Friday, June 2, 2017

Virtue-Based Moral Theories

Most of the discussion so far in this book has related to moral theories that were articulated in the late eighteenth century. But moral theory has been around a lot longer than that. In the Western world (and the Eastern World) there is a venerable system of moral reasoning based on the idea of virtue. Let’s call those various systems virtue-based moral systems. In the history of Western moral theory, there are two different types of virtue-based systems. The non-secular line of inquiry relies on divine command theory in order to discern moral virtues from vices, as illustrated by the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The secular line of inquiry relies primarily on reason and experience, and not divine command theory. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, via the writings of Homer, Hesiod, Plato, and Aristotle. The particular virtues espoused by non-secular and secular theories are often contradictory; therefore it’s hard to discern the common thread that binds these two virtue-based systems. But I’ll try.

First of all, all virtue-based systems tend elevate community over individuals. Therefore, they tend more toward communitarianism than individualism. Secular virtue-based systems usually identify communities with political regimes. In the case of the Greeks, it was the city-state. Judeo-Christian non-secular virtue-based systems theorists identify with religious communities. 

For both the non-secular and secular traditions, the virtue of something refers to its excellence: something that performs its function well. So anything subject to degrees (good, better, and best etc.) has its virtue. Hence, virtue determines status within a prescriptive hierarchy. Although we can talk about the virtue of a specific kind of computer over others, the Greeks most often referred to virtue as excellence of human character and behavior. Aristotle differentiated between two spheres of human activity that are governed by virtue: the intellectual sphere and the social or political sphere. Intellectual virtues reflect excellence of thought (wisdom etc), while moral virtues reflect excellence of human behavior (courage etc.)  Hence, Aristotle, a hedonist, envisioned two alternative paths to human excellence and consummate happiness: the intellectual life of the philosopher-scientist and the social life of the politician. It’s not clear which road to the good life that Aristotle valued more.

All virtue-based moral systems focus on big questions such as: “What is the ‘Good Life? And “How do I go about living the ‘Good Life?” Therefore, they tend to focus on how to live one’s life, over the long run, rather than how to address particular issues that pop up at any given time. In short, virtue-based systems focus on character development within harmonious communities. These systems also tend to rely on moral exemplars, or role models. Once a person has internalized the virtue of kindness, then that person will exemplify that virtue in his/her actions.    

Virtue-based moral systems also differentiate between virtues (good behavior) and vices (bad behavior). Ultimately, non-secular virtue-based theories differentiate between virtues and vices based on religious authorities, usually traced back to the authority of the Bible and/or its official interpreters. The Christian authorities have identified faith, hope, and charity as its primary virtues. If you pursue these ideals over the course of your lifetime, you’ll lead a “good life.”             

Aristotle believed moral virtue consists in choosing the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency within any given sphere of action. The vice of excess consists in choosing too much of a good thing and the vice of deficiency consists of not enough. Excellence is found midway between the two. For example, the virtue of bravery can be found midway between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Today bravery is most often confused with foolhardiness. Obviously, an excellent army must have brave soldiers that are not afraid to die. But the purpose of going to war is to kill the soldiers in the opposing. An army of foolhardy soldiers will not last any longer than an army of cowards.

Below is a chart of Aristotelian virtues, their respective spheres of action and their corresponding vices. 



Pleasure and Pain
Acquisition (minor)
tight wad
spendthrift or prodigality
Acquisition (major)
undue humility
pride or proper ambition
undue  vanity
patience or good temper
Self deprecating
Social Conduct
righteous indignation

Moral virtue, according to Aristotle, is a character trait; a disposition of an individual to act in a certain way, under certain circumstances. These circumstances usually involve how we respond to emotional states via the exercise of reason. These habits or dispositions are cultivated via social and political institutions, especially institutions of education. The idea is to encourage desirable habitual behaviors (virtuous) behavior and discourage undesirable (vicious) behaviors. The actual standard of the virtue of courage varies between individuals and in different kinds of situations involving fear. For example, under conditions of war, the standard of courage would be different for soldiers and policemen, on the one hand, and civilians on the other. I’m sure Aristotle would have argued that men are more likely to be courageous than women, however, I think that’s wrong. It would be irrational to expect soldiers and civilians to act the same way under battle conditions. There are dangerous situations in war where certain responses are indicative of a foolhardy character. Courageous soldiers retreat in those situations. There are also situations where cowardly soldiers retreat, without just cause.  

Moral education must begin at an early age and consists in developing the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes. Moral character is, therefore, cultivated in children by teaching them to emulate the behavior of virtuous adults. A child becomes virtuous when he/she habitually does the right thing and experiences pleasure upon doing it. Although knowing what the right thing to do is a necessary condition for virtue, it is not sufficient. You must also be able to “do the right thing.” Hence, Aristotle made a distinction between virtue and mere continence, or “weakness of the will.” An incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but is unable to do it because he/she is driven more by base feelings than reason. A continent person knows the right thing to do and even succeeds in doing it, but he/she does not feel pleasure upon doing it. In contrast, a virtuous person is not driven by base feelings and therefore feels good upon doing the right thing. An adult habitually prone toward excess or deficiency has a vicious character and will always act that way. Aristotle did not believe that vicious adults could be easily rehabilitated into virtuous adults. Send the bad guys to prison in order to protect us from their excesses, and to enforce justice. But don’t waste time and effort trying to rehabilitate them. That's why both Plato and Aristotle were advocates of rigorous childhood moral education.

The Greeks favored a republican form of government, modeled after the Greek city-states where the early communitarian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle lived. Republicanism according to the Ancient Greeks requires the cultivation of a common set of virtues, or character traits among its citizens. So in contrast to liberal democracies where "the right precedes the good," in a republic, "the good precedes the right." Republican communitarians, therefore, seek to promote standards of excellence consistent with the good of the whole community. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was probably the first systematic exposition of a secular virtue-based ethical system.  Here are a few more tidbits.  

It is important to note that Aristotle is a hedonist (of a sort) and therefore, he thought that the end or goal of all deliberate human action is pleasure, or happiness. Not pleasure in the immediate present but pleasure over the course of one's entire lifetime. A good person experiences pleasure at the right time, place, and degree. Aristotle also distinguished between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures (eating) are those pleasures that animals are capable of enjoying, while higher pleasures (reading philosophy) are pleasures that can only be appreciated by rational human beings. Rationality, unfortunately, is not distributed equally among human beings. Some of us are only capable of experiencing the lower pleasures, while others (usually the upper classes) can experience the higher pleasures. 

While the Greeks favored Aristocracy as a form of government, some recent communitarians advocate cultivating character traits that are essential for participation in democratic self-government. For example, they argue that democracies must cultivate civic virtues such as friendship and caring in children in order to prepare them to cooperate in a communal setting. They argue that when children are raised in a culture based on unbridled self-interest, meaningful communal relationships become difficult to sustain.

Finally, virtue-based moral systems share one common feature with teleological and deontological moral systems: they are subject to human inquiry. Therefore, there is a lot of variation within that broad framework. There is very little consensus among virtue-based ethicists as to the nature of the Good Life, what specific virtues comprise the Good life, and how to go about teaching virtue. However, don’t get me wrong! This is not intended as an indictment of virtue-based moral systems, but rather a more general observation pertaining to all moral systems. As I stated from the very beginning of this book: Do not fall for the now fashionable argument that living the good life is easy, or that the study of ethics is easy. You can spend your entire lifetime questioning and answering these kinds of questions, and as you grow older you will no doubt change your mind many times over. Despite all this, I do think that moral inquiry will invariably revolve around the moral theories and principles emphasized in this book.        



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