21 January 2005

Virtues and Vices

Virtues and Vices

The little matter of virtues and vices is standard stock in trade for philosophy. In fact virtues and vices can keep most philosophers, of most persuasions, happy and busy for quite a long time.

This is not difficult to see why. We can approach the subject by asking ourselves two questions: what is a virtue and what is a vice? And, what do we mean by virtue and vice? Alternatively, we can indulge in a bit of stamp collecting and catalogue all the virtues and vices we can think of. Once we've done that we can then spend some time explaining why something in our list is a virtue or a vice.

The first option of investigation is philosophy, but the second option could by far be more entertaining. And with a bit of luck, besides entertaining ourselves, we might even put it to use by amusing ourselves with that ancient past time of domination and the exercise of power over others.

It seems to me, and probably to many others, that a virtue or a vice has three important component parts: a public behaviour, an outcome of a behaviour that is beneficial or good, in the case of virtues, and an authority, ideally an objective authority, to tell us or confirm for us what is a virtue or a vice.

A virtue or a vice can affect and apply to the individual or to other people. For example, charity is usually a virtuous act that we do but affects others; that is, others enjoy the benefit of this virtue. Alcoholism, which on the nomenclature of list making, is considered a vice only affects, at least physically, the individual.

Again, when we examine these two concepts, what stands out is not the 'good' or 'bad' associated with virtues and vices but rather the intention and behaviour. I use behaviour to suggest the idea of an action repeated over time and to imply the idea of 'second nature'. The concept of 'second nature' is important here because we want to distinguish between an act done by a reasonable person on the Clapham Omnibus and compulsive behaviour done because of some brain disease or malfunction. An act done from second nature is still attributable to the conscious rational self. Such a second nature act is not to be understood as an unconscious reflex action; i.e. a knee jerk reaction. I also use reasonable to emphasise the associated legal nature of these second nature acts. Vices can easily get us into trouble with the law.

In the same way that a swallow doesn't make a summer, neither does a single good deed make a virtuous person. Hence the time period seems to be a necessary condition. A virtue or a vice must be a type of act that is a regular behaviour for the person. In other words, a type of act that the person repeats over time.

Since we are talking about actions and behaviour we are by implication talking about people. This might be obvious, but it might be necessary to distinguish people from a group or even society. Can we ascribe virtues or vices to groups? Can the state display acts of virtue?

Like all moral acts, virtues and vices, must be associated with a free will. In particular we are looking at the intentional content of a virtue or vice. Earlier I excluded acts done as a result of a diseased brain or compulsion. As a side remark, have you noticed how we don't usually ascribe benevolent acts to a diseased mind. We never try to explain, for example, acts of charity as defects of the brain, unlike for example gambling!

If virtues and vices depend on a normal healthy person acting intentionally, then we surely need to take a closer look at intention. But looking at intentions might not be that easy, especially if we want to keep the language of virtues and vices coherent and the integrity of institutions that promote virtues intact. Why is this?

We cannot look at intention without taking into consideration consciousness and determinism. We cannot look at intention without seriously looking at what is free will and how this functions? And this is why virtues and vices are the stock in trade of philosophy; free will and determinism are basic issues in philosophy.

Very few of us would find it a problem to see the hand of determinism operating in vices, but what about virtues? Can we allow determinism to manipulate virtues? What if charity, I know, I keep using the same example, but it's a good one, was equally determined as compulsive gambling? What if virtues were equally determined as vices?

Maybe, we can even live with determinism. Maybe what really matters is the outcome and not the cause. This would be all for the better, except for one little thing. Virtues are very much promoted by institutions and organizations. And if the intentions of individuals are not always clear the 'intentions' of institutions and organisations are certainly not always transparent.

Being charitable, for example, might be okay for the recipient, but it also happens to be promoted by most religions. And in Britain, at least, there is a whole legal structure governing charities and charity giving. Furthermore, being a hard working employee is not only promoted by corporations but also by governments. Could it be that the promotion of virtues is a way of determining our intentions? And if that was not bad enough, could it possibly be that virtues are just another way for us to be utilitarian?

There is a good historical example when the utilitarian principle was used by a government. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914, enacted at the beginning of the first world war, introduced, amongst many things, the licensing laws which are still in force today in the UK. The idea was to limit the opening hours of pubs to make sure that workers were fit for work in the morning and to limit the consequences of heavy alcohol consumption.

In a way, utilitarianism is more problematic because we can interpret utilitarianism in a neutral fashion. A hundred Euro charitable contribution is no less virtuous than a ten Euro contribution. However, utilitarianism tells us that the one hundred Euro contribution is always preferable. But this is an objective test and in some cases it also applies on the subjective basis; reading philosophy instead of reading a cheap paperback is always desirable (?). But staying up late partying the night away is probably more enjoyable than getting up at 6.30 in the morning to go to work. There is no doubt which option the ration passenger on the Clapham omnibus would choose. You can see where and how we could possibly have a problem with utilitarianism. This means that we cannot just dismiss vices as the manipulation of determinism.

Could it possibly be that both virtues and vices are competing for our attention, so to speak, with the same motivating force? But if utilitarianism is that motivating force for virtues and vices then are we also being utilitarian when we do follow virtues supported by some organisation in authority? Surely it is one thing to follow the categorical imperative, to give an example, because it is an a priori moral law and another because it suites me well to do so?

Maybe, after all, list building might not be all that easy, not forgetting the implied reduction in the entertainment value of such activity. Could it be that virtues are not all that virtuous and vices are not all that horrible?

Take care


Jan 21, 2005

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