Thursday, September 03, 2009

What is Virtue?

I'm not asking for a list here, but rather something more like a partial conceptual analysis: what is at stake when philosophers argue about virtues? What are they arguing about?

For example, Julia Driver (in Uneasy Virtue) argues that virtues are dispositions that tend to systematically produce good outcomes. But we can already denote this consequentialist property using other terms like 'desirable' or 'fortunate' disposition. So I wonder what is gained by co-opting the term 'virtue' in addition. In order to be a substantive claim (rather than a terminological stipulation or concealed tautology) she must be relating the property of fortunateness to some other property that is definitive of 'virtue'. But what property is that?

There seem a few other morally significant kinds of character evaluation besides (systematic) 'fortunateness':
(1) Intrinsic desirability, i.e. traits that have intrinsic value (value in virtue of their intrinsic properties). Perhaps it is good to be honest and kind independently of the expected consequences.

(2) Warranting some other pro-attitude, such as esteem. (This would be to understand virtues as goods that call for a kind of 'respect' rather than 'promotion'. One might coherently hold that we have no reason to bring about a more virtuous world, or even to refrain from undermining existing instances of virtuous character, but we at least ought to think well of virtuous folks when we come across them.)

(3) An internal orientation towards the good. This is the intuitive idea that virtue consists in having internalized the right values, and so being disposed to appreciate and aim at that which is truly good.

(4) Links to praise/blameworthiness. Perhaps a virtuous disposition is such that an agent normally deserves praise when acting on it, and similarly for vicious actions and blameworthiness. (I mean "normal" in the teleological, non-statistical sense. So you could accept this even if you're an MR skeptic who thinks that agents rarely meet the "normal" conditions required for full-blown moral responsibility.)

(5) A priori expected value. If we think that some possible worlds are objectively more probable than others, and bizarro worlds will tend to cancel each other out, then we can assess the a priori expected value of a trait according to whether it will tend to be beneficial on net in normal (objectively probable) worlds.

(It's worth noting that, although #5 is clearly 'consequentialist' in a sense, it is also 'internalist' in the sense that any two intrinsic duplicates, no matter their external circumstances, will qualify as equally virtuous. This differs from Driver's identification of virtue with 'fortunateness', according to which honesty and kindness are vices in worlds where an evil demon secretly ensures that these traits systematically lead to bad outcomes.)

The middle three options presumably go together, and if we think that any character traits are intrinsically desirable at all then presumably #1 will also coincide with these. Indeed, it seems pretty plausible to me that all five will coincide. After all, in "normal" situations aiming at an end will typically help one attain it (though there are exceptions).

I don't know if one of these five senses is best thought of as the core meaning of 'virtue' (though something along like lines of #3 seems pretty intuitive to me), but it seems worth highlighting how all these different kinds of evaluation end up clustering together as they do. And none of them seem especially closely related to Driver's notion of contingent (albeit systematic) fortunateness.


  1. I don't have my Plato in front of me, so I can't recall the dialogue (Meno, maybe?), but it seems humorous, to such an extent that I hope that it's intentional on your part, to go through an entire post asking what "virtue" is (and using that precise term) without even mentioning Plato at all. It's pretty clear to me that a "virtue" is any quality, trait, disposition, etc. that we regard as "good" regardless of its outcome.

    This, of course, leads us to ask what "good" is, and we're off to the races with the western philosophy for the following 2,000 years or so...

  2. That's just my first proposal: virtues are the intrinsically good character traits, whatever those might be.

    But this clearly isn't what Driver means by 'virtue' when she argues that virtues are the instrumentally good traits. She doesn't think that instrumentally good traits are (also) intrinsically good. So I wonder if there's something else she might mean.

  3. That's fair, I was apparently a little too hyped up in my initial reaction to the headline, and the body of the post, to notice the extent to which you were simply seeking to define virtue rhetorically as a contrast to Driver's definition. Mea Culpa.

  4. It seems to me that Ms. Driver's definition is something closer to the virtu described by Machiavelli - from the SEP:

    "In particular, Machiavelli employs the concept of virtù to refer to the range of personal qualities that the prince will find it necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him. This makes it brutally clear there can be no equivalence between the conventional virtues and Machiavellian virtù."

  5. [Aside (@jawats): it's worth reflecting for a moment on whether you would have used a non-academic title like 'Mr.' had the philosopher's name instead been 'Julian'. Perhaps you're one of the few who would. Even so, I'd recommend against referring to female academics as 'Ms.', given the ease with which it could be interpreted as (even unintentionally) slighting their academic credentials.]


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