Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Virtue Analysis

I have previously (here and here) put up results from one of my Ethics assignments, in which I ask students to analyze a virtue. It's been a while since I've done it, so I thought I'd do it again. The 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 excess 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 virtues listed in the table of contents of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or the list of virtues analyzed by Thomas Aquinas to see if you can find one that interests you; keep in mind, too, that the doctrine of the mean allows one to identify virtues for which there is no handy name.

And here are the virtues that were chosen (there are a few stragglers who haven't turned in papers yet):

Courage (x3)
Fortitude (understood as more basic than courage)
Bravery (understood as intermediate between courage and fortitude)
Patience (x 2)
Temperance (x 3)
Decency in conversation (as opposed to gossip)

Obviously the striking thing is the proliferation of fortitude-related virtues. Indeed, while there are an unusual number this time, looking back on some of the others, fortitude-related virtues seem to be definitely the most popular virtues chosen for this assignment overall (although temperance always does very well). In addition to fortitude, courage, bravery, and patience, I've occasionally had students choose faith as a virtue, and since we don't do theological virtues, they analyze it as an acquired virtue, and if you do that it inevitably ends up as related to fortitude. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps students regard them as fairly straightforward? Or maybe they find it easier to think of clear examples that make their status as virtues plausible (great endurance perhaps being easier to see than great fairness or great decision-making)? In any case, it's a quite consistent thing.


  1. And chastity doesn't even receive honorable mention. . .

  2. Interesting! Your class results seem to confirm the wisdom of Aristotle's ordering of the virtues in the Ethics: courage and temperance our treated first, being most known to us (concerning the destruction and preservation of life itself, as Aquinas says).

    Speaking of knowing the virtues, I have lately been revising parts of the Ethics and wonder if you might be able to shed light on a certain point. I am trying to get a better grasp of how Aristotle understands the descent from considering virtue in general to the various virtues in particular. This transition is (if I recall) little commented on within the text and seems to presuppose an knowledge in the reader that what follows are in fact virtues to be pursued for their own sake.

    I suppose my question is, how does Aristotle think one first comes to know (truly know, not just believe) that that X, Y, and Z are moral virtues? If his consideration proceeds from mere common (or perhaps respected) opinion, the conclusions are merely probable as the principles have not been established. He places a lot of emphasis on good education and habituation as a prerequisite to considering the matter and seeing the virtues properly as virtues. The virtues cannot be *derived*, it seems. But this habituation is in some sense pre-rational, being inculcated in youth before one can discriminate between the worthiness of the life of virtue relative to alternatives. Perhaps this is no problem at all, but it does suggest that the superiority of the virtuous life is in some way rationally incommunicable to the amoralist.

    If the choice to habituate (or be habituated) into virtue is not to be arbitrary, then, what the proper starting point? Is habituation in moral philosophy an analogue to common sense experience in natural philosophy, a basis that one cannot help but receive to *some* extent in life, but which nevertheless excludes many from beginning the science who do not happen to receive it (due to whatever non-rational factors) n the proper way or to the proper extent? Is the rational justification for initial habituation based on the lived experience of virtuous men, a sign being the asymmetrical relation of understanding? Something like learning an art or discriminating taste, where one does not truly understand until reaching the other side -- e.g., the classical musician sees both the (great) value of Bach and the (lesser but non-zero) value of pop, while to someone on a pop diet the appeal of Bach must always remain opaque? I as I write this I can't help but be reminded of recent debates about the value of the humanities; to many it seems almost unintelligible to insist that they are studied for their own sake.

    Sorry for the rambling sprawl of thoughts. Am I coming across or have I just managed to obscure things?

  3. Yikes, the typos ("our" for are, etc.). That's what happens you've been typing too much, too late!

  4. branemrys8:41 AM

    I hadn't really thought about the ordering issue, but you're right that that makes a lot of sense.

    As for the rest, that's a big question! I think we have to be somewhat careful here, since we have to distinguish between 'that in which a virtue actually consists' and 'that with respect to which there must be a virtue'. The latter comes to Aristotle more or less directly from the structure of Greek civil life. Aristotle's list of particular virtues can seem odd, but it makes a great deal more sense when one realizes that the list is essentially an analysis of actual life in a Greek city. Thus we need virtues for military action, for major social interactions between citizens, and so forth. The actual virtuous mean for each can only be determined either by prudence or by trial and error, but in a sense it's just a fact of Greek life that there has to be a virtue of what he calls eutrapelia, for instance, whatever precisely that might involve. Thus I think the question actually splits up into several different ones.


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