So I’ll be in Chicago from Wednesday evening through very early Saturday morning at the Hotel Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue. It’s the last of our SCIENCE OF VIRTUES grant-recepient conferences. Among the duties we’ve been given (in the spirit of science) is to make a brief presentation on what we’ve discovered in terms of DEFINING (and MEASURING) virtues. Here are some notes I’ve quickly scribbled down. Let me know what you think. (And feel free to come by the hotel any of those evenings after 8; unfortunately Marc Guerra, the world’s greatest theologian, won’t be with me.)
What is VIRTUE?
Aristotle: Knowledge of MORAL VIRTUE is IMPRECISE. More than RHETORIC (or PERSUASIVE BALONEY). Less precise or certain than MATHEMATICS. Definitions will be imprecise or admit of exceptions. The problem of measurement goes with the territory.
Virtue is the action that flows from knowing: 1. Who we are. 2. What were supposed to do.
Doing, as Aristotle says, doesnt flow automatically from knowing. But doing presupposes knowing. The conditions of knowing arent mainly about theory or philosophy. Knowing involves habituation. Knowing also involves class (in the sense of being classy) or knowing your place in the world.
Were the beings open to the truth and compelled to live morally demanding lives. Were stuck with virtue. That means in some sense were stuck with courageor having the guts to act in response to what we cant help but know.
Two sources of virtue in our modern, scientific self-understanding:
1. Virtue is about freedom or autonomy, about not living naturalbut chosenlives. Two sources: Descartes and Locke. Alexis de Tocqueville (in the best book ever written on America and the best book ever written on democracy) said Americans are Cartesians without ever having read a word of Descartes. Being virtuous means rejecting personal authority and thinking and feeling for yourself. Virtue means not resting content with some biological destiny and striking out for yourself. Virtue also means respecting the autonomy of others. So virtue has to do with self-reliance or self-determination, industriousness, and even taking responsibility for ones own health and safety in a basically hostile environment.
2. Virtue is about acting according to instinct as a social being (Darwin or Darwinians). Its about not being individualistic or selfish or sociopathic or displaying prosocial behavior or behavior grounded in empathy or the biological imperatives that govern every species. So virtue is doing ones natural duty as a parent or citizen, as part of a social whole greater than oneself. Virtue, from this view, is the key to happiness, insofar as its a disciplined response to our true desires as social animals.
Evidence that our social virtue has been corrupted by mistaken ideas of individualism or autonomy: the weakness of families, the birth dearth, excessive obsession with health and safety or ones own indefinite survival. The response of behalf of individual freedom: Its hardly virtue to be suckered, Im more than my biology, its hardly virtue to be a reproductive machine, Im not a species- but personal being.
Shortcomings of the modern, scientific self-understanding:
1. It doesnt do justice to political or civic virtue. The individualistic criticism of civic virtue is that Im not merely a part of some city Just like Im not species fodder, Im not city fodder. Being a citizen doesn’t define me. But political life does seem to be an indispensable condition of human flourishing. That means the virtues connected with loyalty, patriotism, deliberation, and courage remain with us.
2. It doesnt do justice to who we are as personal and relational beings. Thats why Tocqueville, for example, says that Christianity is the indispensable American counterculture. Empathy is a pitiful substitute for charity. And its Christianity that brings together the universalism of individualism with the social instinct or love found in scientific accounts of social virtue. So what modern scientific accounts lack is a strongly personal account of love as a source of virtue. They deny that LOGOS can be PERSONAL.
3. These scientific understandings have trouble finding room for intellectual virtue—for LOGOS itself as a source of courage, responsibility, and so forth (see the anti-communist dissidents Havel and Solzhenitsyn—who had sort of combo Aristotelian/Christian criticisms of the ideological tendencies of modern thought).
Our goal: It put together what’s true about Locke/Descartes and Darwin (and add more) in the service of the true science of virtue.