Saturday, October 8, 2016


284. Which virtues?

In this blog I pleaded for a virtue ethics in the tradition of Aristotle, rather than the utility ethics that dominates economics, or a Kantian duty ethics. But there are so many virtues flapping around, with much variation in which virtues take precedence. Are they all relevant? Is there some coherence or unity between them? To answer this question I make use of the work After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

For Aristotle, a central virtue is justice, since that yields the conditions for exercising other virtues. Another key virtue for him is the use of reason, in particular practical reason (phronesis), needed to balance virtues in action. That includes the virtue of truthfulness. Further, there are the virtues of moderation, empathy, prudence, courage, and commitment/perseverance. These virtues converge in the so-called classical ‘cardinal’ (i.e. pivotal) virtues of reflection, courage, moderation, and justice.

Central Christian, biblical virtues are faith, hope and love. And also humility, modesty, and forgiveness. Aristotle would hardly include those, but to people who grew up in a culture of Christian heritage, even when not being practising Christians, such virtues do seem to have their self-evident place.

So, what virtues when, and in what order?

From Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre picked up two things that I want to mention here.

First, the idea that virtues are character traits needed to strive for the good life. They arise in relation to practices, as required to excel in them. Since there is a large variety of practices, it is no surprise that there is a variety of virtues and their constellations. Being a good soccer player requires other virtues than being a good surgeon. They may, however, share some virtues, such as perseverance to achieve excellence. 

It is important to note that this notion of virtues as required for good performance presupposes a notion of what a good practice is, and this notion needs to be shared. The practice entails certain types of actions, and rules of the game. Aristotle was oriented towards the human being as a ‘political’ (i.e. social) animal, and his ethics is oriented towards shared, social practice, a common good. Friendship is having a shared project, a shared interest, with no separate, individual ownership. It is not up to the individual to decide what a good play is. He/she needs to submit to its rigours in order to be a legitimate player. I would compare it to Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘language game’ that I used in preceding items in this blog. 

Now, is there one universal good life for Man? Or is it determined by the community, as Aristotle suggests. As I discussed in preceding items in this blog, that would be fundamentally opposed to liberal individualism. There, choice of the good life is to be left to supposedly autonomous individuals. There should be freedom based on individual preference. How freedom and virtue may be reconciled is discussed in the preceding items in this blog. However that may be, one needs to conform to rules of language games, and a tension with authentic, individual choice remains. 

The second idea that MacIntyre adopted from Aristotle is that virtue is oriented to a life that is good as a whole, oriented to some overarching good, with projects connected in the totality of a life. He then arrives at the following characterization: ‘The good life of Man is the life spent in seeking the good life of Man’[i].

One might then add as a virtue the ability to select projects that contribute to the good life envisaged. There, one needs to find a way between on the one hand coherence and concentration of virtues and skills in a limited range of projects, not to spread one’s talents too thin, and on the other hand variety to explore novel opportunities.

Aristotle does not postulate that one knows beforehand what the good life is, and allows for trial, error, and learning in seeking it. That sits well with the pragmatist approach that I take in this blog. Action forms knowing.

My choice of a good life, which I stated several times in this blog, is as follows. Make the best use of your talents to contribute to what you leave behind after death, which is the only hereafter there is. That gives a meaning to life that transcends one’s own life, but developing and utilizing one’s talents is also gratifying, joyful. This gives a guideline to what projects to choose in the development of one’s life.

What about radical innovation of practice, in ‘creative destruction’? What are the virtues for that? The virtues of rebellion? I mentioned the tension between conformity to rules and developing an authentic self (see items 266 and 268). I will return to that issue in the following item in this blog, in a discussion of Nietzsche an

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015 (first published 1981), p. 219.