Monday, September 15, 2014


163. Virtue: emotions, nature and others

 For Kant, emotions and human nature were suspect. Emotions and natural desires and instincts are likely to eclipse moral duties. Morality should be a matter of pure reason, undiluted or biased by interests, emotions or natural drives.

In Aristotelian virtue ethics, by contrast, emotions are part of identifying morally relevant situations, and of triggering action. Emotions also contribute to the intrinsic value of moral action. Seeing a face in anguish one may not only see a duty to help, but also a rush of feeling in wanting to do so.

In his later work (The metaphysics of morals), Kant did allow for emotions, but they were only possible side effects of morally good actions, as a bonus, still not part of their motivation.[1]

Aristotelian virtue ethics was oriented towards human nature. It was teleological, aimed at realizing the distinctive, essential goal that constitutes the nature of the human being. For Aristotle that was the use of reason. That is what distinguishes humanity from other creatures. But clearly human nature, as embodied in the human genome, also has an immoral side. Culture (e.g. ethics) and institutions (e.g. rule of law) are needed to bend or contain evil natural impulse, and to nurture beneficial inclinations such as benevolence, empathy and civic responsibility.

While Kantian ethics originally aimed at moral perfection, later Kant recognized that other features of human life had an inevitable place, and he quoted the Roman poet Horace: ‘The wise man has the name of being a fool, the just man of being iniquitous, if he seeks virtue beyond what is sufficient.’[2] There can be too little self-love, in sacrifice of the self to duty.

Aristotelian ethics proposed the notion of the perfectly virtuous individual as a guiding example. However, as Athanassoulis noted, this is not because such an individual inspires ‘the right action’ in any set of conditions. That would be in conflict with the recognition, in virtue ethics, that any set of conditions is, in principle, unique, not allowing for any a-priori, universally good action. What the ethical role model offers is a demonstration of mastery in perceiving morally relevant features of a situation, and arguing what would then be virtuous. He/she does not prompt the proper actions but is a source of learning to better deal with moral perception and judgement, in practical wisdom. Not a perfect model but a teacher in imperfection on the move.

How about the other person? In Kantian ethics it is an abstract, generalized, universal other that has to be taken into account, in acting according to the categorical imperative.

In Aristotelian virtue ethics the other is part of moral obligations but not a source of moral enlightenment. As in other ancient philosophy, the ideal still lingers of ataraxia, invulnerability, tranquillity, in the avoidance of dependence on others for the flourishing of life.

In contrast with that, as I have argued repeatedly, in this blog, the self needs the other for its flourishing. In particular for opposition to moral prejudice, for correction of moral myopia. It is not just from the occasional virtuoso in virtue that one can learn, but also from the experience, successes and failures, and resulting insights, of others more in general. 

This connects with my discussion, in item 120 of this blog, on how literature can make people better by exercising moral imagination.

In fact, this need for imagination, to grasp the ideas and motives of others, as needed for judgement and thought, is part of Kant’s later philosophy (Kritik der Urteilskraft). 





[1] Nafsika Athanassoulis, 2013, Virtue ethics, London: Bloomsbury.
[2] Quoted in Simon Blackburn, 2014, Mirror, mirror. The uses and abuses of self-love, Princeton University Press, p. 3.