Virtues and Vices
Jan 21, 2005
First of all a word about the proposed visit to Segovia next weekend 29/30
If you remember the idea is to go for a walk along the aqueduct to or from where
it starts; or at least a reasonable distance. Maybe next Sunday we can discuss
this outing especially the following points:
1) Shall we go on Saturday the 29th or Sunday the 30th. The consensus seem to be
for Sunday. This means that the meeting for that Sunday will have to be
2) An other request is that we go by car. This is fine for those who have a car,
but not all of us have private transport. If we do this we will need volunteers
who can give others a ride to Segovia and back.
3) What time shall we meet and where?
4) Where do we exactly go in Segovia?
5) Will it be a picnic lunch or find a restaurant?
Let's talk about it next Sunday.
This fits well with next Sunday's topic: virtues and vices. We can feel virtuous
for being culture minded and we can indulge in some vices by enjoying the good
fare (wine and gastronomy) of Segovia.
Please, share you comments and ideas about all this.
See you Sunday
SUNDAY 6.30pm START at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs, but just in case
there is no football on go to the very back of the pub, then turn left and left
Subscribe yahoo group send an email to:
Pub Molly Malone, c/ Manuela Malasaña, 11, Madrid 28004
metro: <Bilbao> : buses: 21, 149, 147
Virtues and Vices
The little matter of virtues and vices is standard stock in trade for
philosophy. In fact virtues and vices can keep most philosophers, of most
persuasions, happy and busy for quite a long time.
This is not difficult to see why. We can approach the subject by asking
ourselves two questions: what is a virtue and what is a vice? And, what do we
mean by virtue and vice? Alternatively, we can indulge in a bit of stamp
collecting and catalogue all the virtues and vices we can think of. Once we've
done that we can then spend some time explaining why something in our list is a
virtue or a vice.
The first option of investigation is philosophy, but the second option could
by far be more entertaining. And with a bit of luck, besides entertaining
ourselves, we might even put it to use by amusing ourselves with that ancient
past time of domination and the exercise of power over others.
It seems to me, and probably to many others, that a virtue or a vice has three
important component parts: a public behaviour, an outcome of a behaviour that is
beneficial or good, in the case of virtues, and an authority, ideally an
objective authority, to tell us or confirm for us what is a virtue or a vice.
A virtue or a vice can affect and apply to the individual or to other people.
For example, charity is usually a virtuous act that we do but affects others;
that is, others enjoy the benefit of this virtue. Alcoholism, which on the
nomenclature of list making, is considered a vice only affects, at least
physically, the individual.
Again, when we examine these two concepts, what stands out is not the 'good' or
'bad' associated with virtues and vices but rather the intention and behaviour.
I use behaviour to suggest the idea of an action repeated over time and to imply
the idea of 'second nature'. The concept of 'second nature' is important here
because we want to distinguish between an act done by a reasonable person on the
Clapham Omnibus and compulsive behaviour done because of some brain disease or
malfunction. An act done from second nature is still attributable to the
conscious rational self. Such a second nature act is not to be understood as an
unconscious reflex action; i.e. a knee jerk reaction. I also use reasonable to
emphasise the associated legal nature of these second nature acts. Vices can
easily get us into trouble with the law.
In the same way that a swallow doesn't make a summer, neither does a single good
deed make a virtuous person. Hence the time period seems to be a necessary
condition. A virtue or a vice must be a type of act that is a regular behaviour
for the person. In other words, a type of act that the person repeats over time.
Since we are talking about actions and behaviour we are by implication talking
about people. This might be obvious, but it might be necessary to distinguish
people from a group or even society. Can we ascribe virtues or vices to groups?
Can the state display acts of virtue?
Like all moral acts, virtues and vices, must be associated with a free will. In
particular we are looking at the intentional content of a virtue or vice.
Earlier I excluded acts done as a result of a diseased brain or compulsion. As a
side remark, have you noticed how we don't usually ascribe benevolent acts to a
diseased mind. We never try to explain, for example, acts of charity as defects
of the brain, unlike for example gambling!
If virtues and vices depend on a normal healthy person acting intentionally,
then we surely need to take a closer look at intention. But looking at
intentions might not be that easy, especially if we want to keep the language of
virtues and vices coherent and the integrity of institutions that promote
virtues intact. Why is this?
We cannot look at intention without taking into consideration consciousness and
determinism. We cannot look at intention without seriously looking at what is
free will and how this functions? And this is why virtues and vices are the
stock in trade of philosophy; free will and determinism are basic issues in
Very few of us would find it a problem to see the hand of determinism operating
in vices, but what about virtues? Can we allow determinism to manipulate
virtues? What if charity, I know, I keep using the same example, but it's a good
one, was equally determined as compulsive gambling? What if virtues were
equally determined as vices?
Maybe, we can even live with determinism. Maybe what really matters is the
outcome and not the cause. This would be all for the better, except for one
little thing. Virtues are very much promoted by institutions and organizations.
And if the intentions of individuals are not always clear the 'intentions' of
institutions and organisations are certainly not always transparent.
Being charitable, for example, might be okay for the recipient, but it also
happens to be promoted by most religions. And in Britain, at least, there is a
whole legal structure governing charities and charity giving. Furthermore, being
a hard working employee is not only promoted by corporations but also by
governments. Could it be that the promotion of virtues is a way of determining
our intentions? And if that was not bad enough, could it possibly be that
virtues are just another way for us to be utilitarian?
There is a good historical example when the utilitarian principle was used by a
government. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914, enacted at the beginning of the
first world war, introduced, amongst many things, the licensing laws which are
still in force today in the UK. The idea was to limit the opening hours of pubs
to make sure that workers were fit for work in the morning and to limit the
consequences of heavy alcohol consumption.
In a way, utilitarianism is more problematic because we can interpret
utilitarianism in a neutral fashion. A hundred Euro charitable contribution is
no less virtuous than a ten Euro contribution. However, utilitarianism tells us
that the one hundred Euro contribution is always preferable. But this is an
objective test and in some cases it also applies on the subjective basis;
reading philosophy instead of reading a cheap paperback is always desirable (?).
But staying up late partying the night away is probably more enjoyable than
getting up at 6.30 in the morning to go to work. There is no doubt which option
the ration passenger on the Clapham omnibus would choose. You can see where and
how we could possibly have a problem with utilitarianism. This means that we
cannot just dismiss vices as the manipulation of determinism.
Could it possibly be that both virtues and vices are competing for our
attention, so to speak, with the same motivating force? But if utilitarianism is
that motivating force for virtues and vices then are we also being utilitarian
when we do follow virtues supported by some organisation in authority? Surely it
is one thing to follow the categorical imperative, to give an example, because
it is an a priori moral law and another because it suites me well to do so?
Maybe, after all, list building might not be all that easy, not forgetting the
implied reduction in the entertainment value of such activity. Could it be that
virtues are not all that virtuous and vices are not all that horrible?