more on virtue

Last time I made a haphazard semi-argument for the claim that virtue ethics should be the starting point for thinking about morality. To summarize, I argued that in order to have any practical purchase, ethical thinking really needs to be in terms of the cultivation of stable character traits. My suggestion was that we really don’t have all that much conscious control over our actions. We generally don’t act from reasons, but rather act, and then come up with reasons. That is, we confabulate a story about how we decided to do whatever it was that we did. If this is true, then changing our habits and character are the only thing we can do, morally speaking. If we’re not in moment to moment control of ourselves, we may still be able to intervene on the process which does cause our moment to moment behaviour.

So while that’s not terrifically convincing as it is (plausible, I think, but not a slam dunk) I propose to move on anyway. I’d like to  assume the virtue ethics perspective for a while, and see what can be done with it. The basic question is, what kind of virtues do we think are important? If you could change your disposition to act in any way, how would you change it?

A Garden of Selves - 2009 Installation by gelitin

Part of me, when I wrote that last question, started spinning philosopher-style thought experiments; if you had a machine that could zap character traits into your brain, blah blah blah. But it’s actually a much more immediate and practical question than that. Your everyday choices and activities create your character, to a significant degree. Aristotle had this quite right, as do the Buddhists. One can come to regard themselves as a gardener, tending to the small plot of land that is one’s selfhood. You don’t control when the sun will shine, or when the rain comes. Neither can you force a seed to germinate when the conditions aren’t right, or convince beans to grow up as tomatoes. In that sense, the gardener has very little control. But at the same time, you can create conditions, watch the balance of things and pull out weeds occasionally. You can gently guide the development of your little you.

But of course, even supposing that some small measure of guidance is possible, the question is what kind of you should you be cultivating? Having accepted the virtue ethics framework, this is the next most fundamental ethical question. Aristotle has a list of virtues, which is convenient if you’re willing to take the word of a bronze age slave owner on morality as definitive. I tend to think owning people disqualifies you as a moral authority (but that may be a bit of deontological ethics infecting my nice neat system).

What I suggested at the very end of my last post was that some kind of basic conditions on what virtues are the right ones could be had by looking at some features of what it is to be alive. If a virtue is a necessary precondition for being alive at all, it needs to be on the list of virtues to cultivate. Similarly, if a trait is necessary for making moral choices, then it gets to be on the list by default as well. That may not seem like much to start from, but I’ll try to show in the rest of this post that we can actually squeeze quite a lot out of those two criteria.

First, being alive. The only convincing definition of life I’ve ever heard comes from the enactivist tradition. Humberto Maturana and Fransico Varela proposed that what it is to be alive is to be autopoietic, which means to be a system which consists of a bunch of parts that are designed to make the other parts of the system. An autopoietic system is therefore a self-making system, which is put together in such a way that it tends to maintain itself as a system. The cell is the paradigm case of autopoiesis – all of the organelles are built such that they help to build all of the other organelles, and the whole package is wrapped up in a cell wall which keeps the whole thing together. Kant people may recognize this as similar to his definition of self-organization, and it is, particularly when stated in such a short sketch. The details are different, but they aren’t especially important here. The key point is that if this way of seeing life is right, then the defining characteristic of all living things is a certain kind of self-unity.

(Below is a superfluous but awesome short video of what goes on inside every cell in your body. It’s not that relevant here, except insofar as it shows how amazingly well put together living things are.)

Of course, self-unity isn’t guaranteed – it’s something that life is constantly working towards, half achieving and then inevitably failing at when it dies. So while it isn’t something we can always count on, it is part of what defines us as organisms. The trouble with virtue ethics is that it tends to rely on notions like ‘innate nature’, which are damned problematic. Who is to say what is basic to our nature and what isn’t? Well, if the enactivists are right, the struggle for self-unity is as fundamental as anything gets.

So when we’re making decisions about how we should intervene on our habits and character, things which tend to promote wholeness, integration, and the working together of all our various bits and pieces are a good bet. For instance, we have base, biological aspirations like eating and sexing, and more refined ones like our aesthetic sensibilities and our desire for emotional communion. Cooking a carefully considered meal for someone you love (and maybe getting laid for your effort) would be a pretty nice way to get all those things working together. It’s easy to multiply examples.

Now consider the second basic criterion, that we should cultivate characteristics that make moral choices possible. If we don’t, then moral choices won’t arise at all, and the whole discussion is moot. So we can say for sure that on our list of virtues, there need to be some characteristics which make free decisions an option for us. This criterion pulls in the opposite direction as the last – instead of self-unity, we have the requirement for differentiation. You have to be courageous enough to disagree with your culture sometimes, and disciplined enough to reject some of your urges. Without this minimal level of autonomy, the possibility of cultivating virtue can’t even arise. You’ll just have whatever habits have been foisted on you by your circumstances.

Combining those two criteria together, I think I kind of proto-Nietzschean will-to-power results. The imperative is to use everything you have (self-unity) in an autonomous and conscious way (moral differentiation). Because we’re deeply social animals, we ought to engage with those around us. But because we ought to avoid loosing ourselves in a crowd, we have to do so in a critical and courageous way.

So that’s not bad, I think, considering the very minimal materials that we started from. We have a rough framework for taking moral stances, and at least a few ideas on where to start looking for the right stances to take. What I’ve said here by no means closes off the questions that have been raised, of course. Even if this is all exactly right, there is still the question of how to strike the right balance between the basic virtues. But no one said this stuff was going to be easy.


6 thoughts on “more on virtue

  1. It’s always been my suspicion that virtue ethics is unable to provide any substantive moral guidance, except by relying on common-sense assumptions already widely shared. I’m afraid this post doesn’t do much to remove that suspicion.

    “the struggle for self-unity is as fundamental as anything gets. So when we’re making decisions about how we should intervene on our habits and character, things which tend to promote wholeness, integration, and the working together of all our various bits and pieces are a good bet.”
    This sound great when we implicitly suppose that our various bits and pieces are good ones – like love and eating. But some bits and pieces are bad, or become bad when we try to unify other bits with them – e.g. addictive desires, self-aggrandising ambition, enjoyment of violence, etc. I don’t see how this principle of promoting ‘wholeness and integration’ can draw such a distinction, so it seems that it will look approvingly on any case where I adapt my character to make my other desires and habits better support my love of power or violence or vengeance.

    “I will make everything I do somehow serve the glory of God”; “I will make everything I do somehow serve the promotion of peace”; “I will make everything I do an insult to to the filthy Argentines”. Don’t these all equally promote wholeness and integration?

    Another example, which I think comes from Russell, is that we would be unimpressed by a judge who took bribes and explained that he was seeking “the golden mean” (or equivalently, ‘wholeness and integration’) between partiality and impartiality.

    Courage and discipline, similarly, sound great when we’re supposing that the agent in question thinks about things more rationally than their culture, and comes to conclusions we agree with. But climate-sceptics, or anti-vaccine campaigners, or Hindutva reactionaries, or whoever, are all having to reject and break away from (many of) their society’s mores, and resist the siren song of conformity. This virtue, indeed, is displayed at a very high level by conspiracy-theorist weirdos and deranged terrorists.

    My suspicion, therefore, is that for any contentful moral judgement, we’ll be relying not on the principled arguments presented here, but on pre-existing intuitions.

    (p.s. What is the difference between unity and self-unity?)

  2. I suspect you’ve mistaken the aim of the post, because nowhere did I claim that this sketch of a framework would provide detailed answers to moral questions. I suspect that virtually all of that work will be done by phronesis, just as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics. The purpose of such a framework isn’t to provide an algorithm which will make moral choices for us, which is what you seem to be asking after. Rather, it is a way of framing moral problems in such a way that we could meaningfully grapple with them.

    In terms of your critique of the notion of self-unity (which is different from unity in that it involves some self, whereas unity does not always involve selfhood) I actually tend to think that if what I suggested is true, then we really can’t make distinctions between good and bad bits. There are simply some bits of yourself that can be integrated, and some that have to be excised. I tend towards the Jungian view of our darker impulses, which is that they too, generally, have to be integrated. But certainly there will be cases where one impulse is just so at odds with the rest of a persons being (inter and intrapersonal) that it is better to remove it like a tumor. But the principle of maximizing self-unity is operating either way.

    • Regarding the aim, I was largely prompted by “That may not seem like much to start from, but I’ll try to show in the rest of this post that we can actually squeeze quite a lot out of those two criteria.”

      I don’t think I ever said anything about detailed answers or an algorithm. The basic principles of utilitarianism or libertarianism (act so as to make others as happy as possible, act so as to permit others the greatest freedom of action) aren’t remotely detailed, but they do give some sense of which actions would or wouldn’t fit, and what does and doesn’t fit is by and large in accord with our intuitions. But ‘act so as to be highly integrated’ or ‘act so as to be independent of what your peers think’ aren’t like that. They either give me no idea what actions they could exclude, or they give an intuitive sense that makes them apply equally well to very bad and very good people and actions (FWIW I have similar worries about much of Kantian ethics). It’s not that they don’t do all the work, it’s that I don’t see that they do any work.

      “there will be cases where one impulse is just so at odds with the rest of a persons being (inter and intrapersonal) that it is better to remove it like a tumor.”

      This description applies perfectly well to immoral things though. If my feelings of compassion for children are completely at odds with the rest of my being (my culture, my job, my history, my feelings of resentment, my commitment to the armed forces, my patriotism, my belief in the value of hard work and discipline) should I just excise it, block off those ‘darker’ feelings as a sort of weakness and temptation? If my love of learning and free thought is completely at odds with everything else I’m committed to, should that also be excised? This isn’t a question of detail.

      • To sharpen up your glosses on my two general categories of virtues, I would say we ought to ‘cultivate habits that foster integration’ and ‘cultivate habits that make moral choices possible’.

        How about this as an example of something that is excluded: on the integration side, that would include an injunction not to lie to yourself. If someone were unable to accept their own sexual orientation, for example, this would represent a significant dis-integration. You can’t force yourself to feel one way of the other, but you can train the habits of acceptance and self-love. Being the kind of person who can deal with strangeness or unpleasant facts about themselves would, I think, facilitate self-integration in general.

        And yes, I would say that if compassion for children doesn’t resonate with the rest of your being, and cannot be made to do so, cut it out of yourself. But I would point out that as primates (or possibly even mammals), we are built for compassion. Much of who and what we are is built around being social, caring, and taking care of others. (e.g. ) Excising that is more like cutting off a limb than removing a malignancy. It would upset the whole balance of the organism. So for just that reason, finding ways to integrate our need to connect with others is paramount. The many examples of happy, flourishing, non-violent people (and animals) suggests to me that violent or anti-social impulses are not fundamental in the same way. So in a sense, I think this take on virtue ethics can work because love really is more basic than hate.

        • A fair point about lying to oneself: the injunctions are not entirely empty. But I worry… well, that’s also a good rule for villains. Like, you’ll be a better, more threatening, more competent, villain if you’re self-aware. Same for if you’re cool-headed, socially well-connected, physically fit, well-informed, etc. That is, it’s not clear to me that we’re talking about morality, as opposed to traits that make one impressive, powerful, admirable, bad-ass, etc. ‘Virtue’ here seems more like ‘virtu’ – manliness, daring, coolness, etc. The ‘virtu’ of Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’.

          This worry is only strengthened when you say “if compassion for children doesn’t resonate with the rest of your being, and cannot be made to do so, cut it out of yourself.” That seems to be saying ‘if you have a choice between being consistent, integrated, powerful, competent, etc., and being disposed to help others and otherwise do what is (in my intuitive view) morally right, choose the former.’ Stay true to yourself, at any cost to others. It doesn’t sound like morality.

          I would find that a major problem even if you were right that we are “built for compassion”. As it happens, I think that’s a very one-sided account of our evolutionary heritage. On the face of it, we’re built for *highly limited* altruism, combined with occasional Machiavellianism and frequent aggression. No mammalian species displays a consistent pattern of caring for *all* others, even all other members of the same species. And many display very little compassion for anyone other than their own children.

          I’m agreeing that a completely asocial human being would probably be unhappy. But many of the worst crimes and greatest injustices have come from people who were kind and caring to their family and friends – people who found ‘the golden mean between compassion and malice’.

          To speak a bit more constructively – I am totally on board with the idea of seeking a sort of ‘harmonious balance’ between the components of oneself, rather than suppressing or cutting off one unwanted parts simply because they don’t fit your ideal. But what I disagree with is that the morally best form of inner harmony can be found simply by insisting on inner harmony, or by appealing to ‘human nature’. Moral monsters can be highly internally integrated (or, more commonly, about as internally integrated as your average non-monstrous schmuck).

          There have to be moral principles that transcend my own psyche, even if they’re as simple as ‘harms and benefits to other people matter’. And I’ve never seen how virtue ethics provides them.

          • I’d like to write a new post responding to this. I think you’re pushing essentially the right problem to the fore, and it will take some careful work to give it a proper treatment.

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