Thursday, February 25, 2010

Virtue Analysis

To wrap up the virtue ethics section of my ethics course, I had the students do the following assignment:

Pick a virtue and analyze it using ideas we've discussed in class. (Examples of questions you should ask yourself in order to do this: What are the corresponding vices of effect and defect? What actions does this virtue involve? With which cardinal virtue is it most closely associated? Are there any vices that mimic it? Are there any vices it remedies?)

Your paper should be 800-1000 words (that's approximately three to four full pages if written out on a word processor). You should try to be as concise, focused, and organized as possible in your discussion, you should use examples to show that your analysis is a good one, you should consider possible objections to your analysis, and you should cite any sources that you use. If you have difficulty thinking of a virtue, you might consider looking at the list of virtues analyzed by Thomas Aquinas to see if you can find one that interests you.


It's interesting to see the virtues that they chose. I've received so far (there are others who are straggling in or had family emergencies and thus have not yet turned anything in):

Humor
Docility, i.e., teachableness
Faith (2x)
Hope
Charity
Nurture
Respect
Truthfulness
Temperance (2x)
Fortitude (2x)
Patience
Justice (2x)

One sees a tendency to go for the big, obvious virtues; the only cardinal virtue that doesn't get a direct hit is prudence. That's not surprising; all the students found the paper somewhat difficult to write (as it should be), and not only did we talk cardinal virtues, but Aquinas's list is right there, divided up according to the seven virtues. The papers on the theological virtues all treat them as acquired virtues, of course; the tools they had available were tools most suitable for discussing acquired virtues, and the assignment sets things up on the assumption that they would be talking about moral virtues (since somehow it didn't occur to me that they might choose the theological ones), so it's unsurprising that faith, hope, and charity all come out sounding like special kinds of acquired virtue. But, pleasantly, this is often (partially) recognized; one paper on faith notes some difficulties with classifying faith as a virtue, and they are difficulties that arise if you think of it on the model of an acquired virtue. (The student's particular solution, to make the virtue justified faith in times of difficulty and associate it with fortitude, still treats it as an acquired virtue but is an interesting attempt.) I was interested in the non-cardinals chosen; docilitas in particular surprised me, but I was interested to see nurture, humor, and respect being chosen out as noteworthy (or at least convenient for analysis). The respect paper treats it as especially associated with prudence, which is another interesting move; in fact, the long association of pietas and prudentia gives a certain plausibility to such a classification.

As you might expect, the responses are rather uneven, but some of them clearly put some thought into the matter -- thus proving my general rule in teaching that you can never go wrong giving students room to surprise you.

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