Virtues and vices

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

5. Links between virtue and vice

Unlike the failings recognized by Aristotle, these evil motivations are more than mere negations. It is important, however, that this need not be taken as a metaphysical claim: one need not be committed to a Manichean view (or even the very various compromises with such a view that have been negotiated by orthodox Christianity), to the effect that human nature or the world itself contains some perversely destructive principle (see Manicheism). One might, for instance, hold, as some optimistic programmes of psychotherapy do, that vicious and cruel motivations are, indeed, perversions, produced by a failure of love or other deficiency in the individual’s upbringing. This is an encouraging position, inasmuch as it holds out the hope of a world free of such motivations, but it does not think that such motivations, while they exist, are to be understood simply in terms of the lack of a shaping or restraining influence. It would accept that vicious motivations were specially and inventively active.

Other psychological and social views are less hopeful. It is not simply that they see no ground for Utopian hopes that the world could ever be freed from vicious motivations. Some of them detect deeper ways in which virtue, and more generally the good, depend on their opposites. At the most superficial level, there are contemporary versions of the point made in Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714) (see Mandeville, B. §2): many benefits, including ethical benefits, have come from the development of commercial society, but there is no known way of replacing greed as a means of sustaining it. At another level, there is no doubt that valuable human achievements, for instance in the arts and sciences, have come about only because of a certain indifference to values of justice and benevolence, both at an institutional level and in the lives of those who have brought about these achievements. (Here, as so often, moralists have to face the question whether or not they are relieved that the values which they think should prevail have not always done so.)

At the deepest level, however, it is not a question simply whether nonethical values may often require the neglect or denial of morality, but whether morality itself does not require it. One of the metaphysicians’ illusions, Nietzsche said (1886), is ‘the belief in opposing values’. In fact, he thought, moral values will always turn out to implicate their opposites – historically (in terms of how new moral values come to exist), socially (in terms of how they sustain themselves), and psychologically (in terms of how they are learned and of how they derive their energy).

Even if we accept the force of the Nietzschean suspicions, this need not damage, but rather encourages, the project of thinking about morality in ways that give an important place to virtues and vices. A theory of virtues, handled in a truthful way, offers better hope of being psychologically realistic than other prominent pictures of the ethical life do. If, further, it extends its realism to the motivations of immorality as well, and does not treat them as mere negations of the moral dispositions, it will better understand morality itself. It will be more successful in this than other theories of morality, which usually pass over in silence the forces that oppose it, or register them simply as objects of moral disapproval, or treat them as the products of a (typically unexplained) cognitive failure.

Citing this article:
Williams, Bernard. Links between virtue and vice. Virtues and vices, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

Related Articles