Friday, March 21, 2008

Virtue, Rightness and Human Nature

Virtue, of course, is goodness of character, and rightness is the property certain acts have of being morally permissible, rather than wrong. Some philosophers maintain that virtue is the more fundamental concept, rightness being derivative of it. Not so, I reply. Virtue is reducible to the disposition to do what is right. We wouldn't think that an act is right because it is what a virtuous person would do. We would, however, think a character trait virtuous because it results in its possessor's doing what is right. Is that too quick? Then let us consider.

One might persist in maintaining that virtue is the more fundamental concept, but then the puzzle arises, what makes the virtuous character traits virtues if it is not rightness? The virtue-primacy theorist must appeal to human nature, but the account is incomplete unless more is said. "Why, human nature, of course" is an insufficient explanation. One must appeal in addition to purposes that inhere in human nature: our reasons for being. The candidates, suggested to me variously by adherents of Aristotle, Aquinas, Darwin, and Ayn Rand: (a.) thriving, survival, or something like that, or (b.) glorifying God. (These are not mutually exclusive. Last night, for example, I enjoyed disputations with a Rand-cum-Aristotle virtue-primacy theorist.) The acceptance of a certain purpose of human beings is what drives the virtue-primacy theorist to suggest that rightness is the epiphenomenon of virtue, rather than vice versa. Yet, we have no purposes other than those set by our desires. Our purposes are goals the achievement of which will most satisfy the largest and most practically coherent set of desires. The God-based view entails that we have no purpose if God does not exist; but that isn't so. The thriving-based view has to cope with the fact that thriving doesn't map neatly onto what is right. Hobbes failed to reduce right to self-interest because there are cases in which doing wrong is in one's interest: cases in which one won't get caught. Similarly a person or society can in some cases promote its level of thriving or increase its chance of survival by doing wrong. No, the examination of human nature can help us understand our purpose only because human nature is a set of dispositions to desire certain ends and examining that set is helpful in discovering which resultant preference, after the fashion of an elaborate vector sum, our most coherent set of desires is likely to generate.

I suppose the virtue-primacy theorist has one or the other cherished view about desire-independent human purposes; my interlocutor of last night is partial to the Randian. This commitment drives him to try to maintain it while presenting sensible positions about the logical relation of virtue and rightness. It's a stretch, requiring that he reverse the logical order or rightness and virtue, so that his preferred purpose drives the entire set of positions. My tactic, on the other hand, is not to import any favorite purposes but, like Hume, to assume that desire-independent purposes do not to exist until their rather inscrutable existence is proven, and thereafter to accept whatever purposes remain. There's no proof yet of the desire-independent ones. As Hume said, if we set desire on the sidelines, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." He hasn't been refuted.

If you think that the rejection of virtue-primacy ill-fits the obvious fact that the examination of human nature and virtue are important components of moral inquiry, fear not. Of course they are. As I've said, they enable us to see more clearly what is most desirable to us and how to cultivate dispositions to achieve it.