Monday, November 23, 2015


228. What virtue?

In this blog I have argued for an ethics of multiple virtues, inspired by Aristotle. But how many and what virtues does that entail? If it allows much, what moral constraints are left?

There is a contrast with Christian virtue as moral goodness, in benevolence and compassion, and love of one’s neighbour. Nietzsche strenuously condemned that as a ‘slave mentality’, smothering the flourishing of life. He had a preference for values of ‘virtĂș’, going back to the classical Greeks, such as valour, strength, agency, power, and excellence.   

In his ethics of multiple virtues, Aristotle included values of empathy, but also courage, honesty, excellence, moderation, generosity, justice, and above all rationality, in the form of prudence: seeking a position between extremes, such as courage in between cowardice and recklessness.

The position to be taken is not necessarily in the middle. What position one takes between extremes depends on the context. A parent seeing its child running into a street with a rush of traffic should dive after it, no matter what the risk. 

I see the value of Aristotle’s prudence of seeking ‘the middle’. But I am Nietzschean enough to also value Dionysian values of exuberance, risk taking, creative destruction, and ecstasy. Sometimes one needs to seek the boundaries, and break out from them. Excellence breeds on extremes.

Yet Nietzsche also valued Apollonian values of harmony and balance, similar perhaps to Aristotle’s balancing between extremes. So, following his lead, we need both: harmony, balance, and creative destruction.

In my cyclical theory of invention, presented in item 31 of this blog, I proposed an alternation between stability and transformation. 

I would include most if not all the virtues that Aristotle included, but for me the supreme value would be different. There I would put a religious value, not with a God and not with a hereafter in the form of eternal life, but a different form of transcendence, connection with something bigger than the self. To me that entails a commitment to contribute to a hereafter in the form of what one leaves behind at death, in the fullest possible use of one’s potential of talents, which would constitute a flourishing life.

This comes close to the Aristotelian values of excellence and realization of potential. It also approaches Levinas, I think, in dedication to the other as evoking awe and empathy. I would emphasize that openness and respect to the other is not opposed to a flourishing life, but part of it, since openness to opposition from the other helps to reduce one’s prejudices, and freedom from prejudice constitutes the highest form of freedom (see item 49 of this blog).

How, then, to reconcile Nietzschean will to power, Aristotelian balance and Levinassian regard of the other? Nietzschean will to power is sublimated in the urge to transform, to rise above oneself. Dedication to the other is not limitless, as Levinas demanded. Defending one’s own freedom from suppression by the other is also part of virtue. And opposition to the other is beneficial to him/her, as his/her opposition is to me.

This may also, I think, be rendered, more concretely, in Hirschman’s terms of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, which I used before, in this blog. The default is voice, deliberating when in conflict, trying to see and accept the other’s position, with the intention of jointly solving problems, in give and take, but with ‘exit’ as the last resort. Voice is Aristotelian, seeking balance of interest and dedication, exit is Nietzschean, in a break-out from compulsion.

How about power?  Earlier, I used the distinction between positive power, in broadening and facilitating choice for others, and negative power, in restricting or imposing choice. I would strive for the first and deny the second. Positive power is powered by both Levinas and Nietzsche.