbased” account (1992), which opposes the neoAristotelian emphasis on the agent’s happiness and wellbeing (eudaimonia) as grounding the goodness of virtue insofar as its presence helps the agent to flourish in a social context, in favor of the view that various inner traits and motives are admirable on their own. James Martineau thus joins Friedrich Nietzsche in the pluralist pantheon of virtue ethicists, alongside Thomas Aquinas and David Hume and their Greek and Roman forebears.

theoretical treatment
theoretical treatment

Any version of virtue ethics gives primacy of place to moral character over action, to the aretaic over the deontic, and sees the individual’s development of virtues and elimination of vices as the best assurance that good deeds (right actions) will be forthcoming. Thus, for the virtue ethicist, the familiar bumper sticker’s call for “random acts of kindness” seems incoherent as well as quixotic.

If people cultivate the virtue of kindness, they can be reliably counted on to perform kind actions in a variety of circumstances, to adjust their reactions to others’ needs consistently and appropriately, by expressing a suitable interpersonal sensitivity, rather than by following formulaic prescriptions or rules for conduct.

An honest person, for example, will not only tell the truth when called upon to do so but will also not shade it or allow others to dissemble. The honest person will not resent just criticism, abide flattery, envy rogues and rascals alike, or engage in any number of sharp practices in business dealings.

Dishonest people
Dishonest people

Dishonest people, in contrast, will predictably exhibit the opposite sorts of behavioral tendencies. They will lie when convenient, cheat on their taxes, allow others to think them more deserving than they truly are, overlook mistakes on restaurant checks that are in their favor, and so on.

For both the virtuous and the vicious, then, character structures will be expressed in a variety of ways and across a variety of circumstances, although some core traits will remain at the center of the individual’s personality.

Comparing Virtue and Vice

It may be thought that a certain asymmetry will be found when comparing virtue and vice, with the former, perhaps, more predictable in its natural expression than the latter. A coward, it may be thought, might not run from some dangers and might not fear a wide range of things.

comparing virtue
comparing virtue

Perhaps the Falstaffian figure that comes to mind is just a stereotype, and real cowards are much more selective in avoiding danger, rhetorical war hawks avoiding the draft by enrolling in college, perhaps, but not avoiding the most intimidating teachers or toughest courses.

This impression might simply reflect the fact that virtue theorists say much more about positive traits and much less about negative ones. It is the virtues, after all, that the theorist is trying to inculcate; detailed descriptions of the vices are often left out or given short shrift.

The theorist accentuates the positive, perhaps. Aristotle, in his general theory of the virtues as the means between vices on both sides, one of excess and the other of deficiency, had a great deal to say about the vices and saw them as having the same psychological structures in the soul as the virtues.

habituation
habituation

For him, vices were equally “settled dispositions” (hexeis), results of the wrong sort of habituation as opposed to the right kind. In departing from Aristotle in this regard, owing to our relative disenchantment with his general theory of excellence (arete) as a mean, we moderns may well have tended to downplay the phenomenology of vice.

Tom Hurka’s categorization of the range of vices (2001), from the pure ones (e.g., malice, Schadenfreude, sadism) at one end of the spectrum, through those of indifference (e.g., callousness, sloth, smugness), to the mildest forms at the other end, which he calls vices of disproportion (e.g., foolhardiness, avarice, intemperance), is a welcome reminder of the richness of our moral vocabulary and of the basic symmetry to be found when comparing virtue and vice.

They both come in various forms and degrees, and can be similarly graphed by intensity and the relative value of their respective objects and fields. One important vice, hypocrisy in all of its manifestations, is the subject of the 2004 book by Bela Szabados and Eldon Soifer, who treat it from Kantian, consequentialist, and virtue ethicist perspectives. The philosophical fortunes of vice are thus on the rise.

philosophical fortunes
philosophical fortunes
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