Friday, October 9, 2009


The virtues support each other in two ways: (i) having one helps gain another; (ii) each helps to achieve the ends of the others. In regard to (ii), note that it is easier to achieve the goals of prudence if one is chaste, sober and eats in moderation, to achieve the goals of generosity if one is prudent and brave, to achieve the self-knowledge that humility aims at if one is wise and sober, and so on. This is partly distinct from (i).

The vices, on the other hand, support each other in sense (i), but hamper each other in sense (ii). Thus, laziness may lead to gluttony (having nothing better to do, one may just eat) and lust may lead to greed (in order to impress potential sexual partners): having a vice helps one gain another. But, in fact, the goals of the vices hamper one another. Lust is expensive, and hence hampers the goals of greed. Wrath makes it harder to make money and keep sexual partners. All the vices, including vanity itself, hamper the goals of vanity by making one appear ridiculous. Conversely, sloth and cowardice hamper the goals of all the other vices.

So, while type (i) support among the virtues is a delightful thing, because the virtues also help to achieve one another's goals, type (i) support among the vices is a baneful thing, because the vices hamper the achievement of one another's goals, but nonetheless the vices lead to one another.

This is a fine, and very broadly both Kantian and Aristotelian, answer to the question of why be virtuous.


Nick said...

Just happened across this blog: excellent stuff so far. However, I am skeptical about any necessary pre-established harmony amongst the virtues as you describe it. Honesty is a virtue, and caring for a friend is a virtue, but the steadfast pursuit of both is (famously) incompatible.

Furthermore, given enough resources, a vice-ridden person can easily be lustful, gluttonous, greedy, wrathful and vain without any serious difficulty... as many of the world's financial elite are. It seems that if this is the only tactic we have to motivate people towards virtue, then we will not succeed in getting the rich to change. A reason to be moral cannot be contingent on economic status!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, so the case of the rich does show that there are cases where one can attain the ends of many of the vices. That's a nice point. But it is still true that the vices are hampering one another--it's just that one can overcome this mutual hampering through a lot of resources (just as one can herd cats if one has enough patience, skill at animal training, etc.)

Your case of conflict between the ends of virtues is more interesting. I think the kind of conflict you give is one that comes up only in some cases. Moreover, its coming up in those cases is likely to be compensated for by other cases where the virtues mutually support one another.

Consider the advantages of a knowledgeable friend who is perfectly honest. Such a friend's praise always raises one's spirits, since one knows that the praise is never given solely because it would raise one's spirits. Criticism from such a friend is taken to heart, and helps one overcome one's faults.

Take one of those cases where dishonesty would seem to be better for the friend. Maybe x knows that y's husband once cheated on her for a week, and it would be devastating to y to know that. But y has suspicions, and asks x. In this case, it might be better for y to not know the truth.

However, the case may well be balanced by cases relevantly like the opposite case: x knows that y's husband didn't cheat on her, but y has suspicions, and asks x. In those cases, x's assurance that y's husband is innocent will only fully assuage the suspicions if x is the sort of person who wouldn't lie if the opposite were the case.

Both kinds of cases come up. All in all, I think the steadfastly honest will be the better friend. Yes, she'll have to sometimes break news that is devastating. But those cases are, I think, relatively rare in a typical friendship. Much more common are the cases where, say, a friend needs reassurance (whether about herself or about other facts), and the reassurance only carries weight when it comes from the sort of person who wouldn't have given this reassurance had it not been true.

Of course, there may be exceptions to this rule. That's fine: whenever we generalize about the virtues and vices in these ways, we are in the realm of the sort of stuff that Aristotle would say holds "for the most part". I am not claiming more here.

Nick said...

Ah, that seems an eminently sensible position. From Aristotle to Hursthouse, the thrust of virtue-theory seems to be that we are talking about probabilities here, and that the search for ethical guidelines that will give us an answer in absolutely all situations is absurd. I guess this is why virtue theory is somewhat attractive to such "anti-theorists" as Bernard Williams and Michael Stocker.