Notes on Virtue

So we've basically completed our two-year series of conferences, publications, and such at Berry College funded by a grant from the Science of Virtues project at the University of Chicago.  My concluding presentation—following directions—is about saying what we (co-investigator Marc Guerra and myself) think virtue is. This is, of course, meant only to be the roughest sketch of the key issues in the form of talking points, with something to offend everyone:


What is VIRTUE?  

Aristotle: Knowledge of MORAL VIRTUE is IMPRECISE. More than RHETORIC (or PERSUASIVE BALONEY). Less precise or certain than MATHEMATICS. Definitions will be imprecise or admit of exceptions. The problem of measurement goes with the territory.

Virtue is the action that flows from knowing: 1. Who we are. 2. What we’re supposed to do. 

Doing, as Aristotle says, doesn’t flow automatically from knowing. But doing presupposes knowing. The conditions of knowing aren’t mainly about theory or philosophy. Knowing involves habituation. Knowing also involves “class” (in the sense of being “classy”) or knowing your place in the world. We’re the beings open to the truth and compelled to live morally demanding lives. We’re stuck with virtue. That means in some sense we’re stuck with courage—or having the guts to act in response to what we can’t help but know.

Two sources of virtue in our modern, scientific self-understanding:

1. Virtue is about freedom or autonomy, about not living natural—but chosen—lives. Two sources: Descartes and Locke. Alexis de Tocqueville (in the best book ever written on America and the best book ever written on democracy) said Americans are Cartesians without ever having read a word of Descartes. Being virtuous means rejecting personal authority and thinking and feeling for yourself. Virtue means not resting content with some biological destiny and striking out for yourself. Virtue also means respecting the autonomy of others. So virtue has to do with self-reliance or self-determination, industriousness, and even taking responsibility for one’s own health and safety in a basically hostile environment.

2. Virtue is about acting according to instinct as a social being (Darwin or Darwinians). It’s about not being individualistic or selfish or sociopathic or displaying pro-social behavior or behavior grounded in empathy or the biological imperatives that govern every species. So virtue is doing one’s natural duty as a parent or citizen, as part of a social whole greater than oneself. Virtue, from this view, is the key to happiness, insofar as it’s a disciplined response to our true desires as social animals.

Evidence that our social virtue has been corrupted by mistaken ideas of individualism or autonomy: the weakness of families, the birth dearth, excessive obsession with health and safety or one’s own indefinite survival. The response of behalf of individual freedom: It’s hardly virtue to be suckered; it’s hardly virtue to be a reproductive machine.

Shortcomings of the modern, scientific self-understanding considered as a whole: 

1. It doesn’t do justice to political or civic virtue. The individualistic criticism of civic virtue is that I’m not merely a part of some city. Just like I’m not species fodder, I’m not city fodder. Being a citizen doesn’t define me. But political life does seem to be an indispensable condition of human flourishing. That means the virtues connected with loyalty, patriotism, deliberation, and courage remain with us.

2. It doesn’t do justice to who we are as personal and relational beings. That’s why Tocqueville, for example, says that Christianity is the indispensable American counterculture. Empathy is a pitiful substitute for charity. And it’s Christianity that brings together the universalism of individualism with the social instinct or love found in scientific accounts of social virtue. So what modern scientific accounts lack is a strongly personal account of love as a source of virtue. They deny that LOGOS can be PERSONAL.

3. The scientific understandings have trouble finding room for intellectual virtue—for LOGOS itself as a source of courage, responsibility, and so forth (see the anti-communist dissidents Havel and Solzhenitsyn—who had a combination of Aristotelian and Christian criticisms of the ideological tendencies of modern thought in the service of living in the truth).

Our goal:  To identify a true science of virtue that puts what’s true in the two modern, scientific understandings of virtue together with what’s true in the older civic, personal, and relational understandings of virtue against which that the modern views  seemingly defined themselves.

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