Vice Squad
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Off Topic? -- Virtue

Vice Squad was in the audience tonight when renown philosopher Jonathan Lear lectured (primarily to University of Chicago undergraduate students) about Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I'll just note a sample of what he had to say, though I imagine that some mangling of the original will unintentionally slip in.

Spiders have no difficulty being spiders -- they go about their spidery business automatically, as it were. But we humans can't just go about our human business automatically. We must know what life is about before we can determine how we should live, before we can flourish in our humanity. This flourishing comes from a lifetime of acting virtuously.

Behaving in accordance with virtue gives us a principle to guide our actions, but not a detailed rule. Part of acquiring a specific virtue is understanding what that virtue requires no matter what life circumstances are thrown in our paths -- and it also requires that with that understanding comes motivation to undertake the virtuous act. For instance, consider the virtue of kindness. A kind person has to understand what kindness requires in a specific circumstance. Sometimes it is kind to help an elderly person board a bus -- but not every elderly person desires help, so a kind person must choose not to offer or provide help in some circumstances. Simply taking the appropriately kind actions is not enough, either, for virtue -- we must take those actions for the right reasons. Being habitually kind in order to avoid punishment is not virtuous. But being kind in order to live up to what is fine, what is noble, what is beautiful, is virtuous. Once a virtuous person sees that an action is shameful, he or she has no interest in taking that action, irrespective of other costs and benefits.

Towards the end Professor Lear began to draw upon his most recent book, one that concerns the Crow nation. (This part of the talk was the most fascinating for me; for some of the flavor, see this New York Times review of his book.) The Crows -- a nomadic, warrior, buffalo-hunting people -- saw their traditional way of life erased, and erased permanently, almost overnight. Think about those who most achieve the Aristotelean virtues within the Crow civilization. They have become habituated to behaving virtuously, but those virtues are specific to the Crow way of life. The virtuous Crows seem to be in the worst position to flourish in the new environment. Lear suggested that the Crows met the challenge by transforming their understanding of the virtue of courage. Before, courage was associated with warfare; in the nineteenth century, however, courage came to be associated with weathering the storm. Those who made the transformation achieved a higher Aristotelean virtue -- they were able to adjust their idea of virtue itself to the circumstances that life had thrown at them.


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