Thursday, August 02, 2007

What is the relation between virtue and human flourishing?

In a previous post I laid forwards the basic idea of Aristotelian Constructivism. Aristotelian Constructivism proposes itself as a method of/guide to moral reasoning, and claims itself to be better in this role than alternative methods (such as contractarian reasoning, as explained by T.M. Scanlon in “what we owe to each other”).

Aristotelian constructivism holds that there is at least a certain significant part of moral reasoning in which the notion of a virtue and of human flourishing play a ineliminable role. (It does not hold that all moral reasoning must work in this way. More often than not, moral reasoning is based on premises that do not need to be made explicit.)

Supposing that we want to determine whether X (e.g. charity) is a virtue. This kind of reasoning is based on discovering or making clear to oneself what a virtue requires by connecting the notion of virtue and flourishing in the following way:

1. X is a virtue and it consist of such and such

2. X is (typically, if unconditionally exercised) necessary to the flourishing of person P

3. such and such way of acting is not necessary for the flourishing of person P

4. X is not a virtue

One big question is the character of the premise “2”. Eudaimonistic virtue ethics is normally understood as involving the following claim:

2a X is (typically, if unconditionally exercized) necessary for the flourishing of person whose virtue it is

The problem with 2 is that it allegedly cannot account for virtues such as benevolence or justice.

It is tempting to substitute 2' with some principle in which virtues are connected not the the flourishing of a single individual but to that of the community, for example:

2b X is a virtue only if its possession by a higher number of individual leads to a higher level of flourishing of more individuals in the community.

The problem with “2''” is the same as the problem of the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number: you cannot both aim to increase the total of happiness and the number of people who are happy. If “2'' is understood as a maximizing principle of the usual sort, so that the total level of flourishing is what counts, the principle faces all the usual problems deriving from aggregation by sum. If levels of individual flourishing are simply added this leaves open the problem of how to deal with virtues which tend to increase total flourishing at the expense of the people who are worst off in society.

One could therefore try to formulate an “altruist” version of the principle which does not look at the maximizing consequences of their existence, but at its impact on every single individual, such as the following:

2d: X is a virtue only if were everyone to lack X some virtuous person in the community would be reduced to bare living and could not flourish as an individual, or would die.

The problem with this sort of formulation is that it leads to ignoring virtues which are of some importance for human flourishing, but are not required for human existence, such as kindness. One of the strengths of virtue theory, as opposed to ethics of principle, is that it sensibly allows for an inclusion of traits of character which very much determine the way a problem is handled, such as kindness. And we do not want to loose this welcome feature of virtue theory.

Something similar applies to a “sufficientarian” formulation of 2, something along the lines of

2e: X is a virtue if any increase in the number of people who have that trait brings more people to have a satisfactory level of flourishing.

Here again, kindness would be a counter-example. Although kindness contributes to human flourishing, it hardly helps to move from the worst conditions to a “barely enough” condition.

One may imagine an “egalitarian” definition of this principle, for example:

2f: X is a virtue only if the increase of the number of people who have it leads to a more equal distribution of degrees of flourishing

This formulation suffers from all the usual paradoxes of equality. Equality is hardly a compelling ideal in itself when it can only be achieved by making everybody worse off.

Therefore, I believe that the problem of justifying the existence of virtues which are “other regarding” should be dealt with in a different way. Our starting point should be the notion of what it means of a human being to flourish, in the light of the fact that man is a social animal, and that the human condition is characterized by the fact of dependence on others, for example dependence as children, as ill people or as old people. As we have seen, the idea that developing the excellences of one's nature (that is the virtues) is part of what it means for a man to flourish is true a-priori in any form of Aristotelian constructivism. Flourishing involves not only developing the excellences of a human being qua human being, but also those excellences which are required by the execution of those roles which are normally constitutive of human nature. It can be claimed that the role of a care taker is one of these role, in so far as every one is a father or a mother, or at least some mother and father's child. A role as care takers follows, typically, for a human being, in that as a mother or a father he/she must be able to take care of a child: a child needs the care of a mother or of a father in order to flourish.

This argument will be refused by those who think that we cannot just assume that giving birth to a child is part of “typical” human life, or that, even if we concede that it is, we cannot derive any normative consequence from it. Conceding this, notice that even a person who decides – for quite legitimate reasons, as it may happen – not to have children, is the son or daughter of someone else. And it is a fact about human lives that those “someone else”, our mothers and fathers, get old, and when they are old their son and daughter must have certain virtues in order to make them flourish.

But how are the facts about human dependence to be included in a definition of the relation between the virtues and human flourishing. I propose the following:

2g: X is a virtue only if x is (typically and if unconditionally exercised) required for my flourishing or x is/would be required for the flourishing of those individuals that depend upon me /would depend upon me if I were fully flourishing.

The conditional clause “if I were fully flourishing” states that the virtues must not be defined in terms of the contingent situation of the person who happens to have them, but in terms of ideal human conditions. (The clause might be substituted with “if I were leading a fully fulfilling human life”). The conditional clause links the nature of the human virtues to a conception of flourishing and human nature which is not necessarily that of the individual whose flourishing is in question, but that of the “typical” individual of the species. It is not at all implausible to argue that – in general – a fully flourishing life includes the growth of children. This by no means entails that one has the moral duty to reproduce or have children. (No such thing as a general moral duty to do flourish makes sense.) In this formulation, even what counts as a virtue, for a person who decides not to have children, can depend on an ideal model of human flourishing, which includes having children.

This formulation allows us to include other regarding virtues which follow naturally if we think about what a young baby needs and what his parents must be able to give him. But the relations of dependency which are constitutive of an account of a fully flourishing life are not limited to having children. We might think, as Aristotle did, that a fully flourishing life includes friendship. And it might be argued that the willingness helping a friend when he is in a condition which makes him dependent on others is constitutive of our ideal of flourishing. If that is true, it allows us to include as virtues all those traits of character which are required for one's friends to flourish, and this already leads to postulating most of the traditional other – regarding virtues.

It might be argued that in this way I am giving egoistic motives to have other regarding virtues, and this is incompatible with the way these virtues are understood when they are exercised authentically. But I am not justifying other-regarding virtues upon such motives. Remember that I have said that the virtues are excercised unconditionally by those people who are flourishing (and who are responsible for the flourishing of other people.) The virtues which a good friend has – in virtue of which he is a good friend – cannot be like the disposition to do what is good for a friend only in so far as this ensures that I have more of the good of friendship. They are virtue only if they are exercised - as I stated - unconditionally.

Therefore I believe that 2g is a good formulation of the connection between the virtues of a person and human flourishing, that is to say, his own flourishing and that of other people. รน

I also believe that 2g can be supplemented by other two principles, which are in a sense implicitly included in it, namely:

2h: X is a virtue only if X is required for sustaining the growth and development of valuable practices


2k: X is a virtue only if X is required for a life which has among its fundamental goals that of discovering the nature of human flourishing.

A few words about 2h. 2H is not really an addition over 2g, since it only makes what is already included in 2g more explicit. For he flourishing of an individual requires that the individual takes part in practices that make him in contact with things that can be valued and are valuable. But what is a practice? A practice is not any collective technique. There are collective technique which are not practices, because the people who engage with them do it only instrumentally, for granting themselves some good which is not the good of a practice. (For example I might work as a bounty killer, or as a drug dealer, for the sake of money.) In opposition to that, an authentic practice (e.g. fishing) has something like a good which is both the goal of a practice and recognized as a human good by the people who take part in it. (Food is both the goal of fishing, and something that fisherman recognize as generally good for humans.) We can also talk about goods that are internal to a practice in a different sense, such as for example the various forms of excellent execution of skills in sport or artistic fields. (MacIntyre cites often the case of chess. Becoming acquainted with the game of chess means that we learn to recognize goods that are internal to the game of chess, such as the execution of intelligent moves. This holds even if one starts to get involved with chess for the sake of external goods, such as the pleasure which follows from winning, or, in MacIntyre's fanciful example, if one starts to play chess as a child, because one can win candies.)

The distinction between practices and mere collective techniques cannot be made in a value-free language. We have said that the idea of a practice is partly constitutive of our idea of flourishing: a person can only flourish to the extent that he partecipates to some human practice. But this means that the reverse is also true: the idea of flourishing is partly constitutive of the idea of a practice, in that the distinction between practices and collective techniques can be spelled out by means of that.

I have not talked of 2k. Let me just say that I take it to be the most sensible lesson of ancient ethics, and to arise from the most plausible formulation of Aristotle's Ergon argument.

Hence I propose the following as an account of the relation between virtue and human flourishing

2J: X is a virtue only if

a. x is (typically and if unconditionally exercised) required for my flourishing or x would be required for the flourishing of those individuals that would depend upon me if I were fully flourishing.

b. X is required for sustaining the growth and development of valuable practices; and

c. X is required for leading a life which is characterized by the activity of discovering the nature of human flourishing.

Do you find that this is a good formulation? Do you find that there are any good counterexamples?

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