DRMacIver's Notebook

Revisiting Intelligent Virtue

Revisiting Intelligent Virtue

I’m not sure if it counts as a speedrun if you’ve already done the book, but I thought I’d spend another hour on Intelligent Virtue today, as I keep coming away from it thinking I haven’t really done it justice.

I’m going to mix up the format of it a little bit by trying to do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown in this hour.


On page 1:

… the present distinctive account of virtue results from attending to two ideas. One is that exercising a virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind that can illuminatingly be compared to the kind of reasoning we find in someone exercising a practical skill. Rather than asking at the start how virtues relate to rules, principles, maximizing, or a final end, we will gain by looking at the way in which the acquisition and exercise of virtue can be seen to be in many ways like the acquisition and exercise of more mundane activities, such as farming, building, or playing the piano. The other idea is that virtue is part of the agent’s happiness or flourishing, and that it is plausible to see virtue as actually constituting (wholly or in part) that happiness.

So roughly her point is that:

Oversimplifying, one can think of virtues as the skills of promoting human flourishing, which is how I tend to characterise it (in large part based on prior readings of this book).

The rest of the introduction mostly covers things that are going to be covered in future chapters.

Virtue, Character, and Disposition

This is the chapter in which she tries to explain what virtues are, and very much falls prety to the People are bad at defining things.

Here are the places in this chapter where the phrase “virtue is” or “virtues are” occur, with some surrounding context:

A virtue is a lasting feature of a person, a tendency for the person to be a certain way. It is not merely a lasting feature, however, one that just sits there undisturbed. It is active: to have it is to be disposed to act in certain ways

A virtue is not a static condition like [the tendency of glass to shatter]; it is a disposition as a result of which Jane acts and thinks in a certain way, and which is at any time strengthened by her generous responses and weakened by failures to have them. If she is generous, her generous actions and feelings both come from a virtue and fortify it.

A virtue is also a reliable disposition. If Jane is generous, it is no accident that she does the generous action and has generous feelings.

Further, a virtue is a disposition which is is, the virtuous (or vicious) person is acting in and from character when acting in a kindly, brave or restrained way. This is another way of putting the point that a virtue is a deep feature of the person. A virtue is a disposition which is central to the person, to whom he or she is, a way we standardly think of character.

… virtue is a disposition which is from the start an active and developing one. It is not a passive product of a string of impacts from outside; it is the way I (or you), an active creature, develops a character through formation and education.

the virtues are educated developments of our unformed motivations.

Since virtue is a disposition of the above kind, becoming virtuous will naturally take time. Scrooge may have been converted suddenly to compassion and kindliness on Christmas Eve, but the story is careful to tell us that he continued over time the process of becoming a compassionate person. Coming to see that being loyal or brave is a worthwhile way to live is just the first step. Becoming virtuous requires habituation and experience.

It is natural to worry at this point whether habituation is just habit, and whether a virtuous disposition is just one built up by force of habit. Our experience leads us, in a number of areas of our lives, to develop habits which save time and effort. If developing a virtue is like this, why should we think it amounts to anything more than habit and even mere routine?

Virtue is unlike routine in a host of ways. [Followed by a long discussion of why piano playing is not a virtue that I don’t entirely understand]

Skilled dispositions are not static conditions; they are always developing, being sustained or weakened. One of the major suggestions of this book is that virtue is like practical skill in this respect (as well as some others). Because a virtue is a disposition it requires time, experience, and habituation to develop it, but the result is not routine but the kind of actively and intelligently engaged practical mastery that we find in practical experts such as pianists and athletes.

A central feature of routine is that the reaction to the relevant situation is always the same, which is why routine can be depended on and predicted. But practical skill and virtue require more than predictably similar reaction; they require a response which is appropriate to the situation instead of merely being the same as that produced in response to other situations. This appropriateness comes from the habituated disposition that a virtue is. As Aristotle says: ’It … seems to be characteristic of the more courageous person to be unafraid and unruffled in sudden alarms rather than to be so in those that are foreseen; it comes more from his state of character [hexis, often translated ‘disposition’], because less from preparation.

I think this produces a set of necessary conditions for something to count as a virtue. It must be:

I think this cannot count as sufficient to be a virtue because many vices could also satisfy this condition e.g. “nastiness” or “hedonistic debauchery” also satisfy this for people who are motivated towards such things, but it’s a good start for at least distinguishing virtues from other skills.

Skilled and virtuous action

In this she is trying to further distinguish virtues from skills.

Some practical skills do seem to involve mere routine - this is true of daily activities such as getting to work which we are sometimes prepared to call skills, though at other times we call them routines or rituals. (…) We find the important similarity of virtue to skill in skills where two things are united: the need to learn and the drive to aspire.

So the “skill analogy” is highlighting the idea that virtues are things where excellence must be sought and is something we should desire in and of itself.

She goes on to say (some pages later after a bunch of detailed intermediate discussion)

Virtue can most illuminatingly be seen as like this kind of skill; it shares the intellectual structure of a skill where we find not only the need to learn but the drive to aspire, and hence the need to ’give an account, the need for articulate conveying of reasons why what is done is done. The learner in virtue, like the learner in a practical skill, needs to understand what she is doing, to achieve the ability to do it for herself, and to do it in a way that improves as she meets challenges, rather than coming out with predictable repetition. This conies about when the virtue is conveyed by the giving and receiving of reasons, in contrast with the non-rational picking up of a knack.

This view does rather explain why she thinks people with Downs syndrome can’t be virtuous, but suggests that perhaps one way of thinking about virtue ethics is that it’s not actually intended to be universally normative. That is, it’s entirely possible to be fully ethical without being virtuous. You can imagine (although I suspect no such person exists) someone who always unthinkingly does the right thing out of a natural pleasantness of character, and never strives for it. Such a person is ethical but not virtuous.

In this light, I think perhaps a good way to read Annas (and ethicists in general?) is as a sort of “Ethics for Nerds” - if you don’t automatically know the right thing to do, how would you go about learning to do so?

Perhaps the way to think of the virtues is as a sufficient but not necessary set of conditions for being a good person.

The Scope of Virtue

In this she starts by defending virtue against the critique of relativism, but I am in fact completely comfortable with relativism and think her defence is probably wrong.

In it she mentions The Virtues Project as an example of an attempt at a cross-cultural list of the virtues. This sounds interesting and I may spend more time with it, but also I did a card pick on it and it lead me to the Prayerfulness virtue at which point I said “Oh fuck you” out loud and closed the site for now.

The chapter does contain the following interesting passage:

As Aristotle says in the passage I have quoted more than once, everyone seeks the good, not just what their parents did. Becoming virtuous starts the process by making it clear that the virtuous life cannot just be the life your parents lead. Anyone can come to realize this, and anyone can continue the progressive enlargement of understanding.

Why then do so few do so? This is not a problem particular to thinking in terms of virtue, since any ethical theory has to face the fact that most people do not live by it. The answer given by the present account is that while we are all capable of aspiring to become virtuous, most of us resist being pulled away from our familiar original contexts by becoming progressively more virtuous. Rather than deal with the fact that our family is dishonest, our country jingoistic, the values we have learnt inadequate, we make rationalizations, or simply refuse to face facts. We are unwilling to criticize the contexts and institutions within which we learned the virtues, because we are unwilling to be pulled away from those contexts in the way that would be required. The community of the family, or society, is a visible and tangible one, providing real comfort and support. The community of the honest (the brave, the open-minded, and so on) is an invisible one composed of all those who, past, present, and future, act, reason, and feel in certain ways; accessible only through thought and reflection, it offers less help in getting through the day.’ If we think of community as a form of solidarity, pre-existing solidarities can make it hard to be detached from them.’ To identify with the community of the just, rather than with your own fellow citizens, is often hard, for it requires detachment from the existing support you get from relations with your fellow-citizens. What requires explanation, then, is not so much the slackness of most people in developing the virtues, but the strength of the few in achieving them.

Strong vibes of what I’ve written about in the past in The social obligation to be bad at things and Norms of Excellence.

I think what she is essentially arguing in this chapter is that culture can limit our virtue, but that there is a single overarching but imperfectly expressed universal notion of virtue, which striving to be vituous allows us to move our communities towards.

To which I say: Well, maybe.

Virtue and Enjoyment

In this chapter she is arguing that one of the key features of virtue is that the virtuous like being virtuous. They don’t experience it as a chore, but as a thing that is worthwhile in and of itself.

However, one aspect of the virtuous person’s moral psychology, perhaps surprisingly, points us to another important analogy between skill and virtue. Aristotle famously comments that the virtuous person is distinguished by finding what he does pleasant: ’We must take as an indication of a person’s states the pleasure or pain consequent on what he does, because the person who abstains from bodily pleasures and finds his enjoyment in doing just this is temperate, while the person who finds doing it oppressive is intemperate; and the person who enjoys facing up to danger, or at least does not find it painful to do so, is courageous, while he who does find it painful is a coward. The temperance example is not hard to understand. Someone resolving to give up meat, for example, will at first have to fight against temptation and will find the forbidden food attractive; but as they develop the relevant disposition to be vegetarian they cease to find it tempting. Eventually they take more pleasure in not eating what they now reject than they did when they ate it; the vegetarian finds it more enjoyable to be a vegetarian than she did being someone who enjoyed eating meat.

Honestly this sounds to me like the sort of thing you tell people even if it’s false. My personal experience of being vegetarian (which may not be representative of “true virtue” in that I did eventually decide not to be) is that while I found the idea of eating meat actively unappealing, I never enjoyed not eating meat. I enjoyed what I was eating, and I didn’t want to eat meat, but there was never any sense that vegetarianism in and of itself was enjoyable, it was just a thing, and I expect this is normal. I think this is just a weak example though - I can certainly see the argument that some exercises of virtue are enjoyable, I just don’t think vegetarianism works like this.

Much of the rest of the chapter is connecting up virtue with the idea of flow, and that virtue is enjoyable because it creates flow. This seems too cute to me, but I think the core idea that virtue is enjoyable because it is a skilled practice and using your skills in worthwhile ways is enjoyable is reasonably solid.

Virtues and the unity of the virtue

I’m running out of time and feel like I covered this adequately yesterday.

Can we say anything more specific about the distinctive kind of admiration called forth by virtue?

The first answer is that in the case of the virtues our admiration is for the person’s character: possession of virtues indicates something about what the person is like, whereas possession of traits such as tidiness or wittiness indicates only traits that the person has. Take someone who is characteristically tidy, who, noticing that his car has got messy, cleans it out. What does this tell us about his character? Very little. Let us suppose that the same person is characteristically brave, and that in the course of the subsequent drive he stops and courageously rescues passengers trapped in a crashed and burning car. This action, unlike the previous one, does indicate what kind of person he is.

Honestly I think tidiness tells you a lot about the sort of person someone is, and could legitimately get behind the idea that cleanliness is a virtue.

We might think at this point that the contrast here is not between virtues and other traits, but between virtues and vices on the one hand and other traits on the other. For surely, we think, vices indicate character as much as virtues do? This is true up to a point, and shows that virtues do more than merely indicate character. Suppose another person who sees the burning car, but pretends not to, and drives on. This is a cowardly act, and if it is characteristic of the person it does tell us something about him as a person, namely that he is a coward. But there is an important difference here, which can be brought out by the claim that the brave person is, by virtue of being brave, expressing a commitment to goodness, a commitment to positive value. Although this is a very general point, it is intuitive. The brave person’s action reveals that he is committed to something valuable that is centrally important to him.

This is, I think, where the idea of unity of the virtues comes from: The central feature of virtue is “commitment to goodness”.

In Conclusion

I ran out of time at this point, without having finished covering the last few chapters, and I think this demonstrates the weakness of the format - Intelligent Virtue isn’t even a very long book!

I think I’m going to rebrand these from “speedruns” to “studies”, because it’s clear that I can’t do justice to a book in an hour (this is of course not surprising, although bear in mind these are also books I’ve already read), and I may well do a further study on the last couple of chapters of this book because they seem quite important.