Sunday, June 24, 2018

Virtue and Moral Philosophy

In Varieties of Goodness, Georg Henrik von Wright has devoted a chapter to the discussion of the philosophy of virtues—he criticizes and departs from the traditional doctrine of virtues proposed by Aristotle and Aquinas. But in her essay, “Von Wright on Virtue,” (Chapter 7; Moral Dilemmas: and other topics in moral philosophy), Philippa Foot suggests that while von Wright is correct in thinking that the topic needs to be reopened and developed there is more to the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas than he allows.

Explaining von Wright’s objective behind his article on virtue, Philippa Foot writes:
Kant’s dictum about logic—that it had made no real progress since Aristotle—could, he says, be applied with at least equally good justification to the ethics of virtue, and he seems to see the future development of the philosophy of the virtues in terms of radical change. So he sets out to shape a new concept of virtue and one sees how far von Wright is prepared to go in throwing over old doctrines when one realizes that he is happy with a definition which explodes two of the four cardinal virtues of ancient and medieval morality. 
She notes that von Wright seems to be preoccupied with the need to distinguish a virtue, in the sense in which the term is used today, from an art or skill. He is of the view that Aristotle got misled by the peculiarities of the Greek language and failed to see the major gulf that exists between a virtue and an art or skill.
Von Wright’s own answer to the question ‘How does a virtue differ from an art or a skill?’ is as follows. If one possesses a skill, or is master of an art, one has what he calls ‘technical goodness’ and technical goodness is a matter of being good at performing some specific activity, such as running, skiing, or singing. A virtue must be different because there is no specific activity connected with any virtue, and therefore nothing for a man of virtue to be good at
But Philippa Foot says that that von Wright’s thinking that the distinction between arts or skills and virtues depends on the denial that the latter are connected with specific activities is mistaken.
…however close the connection between certain virtues and certain activities a man does not possess the virtue by being good at the activity. The reason for this was indicated quite correctly by Aristotle when he said that in art he who errs voluntarily is preferable, whereas in the matter of wisdom, justice, etc., it is the reverse. Thus, to use Aristotle’s example, a grammarian who commits a solecism on purpose does not give any evidence of deficiency in the art of grammar, whereas no one could rebut a charge of injustice or folly by saying that he chose to act unjustly or foolishly. 
Von Wright has made the argument about considerateness—he says that virtue is a form of self-mastery, or of being considerate. A considerate man knows how to control his selfish impulses so far as these might inference with his judgments about the harm that will come to others through possible action of his. He refers to courage as a virtue most often in his discussion. But Philippa Foot shows that there exists a closer connection between the concept of courage and that of good action than von Wright allows. 

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