Virtue, Forrest Gump, and Wittgenstein

Forrest GumpI am often asked a fair question about virtue ethics: what is virtue? This is not a novel question, and philosophers have been debating it since the time of Socrates, at the least.

It is not clear how Socrates defined virtue, exactly, not whether he believed that virtue can be taught: in the Meno he goes for a negative answer to the latter question, while in Protagoras he veers toward a positive one.

The Stoics, however, certainly believed that virtue can be taught. Indeed, they were also pretty clear about how to do so: while theoretical treatment helps clarifying one’s mind, one becomes virtuous in the same way in which one gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

That’s because virtue is a type of skill that needs to be perfected. Here is how Diogenes Laertius explained it: “Virtue, in the first place, is in one sense the perfection of anything in general, say of a statue; again, it may be non-intellectual, like health, or intellectual, like prudence.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VIII)

Diogenes also gives us the famous list of Stoic virtues: “Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VIII)

Moreover, Diogenes tells us that the Stoics thought that the virtues are all aspects of the same thing: “[The Stoics] hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VIII)

So when someone asks me what is virtue, my first line of response is to say that it manifests itself in wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Yes, yes, my interlocutor rightly retorts, but what are “wisdom,” “courage,” “justice,” and “temperance”?

I could (and sometimes do) launch into a deeper discussion of one or more of the cardinal virtues, but at some point you have to go “Forrest Gump” on the guy: virtue is as virtue does, so to speak. To understand virtue you need to look at examples of behavior on the part of virtuous people. Or, as Marcus put it: “In the writings of the Ephesians there was this precept: constantly to think of one of the men of former times who practiced virtue.” (Meditations, XI.26)

Now, Socrates did’t like the idea of understanding concepts by listing examples. In the Theaetetus, for instance, he tells his young interlocutor (a mathematician) that one cannot simply point to examples of knowledge (the main topic of that dialogue) in order to figure out what knowledge is. Socrates seems rather to go after a definition in terms of what we today would call necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.

This is the sort of definition that is common in logic and mathematics — as a frustrated Theaetetus points out. For instance, a good definition of a triangle is that it is a geometric figure that (in Euclidean space) has the sum of its internal angles amounting to 180 degrees. Having that property is both necessary in order to be a triangle (geometric figures that don’t have it are not triangles), and sufficient (once we know that a figure has that property we also instantly know that it is a triangle).

The problem is that most interestingly complex concepts — like “knowledge,” or “virtue” — are inherently fuzzy, without sharp boundaries, and are therefore not amenable to simple necessary & sufficient type of definitions.

This, however, does not imply that we do not understand what these concepts mean. Take a look at how Ludwig Wittgenstein (not a Stoic philosopher!) tackled the similar problem represented by the definition of the deceptively simple concept of “game.”

In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein begins by saying “consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’ … look and see whether there is anything common to all.” (§66) After mentioning a number of such examples, he says: “And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” Hence: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (§67) Concluding: “And this is how we do use the word ‘game.’ For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word ‘game.’)” (§68)

Similarly, virtuous characters form a family group whose boundaries cannot be drawn a priori, and yet which we usually do not have trouble identifying.

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Categories: Virtue Ethics

21 replies

  1. Massimo,

    I have a problem with your final statement: “Similarly, virtuous characters form a family group whose boundaries cannot be drawn a priori, and yet which we usually do not have trouble identifying.”

    It is one thing to draw boundaries around the question of virtuous behavior – and this we must do. However, it is another to identify OBJECTIVE PRINCIPLES that will guide us in drawing these boundaries. Without these, we cannot even begin to draw boundaries.

    Likewise, it is unfair and unwise to grade a math exam without objective answers. To do so is arbitrary and meaningless. Ultimately, such subjectivity will only incite rebellion against such judgments.

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  2. Indeed, we can use our intuitions to guide us. However, if these intuitions do not reflect objective moral principles or laws, why even bother!

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  3. Daniel,

    you seem to be looking for more precision in our definitions (in this case, of virtue) that is allowed by the subject matter. Aristotle already pointed out that that’s a bad idea, and I think Wittgenstein’s approach is perfectly applicable here.

    Also, I keep getting this nagging feeling that when you speak of “objective” sources of morality you are thinking God. But Plato’s Euthyphro killed that possibility, as I’ve written in a number of places, so the religious person is in the same (actually, I think, worse) situation than the secular one here.

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  4. Didn’t the Stoics understand virtue to mean what we moderns might call ‘excellence’? As to the question, ‘Excellence in what sense?’ my understanding is that they meant excellence in terms of the extent to which one could live according to nature; that is, to align one’s thoughts and actions most harmoniously and fully with the manner in which the Universe is constructed (rationally, according to the Stoics) as well as the manner in which humans are constructed (rationally and socially). That, to me, is what makes Stoicism so intriguing – the ethics is supposed to emerge from the physics. Yet it seems that this linkage (physics to ethics, using logic as the means of getting from one to another) receives comparatively little attention in modern commentaries. In the end, what I’m suggesting is that to understand virtue, don’t we have to refer back to our evolving understanding of the universe and human beings in order to determine what is, in fact, ethically required of us?

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  5. Massimo, Precision is one thing and a sufficient rationale for the virtuous is another. While I would agree that moral judgments can often lack precision, they should not lack an ontological basis in objective moral law.

    If virtue is something that we create rather than discover, then it lacks sufficient authority and appeal. After all, how can I take seriously something that I created! If I created it, I can just as easily un-create it.

    Our intuitions cannot fill the gap. It is like obeying a fire alarm when we don’t really believe that there is any objective, external fire.

    You are right (and you knew it from the start) about my preoccupation with God. I do not find Euthyphro compelling as Plato sets up a false dichotomy.

    BTW, Please know that I do appreciate your posts.

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  6. Michael,

    yes, I think you got it right. But what we need to be clear is that there is, indeed there must be, a difference between ancient and modern Stoicism. Modern Stoics are obviously interested in the basic ideas that come from the ancient tradition, but — Stoicism not being a religion — are not bound to accept wholesale any of them as they were presented by Epictetus, Musonius, Zeno, and so forth.

    For instance, one of those ideas that I think we should retain is the notion that “physics” and “logic” ought to inform “ethics,” but this can be usefully reframed as Becker does, for instance: to follow nature, in contemporary terms, means to follow the facts as much as science tells us the facts are. If science tells us that the idea of a providential type of teleology is out the window, then out the window it goes. Even so, Stoic ethics remains a naturalistic type of ethics, established on our understanding of human nature, i.e., the nature of a social being capable of rationality.

    Daniel,

    “While I would agree that moral judgments can often lack precision, they should not lack an ontological basis in objective moral law”

    Since I don’t think there is any such thing as objective moral law, I’m not sure what to tell you.

    “If virtue is something that we create rather than discover, then it lacks sufficient authority and appeal”

    Not really. Think of mathematics, another thing we create and not discover (unless you are a Platonist, which I’m not). And yet, it is both objective and authoritative.

    “I do not find Euthyphro compelling as Plato sets up a false dichotomy.”

    How so? I’ve read the Euthyphro and a number of commentaries on it, including by theologians, and I’ve never seen a compelling argument that the dilemma is based on a false dichotomy.

    “Please know that I do appreciate your posts”

    And I appreciate your comments! It’s good to be challenged, civilly and constructively!

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  7. Just as Stoics thought that virtue could be taught, they also thought that virtue was knowledge. What kind of knowledge? For me it would have to be a priori to have the weight and force the Stoics gave it. Empirical principles of virtue work well under most conditions but when the chips are down, you are not going to put your life on the line (Ghandi or MLK) for a probability that might change tomorrow. Moral heroism, like Socrates, is what makes morality attractive but an a posteriori understanding doesn’t seem to give the requisite principles.

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  8. “Not really. Think of mathematics, another thing we create and not discover (unless you are a Platonist, which I’m not). And yet, it is both objective and authoritative.”

    I guess I am a Platonist in this regard. I regard math as both creation and discovery. Likewise, do I view our intuitions. While they do reflect our own idiosyncracies, I do think that they also reflect and plug into something greater – objective moral law, not just social norms.

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  9. jbonnicerenoreg,

    “they also thought that virtue was knowledge. What kind of knowledge? For me it would have to be a priori to have the weight and force the Stoics gave it”

    I don’t see why. Very little, if any, knowledge is a priori. I could count math and logic, but nothing about the empirical world. So if what you say is true, then not just the Stoics, but pretty much anyone, including Ghandi or MLK, who puts his life on the line based on (fallible) human knowledge is a fool. I disagree.

    In epistemology, the idea that infallibility is a requirement for knowledge has gone out the window with Descartes (despite a late, failed, attempt by AJ Ayer to bring it back).

    Daniel,

    “I guess I am a Platonist in this regard. I regard math as both creation and discovery”

    Then you are not a Platonist. They regard it as a discovery of mind-independent truths. And it’s a position that t’s pretty hard to defend, metaphysically.

    “Likewise, do I view our intuitions. While they do reflect our own idiosyncracies, I do think that they also reflect and plug into something greater”

    I don’t see on what basis. Strong moral feelings are better understood as the result of evolution as social primates. As for intuitions more generally, there is a cognitive science literature that shows that they are domain-specific: people aren’t just “intuitive,” but rather have more and more reliable intuitions — the result of subconscious information processing — the more time they have spent studying or practicing something.

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  10. “(fallible) human knowledge”. But human knowlidge has degrees and is not jusr either fallible or infallible. Our knowledge of physics sends men to the moon but our knowledge of pre-historic man changes annually it seems. What kind of knowledge is a moral maxim like “help the poor” which can not only be challenged but interpreted in many ways?

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  11. jbonnicerenoreg,

    Yes human knowledge comes in degrees, unthought you were asking for an impossibly high one before making an ethical decision.

    Also, at this point we are in danger of committing a category mistake: what you are referring to are ethical judgments, not knowledge as in, say, math or the natural sciences.

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  12. jbonnicerenoreg,

    I agree with you. If morality is no more than a human invention (and consequently relative and changing), how can we sacrifice ourselves for such a thing! Better to just look out for #1 and our close associates.

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  13. Massimo, I will defer to your assessment that I am not a Platonist. However, “As for intuitions more generally, there is a cognitive science literature that shows that they are domain-specific: people aren’t just “intuitive,” but rather have more and more reliable intuitions — the result of subconscious information processing — the more time they have spent studying or practicing something.”

    “more reliable intuitions?” If our intuitions are only the result of the evolutionary process (and other relative and mutable considerations), then our intuitions can only reflect a mindless, purposeless process and not ontological virtue or morality. Why then base our lives on our moral intuitions?

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  14. Daniel,

    So how do you explain that plenty of people who do not believe in a god-given morality are nonetheless willing to make sacrifices for others, rather than just looking out for n.1?

    As for intuitions, I never said we should base our lives only on them. I’m a philosopher, I believe in the power of reason.

    Moreover, I don’t see much of an alternative to a combination of natural moral sense (“intuition”), facts about the world (science) and critical reflection (philosophy).

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  15. “I don’t see much of an alternative to a combination of natural moral sense (“intuition”), facts about the world (science) and critical reflection (philosophy).”

    Although these elements are each critical to moral judgment, they are not adequate. None of these will provide rational certainty that what we are doing is the right thing. Instead, if we are to act sacrificially, we need to be convinced that what we are doing is absolutely and objectively right.

    This means that there must first exist an ontological and objective right or just. However, this is often resisted because it comes with strings attached – God.

    The alternative that you deny is to recognize our own unworthiness and that Christ has died to forgive our sins. And this becomes a moral imperative. We also have to lay our lives down for the needs of others.

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  16. Daniel,

    We are back to certainty, which I thought we agreed is irrelevant on two grounds: first, it is not humanly possible; second, plenty of people do sacrifice themselves without that certainty about what they are doing, and you keep not having an explanation for that.

    Further, as I also have already mentioned, God doesn’t give you moral certainty, he either gives you an arbitrary moral system (his way or the highway) or he himself is basing his morality on something else, of which he therefore is not the source. Euthyphro…

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  17. Massimo, Thanks for your patience with my challenges.

    “We are back to certainty, which I thought we agreed is irrelevant on two grounds: first, it is not humanly possible;”

    Are you certain about that? If you are, then you contradict yourself.

    “Plenty of people do sacrifice themselves without that certainty about what they are doing, and you keep not having an explanation for that.”

    Certainly, they do sacrifice themselves “without that certainty about what they are doing.” However, if this is so, then they have ignorantly made this supreme payment.

    However, when we do know the right thing to do, it is less likely that we will be intimidated into silence. When we know Who is with us and where we are going, we can stand against ISIS and the bullies of this world.

    “God doesn’t give you moral certainty, he either gives you an arbitrary moral system (his way or the highway) or he himself is basing his morality on something else, of which he therefore is not the source. Euthyphro…”

    This represents a false dichotomy. There are other choices, namely that moral truth is inseparable from the nature of God. He therefore neither choices morality arbitrarily; nor is He dependent upon an external moral standard. (Besides, we are unable to coherently criticize His moral standards because He has wired them into us.)

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  18. Massimo,

    I just want you to know how much I respect your integrity and the honesty of your endeavors. Few people will even tolerate my God-talk on their blog. It immediately become acrimonious. You are one glowing exception.

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  19. Daniel,

    “Are you certain about that? If you are, then you contradict yourself”

    That’s a bit of a cheap shot. You know exactly what I meant, I’m pretty certain…

    “they do sacrifice themselves “without that certainty about what they are doing.” However, if this is so, then they have ignorantly made this supreme payment.”

    Forgive me, but that sounds both arrogant (so, you have access to certain knowledge, but other people just fool themselves?) and insensitive of the sacrifices that plenty of others have done for causes they believed in.

    ” When we know Who is with us and where we are going, we can stand against ISIS and the bullies of this world”

    I’d like to remind you that the “no atheists in the foxholes” idea is empirically wrong…

    “There are other choices, namely that moral truth is inseparable from the nature of God. He therefore neither choices morality arbitrarily; nor is He dependent upon an external moral standard”

    I’ve heard that before, but it doesn’t cut it. To begin with, I don’t know what it means to say that moral truth is inseparable from the nature of God. I can certainly separate it logically and linguistically. If you mean that God is by nature good (which is what a number of theologians have tried, to wiggle out of Euthyphro), that may be (though I’d really like to know how can you or anyone else possibly know that), but even to make that statement you have to have some conception of what is good. And where did that come from? Well, either from God himself, as a decree (in which case it is arbitrary), or from somewhere else (in which case we don’t need God to tell us). Which is the Euthyphro all over again…

    “Few people will even tolerate my God-talk on their blog. It immediately become acrimonious. You are one glowing exception”

    Thanks, though from time to time it would be nice to talk about something else… 😉

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  20. “(in which case it is arbitrary)”
    I think that this is where the Euthyphro breaks down in a theist context. The Greek gods did arbitrary things, but the properly defined theist God (if that is possible) not only could not do something arbitrary but could not do something illogical. Combined with His omniscient, this would make his word trustworthy and irrational not to believe.

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  21. jbonnicerenoreg,

    “I think that this is where the Euthyphro breaks down in a theist context. The Greek gods did arbitrary things, but the properly defined theist God (if that is possible) not only could not do something arbitrary but could not do something illogical”

    Actually, no. The Euthyphro has always been understood as aimed at *any* conception of god(s), not just the capricious ones. Even if the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God doesn’t do anything capricious (an assumption thrown into significant doubt by any serious reading of the Old Testament), the question remains of how we can attach the attribute of “good” to what he does/is.

    And the choices, again, seem to be only: i) by definition what he does is good (so, might makes right); or ii) he does good for whatever reason (by choice, because it’s in his nature, etc.) but is not the source of it, in which case there must be a standard of good that is independent of him.

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