The Cool Dude or: I am Not a Virtue Ethicist

Aristotle doesn’t talk about the Moral Person. He talks about the Cool Dude!

Thus said one of my undergrads after reading the Nicomachean Ethics. What did he mean? Partially, he meant something similar to what Anscombe said when she said the following:

If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite.

The label “cool dude” seems, according to my undergrad, to fit Aristotle’s excellent person more than the label “moral person” does. After all, he has high self-esteem, an expensive house in impeccable taste, a penchant for giving great parties, not to mention a wonderful sense of when to tell jokes, when not to brag, how to accept honors without being “ranking-obsessed” (as undergrads called the honor-lover that year). The label “moral person” does not seem to have much to do with these things. When I told a friend about my undergrad’s comments, the friend suggested that someone translate the Nicomachean Ethics for undergrads. Whenever it says “virtuous person” we should say “cool guy”. Whenever it says “fine” or “noble” we should say “awesome”. That way we can quote Aristotle as saying:

The cool guy does awesome things because they are awesome.

In one of my talks, someone shouted “you mean awesome de re”, but that’s already interpretation.

I don’t just admire Aristotle. I often enjoy Aristotle. His use of cases and the way he does, long before “analytical” philosophy was officially a thing, dig so masterfully into to the truth beyond common beliefs and the paradoxes they create. But I am not a virtue ethicist. Everywhere I travel people tell me, critically or approvingly, that I am a virtue ethicist. Come on! A person is allowed to have the word “virtue” in the title of her book without being a virtue ethicist! Kant wrote The Doctrine of Virtue. He talked about virtue. A lot. Hume, of course, talked about virtues. We might owe it to 20th century virtue ethicists that talk of virtue has regained an important place in ethics, but we can’t give virtue ethicists a monopoly over the word “virtue”. To be fair, “virtue ethics” is not used as a super-precise term, but I don’t think it can be stretched to fit me. Here’s (the short version of ) why not:

1. When I say “a virtuous person” I don’t mean “the cool dude”, the fine human specimen, the person who is excellent at being a person, or the person with arete. I also don’t mean the phronimos. The natural language term that I have before me is “good person” (or “very good person”) and its counterparts in Hebrew and in Basque. Also German, I suppose, though I forgot my German. The point is that ancient Greek has nothing obvious to do with it). I also like the ever-so-dull and dreary term “moral person” and use it interchangeably with “virtuous person” (though I have been known to refer to the opposite number of the virtuous person with the less dreary term “asshole”, the word “vice” having been regrettably drained of its moral force by being used to refer to eating ice cream.) At least according to the dictionary, this is a legit use of the term “virtuous person”, but some people who identify as virtue ethicists don’t like it. Others do own up to talking about the moral person, someone having a long time ago discreetly removed wit and magnificence from their list of virtues and put charity and honesty in, but still think of her, the virtuous agent, also as a fine human specimen and a phronimos. I don’t. Some of my reasons not to have been better articulated by others, some coming up.

2. I think you can be a perfectly good person and still not always do the right thing in the right circumstances. That’s because doing the right thing sometimes requires that you be smart in addition to being good, and sometimes it also requires that your judgment not be clouded by, say, depression,or anxiety, or that you not be saddled with autistic difficulties in understanding other people’s emotional cues, or that you have life experience. Perhaps you cannot be unintelligent as the cool dude (what do I know about coolness? Ask my undergrad!) and perhaps being below a certain level of intelligence makes it harder to have a good life, but even if these things are true, I don’t think anyone should ever be regarded as less morally good because she is not very smart – it’s like saying one is less moral because one is blind or deaf.  Granted, to be morally good, a person needs to be conceptually sophisticated enough to have concepts like “harm” and ‘truth”,  which rules out my cats as potential moral agents. You might protest that the phronimos possesses wisdom, not smartness, but wisdom comes on top of smartness;  it seems to require quite a bit of smartness to get off the ground. Now, even in a smart person, conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, or lack of experience seem to interfere with the possibility of acting with practical wisdom. I need not deny that some of these conditions can interfere with your chances of a good life, but morality again is something else. I know so many people who think they are somehow bad people because of their depression or autism or anxiety or cluelessness! Typically, we tell them that they are mistaken. These conditions are morally neutral and while there are some situations where a person of strong virtuous motivation can overcome their influence, she often cannot. I agree with Kantian intuition that an honest-to-God good will shines through regardless of just about everything, most especially including cognitive limitations and suchlike obstacles. There’s just this small disagreement about what “will” is…. (All of this has been argued for in my last book and in a paper called “Duty, Desire and the Good Person”).

3. And then there’s Eudaemonia. Or happiness. Or wellbeing. In a forthcoming paper I argue that while virtue ethicists such as Hursthouse have said convincing things to the effect that if you want to flourish, you shouldn’t let yourself become a narcissist, a Nazi, a cynic or a purely selfish sort, this does not – as Copp and Sobel already pointed out –  amount to an argument in favor of being downright good as an obvious path to flourishing. Granted, some parts of Wolf’s “Moral Saints” seem to depict Ned Flanders rather than an actual moral paragon (Father Knows Best? Really?) and I don’t agree that even very moral people are automatically uncool men and women. Still, I argue that a person who is somewhere between “decent” and “jerk” – a morally mediocre agent – often has no reason to pursue further moral virtue, and has some reasons not to pursue it, in so far as what she wants is to flourish (she might, of course, have other reasons to be a better person). Imagine a morally mediocre person who has loving relationships with other individuals, good health, decent material conditions, and cool (though not necessarily morally significant) things he can do, with a bit of work, using his talents and abilities. Is he likely to become happier if he starts noticing injustice in the news and feeling the resulting heartache, or if he starts working in a soup kitchen during time that he would have spent playing Jazz with his friends? I argue that it’s often not the case. Some virtue ethicists  would argue that you cannot have good, truly loving relationships with other individuals unless you are all-around kind and honest. That’s, on my view, like saying that you can’t be genuinely, lovingly devoted to your dog, cat, or other cherished nonhuman animal unless you are also a vegetarian: it sounds like it should be true, yet it is clearly false.

4. Umm, yes, I forgot to mention that I don’t think that the reason helping the person bleeding by the side of the road is the right action is that it is what a good or benevolent person would characteristically do. I am still trying to figure out what the reason is, but right now I imagine something along the lines of  “it is an action that protects the bleeding person from severe illbeing without violating any rights (…)”. I don’t think any facts about the habits or concerns of moral agents are built into the right-making features of this action: the relevant facts are about what it does or doesn’t do to moral patients.

There’s more, but ok, that’s enough. So why do I like to talk about virtues anyway? Because I think our intuitions about the rightness of moral actions and the worth of moral motives are deeply and interestingly intertwined, and these in turn are intertwined with our intuitions of the goodness and badness of persons, and each of the three topics is fascinating in its own right. Even if one does not endorse defining the right action through reference to the virtuous agent, as I do not, one can still see that some of the best clues to what morality is about come from looking at what we expect a moral person to be concerned with (or an immoral person not to be concerned with).

A very tall man was once at a talk I gave. When it was time for questions, he got up, towering over me in the small room, and said “I’m sorry, the reason I’m standing up is not to be intimidating but to make eye contact”. He then asked: do we really care about the inner lives of agents? When I talk to my kids, I teach them right and wrong actions. Nothing about motives”. I pointed out that if we didn’t care about the inner lives of agents, it would have been enough for him to do the right thing – stand up – and he needn’t have bothered to make sure that I know he was doing it in order to make eye contact – a fact about his inner life.  Where there is natural talk of right and wrong actions, there is also talk of good people and assholes. You don’t have to be a virtue ethicist to be interested in these things. Or, I suspect, an ethicist at all. If you like gossip, you’re probably in.