Virtues, Vices and Moral Learning (Michaelmas 2018)

Dr Nakul Krishna (nk459)

4 x 50 minute lectures

Lecture Block Room 10


– These lectures will be lectures, i.e. involve minimal class discussion. This is partly because of the size of the class and partly because of the amount of material to cover in a very short time. Anyone with questions is free to speak to me in the corridor after the lecture, or to book themselves into my regular office hours on Thursday mornings.

– These lectures will presuppose minimal philosophical background. Anyone who feels lost (especially but not only students from other departments borrowing the Ethics paper) should write to me, or book themselves into my office hours. Non-philosophy students are encouraged to do a bit of extra reading to acquaint themselves with basic philosophical terminology. They might with profit equip themselves with a copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophyand to read the first few chapters of the first-year Logic textbook, forallx.

– I shall be recommending preparatory reading for each lecture. This is not required, and I won’t be trying to enforce it, but doing it will make a big difference to how much participants will get out of the lectures.

– The following are brief summaries of what was said in each lecture, with some suggestions for further reading. The more detailed notes from last year’s lectures are here.

– Lecture plan. (1) Virtue in the ancient world (Plato’s moral psychology); (2) Virtue in the modern world (the revival of ‘virtue ethics’ and the attempt to modernise Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics); (3) Aristotle and others on the ‘unity of virtue’: Some puzzles; (4) Can neo-Aristotelian ethics survive the insights of modern psychology?


Lecture I. Virtue in the Ancient World

– ‘Virtue’ is a central concern of many ancient Greek philosophers. A good place to start reading the Greeks on this subject is Plato’s dialogue, the Meno. Plato depicts Socrates in conversation with a cocky (but somewhat lazy) teenager called Meno who wants him to tell him whether virtue (areté) can be taught. Socrates replies that he can’t possibly answer that because he doesn’t know what virtue is. He invites Meno to join him in inquiring into this.

– Meno tries out a series of definitions, but Socrates easily refutes each one. The larger part of the dialogue is devoted not to virtue, but to philosophical method: how can inquire into anything at all? And how can one inquire into virtue in particular? The dialogue ends in aporia, i.e. confusion or puzzlement.

– Part of the reason for the unsatisfactory end of the Meno could be that the titular character isn’t (from the hints in Plato’s characterisation of him) a suitable person with whom to pursue such an inquiry. Socrates finds a better sets of interlocutors in Plato’s much longer dialogue, the Republic.

[NB. The Meno is wonderfully readable: anyone who hasn’t read it before is encouraged to give it a try. I particularly like the translation by Adam Beresford, but there are other good ones by Jane Day, RW Sharples and GMA Grube.]

– The Republic, like the Meno, starts with a practical question: is justice good for its possessor? Is it (self-interestedly) rational for anyone to be just? Or is justice a kind of stupidity, a willingness to be exploited by cannier others? In his usual way, Socrates turns the conversation to a more basic question, what is justice?

– This time, Socrates is able to conduct a much more ambitious and systematic inquiry than he could manage with Meno. His method this time involves following through on an analogy between the justice of the individual soul (psyche) and the justice of a city (polis). In other words, he makes a connection between ethics (lit. the study of character), psychology (lit. the study of the soul/mind) and politics (lit. the affairs of the city-state). The Republic unifies ethics with what we would now call the philosophy of mind and political theory — not to mention logic, metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics.

– The account of (individual) justice we get in Book IV of the Republic comes neatly out of its psychological theory. Socrates develops a complex argument for thinking that both the city and the soul are structurally complex. They are divided, and not just coincidentally, into three classes/parts/aspects. Justice is the state of a soul where reason is authoritative over the two non-rational parts, appetite (roughly, the desire for food, drink and sex) and spirit (roughly, such things as anger, shame and the sense of honour). [NB. The Republic is well worth reading in its entirety; for present purposes, you’d be fine just reading Books II, III and IV, especially the latter half of Book IV. I’d recommend the translation by CDC Reeve.]

– We do have an account of what it is to act justly in the Republic, but Socrates doesn’t make much of it. He seems to conceive of just (and therefore, right) action simply as the sort of action characteristic of the person whose soul is structured in the right way. Unlike in much modern moral philosophy, there is no attempt on Socrates’ part to give criteria for right action.

– The lack of such an attempt makes the Republic, and the Greek ethical tradition shaped by it, a curious object to modern philosophical eyes. E.g. Henry Sidgwick’s remark in The Methods of Ethics, a book that effectively invents ethics as an academic discipline:

… we ask how we are to ascertain the kind of conduct which is properly to be called Virtuous, it does not seem that Plato can tell us more of each virtue in turn than that it consists in (1) the knowledge of what is Good in certain circumstances and relations, and (2) such a harmony of the different elements of man’s appetitive nature, that their resultant impulse may be always in accordance with this knowledge. But it is just this knowledge (or at least its principles and method) that we are expecting him to give us: and to explain to us instead the different exigencies under which we need it, in no way satisfies our expectation. Nor, again, does Aristotle bring us much nearer such knowledge by telling us that the Good in conduct is to be found somewhere between different kinds of Bad. This at best only indicates the whereabouts of Virtue: it does not give us a method for finding it. (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edition (London: Macmillan, 1907 [1874]), 375–6)

– Sidgwick has one of the clearest statements of the distinction between the ancient understanding of ethics, conceived of as a partially psychological inquiry, and the modern one, conceived of as analogous to law:

Their [sc. the ancients’] speculations can scarcely be understood by us unless with a certain effort we throw the quasi-jural notions of modern ethics aside, and ask (as they did) not “What is Duty and what is its ground?” but … ‘What is the relation of the kind of Good we call Virtue, the qualities of conduct and character which men commend and admire, to other good things?” (The Methods of Ethics, 102)

– What happened in the middle? A very rough set of hypotheses: Christianity (with its emphasis on commandments, prohibitions and the idea of sin); medieval scholasticism; the arrival of modernity and liberalism with the special demands of the new legal and political institutions and their effects on human psychology.

– The paragraph above is an extremely condensed version of a thesis developed at length and with verve in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). MacIntyre’s book might be thought of as a book-length elaboration of a thesis provocatively articulated in Elizabeth Anscombe’s paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’.

– The post-war period in English-language philosophy saw a serious revival of interest in ancient ethics, particularly as articulated in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. [NB. I’d recommend reading a little in preparation: Books I and II will do for the moment. I myself use the Hackett translation by TH Irwin but would also recommend translations by Crisp (freer) and Rowe (more literal); the Rowe translation has a very useful detailed commentary on the text by Sarah Broadie.]

Next week:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (many editions and translations)

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy 33 (124): 1 – 19.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1987). Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1): 32-53.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1999). Virtue ethics: A misleading category? The Journal of Ethics 3 (3): 163-201.


Lecture 2. Virtue in the Modern World

  1. Reminder

(1) Lecture notes from last year’s version of this lecture series are available here:

I’ll be uploading notes from this year’s lectures on this page, after each lecture:

  1. Recap

Virtue in Plato’s Meno and Republic; the difficulty of defining virtue in the absence of a psychological theory; the tripartite psyche; the depsychologisation of ethics in the modern era.

  1. Anscombe’s complaint

GEM Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ is a polemic against the state of moral philosophy c. 1958. See summary and discussion here:

  1. Aristotelian Revival

Aretaic turn: Taking virtues and vices as primary in moral philosophy (not consequences (as in Mill) or duty (as in Kant)).

– Placing the theory of virtues and vices into a larger moral psychology: the assessment of action requires thinking not just about consequences, or its conformity to some rational rule, but also about the character of the agent (intentions, emotions, understanding).

  1. Aristotle on virtue

– Function argument (Book I)

What … is the highest of all the goods achievable in action? As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree; for both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and they suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy. But they disagree about what happiness is, and the many do not give the same answer as the wise. (I.4)

For just as the good, i.e., [doing] well, for a flautist, a sculptor, and every craftsman, and, in general, for whatever has a function and [characteristic] action, seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being … (I.7)

… the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason. (I.7)

By feelings I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hate, longing, jealousy, pity, and in general whatever implies pleasure or pain. … By states I mean what we have when we are well or badly off in relation to feelings. If, for instance, our feeling is too intense or slack, we are badly off in relation to anger, but if it is intermediate, we are well off … [V]irtues … are states. (II.4)

A state [of character] arises from [the repetition of] similar activities. (II.1)

We can be afraid, e.g., or be confident, or have appetites, or get angry, or feel pity, in general have pleasure or pain, both too much and too little, and in both ways not well; but [having these feelings] at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue. Similarly, actions also admit of excess, deficiency and the intermediate. … Virtue, then, is a mean, insofar as it aims at what is intermediate. (EN II.6)

… for actions in accord with the virtues to be done temperately or justly it does not suffice that they themselves have the right qualities. Rather, the agent must also be in the right state when he does them. First, he must know [that he is doing virtuous actions]; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and, third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state. (II.4)

Virtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it. (II.6)

… prudence is a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being. (VI.5)

Nor is prudence about universals only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars.

  1. Exposition and critique

What he does … is to isolate a sphere of human experience that figures in more or less any human life, and in which more or less any human being will have to make some choices rather than others, and act in some way rather than some other. […] What is it to choose and respond well within that sphere? What is it, on the other hand, to choose defectively? The “thin account” of each virtue is that it is whatever it is to be stably disposed to act appropriately in that sphere. (Martha Nussbaum, ‘Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach’, 35)

Two objections: triviality; circularity

Next week: The Unity of Virtue? (Read: Nicomachean Ethics, VI.13)

Lecture 3. The Unity of Virtue

  1. Recap

Virtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it. (Aristotle, EN II.6, 1107a1–3, tr. Irwin)

Glossary. State (hexis): a psychological disposition, acquired by habituation. Decision (prohairesis): a deliberative desire or desire arising out of a deliberative process. Mean (meson): having feelings (pathe) of the right intensity, with the right target, etc, typically lying between two extremes, both of which are vicious. Prudent person (phronimos): Person of practical (as opposed to theoretical) wisdom

(1) Is this trivial? (‘Virtue is about doing the right thing in the right way with the right feelings given the situation…’)

(2) Is this circular? (Virtue defined in terms of prudence, prudence in terms of virtue.)

Response to (1): No, because the claim (or its presupposition) could be denied: by a Stoic (‘feelings are irrelevant and pernicious’), or a consequentialist (‘only consequences matter, not the agent’s mental states’).

(2) is trickier. Can be presented as a version of the Euthyphro dilemma. Either (A) the prudent person decides the standard of virtue, or (B) act in awareness of higher standard. If (A): why and how do they get to decide? If (B), why not just cut the intermediary and just state the higher standard? Aristotle effectively plumps for (B), and says more about the prudent person in Book VI.

The virtue defined above is one of two types of virtue Aristotle is concerned with: ethical virtue or virtue of character. The other type of virtue is intellectual virtue or virtue of thought. He thinks of them as the virtues of different parts of the psyche, one consisting in non-rational faculties (emotions, appetites) and the other directed towards truth and knowledge. But even ethical virtue has an intellectual component, hence the reference to prudence.

2. Aristotle on prudence and ethical education: Texts

It seems proper to a prudent person to be able to deliberate finely about things that are good and beneficial for himself … about what sorts of things promote living well in general. (EN VI.5)

… prudence is a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being. (EN VI.5)

Nor is prudence about universals only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars. (EN VI.7)

3. The nature of Aristotle’s theory

– Contemporary virtue ethics (e.g. Julia Annas, Rosalind Hursthouse) believe that Aristotle can yield a criterion for right and wrong action, comparable (and superior) to those offered by utilitarians, Kantians and contractualists.

– But others (e.g. Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot) distinguish virtue theory from virtue ethics: maybe Aristotle isn’t concerned to give us more than a structural model of virtue. The aim is not to answer all questions but to give the right framework in which to theorise. Cf. ‘safety’ condition on knowledge in contemporary epistemology (e.g. Timothy Williamson, Knowledge and its Limits)

4. The Unity of the Virtues

it is neither possible to be fully good without prudence not prudent without virtue of character. And in this way we can also resolve the argument by which someone might contend … that the virtues are separate from each other on the grounds that the same person is not naturally well disposed in the highest degree where all of them are concerned, so that he will at some point have acquired one when he has not yet acquired another. In the case of the natural virtues, indeed, this is possible, in the case of those in accord with which someone is called “unconditionally good,” it is not possible, since at the same time that practical wisdom, which is one state, is present, they will all be present. (EN VI.13)

Objection: Empirically falsified: obviously one can be (e.g.) honest without being kind.

 Response: Too quick. Maybe we’re wrong to think that someone who’s honest and unkind is actually honest – because they lack the unified knowledge of ‘what is good or bad for a human being’ necessary for true virtue. Put differently: not all the dispositions we (sloppily) label ‘honesty’ are virtues; if honesty is to be a virtue, it must be consistent with the knowledge that is a necessary and sufficient condition of all other virtues.

Objection: Begs the question.

Response: Only if we arbitrarily stipulate the above claim as a conceptual requirement. But there are good reasons to think of (1) virtue as partially cognitive (i.e. requiring knowledge) and (2) knowledge of this sort as unified. (See: Susan Wolf, “Moral Psychology and the Unity of the Virtues”; a more careful argument for a similar thesis in Neera Badhwar, “The Limited Unity of Virtue”)

Next week: Rachana Kamtekar, “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character,” Ethics, 114 (3) (April 2004), 458–91.


Lecture 4. Situationism and Virtue

1. Recap

(Aristotelian) Virtue: A stable disposition of character to act and feel in ways responsive to situationally relevant reasons, as embodied (e.g.) by the practical wise person.


– Related to both actions and inner states (e.g. emotions, motives)

– Intellectual component: prudence or practical wisdom

– Ethical education: childhood habituation; rational reflection; experience

– Potentially part of a distinctive account of right-making criteria; alternatively, simply part of an analytical schema consistent with multiple moral theories

– Unified: no real conflict between virtues

Critiques of virtue ethics:

– Circular: Defines virtue in terms of the prudent person who is defined as possessing virtue.

Trivial: Amounts to the claim that one must do the right thing with the right mental states; potentially compatible with any theory.

Empirically dubious: Concept of virtue not compatible with recent work in experimental psychology.

2. Why care about psychological research?

– Aristotle was acquainted with the cutting-edge research of his day.

– A priori reflection on the mind not reliable

– Deepen, qualify psychological insights gained through introspection and analysis

– Allow for the rigorous testing of philosophical claims and presuppositions

3. Psychological concerns about virtue discourse

General psychological / social scientific worries: Aristotelian theories are based on antiquated ‘teleological’ ideas; doesn’t respect the fact/value distinction

Response: Teleology remains defensible, and can be ‘naturalised’; the fact/value distinction is controversial, and drawn too sharply/simplistically in the social sciences.

– Presupposes the existence of character traits; psychological research undermines this. What makes the real difference is not character but situation.

4. Experiments

Stanley Milgram (1963): Designed to study obedience to authority. Participants told by authority figure to administer electric shocks to a test subject they can’t see (but can hear) when they answer a question wrong, increasing the voltage up to 450 V. 65% continued up to 450V; 100% went up to 300 V, labelled ‘extremely strong shock.’ Participants showed no psychotic tendencies outside experiment.

Darley/Batson (1973): Seminarians asked to prepare talk on Good Samaritan parable or other topics; given different times to go to venue; on the way, confronted with actor pretending to be hurt and requiring assistance. Previous questionnaires provided data about attitudes, beliefs, values of subjects. None of these predicted who stopped to help. Only reliable predictions came from how late/hurried subjects were. (65% who were not in a hurry stopped; 45% of those in a moderate hurry stopped; only 10% of those in a great hurry stopped.)

Explanatory hypothesis: Behaviour was produced by (normatively irrelevant features of) the situation, not by character.


P1. If character traits exist, they must explain and enable us to predict behaviour.

P2. Character traits don’t explain or enable us to predict behaviour (only situations do).

C. There are no character traits.

If there are no character traits, then both ‘folk psychology’ and philosophical theorists of virtue are wrong to make it so central to both their explanations (‘the fundamental attribution error’) and evaluations. Gilbert Harman: ‘It seems that ordinary attributions of character traits to people are often deeply misguided and it may even be the case that there is no such thing as character, or ordinary character traits of the sort people think there are, none of the usual moral virtues and vices…if there is no such thing as character, then there is no such thing as character building’.

5. Responses

Methodological worries: Use of coercive methods (in Milgram); small number of subjects; knowledge of artificiality of situation; relatively small correlation even between situations and behavioural outcomes; use of young subjects; only short-term observation; no analysis of inner states; general issues of replicability.

Alternative hypotheses:

– Subjects don’t have sufficiently settled dispositions; they are not virtuous (being young, it would be unlikely anyway)?

– Behaviour explicable in terms of conflicting dispositions (Milgram: obedience vs aversion to cruelty; Darley/Batson: altruism vs punctuality)?

– Akratic (‘incontinent’) behaviour?

– Behaviour explained not by individual character traits but by character taken overall?

6. Lessons

– Ordinary language character trait attributions only part of the ‘shorthand of psychological description’ (Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life, p. 189). Many everyday ways of speaking about character (‘he is a dishonest person’) are too simple.

– Guard against complacency: how dispositions manifest themselves may depend on features of situations; may point towards a more precise individuation of dispositions.

– Need for a better model of character, traits and psychological dispositions.

For more, see: Mark Alfano and Abrol Fairweather, ‘Situationism and Virtue Theory’ (Oxford Bibliographies Online); Ch 1 of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics.