Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Contra Consequentialismum: Virtue

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT, or at least practice makes more perfect, in almost anything human.

The simple fact is that frequent repetition of an act, in any sphere of human activity, is a prerequisite for good performance, since the agent learns how to do the thing required, learns how to avoid mistakes, works out ways of doing the same thing more quickly, more efficiently or with less stress. Further, repetition inclines the agent towards the act concerned, since easy and efficient performance is intrinsically satisfying, reinforcing among other things the agent's confidence in is own skill and ability.

Oderberg, MT, 45. And therein lies the notion of virtue. Virtues are essential to the life of happiness. In the most general sense, virtues are powers or capacities to do something, and they may be innate and developed, or they may be acquired, even to the point of becoming more or less habitual. Hence, a child born of two gifted pianists may have an innate genetic "virtue" or potential power to play the piano, yet it must be developed through learning, practice, and hard work. The same principles apply to the moral life.* The habits typically associated with the moral life are what we call virtues, which is the context in which we ordinarily use the word, and which may be defined as "ingrained behavioral traits that reflect a certain broad aspect of [good] character." Oderberg, MT, 46. Unfortunately, the possibility of virtue opens up the possibility of vice, which is nothing other than ingrained behavioral traits that reflect evil character.

Though it is difficult to state with certainty precisely his view, Socrates appears to have believed, or at least argued, that knowledge alone was sufficient tutor for the development of virtue (excellence or aretē). Thus, for example, Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Socrates appears to have convinced Protagoras that virtue (ἀρετή, aretē) is knowledge (ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē) (Protagoras, 361b). This seems either a sophistry or an error, as in our world our experience is that our will all too often acts against our knowledge, encouraged, moreover by both intrinsic (passion, temptation, bodily desires) and extrinsic factors (bad influences, poor education and culture). Knowledge alone seems clearly insufficient to get us to goodness and hence to happiness. While knowledge is important, in this world "good moral habits are required to keep our emotions, our sensations, our bodily desires, and the like, harnessed to the pursuit of human happiness." Oderberg, MT, 48.

Maurice Wilson, Ill-Fated Everest Climber
Symbol of the Fool Who Tackles the Pursuit of Happiness Without Virtue

To tackle the pursuit of happiness without virtue is to be as foolish as the dreamer Maurice Wilson, whose ill-fated effort at climbing Everest alone--without mountaineering experience, without proper preparation and training, without learning the use of an ice ax or crampons, relying on fasting and prayer** and a few climbs of the hills in Snowdonia in Wales, he considered himself ready to tackle one of the most difficult physical feats that had yet to be accomplished. "Off again," the foolish optimist wrote in his diary, "gorgeous day," only to end the "gorgeous day" as a dead, frozen body at the foot of the North Col to be found by the mountaineer and sailor Eric Shipton, and buried ignominiously in a crevasse. So does a man turn out who seeks happiness without virtue: he ends up in failure's crevasse instead of on victory's summit.

Virtues are more lasting than mere dispositions or resolutions, and they are certainly more that "simply a mood, or passing whim." These latter things are transient, and virtues have a certain stability; stayingness, lastingness is their characteristic. Virtue is also more than merely routine, as virtues suggest not drab, dreary day-to-day application of moral precepts as if one were on an assembly line of widgets, operating a stamp that impressed the word "good" on them. Virtues are intelligent habits, founded upon reason, requiring "sound judgment and the skillful application of principles to particular moral problems." To be virtuous, one has to be as deft, and as nimble, and as quick, and as certain as a quarterback facing the entire defensive line and the line backers in a blitz.
*If there are innate moral virtues, then does that imply there such a thing as what Bernard Williams or Thomas Nagel call "moral luck"? Oderberg rejects the notion as being of any great significance. First, any innate trait that may relate to morality pales next to the requirement of development (which requires effort, and so cannot be said to be "luck"). More, he seriously doubts that moral habits are innate. He distinguishes between innate characteristics which may dispose a person to a certain virtue or vice (but which is not virtue or vice in itself), and the virtue or vice itself. He acknowledges, however, some "luck" in being exposed to an environment (e.g., parents) that would encourage the development of virtue (if, and to the extent, innate) or would allow it to be acquired (if not innate). "Luck will be an ineradicable feature of the development of one's character. In this sense, there is and must be 'moral luck.'" Oderberg, MT, 47. Even so, the "moral lack" is, in Oderberg's view, not causative:
Just as no one is born good or bad, so no one is made good or bad. Everyone is born with the desire to know the truth and the desire to live well. Even if their surroundings work against them, they can employ their native reason to rise above those surroundings (as so many do) and to live well and do what is good.
Oderberg, 48. Ultimately, whatever "moral luck" there is does not rob us of our freedom or of our responsibility.
**Apparently Wilson forgot that, while faith may figuratively move mountains (Matt. 17:20), especially the mountains of the mind, it does not suffice, to climb real mountains, unless God were to freeze the laws of nature by an extraordinary and miraculous prodigy, akin to the prodigies of Moses, which we ought never to presume he would do. Wilson also forgot: "Do not put Lord your God to the test . . ." Deut. 6:16; cf. Luke 4:12.

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