Saturday, October 30, 2010

Greek Virtue Theory

Gleaning through the Market Place of Competing Ethical Theories

How Should We Be? “Essentialist” Virtue

Classical (Greek) Virtue Theory

Greek virtue theory answers “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?” by emphasizing a virtuous (rational) character according to purpose that is built in to reality, considering conduct important in behaving according to the Golden Mean, and valuing the consequence of happiness. Virtue ethics consider character to be more basic than conduct, because, in Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.) words, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a
 habit,” (Nichomachean Ethics, i, 7). See L1.2.

Plato (c.427-347 B.C.) believed in a world of eternal, unchanging Forms, which is more real than the shadowy, ever-changing world of senses which is just an imperfect projection of the world of Forms. The world of Forms, or Ideas, can be accessed through the mind only, including the Form of the Good, which was the most important Form, from which everything else derives. The apostle Paul did not believe in Plato’s world of Forms, but did say, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love,” (1 Cor. 12:13). The Gnostic “gospels” appealed to the Greeks when they spoke of being rescued from the dark, evil material world by secret gnosis, whereas the canonical gospels offended the dominant views with a “positive view of material creation,” (2; 106). Christians acknowledge our bodies as God’s sacred temple, his holy dwelling place—not something to escape [see also (22)], but something to be glorified in resurrection (3).

Plato and Socrates (469-399 B.C.) believed the virtuous, happy life (the “good life”) results from examining all of your beliefs (“The unexamined life is not worth living”) to make sure they are knowledge and not mere opinion (“Only ignorance leads to wrongdoing”). Knowledge of absolute truth leads to a good life worth living. [Aside: If ignorance leads to wrongdoing, that means one can unintentionally seek satisfaction from something other than Golden Rule love (see Objection 16 in Appendix E), but it does not imply that a finite being would never intentionally behave immorally if s/he knew (and s/he does know, intuitively) why her behavior was immoral—only God is perfectly good (as would we be, if we had eternal omniscience) (68).] The virtuous person’s appetites are ruled by reason, making them wise, and controlled by willpower (also called spirit), making them brave. A person who controls their appetites in this way is temperate. A temperate person, in their relations with the Other, is the picture of justice. This can be compared to the earlier discussion of fuel and flower. Reason is the steering wheel and breaks, intuition (will) is the accelerating vehicle, and the fuel can be the eternal moral standard, or it can be whatever the appetites settle for (actually part of will). Plato was a rationalist, but the eternal standard (Golden Rule love) appeals to both reason and intuition.

In ancient Greece, to be virtuous meant to act with excellence, with virtuosity — to be a virtuoso — to be a master at every attempted skill because one developed the sort of disciplined character that produces good choices and habits. The temperaments David Keirsey’s (1921- ) sorter (29) tests for, modeled after Plato’s artisans, guardians, idealists and rationals (from his Republic), describe aspects of character we are born with. Virtue ethicists assume that, though character or temperament may be something we are born with, it is also malleable. In order to develop virtue, you must practice moral habits until it takes little effort and you enjoy it. Although Emmanuel Kant (whom we will discuss later) argues that a good will, which he also refers to as a virtuous disposition, is essential in making a moral decision, he saw more to be admired in struggling against disposition, against character or temperament, with respect for the moral law, but see what C.S. Lewis has to say about that in the next section, which covers deontology (conduct). Plato in his Republic presented the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and prudence for the producers, warriors, and rulers, respectively, and justice for the relations between them, failing both L1.3 and L3 (70), because virtue should be the standard for all or none.

So, since the Greeks saw virtuosity as something to be developed, one might expect they had not applied virtue to God (or, in their minds, “gods”), who cannot develop and is pure actuality. This is exactly what we find in the dialogue with Euthyphro, wherein Socrates (470-399 B.C.) asks whether something is right because God wills it (thesis: divine voluntarism, 70), or if God wills it because it is right (antithesis: Greek “essentialism”). He sees problems with both options. If it is right because he wills it, right is dependent on God’s arbitrary will—he could will that murder is right. If he wills it because it is right, he is under the moral law, rather than being its absolute source. But, the solution Socrates left up to us to find (and Aquinas did) is that God is what is right (Golden Rule love) (synthesis: divine essentialism) (see Objection 1 in Appendix E, and L2). Let’s make this dialectic (58, 66) stand out:

Aquinas’ Euthyphro Dialectic

Thesis: Something is right because God wills it (divine voluntarism, 70).
Antithesis: God wills it because it is right (Greek “essentialism”).
Synthesis: God wills in accordance with his good nature (divine essentialism). See Appendix F: Six Moral Realist Dialectics (Non-interchangeable).

Socrates argued in Plato’s Symposium that the Greek god of love, Eros, was not a god, but merely a messenger (like our hunger for true meaning, 57), because his sort of love was in want of the Good, that he loved from a lack (this is where Socrates stops), rather than loving from abundance and ‘being’ the Good, like the Christian God (63) (see Objection 1 in Appendix E). Therefore, Greek virtue theory is voluntaristic (70) by default [in that it is not a discovered (71) truth, even if it is assumed to be—it is actually a mere construct, not of indifferent nature, but of human will], failing L2 (which is why “essentialist” is in quotes in the section heading, 70). Plato’s concept of “The Good” (the Form from which everything else derives), though eternal, had no anchor, an eternally good (loving) God who wills in accordance with his good (loving) nature (note that love is impossible if one is not a personal being). Unlike us, he did not have to develop virtue like we do, made in his essence, but having potential—he has always been a Virtuoso—pure actuality (he exists his essence). Perfect virtue cannot be arrived at. He has always been (69). [ Was Plato’s God “the good”? Was this what Socrates was helping to birth? (Schuyler) ]

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, believed that the world of the senses reveals the world of Forms and is not a mere projection of it, and so should be empirically studied. To Aristotle, everything has its own virtue, or purpose, and if it performs its virtue, it is virtuous; if not, it is lacking in virtue. So his thoughts are teleological, telos meaning goal or purpose (different from the consequentialism discussed later, because teleology is dealing with the ultimate purpose of humans, rather than the consequences of their actions or the ‘any old goal’ approach of pragmatism). Virtue was built into reality from the beginning (“essentialist”) (this is the thesis that Sartre, whose antithesis we will later answer with a synthesis, objected to: essence precedes existence). A thing’s virtue is its final cause in Aristotle’s theory of the four causes. A material cause is what a thing is made of. An efficient cause is the creative force acting upon the material. A formal cause (remnant of Plato's theory of forms) is the shape or idea of the affected material. A final cause is the purpose of the affected material. In the theory of evolution (26), which Aristotle did not anticipate, the first material cause would have been the singularity, and it is hard to say what would have been its efficient, formal, and final cause, from Aristotle’s perspective. Starting from now, the human body and all its systems is the material cause. The efficient cause is the environment which shapes (like sandpaper to wood) the body and what it is used for. The formal cause is what the body is shaped into; how it changes to better suit its environment. The final cause is how the newly shaped body is actually used in its environment; the reason it was shaped. So the formal cause becomes the material cause, and the final cause becomes part of the efficient cause. As the universe was complete before it started, the final cause is Golden Rule love. However, there is a problem with rooting the final cause to the formal cause—is-ought fallacy (12) of reification (70) (see Objection 2 in Appendix E). Just because there is a natural basis for morality does not mean nature endorses it as anything beyond “is”—nature cannot prescribe (we agree with Sartre this far). Our essence, our final cause, our virtue, how we should be and behave is to choose Golden Rule love, justified because it answers the question of Ethics (83), true because it corresponds to a perfect being who exists (chooses) this essence at every moment (69) (see Appendix G). Let’s make this dialectic (58, 66) stand out—it will come up again in the section on Existentialism:

The Existential Essentialism Dialectic

Thesis: Essence (virtue, final cause, ought, how we should be) is a natural part of reality and precedes our existence (character, formal cause, is, how we are) (Greek essentialism) [is-ought (12) fallacy of reification (70) (see Objection 2 in Appendix E)].
Antithesis: Existence precedes essence—we define what it means to be human (Sartre—atheist existentialism) [ought-is fallacy (82) of reification (70) (see Objection 3 in Appendix E)].
Synthesis: Our essence, our final cause, our virtue, how we should be, is to choose Golden Rule love, justified because it answers the question of Ethics (83), true because it corresponds to a perfect being who exists (chooses) this essence at every moment (69). See Appendix F: Six Moral Realist Dialectics (Non-interchangeable).

Again, according to Aristotle, virtue is what something does best. The virtue of humans (human essentialism), what humans do best (Aristotle: man, in particular), is reason, or contemplation. Contemplation is good for us and makes us happy, virtuous people. To perform virtuously is to make a habit of reasoning well and developing a rational character, which Aristotle equated with moral goodness. Intellectual virtue involves both practical wisdom (phronesis) and theoretical wisdom (philosophy)—the highest virtue. Moral virtue involves reasoning out the Golden Mean (synthesis) between an extreme vice (thesis) and a vice of deficiency (antithesis) in every situation, on a consistent, character-building basis (vice: later in this paper referred to as a sinful trait, a breaking away from the Synthesis). Let’s make this dialectic (58, 66) stand out:

Aristotle’s Golden Mean Dialectic

Thesis: Extreme vice.
Antithesis: Vice of deficiency.
Synthesis: Balance (virtue) between vices of extremism and deficiency.

The Golden Mean is the concept of moderation, of “an action or feeling responding to a particular situation at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, for the right reason—not too much and not too little,” (4; 374). For example, the Golden Mean (virtue) between being destructively critical and deficiently critical is being constructively critical (author’s example). Let’s make this dialectic (58, 66) stand out:

The Constructive Criticism Dialectic

Thesis: Being destructively critical is an extreme vice.
Antithesis: Being deficiently critical is a vice of deficiency.
Synthesis: The Golden Mean between those vices is to be constructively critical.

You can never perform moderate virtues “in excess” and you can never perform extreme or deficient vices “too little”—they are right or wrong in themselves. Aristotle thought that since there is a rock-solid Golden Mean for every situation (he was not a relativist), there would be no conflict between virtuous people on what the mean is. However, Aristotle’s virtues differ from Christian virtues, because he was tutoring aristocratic youths, one of which became Alexander the Great, so there are certain traits (dealing with anger and pride) Christians would consider vices but Aristotle would consider virtues. The conflict between Aristotle’s virtues and Christian virtues is solved by discovering (71) the standard of Golden Rule love in God’s essence, the essence in which we are created (45), as demonstrated in Christ’s sacrifice (see Objection 1 in Appendix E). The Golden Rule is like the Golden Mean, but love is built into it. Reason, then, is not our ultimate purpose, and neither is power; reason and power are what enable us to choose our ultimate purpose: Golden Rule love.

Nevertheless, Aristotle’s teleology fascinated Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Purpose, built-in virtue, implies a Designer (in accordance with his good nature). Humans who freely fulfill God’s purpose are doing his will. However, some have argued that if we conform to ‘supposedly’ built-in purpose, we are no better than self-conscious tools and should make our own purpose instead. Sartre, discussed later, does not acknowledge essential purpose and views a choice in favor of it to be a cop-out made in bad faith (but see Objection 13 in Appendix E). Sartre says we are “condemned to be free,” unknowingly implying that it is our built-in purpose to create and claim our own purpose, that we are condemned to be self-conscious tools. Some would see choice as a gift, not condemnation…the reason we are ends having objective, intrinsic value, and not means having merely extrinsic value. Free will, choice, is what makes Golden Rule love (a choice) possible—“love” is the point of having a choice. Condemned to love? Romans 6:18 comes to mind, and what Tim Keller says about love being the most liberating freedom-loss (see Objection 1 in Appendix E). We’ll get to that later.

Making reason, or a rational character, the highest virtue misses the point (the why, the fuel and destination) of being and behaving well with the Other (failing L1.3, 70), as does making power the highest virtue, as some do. Although we should behave rationally in our dealings with the Other, "reasoning well," like being powerful, does not even require an Other to be in existence (failing L1.3, 70). As a consequence of putting reason and power over Golden Rule love, it seems the goal of Greek virtue theory is to cultivate the sort of character (L1.2) one can be proud of, whereas Christian virtue is not something one can boast about, because God’s love cannot be earned or lost, and he shapes our virtue. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the problem with Greek essentialism, besides being classist and sexist, in Socrates’/Plato’s case, is that it had no anchor (eternal love implies eternal personhood, and they didn’t even get the “love” part yet, even though they had a bunch of different words for it), and in Aristotle’s case, is that, according to the is-ought (12) fallacy of reification (70) (see Objection 2 in Appendix E), no (eternal) ought can logically be derived from anything in the (ever-changing) natural universe (is), including from evolving humans. God's Golden Rule love, the source of genuine happiness, cannot be taken away, even in the midst of turmoil, whereas our ability to contemplate can be taken away by various causes. Again, that is why Greek and human essentialism is 'created,' not discovered (71), as in divine essentialism—human essence is patterned after divine essence (Golden Rule) (see Appendix G). The natural universe can, however, have its being within the divine source of that standard. The uncreated (71), eternal, ultimate end (consequences) of both being (character) and doing (conduct), is Golden Rule love that endures all circumstances: love the Other as self. Still, it is intriguing that the true and the good are united in Greek virtue theory, as Christians acknowledge God is truth and love.

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