Virtues, Vices and Moral Learning (Michaelmas 2017)

NB. These lectures were delivered in Michaelmas Term 2017. The notes for the Michaelmas 2018 lectures will be uploaded here. The full notes will be available by the end of October 2018.

Lecture 1: Teleology

0. Lecture plan

Lecture 1. Teleology

Lecture 2. Psychology

Lecture 3. Judgement

Lecture 4. Genealogy

  1. Aristotle

How to read Aristotle? Slowly, charitably. Barnes: ‘it is proper to assume that you are reading a compilation of Aristotle’s working drafts’.

Why read Aristotle at all? Two options: some of what he is says is true; some of what he says is false, but interestingly, provocatively, unfamiliarly so. Either way, we have to read him first.

  1. The Nicomachean Ethics

The EN (abbreviated from the Greek Ethika Nikomachea) remains one of the most insightful works of ethics to come out of the western philosophical tradition.

Book I: Happiness (‘eudaimonia’)

Book II: Virtue (‘arete’)

Book III: Action, and discussions of particular virtues

Book IV–V: Particular virtues

Book VI: Prudence (‘phronesis’)

Book VII: Incontinence (‘akrasia’)

Book VIII–IX: Friendship (‘philia’)

Book X: Happiness as contemplation (‘theoria’)

These lectures will pick up some themes from Books I, II, III and VI, the texts that have most interested twentieth-century Anglophone commentators. The whole thing is well worth reading with care. The quotations below are from the Hackett translation by TH Irwin (translations by Christopher Rowe and Roger Crisp can also be recommended; Rowe’s translation comes with a detailed commentary by Sarah Broadie).

  1. Some central passages from the EN

(1) As in the other cases, we must set out the appearances, and first of all go through the puzzles. In this way we must prove the common beliefs […] – ideally all the common beliefs, but if not all, most of them, and the most important. For if the objections are solved, and the common beliefs are left, it will be an adequate proof. (EN VII.1, 1145b4–8)

(2) Suppose, then, that the things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itself, and because of which we wish for the other things, and that we do not choose everything because of something else – for if we do, it will go on without limit, so that desire will prove to be empty and futile. Clearly, this end will be the good, that is to say, the best good. (EN I.2, 1094a18–22,)

(3) What, [in other words,] 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. (EN I.4, 1095a15–21)

(4) But presumably the remark that the best good is happiness is apparently something [generally] agreed, and we still need a clearer statement of what the best good is. Perhaps, then, we shall find this if we first grasp the function of a human being. 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, if a human has some function.

Then do the carpenter and the leather worker have their functions and actions, but has a human being no function? Is he by nature idle, without any function? Or, just as eye, hand, foot, and, in general, every [bodily] part apparently has its function, may we likewise ascribe to a human being some function apart from all of these?

What, then, could this be? For living is apparently shared with plants, but what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth.  The life next in order is some sort of life of sense perception; but this too is appar­ently shared with horse, ox, and every animal.

The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason.  One [part] of it has reason as obeying reason; the other has it as itself having reason and thinking. […] We have found, then, that the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.

Now each function is completed well by being completed in accord with the virtue proper [to that kind of thing].  And so the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and indeed with the best and most complete virtue, if there are more virtues than one. Moreover, it must be in a complete life.  For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day; nor, similarly, does one day or a short time make us blessed and happy. (EN I.7 1097b22–1098a20)

(5) 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. (EN II.4, 1105b23–1106a13)

(6) 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. (EN II.6, 1107a1–3)

  1. Teleology and its discontents

‘Teleological’ explanations in modern science, particularly in biology, are thought to be – paradoxically! – both inescapable (how not to mention ‘function’ and ‘design’?) and disreputable. Objections to teleological explanation include:

– Pre-Darwinian and theistic.

– ‘Vitalistic’ (i.e. claims there to be a ‘life-force’ in addition to the facts of biochemistry)

– Requires backward causation (i.e. outcomes in the distant future would explain the development of past traits)

– Mentalistic (i.e. suggests that adaptations occur intentionally)

– Can’t be tested empirically

But maybe teleological notions can be ‘naturalised’, i.e. interpreted in ways consistent with the best contemporary science, ontologically parsimonious, secular, etc? Contemporary (secular) Aristotelians hope so.

Sticking to questions in ethics (rather than in metaphysics and the philosophy of science), there are still worries about how far an Aristotelian ethics of virtue can be freed from the original metaphysics, and the extent to which those original metaphysics are based on good arguments.

– Why pick reason as the distinguish mark of the human? Why not, say, making fire, or blushing?

– What is distinctive of humans is the precondition of human vice just as much as human virtue. (E.g. empathy is the condition of both benevolence and cruelty.)

– Even granted that reason is the ethically relevant distinguishing mark, what follows from this about the role of reason in human life? What does it imply about the proper place of the emotions?

– How determinate a conception of human virtue can we get from these teleological first principles?

  1. Questions.

– Does the path from human nature to human virtue be quite so linear, so deductive? Maybe an ‘inductive’ route is possible?

For this, we need something richer than this bare-bones teleology. We need the resources of all the sciences, natural and social, as well as the humanistic disciplines: history and cultural anthropology. This may well be in the spirit of Aristotle’s own project.

Readings for this lecture.

– Bernard Williams, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 55–62. [PDF]

Readings for next week.

– Martha C. Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13, no. 1 (September 1, 1988): 32–53. [URL]

– Myles F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to Be Good,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 69–92. [PDF]

– J. O. Urmson, “Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean,” American Philosophical Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1973): 223–30. [JSTOR]


Lecture 2: Psychology

  1. Recap: Aristotle

(1) … the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue … (EN I.7)

(2) 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. (EN II.4, 1105b23–1106a13)

(3) 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)

(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 [phronimos] would define it. (EN II.6, 1107a1–3)

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

  1. The doctrine of the mean: two allegations

Interesting and false or true but trivial? Or: interesting and true, or at any rate, along the right lines?

Is Aristotle just (why ‘just’?) giving us an analytic or structural model? Not so much spelling out what makes some disposition a virtue, or some action virtuous, as telling us some general features of the concept virtue? If so, the view may well be true, but trivial and boring. At best, it’s a piece of conceptual analysis of little normative significance.

We can test this by asking if anyone could conceivable deny the claim Aristotle makes in (3) above. You may think not: well of course we should have these feelings at the right times in the right place etc. But what are the right times and places etc…?

The claim may, however, seem more interesting if we consider two kinds of view we can oppose to Aristotle’s: anachronistically and loosely, let’s label them the ‘Stoic’ and the ‘consequentialist’.

The ‘Stoic’ might think that the amount of emotion to feel on any occasion is – always and invariably – zero; the ‘consequentialist’ might think that feelings (emotions, attitudes, intentions, motives, etc) that attend some action are irrelevant to moral assessment: what matters is the consequences of the action.

Both are claims Aristotle denies; ergo, his claims are at least not trivial. They may of course still be false – if either the Stoic (‘feelings are bad’) or consequentialist (‘feelings are irrelevant’) – or something relevantly like them — is right.

Aristotle’s view – that the evaluation of actions requires the evaluation of the dispositions that actions express – is certainly interesting. Common sense offers at least some support for his view: we tend not to think of emotions as necessarily bad (pace the ‘Stoic’); we also make distinctions between actions in terms of the attendant psychological states (pace the ‘consequentialist’). But is it true? Should we accept it today?

  1. Contemporary Aristotelians

A kind person has a reliable sensitivity to a certain sort of requirement which situations impose on behavior. (John McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, 331–2)

McDowell’s claim can be generalised to other virtues, and to virtue in general.

Even Aristotle’s method can be described in up-to-date terms:

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)

The ‘thinness’ of the account suggests that Aristotelians may not be interesting in the way we might want or expect. Indeed, there’s a sense in which their contribution – if it is that – may be at the level of the metaethical. It tells us what our ethical thoughts and judgements are about; it may not, just by itself, tell us much about their content. One contemporary Aristotelian says this more or less explicitly:

I have been asked the very pertinent question as to where all this leaves disputes about substantial moral questions. Do I really believe that I have described a method for settling them all? The proper reply is that in a way nothing is settled, but everything is left as it was. The account of vice as a natural defect merely gives a framework within which disputes are said to take place, and tries to get rid of some intruding philosophical theories and abstractions that tend to trip us up. (Philippa Foot, ‘Postscript’ in Natural Goodness, 116)

A good case can be made for thinking that this matters a great deal in its way; but this means – unfortunately? – that there can’t be such a thing as a ‘virtue ethics’, i.e. a third theory of ‘first-order’ ethics to rival ‘consequentialism’ and ‘deontology’ in their many varieties.

Not every contemporary Aristotelian is quite so modest; some people think that an Aristotelian approach could be taken to these modern question about (say) the criteria of right action. Aristotle himself, however, gives us irritatingly little. His practical advice (‘Avoid the more tempting extreme!’) is often sensible, but you could get that from a friend. Recall his definition of virtue as ‘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 [phronimos] would define it.’

The prudent person – otherwise translated as the person of practical wisdom, or judgement – is the subject of Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, and bears a considerable part of the normative, action-guiding, burden of the text.

Does the notion have enough content not to collapse under this weight? Or is it simply vacuous?


Next week: Judgement and moral theory

Recommended reading:

McDowell, John. ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist 62, no. 3 (1979): 331-50. [JSTOR]


Lecture III: Judgement

1.Virtue as a psychological disposition

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. 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. A dilemma for Aristotle

Aristotle seems to define virtue in terms of the reasons of a prudent (or wise) person. This seems to leave him with a dilemma, familiar from Plato’s Euthyphro.

Either the wise simply decide (or constitute?) the standard of virtue; or they are themselves sensitive to (or think and act in awareness of) some higher standard. If it’s the former, it’s unclear why they get to be the standard, and it’s not clear how to find out who the wise people are in the first place. On the other hand, if it’s the latter, then there’s not much point defining virtue in terms of them; we may as well just state the standards that the wise act in awareness of.

Aristotle is best understood as picking the second option. The wise don’t define or constitute virtue. The nature of virtue can be specified independently of them. Why mention them then? Well, we’re only in Book II of the text; we need to see what Aristotle says on the subject in Book VI of the Ethics, whose main subject is this fabled creature, the phronimos.

  1. Aristotle on prudence and ethical education: Texts

(1) … we need to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things … For we begin from the [belief] that [something is true]; if this is apparent enough to us, we can begin without also [knowing] why [it is true], someone who is well brought up has the beginnings, or can easily acquire them. (EN I.4)

(2) Virtues … we acquire, just as we acquire crafts [technai], by having first activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it; we become builders, for instance, by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions. (EN II.1)

(3) … 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. (EN II.4)

(4) 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)

(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)

(6) Nor is prudence about universals only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars. That is why in other areas also some people who lack knowledge but have experience are better in action than other who have knowledge. For someone who knows that light meats are digestible and [hence] healthy, but not which sorts of meats are light, will not produce health; the one who knows that bird meats are light and healthy will be better at producing health. (EN VI.7)

(7) … whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience … Indeed … we might consider why a child can become accomplished in mathematics, but not in wisdom or natural science. Surely it is because mathematical objects are reached through abstraction, whereas in these other cases the principles are reached from experience. Young people, then, [lacking experience], have no real conviction in these other sciences, but only say the words, whereas the nature of mathematical objects is clear to them. (EN VI.8)

(8) And so we must attend to the undemonstrated remarks and beliefs of experienced and older people or of prudent people, no less than to demonstrations. For these people see correctly because experience has given them their eye. (EN VI.11)

  1. Is this enough?

Aristotle adds a fair amount of detail, some of it extremely perceptive, about the qualities of the (practically) wise, and how that kind of wisdom is very different from (say) mathematical brilliance. There are no ethical prodigies, and that may tell us something about ethics. But does this assuage our concerns about the theory?

Recall our earlier discussion: maybe Aristotle isn’t concerned to give us more than a structural model of virtue. Maybe it’s a second-order enquiry, and shouldn’t be expected to give us very much in the way of interesting first-order ethical truths that could guide how we live. In other words, he may be a virtue theorist, but not (what we’d now call) a virtue ethicist.

Is that disappointing? It could be, but note that even if he’s only a (meta-)theorist of virtue, his results could still be interesting and important to us. Consider a parallel case in contemporary epistemology. For a long time, philosophers have tried to give an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions of (propositional) knowledge. What is it for S (some person) to know that p (some proposition)? Is it for S to have a justified, true belief that p? Is it, as many people now think, to do with S having a true belief p and it being the case that S could not easily have falsely believed p? 

This formulation is often called the ‘safety’ condition on knowledge. Does it answer our question about the nature of knowledge? Not entirely: the details all need to be spelt out. But there is this much to be said for it: it may be pointing us in the right direction (as the earlier focus on ‘justification’ was not).

  1. Virtue and ethical theory

But what if we were hoping for more than this second-order account? What, in other words, if we were hoping for Aristotle to give us some guidance in living our lives? (That is to say, guidance beyond the added self-understanding his account, or the true and insightful parts thereof, gives us.)

This expectation is quite a reasonable one. After all, some contemporary Aristotelian ethicists (e.g. Julia Annas, Rosalind Hursthouse) do seem to share that expectation, and, what’s more, to think that Aristotle, or something developed from his works, can meet it. This is the tradition of philosophy called ‘virtue ethics’.

Other prominent families of ethical theory seem to think they can offer illuminating accounts of what makes an action right or wrong. Take, for instance, John Stuart Mill’s view that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. Or Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, which, on one of its multiple formulations says, ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ Or the ‘contractualist’ theory defended by Thomas Scanlon: ‘An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement.’

These principles need further interpretation too, and in some cases, substantial amounts of empirical information before they can be used to guide action. No one can say they’re easy, either to interpret or to obey. But they do seem to give us a good deal more detail than Aristotle does.

Further, it seems that one of these philosophers could even claim Aristotle for their own cause. Maybe the phronimos must be a utilitarian, or Kantian, or contractualist, because that is what such a person would come to think after a lifetime of habituating themselves into astute perception, cultivating the right emotions and so forth. To the extent that the phronimos’s actions can be seen to involve adherence to principles, there is nothing in Aristotle to rule out the correct propositional interpretation of the phronimos’s dispositions being (say) a utilitarian one.

Virtue ethicists need to say more if they want to maintain the distinctness of their approach as an answer to the question Mill, Kant and their modern descendants are trying to answer. They need to say that virtue, properly interpreted, won’t just involve acting in accordance with the principles of a ‘true moral theory’, which itself doesn’t need the notion of a virtue. Or, they need to claim – as many of them do – that acting rightly isn’t a matter of principles at all, and a fortiori, not a matter of acting in line with a simple rule that can be stated in a single sentence. Is this a cop-out? Or just good sense?


Next week: Constructing a virtue: the ‘genealogical’ method

Reading: Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Chs 4 and 5 (‘The Virtue of Testimonial Justice’ and ‘The Genealogy of Testimonial Justice’) [Oxford Scholarship Online]


Virtues, Vices and Moral Learning IV: Genealogy

  1. Recap

Omissions: ‘Virtue ethics’ as a theoretical alternative to forms of consequentialism and deontology; ‘situationist’ critiques of the very idea of a character trait; problems within virtue theory (e.g. the unity of virtue); virtue and ‘akrasia’

What these lectures have been about: ‘Virtue theory’; selected themes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and modern variations: the relation between virtue and happiness/flourishing; moral psychology; anti-theoretic approaches to ethics; the idea of practical wisdom.

  1. What is genealogy?

A working definition:

A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about. [Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 20]

Commentary on the definition. ‘Narrative’: Representation of a series of actions that makes (explanatory) sense of them. ‘Tries’: Narratives may be audience- or context-relative. ‘Explain’: answer a ‘why-question’. ‘Cultural phenomenon’: observable features of practice and experience. ‘Describing’: as opposed to (say) reducing. ‘Came about’: Actual history. ‘Could have come about’: Historical speculation, constrained by possibility. ‘Might be imagined to have come about’: A conceivable, if not possible or actual, speculation.

Genealogy can be a method favoured by ‘naturalists’, i.e. people who ask this question: ‘can we explain, by some appropriate and relevant criteria of explanation, the [cultural] phenomenon in question in terms of the rest of nature?’ [Truthfulness, 23]

This doesn’t mean explaining away cultural phenomenon in terms of (e.g.) natural selection. Cut a long story short: ‘it is not, in general, human cultural practices that are explained by natural selection, but rather the universal human characteristic of having cultural practices, and human beings’ capacity to do so.’ [Bernard Williams, Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 485] In other words, biology may be able to explain why we have culture, but given that different human communities have different cultures, our shared biological features are of no help in explaining why we have the particular cultures that we do. Genealogical explanation must start somewhere else.

  1. Genealogy as (a kind of) functional explanation

Genealogy can be a way of presenting that more familiar thing: a functional explanation. That is to say, the explanation of some phenomenon (etc) in terms of its function, i.e. the ends or needs it serves.

This is a familiar idea in biology as well as social anthropology, and has been fruitfully used to give explanations of everything from turtle flippers to bat echolocation to kissing to cricket. Some of these explanations are rather like ‘just-so’ stories; others may have some independent (natural-)historical backing.

This can be particularly interesting when we give a functional explanation of something that doesn’t look like it has, or should have, a function at all. Case in point: virtue!

  1. Two kinds of genealogy

A genealogy of some outlook (or practice or theory or institution or disposition or whatever) is vindicatory if:

the later … outlook [etc], makes sense of itself, and of the earlier outlook [etc], and of the transition from the earlier to the later, in such terms that both parties (the holders of the earlier outlook [etc], and the holders of the later) have reason to recognize the transition as an improvement. [Humanistic, 486]

This definition is designed to include all the well-known early modern ‘state of nature’ accounts of the origin of the political community. The idea is that the (imaginary?) people living in a political community have reason to recognise this – with all its disadvantages (inconvenient laws, taxation, police, military conscription, etc) as an improvement on conditions in the state of nature. It also includes Hume’s celebrated accounted of the emergence of the (‘artificial’) virtue of justice from the ‘circumstances of justice’ (crudely: the need for a non-arbitrary principle of distribution in conditions of resource scarcity). Some twentieth-century philosophical genealogies include Robert Nozick’s account of the minimal state and Edward Craig’s account of the origin of our concept of knowledge.

A vindicatory genealogy can be distinguished from a ‘debunking’ or ‘destructive’ or ‘deconstructive’ or ‘subversive’ or ‘problematising’ genealogy: think of Nietzsche’s claim about the pudenda origo (shameful origins) of morality in that least moral of sentiments: ressentiment!

  1. Genealogies of virtues

Many of the dispositions we count as virtues can be given functional explanations that we can cast – if only because it’s more interesting that way! – as genealogies.

Think of some obvious cases: courage; temperance; honesty. And their corresponding vices: cowardice; intemperance; dishonesty. How could we account for these in terms of their function?

  1. Fricker on the origins of testimonial justice

Imagine a State of Nature – in this context, an imaginary society inhabited by human beings who have many recognisably human features we share with them (hunger, thirst, not being wholly self-sufficient, liking/needing company, not being able to know everything, not being able to be in more than one place as once…) Assume that this society is sufficiently complex to have ‘social identity concepts and … basic identity-prejudicial stereotypes (ignorant outsiders, rivals out to trick one’ [etc]’ [Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 116).

But also assume that they don’t have anything like (the concept of) a virtue of ‘testimonial justice’. Can we show that a world in which they have such a virtue would be (recognisable to them as) an improvement on the State of Nature?

Note that in this world, some people will have a ‘positional advantage’ on others: e.g. ‘I saw the wolf but you didn’t’. Your only way (let’s stipulate) of coming to know what I know is through testimony: by my asserting to you what I know and you, quite rightly, believing me.

Sometimes, people with a positional advantage will belong to some outsider group against which you have a prejudice. You have an interest in gaining knowledge, or forming true beliefs, and an even more serious interest in not being ignorant and avoiding false beliefs. If believing me, or taking me seriously in the cases where I’m telling the truth, is your only

In the state of nature, Williams argues, two ‘dispositions’ will emerge as virtues: Sincerity (roughly, the disposition to express one’s beliefs without distortion or concealment) and Accuracy (very roughly, the disposition to form true beliefs). We need these dispositions to serve ends we have anyway, e.g. survival, the pursuit of our ends made possible by the division of (epistemic) labour, etc. Fricker thinks we should add a third virtue to the list:

the virtue that prevents hearers from doing speakers a testimonial injustice is revealed to be a third basic virtue of truth, for the reason that it frees hearers in the State of Nature from the prejudice that would cause them to miss out on truths they may need.  [Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 116–7]

Call this virtue – the disposition to believe, or not to disbelieve on spurious grounds, those who deserve to be believed – the virtue of testimonial justice.

  1. A methodology for virtue theory?

Recall Martha Nussbaum’s remark on Aristotle’s method:

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. [‘Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 13: 35]

This Hume-Williams-Nozick-Craig-Fricker approach can be seen as an alternative to, or maybe even as a development of, the Aristotelian approach. It certainly has the advantage of being very obviously non-circular. It tries to answer the question of why some disposition is correctly regarded as a virtue: roughly, because it serves some ends we have ‘anyway’ and its being widespread in society and regarded as a virtue serves our ends more reliably than if we just kept our fingers crossed.

  1. A concluding exercise

Try applying the Aristotelian and/or functional/genealogical method to give accounts of some of the following dispositions:

Kindness               Callousness

Fidelity                 Mendacity

Punctuality            Laziness


Vacation Reading on Virtues, Vices and Moral Learning

Virtue is a subject on which things have been written for at least the last two thousand years. The list below is a list of personal recommendations, i.e. works I’ve found illuminating and/or enjoyable.

The notion of virtue, or some particular virtue, is the subject of many a Platonic dialogue. The Meno (on virtue in general and its relationship with knowledge) and the Republic (on justice) are the most obviously relevant, but there is fun and profit to be had in other less well-known dialogues, such as the Laches (courage) and Charmides (temperance). The Nicomachean Ethics is well worth reading in its entirely, but you can get a good idea of the central argument if you read Books I, II, III and VI – the translations by Christopher Rowe, Terence Irwin and Roger Crisp are all excellent in different ways; the Rowe edition has a splendid detailed commentary by Sarah Broadie. Aristotle also wrote another treatise on ethics, the Eudemian Ethics, part of which has the same content as the Nicomachean, but it has slightly different arguments. Amelie O Rorty (ed.) Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics is a collection of now classic scholarly papers on Aristotle’s works on ethics; the papers by Nagel, Burnyeat, Urmson, Ackrill, Wiggins, Sorabji, Irwin and Kosman are all excellent.

In the twentieth century, it’s a good idea to start with Elizabeth Anscombe’s splendidly rude critique of the state of moral philosophy in the 50s: ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. Her colleagues Iris Murdoch (especially, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’ and the three essays collected in The Sovereignty of Good) and Philippa Foot (especially the paper ‘Virtues and Vices’ and her final book Natural Goodness) were her allies in trying to get the virtues back on to the theoretical table.

Some of their successors in academic philosophy include John McDowell (see his ‘Virtue and Reason’, ‘Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology’, ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’ and ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’), Alasdair MacIntyre (see his wonderful book After Virtue, and the sequel Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), Bernard Williams (Chapter 3 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and the first half of Truth and Truthfulness with its ‘genealogical’ approach to theorising the virtues of ‘sincerity’ and ‘accuracy’) and Martha Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness and The Therapy of Desire, and her helpful taxonomical paper ‘Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?’ The philosophers above are somewhat hostile to the idea of virtue ethics as another ethical ‘theory’. But others – Rosalind Hursthouse (On Virtue Ethics) and Julia Annas (Intelligent Virtue) – are more friendly to that idea.

There is a medium-sized literature on whether modern psychological research supports the existence of stable character traits – a presupposition of much virtue ethics/theory. Gilbert Harman’s ‘Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error’ is the classic, along with John Doris, ‘Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics’; see the responses from Gopal Sreenivasan, ‘Errors about Errors: Virtue Theory and Trait Attribution’ and Rachana Kamtekar, ‘Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character’.

Virtue theory has also informed a good deal of work in contemporary epistemology. A good place to start is with Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind. A couple of recent books that use virtue theoretical frameworks and ideas and are engagingly written with the philosophical argument enlivened by literary and historical examples: Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing and Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue.