21 January 2005

Virtues and Vices

Virtues and Vices

Jan 21, 2005

Dear Friends,

First of all a word about the proposed visit to Segovia next weekend 29/30


If you remember the idea is to go for a walk along the aqueduct to or from where

it starts; or at least a reasonable distance. Maybe next Sunday we can discuss

this outing especially the following points:

1) Shall we go on Saturday the 29th or Sunday the 30th. The consensus seem to be

for Sunday. This means that the meeting for that Sunday will have to be


2) An other request is that we go by car. This is fine for those who have a car,

but not all of us have private transport. If we do this we will need volunteers

who can give others a ride to Segovia and back.

3) What time shall we meet and where?

4) Where do we exactly go in Segovia?

5) Will it be a picnic lunch or find a restaurant?

Let's talk about it next Sunday.

This fits well with next Sunday's topic: virtues and vices. We can feel virtuous

for being culture minded and we can indulge in some vices by enjoying the good

fare (wine and gastronomy) of Segovia.

Please, share you comments and ideas about all this.


Take care

See you Sunday


SUNDAY 6.30pm START at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs, but just in case

there is no football on go to the very back of the pub, then turn left and left



Subscribe yahoo group send an email to:


tel 606081813


Pub Molly Malone, c/ Manuela Malasaña, 11, Madrid 28004

metro: <Bilbao> : buses: 21, 149, 147

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


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


No comments: