DRMacIver's Notebook

Book Speedrun: Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas

Book Speedrun: Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas

This is a book speedrun, where I set a timer for one hour and write a bunch of stuff inspired by a book. The goal is to get one hour’s worth of value out of the book. It’s far from a complete and comprehensive engagement with the book, it’s just me flicking through the pages and seeing what comes to mind as I do.


Often when I try to explain or justify virtue ethics to people, I describe it thus: Virtue ethics is what happens when you treat the problem of doing good in the world like you would any other skilled practice, as something that you have to develop expertise in in order to do it well. Being a good person is not simpler than, say, repairing a car, and nobody thinks you can reduce repairing a car to a simple set of rules, so why should being a good person be simple?

This is the book I got that framing from, although it’s been filtered through and combined with a lot of other thoughts from other books and discussions about ethics.

I probably first read it because it’s referenced in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on virtue ethics. This page was authored by Rosalind Hursthouse, who wrote “On Virtue Ethics”, which I have with me while I’m writing this and may also refer to.

The opportunity for virtue

From page 31:

Some of us grow up in bad environments which warp our ability to come to understand the virtues. Are we not excluding these people from the community of the virtuous for something they can do nothing about?


It is important, though, not to confuse the fact that we do not expect virtue here, which is reasonable, with the different thought that these people are incapable of virtue, which is mistaken. Most of these people fail to become virtuous because of the difficulties of their situation, not because they are not capable of it.


The present account is not, then, committed to elitism about virtue. We are all capable of developing the kind of understanding that virtue requires. For some their circumstances make it hard for them to develop this, but we we have no reason to think that any are naturally incapable of it. It remains the case that, given the world as it is, not everybody does actually develop the virtues; but this is a problem for every account, not for this one in particular.

This seems like a reasonable and important position: Not everyone is good, and sometimes when people are bad, it is because they were raised in an environment which did not enable them to learn to be good.

But it leaves me with two questions:

  1. What, exactly, are we to do with this information? If someone is a bad person because of the environment they are raised in, but are unlikely to change that, why should we treat that differently than if they had every opportunity to be virtuous and chose not to take it? In particular for the purposes of interacting with them, their actual ethical character seems more important than whether they are culpable for it.
  2. Why are her examples so bad?

To elaborate on the second one I need to include some of the bits that I left out of the above:

There are very many people in the world today who live in terrible conditions of poverty and violence (for example, in the slums of large cities) which makes it unreasonable to expect them to reflect on and criticize the lessons tey are taught by the role models they have, people who frequently (and understandably) emphasize the importance not of the virtues but of looking out for yourself, not getting held back by caring baout others, becoming used to violence and cruelty, and worse.


We do not expect people raised on garbage dumps outside a Third World megalopolis to be kind and generous in their everyday behaviour, but this is, I suggest, for the same kind of reason that we also do not expect them to play the piano or do crowsswords. Their environment has obviously lacked the opportunities to learn and do these things, and because this is so obvious we do not assume that they are naturally unable to do them. The same holds for failure to develop the virtues.

I don’t know, these don’t actually seem like very reasonable expectations to me. It seems to me that people in conditions of poverty are more likely to develop a sort of community minded approach where they’re all in it together. I’d want to see an actual survey of behaviour in third world slums - it’s certainly not going to be a bed of roses, and low trust environments definitely exists, but it seems to me that often the worst environments for developing virtue are actually highly privileged ones. The sort that produce billionaires and politicians more than the sort that produce communities.

I could be completely wrong, but this seems to be an opinion formed on fairly narrow stereotyping of groups of people unlike the author, and I’m not wild about that. [citation needed] I guess.

There’s also a footnote on page 32 that I don’t like very much:

Paul Bloomfield has emphasize to me that the development of virtue does require a minimum of intelligence not possessed by, for example, people with Down’s syndrome. Such people can develop analogues to the virtues, but not the virtues themselves. I think that any ethical theory has to allow that in cases like this there is a qualification to the way such people can be full members of the ethical community in so far as this is thought of as a community of active reasoners.

I don’t know what the author’s experience, but most people I’ve met with Downs’ syndrome have been lovely. Can they reach the highest heights of virtue? I don’t know, probably not, it certainly requires a degree of influence over the world that they probably lack, but I’m not sure that’s a limitation of their character. To the degree that they are excluded from the ethical community, this feels more like a problem for the conception of ethics than the people in question.

I don’t have a real conclusion to this section except to note that a close reading of this bit very much made me go “Hmm” and suggests to me the author’s conception of ethics is useful to a much smaller set of people than I would previously have thought, and the defence of her conception of ethics as non-elitist seems suspicious to me.

Although fortunately I still think I’m within that set of people, so it’s probably still a useful book for me.

Is this 🦋 a virtue?

From page 97-98:

Being generous, kind, etc. carries no implication that you will be clean, hard-working, or witty; and none of these traits implies that you will be generous or kind. It is obvious that you can be clean, hard-wrking, or witty in a generous or ungenerous, kind or unkind way. In general, it is a good indication that a character trait is not a virtue if it neither implies nor is implied by central virtues, such as courage, but could be exercised in ways which are either courageous or cowardly, virtuous or vicious.

This is a way of working out which traits are not virtues; can the theory say anything useful about which traits are? Earlier I treated patience and generosity as vitues; on what grounds? They pass the ‘filter’ test of fitting into the virtues thoguht of as unified by the holistic development of practical wisdom. Does this imply that they are really just forms of a more basic virtue such as benevolence? What would show that they are forms of a more basic virtue or distinct virtues?

This is all as part of a chapter on the unity of the virtues, which is a concept I continue to be a bit ambivalent about. The unity of the virtues is the claim that to attain the highest level of mastery of any given virtue you need to attain it for all the virtues. You cannot be maximally courageous without being maximally kind, etc.

I think what seems to me the strongest argument in favour is roughly that to the degree that virtue is the skilled practice of being a good person, relative to a particular conception of good, virtue is unitary in the sense that you have to in principle be able to do all of it all of the time. A given situation might elicit both the virtues of generosity and courage, and one requires the practical wisdom to navigate the combination of the two. If their is a virtue of courage and a virtue of benevolence, there is a joint virtue of benevolence-and-courage, and the exercise of any one of the individual virtues will sometimes be bottlenecked on the exercise of the joint virtue.

This is not, I think, the traditional conception of the unity of the virtues, and I might hold off thinking more about this for a future research speedrun on the subject.

The skill analogy is better than she thinks it is

In the chapter “Virtue and enjoyment”, Annas argues that virtues have a trait above and beyond skills, which is that they have a strong emotional component.

From page 66:

A skill can be exerised in independence of affective commitment; a skilled potter can produce pots, and a skilled plumber can fix leakes, in an unconcerned way. A virtuous person, by contrast, does not perform virtuous actions impassively and with lack of concern. The virtuous person not only does the right thing for the right reason, she has the right feelings about it. Someone handing out money, for example, but indifferent to the people receiving it and their responses, is not generous.

Actually I think this is entirely wrong, and misunderstands both generosity and pottery.

I’m slightly nitpicking here, and will delve further into the chapter in a bit, but I think this is an important point.

It’s absolutely true that you can produce pots in an unconcerned way. You know what happens if you always do that? You produce shitty pots.

I’m a big fan of Radimentary’s Pain is not the unit of effort, in which he makes the argument that if you’re not enjoying yourself you’re probably not doing your best work. This is crucial to the development of skill - people learn what Thomas Green calls a “professional voice of conscience” with regards to their skills. They’ve got a sense of pride in making a good pot, a sense of dissatisfaction at a bad pot, etc. It’s true that any given pot that they make they’re probably not pouring their heart and soul into it, but in order to get to the point where they’re able to make good pots without much emotional investment, they’ve probably developed pretty strong feelings about pot making.

Conversely, suppose you are someone who spends every day helping people, and you wake up one morning feeling super depressed. Nothing feels particularly good, you have no love in your heart for your fellow human, and you’re certainly not feeling particularly benevolent. What do you do? Typically you go out and help people anyway.

As with pots, you probably never get to the point where you’re living your life like this unless you have a strong emotional investment in helping people, but also as with pots once you know how to help people skillfully you probably do not require the emotional investment of doing so every time your help is deployed.

I think probably she is still right that there is a different emotional component to virtues and “normal” skills, but I don’t think that the mere presence of an emotional component is key.

She goes on to say:

A learner, such as a child can perform a just action because her parents tell her to, and without caring about being just, or even resenting the whole business. As she becomes more virtuous she learns to perform just actions for the right reasons. We expect the process to lead to her giving fair shares, not being unduly influenced in friends’ favour and so on, easily and without effort; eventually she may give gladly. Suppose that this does not happen: she learns to give fair shares and be unbiased, but continues to resent having to do so. Such a person is not just; there is something lacking that a virtuous person would have.

This may be a naive question but… does this actually happen?

My model of someone who does the right things for the wrong reasons is that they tend not to be very good at it, only do it when other people are watching, and do the bare minimum. People who aren’t actually just and only pretend to be tend to be very obvious, because they lack the easy and automatic attitude towards it. They are often stuck at the conscious competence stage at best.

I would agree, in principle, that someone who goes around behaving perfectly virtuously but with malice and resentment in their heart shouldn’t count as virtuous, but I’m somewhat skeptical of the relevance of such a person unless they actually exist. I think most people who can sufficiently maintain a habit of virtue are going to learn the feelings of virtue associated with that habit automatically, and this may be more of a bleen and grue situation than something that we need to take particularly seriously at a practical level.

Lives worth living

From page 147:

Is virtue even a starter as a candidate for making you happy? By now it’s obvious that the answer is: probably not, on contemporary accounts of happiness as feeling good, getting what you want, and feeling satisfied with your life. But we’ve seen we don’t have to think of happiness this way. If happiness is the overall end you aim to achieve by living your life well, then virtue does look like a very obvious starter, for it looks like a better idea to be loyal and sincere than to be disloyal and deceptive. It is absurd to think that we really have no more reason to acquire the virtues than not when we are thinking about how best to live. Rosalind Hursthouse has made the point forcefully: we want our children to grow up honest and brave, rather than shifty and cowardly, and we bring them up to have these virtues (as far as we can) not just for our own sake, in order to be able to rely on them in pursuing our own interests, but for their sae, because we think that they will live better lives being honest and brave rather than being shifty and cowardly.

There seems something to this.

I started from the claim that virtue ethics was the skill of “doing good in the world”, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is the skill of leading a good life.

She goes on to say:

When we are thinking of a happy life, then, it is just common sense that we want ourselves and our children to have the virtues.

I agree, but perhaps I’m not entirely sure why.

The intuitive place to start is the ordinary, commonplace assumption that a person’s life will, to put it generally, go better if they have the virtues - if they are generous and brave, for example - than if they don’t.

… we moderns have come to have a problematic conception of happiness. On the one hand, we think of it as an overall end to be achieved in living a happy life, and to this extent we can make ready sense of the idea that living a good life is a way of living a happy life.(…) But on the other hand we also have another, more passive notion of happiness - the more recent idea that happiness is pleasant feeling, or getting what you want, or being satisfied with your life.

I don’t really understand why she thinks these are in tension. I don’t think she’s wrong necessarily, I just don’t understand here.

In particular I think the thing that confuses me is that “being satisfied with your life” seems inextricably bound up with the question of living a good life? What does it mean to be dissatisfied with your life except to have judged it to not be a good one? This seems to tie in again to the ideas of burnout as acedia and moral disorder.

Conclusion and notes on the format

Honestly I think I’m coming to the, somewhat unsurprising, conclusion that I cannot really do a good book justice in an hour, especially not one like this where I probably last read it in detail over a year ago. Certainly the format of randomly flipping through the book and writing based on prompts doesn’t seem to be doing it.

That isn’t necessarily bad. This still produces a set of interesting thoughts and writing. But perhaps the random book prompt is enough on its own.

I think I might in future try something closer to Lucy’s original conception of the research speedruns, and might try a different format for book speedruns. I’m not yet sure what though.

Two questions that might make interesting future speedruns:

I’ll probably try doing another speedrun on this book about each of those questions specifically.