Friday, March 8, 2013

A way to classify and discover virtues

Here is a way to classify virtues, which also leads to a way of discovering virtues. Start by what I will call "general virtues" ("structural virtues" is perhaps better, but the term is already taken). These are excellences that in their specification are neutral between particular human goods like health, friendship, reproduction, understanding, etc. Some examples of general virtues include:

  • Courage: Excellence in risking real loss in respect of a good to self for the sake of a good to self or another.
  • Generosity: Excellence in sacrificing a good to self for the sake of a good to another.
  • Perseverence: Excellence in accepting a temporally extended loss of a good to self for the sake of a good to self or another.
  • Wisdom: Excellence in choosing between incommensurable goods.
  • Moderation: Avoiding excess in respect of goods.
You may well dispute my particular characterizations, and you will be right to do so, but it is the general form that I am most interested in here rather than details. Each of these general virtues talks of one's attitudes to goods, while being neutral on which particular goods these are.

However, it is well-known both at the folk level, and fits with psychological research on the domain-specificity of human excellences, that one can have one of these general virtues in respect of only some goods or pairs of goods, but not in respect of others.

Thus, we have virtues that are specifications of the general virtues. The specifications can be of two sorts: they can be further structural specifications or they can be substantive specifications. For instance, we can structurally specify courage into what one might call:

  • Self-centered courage: Excellence in risking real loss in respect of a good to self for the sake of a good to self.
  • Other-centered courage: Excellence in risking real loss in respect of a good to self for the sake of a good to another.
One might even have more specific structural specifications specifying one's relationship to others, the quantity of others, etc. We can also structurally specify perseverance into things like:
  • Persistence: Excellence in accepting a lengthy temporally extended loss of a minor good to self.
  • Heroic perserverance: Excellence in accepting a temporally extended loss of a major good to self.

But I want to focus instead on substantive specifications. The general and structurally specified virtues are neutral between the kinds of human goods. Substantive specifications are special cases where only particular kinds of human goods are in play. Some examples:

  • Physical courage: Excellence in risking real loss of health to self for the sake of a good to self or other.
  • Social courage: Excellence in risking real loss of social capital to self for the sake of a good to self or other.
  • Physical-social courage: Excellence in risking real loss of health to self for the sake of social capital for self.
  • Chastity, a substantive specification of moderation: Avoiding excess in respect of sexual goods.
  • Political wisdom: Excellence in choosing between incommensurable communal goods.
Notice that such specifications nest. Physical courage still has a structural element: it does not specify which goods to self or other justify the risk. Physical-social courage, which while admirable is not as admirable as some other substantive specifications of courage, specifies the goods for the sake of which the risk is undertaken.

And it could be that there are even narrower virtues, with other kinds of specifications, including contextual ones, like military physical-social courage.

We can thus classify virtues by first finding a general form that is neutral between kinds of goods, with more or less of a structural specification, and then add a substantive specification in terms of the kinds of goods involved, sometimes, as in the case of courage, there being more than one place in the structure where kinds of goods need to be inserted.

This leads to a heuristic that could allow for the discovery of new virtues:

  • Every virtue can be obtained in this way.
This heuristic may have exceptions, though I can't think of any right now. Given the heuristic, a virtue that makes specific reference to a type of good will be a substantive specification of a virtue that does not. And this means that when we have a substantive virtue, like chastity, we should be able to discover other substantive virtues by finding the underlying structure, and substantively filling it out in other ways.

Suppose that, further, one agrees that intellectual virtues are virtues, but ones that concern an epistemic good. Then this means that one will be able to discover new intellectual virtues simply by specifying structural virtues with epistemic goods, and new non-intellectual or not-specifically-intellectual virtues by finding the structures underlying the intellectual virtues.

Two examples. First, from the non-intellectual (or not-specifically-intellectual) direction to the specifically intellectual direction:

  • Intellectual-intellectual courage: Excellence in risking real loss of epistemic goods to self for the sake of epistemic goods to self.
This comes into play when one investigates a matter where one already has well-established epistemic goods, accepting a risk that misleading evidence might cause the loss of these goods. Second, the other way. Start with:
  • Intellectual open-mindedness: Excellence in risking loss of apparent epistemic goods for the sake of real epistemic goods.
And now we get the very interesting virtue:
  • General open-mindedness: Excellence in risking loss of apparent goods for the sake of real goods.
For instance, by relying on an apparent friend, we risk finding out that the friendship is only apparent. But it is a risk worth taking on.


Huume said...

Wow. For me this is a revelation of sorts. I have thought about this passively, I think in the way that everyone does, but not to this degree. This is very insightful.

This leads me to a question. . Your example of intellectual-intellectual courage. . . If you have a philsopher who claims to want the truth at all costs, which if I understand you correctly is a kind fo intellectual courage; if this philosopher regularly practices a kind of intellectual dishonesty in light of certain evidences, not apparent to him. . Would this be an example of a philosopher who claims to have intellectual courage but does not actually have it?

I feel like even the recognition of this virtue could help alot of people out. I imagine indeitifiying someone who does not have this kind of courage may benefit from following someone who does. . But not knowing what virtues you lack can sometimes cause you to not seek to look to others to lead you into courage. . Does that make sense? I always write that. I type so tenatively.

Am I understanding this virtue thing right?

Huume said...

Sorry one of my sentences is a little confusing; " I imagine indeitifiying someone who does not have this kind of courage may benefit from following someone who does"

Should read,

"I imagine identifying someone who does not have this kind of courage. . that person may benefit from being led by somebody who is trustworthy and does have this kind of courage."

Something like that (maybe you got it the first time)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Intellectual dishonesty is an intellectual vice.

I think intellectual honesty (vis-a-vis oneself) is a kind of honesty with oneself about epistemic reasons, i.e., reasons regarding epistemic goods. There is also a more general kind of reasons-integrity, which is honesty with oneself about reasons, regardless of which kind of good these reasons concern.

So, in intellectual honesty, I honestly represent epistemic reasons to myself. In health honesty, I honestly represent health reasons to myself. (Both have an epistemic component, which is an interesting observation.)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"Intellectual dishonesty is an intellectual vice." Can we always spot this in ourselves?

I've thought on the topic of virtues from time to time, and I've wondered about their acquisition. I have read biographical information about numerous persons who under certain situations exhibitted uncommon virtue, and I've wondered how these persons had aquired such. It is not anything that happened over night. I think these virtues are acquired over a life time through the countless little choices a person makes. Some of these choices may even seem inconsequential at the time they were made. They are but little fibers. However, little fibers weave together to form threads. Threads come together to form string. Strings come together to form rope. Ropes come together to form cables. The cables form the virtues. I think if we wish to form virtues, we should look at all of our small actions and decsions throughout the day and do this every day. The forming of our virtues lies in these small things day in day out.

Huume said...

hm. yes I am wondering the same thing, is it possible to for everyone to know they are being intellectually dishonest? I guess I would say no by default, but im wondering is it possible to confuse intellectual dishonesty with intellectual courage? I guess ill have to think on that one a bit more.

Huume said...

Maybe the larger issue is people often mistakenly acribe certain virtues to themselves, that they do not actually possess. . I guess I would also say of course this is the case due to the fallen nature of man.

ah25 said...

I think you've come upon something pretty spectacular with that 'General Open-Mindedness' virtue. It seems to me that just about everyone's persistent life problems ('making the same mistakes over and over, etc.') can be traced in part to the absence of some case of this virtue. Conversely, it seems that many cliche 'self-improvement' skills are special cases of it--for example:

'self-awareness' (personal open mindedness)--excellence in risking perceived personal goods in favor of real ones (e.g. realizing you're not a handsome, virtuous genius is a necessary precondition to trying to become one)

'good listening' (social open-mindedness)--willingness to risk apparent social goods in favor of real ones (e.g. giving up the illusion that you marital problems are entirely your spouse's fault is a necessary precondition to fixing them)

'caution' (physical open-mindedness)--willingness to risk apparent physical goods in favor of real ones (e.g. realizing at some point that you're not an immortal superbeing that can ingest endless amounts of drugs and alchohol while driving 130 mph is a necessary precondition for surviving to middle age)

These are extreme examples, but they do seem to illustrate the value of the more general specification.

I like this theory. This is a nice way to describe virtues in a parsimonious fashion without losing any substance. I'm curious how many other 'folk-level' virtues can be linked in this way, and whether some folk virtues become suspect because of it (because of membership in a tree that also contains vices).