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.