Virtues and vices

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

3. Beyond Aristotle (continued): unity; reality

Unity. Aristotle inherited from Plato, and ultimately from Socrates, an interest in the unity of the virtues (see Socrates §5). Socrates seems to have held that there was basically only one virtue, which he called wisdom or knowledge. The conventional distinctions between the various virtues – justice, self-control, courage and the rest – were taken to mark only different fields of application of this power. Aristotle did think that there were separate virtues, but nevertheless his view came almost to the same thing as Socrates’, since he thought that one could not have one virtue without having them all. One could not properly possess any one virtue unless one had the intellectual virtue which is called in Aristotle’s language phronēsis (often translated as ‘practical wisdom’, but better rendered as ‘judgment’ or ‘good sense’); but, Aristotle held, if one had this quality, then one had all the virtues.

It is not hard to see the general idea underlying this position. Generosity is linked to justice – someone who gives only what justice demands is not being generous. Similar points can be made about the interrelations of some other virtues. However, it is important to the theory of the virtues that they provide psychological explanations as well as normative descriptions, and from a realistic psychological point of view it is hard to deny (as many ancient Greeks other than Socrates and Aristotle agreed) that someone can have some virtues while lacking others. In particular, the so-called ‘executive virtues’ of courage and self-control can be present without other virtues; indeed, they themselves can surely be deployed in the interests of wicked projects. The refusal to acknowledge this may simply represent an ethical reluctance to give moral accolades to bad people.

The fact that the virtues can, to some degree, be separated from one another itself helps to give point to virtue theory. Some modern ethical theories do imply that there is basically only one moral disposition. Utilitarianism, at least in its direct form, places everything on impartial benevolence (see Utilitarianism; Impartiality); and though Kant himself did have a theory of the virtues, Kantianism insists on the primacy of a sense of duty (see Kant, I. §§9–11; Kantian ethics). An advantage of virtue theory is that it allows for a more complex and realistic account of ethical motivation.

Relatedly, it can acknowledge psychological connections between the ethical and other aspects of character, accepting that people’s temperaments have something to do with how they conduct themselves ethically. For the same reason, virtue theory is implicitly opposed to sharp boundaries between the ‘moral’ and the ‘nonmoral’, and is likely to acknowledge that there is a spectrum of desirable characteristics, and that no firm or helpful line can be drawn round those that are specifically of moral significance. Aristotle did not even try to draw such a line: his own terminology distinguishes only between excellences of character and intellectual excellences, and one of the latter, phronēsis, is itself necessary to the excellences of character. Hume, who, unlike Aristotle, was surrounded by moralists who wanted to draw such a line, goes out of his way to mock the attempt to draw it, and his deliberately offensive treatment of the subject is still very instructive.

Reality. Aristotle conceived of the virtues as objective dispositional characteristics of people which they possess in at least as robust a sense as that in which a magnet possesses the power to attract metals, though people, unlike magnets, have of course acquired the dispositions – in the way appropriate to such things – by habituation (see Moral education). Modern scepticism, however, to some extent supported by social and cognitive psychology, questions whether we can take such a naïve view of what it is for someone to have a virtue. There are at least two different sources of doubt. One is the extent to which people’s reactions depend on situation: it is claimed that they will act in ways that express a given virtue only within a rather narrow range of recognized contexts, and if the usual expectations are suspended or even, in some cases, slightly shifted, may not act in the approved style.

The other doubt concerns ascription. When we understand people’s behaviour in terms of virtues and vices, or indeed other concepts of character, we are selecting in a highly interpretative way from their behaviour as we experience it, and the way in which we do this (as, indeed, we understand many other things) is in terms of stereotypes, scripts, or standard images, which may range from crude ‘characters’ to sophisticated and more individuated outlines constructed with the help of types drawn, often, from fiction. The available range of such images forms part of the shifting history of the virtues. At different times there have been pattern books of virtue and vice, and one of the first was the Characters written by Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle (see Theophrastus; Examples in ethics).

Even assuming such ideas to be correct, it is not clear exactly to what extent they have a negative impact on virtue theory. Everyone knows that virtues do not express themselves under all circumstances, and also that agents may be very rigid in their ability to understand how a situation is to be seen in terms of virtues. Again, with regard to ascription, it is very important that if it is true that we construct our interpretations of another person’s character in terms of a stock of images, it is equally true that the other person does so as well. The point is not so much that there is a gap between the interpreter and the person interpreted, but rather that all of us, as interpreters of ourselves and of others, use shared materials that have a history. There are lessons in such ideas for ethics generally and for virtue theory, but they need not be entirely sceptical. The points about the situational character of the virtues and about their ascription serve to remind us that an agent’s virtues depend in many different ways on their relations to society: not simply in being acquired from society and reinforced or weakened by social forces, but also in the ways in which they are constructed from socially shared materials.

Citing this article:
Williams, Bernard. Beyond Aristotle (continued): unity; reality. Virtues and vices, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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