Chat on Virtue

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Some of us will be attending a departmental chat on virtue scheduled for Friday. No one cares about virtue, so why do I post this? Well, it turns out that people do care about virtue. In fact, I’m one of those people. Additionally, I find the abstract for the talk bold, perhaps misguided, and treading dangerously close to hallowed ground. The abstract follows, sic:


In this paper I intend to salvage virtue, but first, I will criticize neo-aristotelan perfectionism, the most recent effort to revive it. Second, I will review recent research in the field of positive psychology. Third, I will examine recent research on character strengths and virtues and attempt to alter perfectionism to accommodate and incorporate this research. This will depend, I suspect, on a substantive account of well being which accommodates the ‘gratifying’ virtues. Fourth, I will discuss research on affective forecasting. I will examine the theoretical foundations of this research. Fifth, I will propose my own unique account of well-being which is informed by, and can help us interpret the research on, affective forecasting. In the end, I will defend a form of perfectionism based on an objectivist account of well-being which takes into account our capacities and abilities and provides us with personalized positive prescriptions, a moral theory that can tell us who we should be, what we should do, and why; I call this theory personal perfectionism.

Thoughts: positive psychology and ethics? Sounds interesting in a dangerous sort of way. I’m afraid we’re going to see something along the lines of The Good Samaritan experiments, which will make me weep because I cannot believe that people still find this sort of thing compelling. Furthermore, this is a 20-30 minute talk. That outline is more appropriate to a lengthy tome-sized opus.

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3 Responses to “Chat on Virtue”

  1. Travis Says:

    I should say, very briefly, that the Good Samaritan Experiment purports to show that our behavior is determined (at least to a great degree) by situational factors, not by individual factors such as virtues. Some take the experiments to show that there are no virtues! Test subjects in one of the most famous examples were…seminary students, those paragons of Aristotelian virtue.

  2. seanlandis Says:

    I’ve followed positive psychology a bit through magazine articles, along with some on affective forecasting. Dan Gilbert says we’re pretty bad at predicting our emotions, mostly because they’re much more rigid than we’d expect. Nancy Etcoff, however, is a bit more optimistic on the rigidity front.

    I can’t predict how the speaker is going to tie this into a perfectionist account of virtue ethics, mostly because I’m not very familiar with perfectionism.

  3. Travis Says:

    So the chat took the form of a cursory examination of virtue through some of the ancients, then took a leap forward to Anscombe, Hurka, and into present day. Along the way, it was claimed that virtue and well-being (happiness?) were somehow teased apart. Now, moral psychology can tell us plenty of stuff about what we ought to do to be happy. So the claim is that we should identify our personality type (a natural kind?). The personality type will dictate how we ought to go about cultivating our virtues so as to be happy. That’s a VERY cursory recounting of the view.

    Some issues: the historical story was short; the speaker said that he had intended to speak of Homer, whose work I raised, but had insufficient time. Fair enough. The speaker then mentioned that Homer’s world was too pessimistic (tragic was his term) to give us a useful picture of virtue and happiness, but this claim is false. Homer’s world is supremely realistic in its portrayals of human struggles. And I’ll be damned if a world free of any tragedy is a) interesting b) suitable for the cultivation of virtues.

    Second, it is not at all clear how this picture differs from Aristotle’s view. The speaker says that it does not require the “crazy” or “insane” metaphysic of Aristotle, but it is not at all clear that a) Aristotle’s metaphysics is insane or crazy or b) Aristotelian virtue ethics requires Aristotle’s metaphysics.

    Third, somewhere during the talk, we stopped talking about virtue in a moral sense and started talking about it in a stripped down sense, where virtue is literally maximizing one’s subjective state of happiness. I can’t believe I forgot to mention the experience machine as a counterexample! So if any means to happiness are best pursued, we might have an incredibly happy but wholly immoral society. That’s unfortunate for the view.

    Finally, during subsequent discussion, the claim was made that Aristotle’s view was NOT an ethical one. Justice…not a moral virtue? Come now.

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