Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Virtue of Virtue

Virtue ethics is problematic.  It certainly is helpful at times, but it is not helpful when it names virtues that others cannot relate to; or when we use it to describe virtues that only certain classes of people can ever attain; or when virtues entail a metaphysics to which others are unwilling to commit.   The very word “virtue” raises a red flag for some people because it is a gendered word, rooted in the Latin vir, meaning an adult male.  I often wish we had a better translation of the word Aristotle first used, arête, which means something like “excellence.”

At any rate, virtue ethics may have great value if we allow Aristotle’s description of arête to be a moving target, and if we appeal to it as an approach to governing our own conduct rather than as a way to make rules for others.  (Isn’t it the case that so often we write rules for others rather than for ourselves?  That should tell us something.)

Aristotle tells us that virtue is the mean between extremes, as the man of practical wisdom would determine it.  But which of us is the man of practical wisdom?  No one of us has that down.  So no one of us may be expected to understand virtue exactly.  This would appear to be an argument for a collective decision, and to some degree it is.  Our public deliberations about ethics, about methods of research, about law, about public conduct – all of these are, in a way, attempts by groups of people to figure out what a truly wise and prudent person would do.  

So to some degree, communities and their traditions are embodiments of decisions about virtue.  We must remember, however, that we’re always on the move, ever seeking, never fully finding. 

I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s citation of Lessing in Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
“If God held all truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me:--Choose! I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give!  Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”*
We live lives of unknowing, ever striving for what we might know.  "Now we see as in a glass, darkly; now we see in part."  And that's not so bad, is it?  Peirce might call the belief that we don't know fully a regulative ideal; or I suppose, in Rorty’s terms, we might call it a pragmatic hope.  If we take ourselves not to have arrived at perfect justice yet, that belief will drive us to keep seeking to improve our justice.

You’ve read this far, so you’re probably ready for me to make my point.  Here it is: as we talk about policies and politics, rules and laws—in short, when we are deeply concerned with governing others—let us not neglect governing ourselves, by reflecting on, and trying to enact, virtue in our decisions.  Life is uncertain.  We do not know what will come next, what we will be given, what will be taken away.  But no one can take away the small decisions we make, the small decisions that, one by one, make us.


*Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, Vol I) 106. The quotation is a citation from Lessing by Kierkegaard.


  1. I came upon your blog fairly recently, via your FB links to posts. It's been encouraging to me, particularly as a Christian struggling with deepening cynicism. A good reminder that I don't just have to accept a status quo, and that there's value in staying thoughtfully engaged, even if it's just in the confines of my soul.

    1. Thanks, Hitoshi. I've been blogging lately as a way of trying to do just that, to stay thoughtfully engaged. It forces me to say what I'm thinking quickly and clearly, and to subject my thinking to the scrutiny of intelligent readers. I'm glad to hear that my blog has been helpful for you, too. And yes, I do think staying engaged can make a difference. What we do and think will shape us, little by little; and it will reverberate with those around us.

  2. Thank you, Dave. After teaching Aristotle, Hobbes, and Kant this week (Mill up tomorrow), I'm both daunted and challenged by the discussion of virtue. I'm encouraged by your words that so gracefully say what I think I've been trying to get at.

    1. Jenny, if my words approximate your thoughts, that gives me confidence that I'm not completely wrong. I hope the class goes well!