Friday, January 21, 2022

An argument for the unity of the virtues

Alice and Bob are friends, but Carl is a friend of neither. Carl pays Bob to betray Alice in some nasty way, and Bob being greedy does so. What Carl has done is as bad as what Bob has done. However, Bob was disloyal whereas Carl’s action was not a failure of loyalty. We might say this: Carl’s action offended against the value of loyalty without being disloyal.

Here’s perhaps a starker example. The virtue of chastity does not apply to immaterial beings: they can’t be either chaste or unchaste. If an immaterial tempter, however, persuades someone to be unchaste, the tempter offends against the value of chastity without being at all unchaste.

There is thus more than one way to offend against a virtue. One very special way of offending against a virtue is to act in a way contrary to it. But that is not the only way. Carl offends against loyalty without acting contrary to loyalty and the immaterial tempter offends against chastity without acting contrary to chastity.

Once we see this, we can also see that there is a multitude of ways of acting (or just being) in for or against a virtue that need not fall under or be contrary to the virtue. Encouraging someone else to be courageous is a way of acting in favor of courage, but need not show any courage. Typically, encouraging oneself to be courageous does exhibit some courage, because one is apt to know that if one becomes courageous, one is more likely to be in danger in the future. But we can imagine someone who hasn’t thought through the logical consequences and doesn’t realize that training oneself to courage is itself dangerous.

If all good action falls under a virtue and all bad action is contrary to a virtue, the above considerations suggest that there must be a meta-virtue M such that acting for any first-order virtue falls under M and acting against any first-order virtue is contrary to M. Now, since one common way of acting for a first-order virtue is to exhibit that first-order virtue in one’s actions, and one common way of acting against a first-order virtue is to act contrary to it, it follows that every action that is for a first-order virtue V falls under M insofar as it is an action for V, and every action that is against V is contrary to M insofar as it is against V. Moreover, just as acting for first-order virtues is virtuous, acting for higher-order virtues is also virtuous. To avoid a regress of meta-virtues, we should suppose that M is actually a virtue exhibited by acting for any virtue, including M itself, and opposed by acting against any virtue, including again M.

This yields something very much like a unity of virtues thesis: There is a virtue M such that any virtuous action whatsoever falls under M and any vicious action whatsoever is contrary to M.

What is this virtue? In the end, I suspect it’s love.


Michael Birdwell said...

You might want to fix the names so that the story flows right. It makes for an easier read.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Is it better now?

Michael Birdwell said...

Yes, thank you