My thoughts for this post came about in the most immediate sense from Will Wilkinson: a post at his blog Will Wilkinson, entitled Now Let us Praise Results-Facilitating Virtue, dated 20th November 2009. Wilkinson is an economics and public policy commentator, with a background in philosophy. He is responding to an blog post where the George Mason economist Tyler Cowen praises one of his colleagues, Robin Hanson, who responds in his own blog by arguing for the importance of praising consequences of individual actions, rather than the individual concerned. Links to all of that in Wilkinson’s post. What Wilkinson gives in reaction to all that is a beautiful little essay on character, virtue, and advantages to the economy. As he explains, ‘virtue’ as an idea in ethical though refers to the character traits which the good individual forms and which benefit society. What Wilkinson emphasises is the collective economic benefits of individuals in the society with virtue.
Since for non-philosophers ‘virtue’ amy seem like something to do with abstract moralising, it is worth explaining that ‘virtue ethics’ refer mores to a cultivation of individual excellence which serves the ‘virtuous’ individuals and society as a whole. Virtue on this account is really more to do with strength and constancy of character, rather than giving priority to the demands of external moral obligations. The Antique tradition of virtue was taken up in Medieval Christian philosophy, most notably in the thought of Thomas Aquinas; and at that point it maybe acquires a sense of moral imposition, though that is something of a brutal generalisation. That antique sense of virtue has been increasingly discussed in philosophy since the 1950s, along with an increasing recognition that it was still very present in 18th and 19th Century philosophy.
For a very handy summary of Aristotle’s ethics by a leading commentator, Roger Crisp, go this podcast posted at the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University. For an equally admirable summary of some later developments in Antique ethics, around Seneca and Stoicism, click here for a link to a recent podcast of am interview of Rick Benitez conducted by Alan Saunders for his PhilosophyZone radio show.
The virtue ethics tradition, as mediated by the Antique Stoics, was a major influence on Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as well as in his ethical treatise, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. For a great discussion of this click here for a pdf of Deirdre McCloskey’s paper ‘Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists’. McCloskey is a professor of economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which gives an idea of the way that she integrates different areas of the humanities and social sciences. McCloskey points out that Smith’s philosophy and economic thought are shaped by Stoicism and theories of the virtues, and not just the virtue of prudence. She also has a very good sketch of how economists, and the culture in general, lost sight of this kind of integration until philosophers revived Antique virtue theory.
One possible fault with McCloskey’s analysis is in the title, in its suggestion that Smith was the last of the virtue theorists. This has some justification if we think of how Smith’s thought is distinguished from what was then the emergent moral school of Utilitarianism which very definitely looks at ethics from the point of view of the consequences of actions, and not quality of character. However, there is at least one major candidate amongst late 19th Century philosophers for the label of virtue ethicist, Friedrich Nietzsche. We can see his philosophy as a return from theories of external moral excellence to a theories of individual excellence. That’s a rather large question I can’t deal with here, but an excellent brief summary of why Nietzsche might be considered a virtue theorist can be found in Lester Hunt’s paper ‘The Eternal Recurrence and Nietzsche’s Theory of Virtue’, click for the pdf.
I expect to return to these issues very soon in relation to Benedict de Spinoza and Michel Foucault.