Imposed Virtues?

This article represents a slight detour through my series of articles addressing objections to my thesis that evil and suffering are necessary ingredients for a world with heroes.

As I have been working through the series of articles on suffering and why God allows it, from several places I have found some resistance to the idea that suffering, hardship, challenges and all that are necessary for character formation. The objection, briefly, is that God should have just “made us virtuous” from the start, skipped all that part about suffering and unpleasantness and just landed us in Heaven. I have tried to argue that virtues are the kinds of things that cannot be implanted fully formed, they must be grown through life experience. I have argued, in fact, that it would be logically impossible for God to implant virtues. This means our world – ugliness, brokenness and all – is logically necessary if any human is to become virtuous.

I was poking around a bit to see if I was off my rocker. It’s always a good idea to see if experts in the field agree with you or not, especially if you are in my position; unequivocal non-expert. I looked up “Virtue Ethics” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’ll be upfront here; the article does not directly address this question of the hypothetical scenario of having virtues implanted and I am not claiming that it does. However, what it does say about virtue ethics is worth considering vis-à-vis this question.

First, there is a word that needs to be learned here – eudaimonia. It’s Greek and I am no expert on that language but I think it’s pronounced You-Day-Moan-E-Uh. As the article describes,

The concept of eudaimonia, a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy …  is standardly translated as “happiness” or “flourishing” and occasionally as “well-being.”

The author goes on to explore some of the ways that each of these words captures, and does not capture, the essence of Eudaimonia. I am going to run with the word “flourish” as long as we do not understand that as mere physical survival as the article suggests may be one form of understanding. Rather, I mean flourishing in the sense of becoming fully human with respect to all the excellence of human character.

With this understanding in mind, the author considers what all is involved with “possessing” a virtue. Having a virtue, it turns out, is nothing at all like getting earrings or even learning another language. As the author describes,

A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say “goes all the way down”, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. (emphasis mine)

Notice how a virtue is not even plausibly isolated from the rest of the human mind and soul. We do not merely perform virtuous functions (like the chirping light signal I described in a previous article), nor merely think virtuous thoughts. To possess the characteristic of being virtuous involves our understanding of the world around us, our emotional dispositions, our will, and much more. The very foundation of our worldview, our personality and even our very soul is modified when we become virtuous.

But what if virtues were simply implanted at birth? There would be no shifting of our nature during our lifetime precisely because we already had all the virtues we required. We would be born completely virtuous. This runs into a problem too. The author describes something she calls “practical wisdom” or phronesis.

Aristotle makes a number of specific remarks about phronesis that are the subject of much scholarly debate, but the (related) modern concept is best understood by thinking of what the virtuous morally mature adult has that nice children, including nice adolescents, lack. Both the virtuous adult and the nice child have good intentions, but the child is much more prone to mess things up because he is ignorant of what he needs to know in order to do what he intends. (emphasis mine)

Thus, in order for a child to be truly virtuous from the moment of their birth they must not only possess good intentions and a general understanding of what is virtuous, they must also possess sufficient understanding of the world around them and its operation in order to actualize the other ingredients of their virtuous nature. After all, the world we are looking for here is a world where nobody does anything that might “mess things up” as the author euphemistically describes it. Virtue without sufficient knowledge is likely to introduce just as much horror and vice as the author goes on to illustrate. Thus virtue, complete virtue, also requires a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the world.

Well this is all getting a lot more complicated than just slapping some virtue on every newborn and settling back into the “perfect world” that we all imagined it would be. Not only do the newborns need to be nice, they also need to be as knowledgeable as adults. In fact, even some adults I know could stand to grow a bit in this area (I include myself). In order to accomplish true virtue-from-birth every newborn would need as much “practical wisdom” as the wisest sage among us.

In other words, we need to be born old. We would need to come out of the womb fully human with no potential for growth in any area of life, not merely in the arena of virtues. Even if we could postulate perfectly fulfilled human babies with no potential in any area of life (otherwise they would not meet the complex criteria necessary for being “virtuous) this really is an entirely different kettle of fish than just imagining babies who inevitably grow up to be generally nice people.

Furthermore, it is not nearly enough for God to instill virtue at the moment of birth (as well as all the worldview, emotional, psychological, will, soul details that are necessary to sustain virtue) God would have to make sure that nobody ever changed. Not only have we now been stripped of our moral freedom, we have also been stripped of any possibility of changing our belief system, of changing our will and desires, growing in knowledge or any of the other pieces of the virtue puzzle that we need in place. All of this is necessary in order to ensure that all the humans in the “perfect world” are always, and always remain, virtuous.

In our world, however, this practical wisdom, “characteristically comes only with experience of life.” Again, she is by no means speaking to the present debate, but her insight is still relevant. The only means we know of for virtue development is through life experience. She discusses this at some length.

It is the exercise of the virtues during one’s life that is held to be at least partially constitutive of eudaimonia…  Given the sorts of considerations that courageous, honest, loyal, charitable people wholeheartedly recognise as reasons for action, they may find themselves compelled to face danger for a worthwhile end, to speak out in someone’s defence, or refuse to reveal the names of their comrades, even when they know that this will inevitably lead to their execution, to share their last crust and face starvation. On the view that the exercise of the virtues is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia, such cases are described as those in which the virtuous agent sees that, as things have unfortunately turned out, eudaimonia is not possible for them (Foot 2001, 95). On the Stoical view that it is both necessary and sufficient, a eudaimon life is a life that has been successfully lived (where “success” of course is not to be understood in a materialistic way) and such people die knowing not only that they have made a success of their lives but that they have also brought their lives to a markedly successful completion. Either way, such heroic acts can hardly be regarded as egoistic.

She considers two possible scenarios. First, the exercise of virtue is necessary but not sufficient for human flourishing. Second, the exercise of virtue is necessary and sufficient for human flourishing. In both cases the exercise of virtue is considered necessary for human flourishing, for eudaimonia. Again, she is not attempting to address the question of whether or not human virtues could be implanted prior to any life experience, but the way she presents the subject it is terribly difficult to imagine that she would consider such a view viable.

I would suggest it is not viable. And if the concept of implanted virtue, engrained heroism, is not a viable option, then the only alternative is a learned heroism. If learning is the only means to heroism then we need a classroom with sufficient “educational opportunities.” As unpleasant as it may seem, just as boot camp may seem terribly unpleasant to the new recruit to the armed forces, this world with all of its horrors, disasters and moral outrage is precisely the venue we require to succeed as humans, “where ‘success’ of course is not to be understood in a materialistic way.”


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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