Virtue, Happiness, and the Greeks: Burdened Interpretations

tessman-burdenedI’m currently involved (along with some other members of the POT blog) in an online reading group on Lisa Tessman’s book Burdened Virtues, and while there’s a lot in the book that I admire, I want to grump here a bit about some of the things that Tessman says in ch. 3, which is where we currently are in the book. (The main focus of the book is on how to understand what Aristotelean-style virtue ethicists see, and what Tessman rather forlornly longs to see, as a harmonious and mutually reinforcing relationship between virtue and well-being, in the context of oppressive social structures that impose often devastating costs on those who attempt the sorts of resistance to oppression that virtue seems to require. That’s an interesting and important topic, but – be warned – I say virtually nothing about it in the present post.)

Despite the occasional perfunctory acknowledgment (e.g. at p. 62, n. 15) that views on which morality and flourishing can come apart were “quite thinkable within the ancient Greek context,” Tessman nevertheless persists in treating ancient and modern views as divided by some deep conceptual gap; hence she contrasts the “contemporary meaning of the word happiness” with the “ancient Greek understanding of … eudaimonia or flourishing” (p. 57), as though conceptions of eudaimonia centered on wealth or subjective pleasure or the amoral pursuit of power were alien to the ancient Greek context. But in fact the virtue-centered conception of eudaimonia common among philosophers in the broadly Socratic lineage (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) seems by no means to have been automatically congenial to Greeks generally; indeed in Plato’s dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors often react with puzzlement or disbelief or even mockery to his insistence that morality and self-interest cannot come apart.

Tessman mentions only Thrasymachus in this connection, but later in the Republic Glaucon and Adeimantus defend, at least arguendo, a watered-down version of the same view; and Thrasymachus’s scornful incredulity is matched by the positions defended (and the manner in which they’re defended) by Polus and Callicles in the Gorgias. Beyond Plato’s works, we also see sharp contemporary disagreement about the relationship between morality and self-interest in Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue”; the debate between Just Argument and Unjust Argument in Aristophanes’ Clouds; and Antiphon’s distinction in On Truth between the way it makes sense to act when others are watching and the way it makes sense to act when they are not. Aristotle for his part opens the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of the variety of different conceptions of eudaimonia that were extant in his society – wealth, pleasure, reputation, virtue, etc.

socrates-longboringMoreover, the dialectical strategy of the Socratic virtue theorists was to start from premises accepted by those holding un-Socratic views about the relation between virtue and happiness, and thereby to show them that by their own lights they were committed to more Socratic views. Thus Socrates in the Gorgias gets Polus to concede that justice is more admirable than injustice, and that if it is more admirable it must be more worth having, and that the power that politicians seek is a chimæra. Aristotle argues that even those who take themselves to exalt pleasure as the highest good would balk at the prospect of being reduced to the mental level of an infant in exchange for a guarantee of plenty of infantile pleasure, showing that they really value more than pleasure (NE X.3); that even those who take themselves to exalt honour (in the sense of reputation, i.e. being honoured) as the highest good prefer to be honoured by good judges rather than bad, thereby showing that the value they place on being honoured stems, at least in large part, from a concern for being able to think of themselves as worthy of being honoured, thereby committing them to a subordination of honour to virtue (NE I.5); and so on. The virtue-centered approach to eudaimonia is thus taken to be dialectically reachable from non-virtue-centered conceptions of eudaimonia through the exploitation of instabilities within those conceptions.

Nor is this approach by any means dead today. For example, both Robert Nozick (in his experience machine thought-experiment) and Julia Annas (e.g., in her article “Happiness As Achievement”) have tried to show that the popular modern commitment to a view of happiness as some sort of subjective feeling is conceptually unstable – that even the moderns will be compelled to think about happiness in more Aristotelean ways if they work out the full range of their commitments. This style of argument is very much in the tradition of what Plato and Aristotle were doing, and is widely accepted among virtue theorists nowadays. Thus it’s a mistake to think that Greek eudaimonia and our modern “happiness” represent different concepts; rather, there is a single concept, a subjectivist conception of which was popular in ancient times, just as it is today, but is open to internal criticism today, just as it was then.

(I am incidentally baffled by Tessman’s claim that “[c]ontemporary virtue theorists tend to accept … a life that is self-assessed as a good life to actually be a good life.” (p. 78). I can’t imagine which virtue theorists she has been hanging out with. In this connection, I’m also puzzled by Tessman’s frequent citing of Philippa Foot’s Virtues and Vices (1978) as representative of contemporary virtue theory, while never mentioning the much more Aristotelean approach in Foot’s more recent Natural Goodness (2002).)


Tessman explains what she sees as the gap between ancient and contemporary views of well-being by appealing to the fact that “conditions of and assumptions about life have changed so dramatically from the ancient Greek context,” inasmuch as in “the contemporary United States or other pluralistic liberal democracies” society is so “fragmented into multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes clashing groups” with “divergent conceptions of what the good life is” that there is “no single, unified, harmonious polity to map a route to flourishing.” (p. 60). This certainly makes it sound as though Tessman thinks that the ancient Greek polis was in fact a “single, unified, harmonious polity” – a view difficult to sustain under even a glancing familiarity with Greek historians like Herodotus, Xenophon, and especially Thucydides. And like those historians, Plato and Aristotle both treat the polis as a locus of factional strife between clashing groups with divergent conceptions of the good life (see, for example, Aristotle’s diagnosis in the Politics of democratic and oligarchic factions as motivated by conceptions of the good organised around freedom and wealth, respectively – both incidentally mistaken conceptions of the good, in his view). (Moreover, the ease with which Athenian statesmen like Themistocles and Alcibiades cheerfully defected to traditional enemies of Athens like Sparta or Persia when things got too hot for them at home, only to come sauntering back into Athens once the political situation grew more favourable, casts doubt on the widespread myth that ancient Greeks had no sense of identity or self-interest outside the context of their native polis and its welfare. Relatedly, Plato’s Crito makes clear that Socrates’ preference for death at the hands of his native city over exile from it would have widely been regarded by other Athenians as perverse.)

A somewhat different quibble: Tessman takes the Greek virtue-theorists to be committed to a conception of “collective flourishing” (p. 62), on the grounds that if, as such theorists insist, one’s own flourishing requires concern for others, then one’s own flourishing must ipso facto require the flourishing of those others. But this is a non sequitur. The clearest counterexample is the Stoics, who emphasised human sociality and took the individual’s flourishing to require quite a lot of virtuous concern for others in the sense of attempting to promote others’ flourishing, but who at the same time took the individual’s flourishing to be completely unaffected by whether they actually succeeded in such attempts (this is the famous doctrine of the “preferred indifferent”). Tessman doesn’t have much to say about the Stoics, presumably because their conception of eudaimonia as radically independent of contingent circumstances is fairly alien to the topic of her book (though I think the Stoic writers offer more useful resources for her project than she may suspect); but she acknowledges (p. 35, n. 2) that Socrates, at least by some reports, held a view much like the later Stoic one. But she doesn’t seem to acknowledge the problem this poses for her “collective flourishing” thesis, for which Socrates is one of her chosen models. In Plato’s Apology, for example, Socrates declares that no harm can come to a good person, even in a society like Athens which Socrates seems to view as deeply unvirtuous and non-flourishing; by his lights, evidently, a good person has a virtuous duty to try to lead his community to virtue and eudaimonia, but his well-being is not actually affected by whether he succeeds or not. (Tessman oddly takes herself to be revising traditional virtue theory in maintaining that unvirtuous states of character are widespread; I should have thought it obvious that Plato and Aristotle likewise agree that unvirtuous states of character are widespread – and for the Stoics, unvirtuous states of character are nearly universal, with only a very favoured few, such as Socrates and Diogenes, perhaps deserving to be counted as virtuous by Stoic lights.)

aristotle4agcafeAristotle comes closer to Tessman’s “collective flourishing” paradigm, with his insistence that the individual’s own flourishing depends on the flourishing of “friends and fellow citizens” (NE 1097b8-11; Tessman cites this passage on p. 59); but I think Tessman misses how, for Aristotle too (though not to so radical degree as with the Stoics), the scope of proper moral concern is wider than the scope of eudaimonic dependence. Thus, because Aristotle evidently does not regard the individual’s flourishing as dependent on the flourishing of people outside of his polis, Tessman assumes that for Aristotle the requirements of proper moral concern stop at the boundaries of the polis also.

I think this is a mistake. Although for Aristotle the requirements of virtuous concern toward outsiders may be weaker than those toward fellow-citizens, there are some obligations – specifically those of justice and those of friendliness – that he seems to regard as owed to humanity generally.

In Politics VII.2, for example, Aristotle notes that “in some states the entire aim both of the laws and of the constitution is to give men despotic power over their neighbours”; the context makes clear that he is thinking about despotic power over neighbouring polities, not just over fellow-citizens within one’s own polity, for he goes on:

[T]hey aim at the maintenance of power: thus in Lacedæmon and Crete the system of education and the greater part of the laws are framed with a view to war. And in all nations which are able to gratify their ambition military power is held in esteem, for example among the Scythians and Persians and Thracians and Celts. In some nations there are even laws tending to stimulate the warlike virtues, as at Carthage, where we are told that men obtain the honor of wearing as many armlets as they have served campaigns. There was once a law in Macedonia that he who had not killed an enemy should wear a halter …. [and so on.]

Aristotle’s response is that justice forbids such an attitude toward outsiders:

How can that which is not even lawful be the business of the statesman or the legislator? Unlawful it certainly is to rule without regard to justice … [W]hat men affirm to be unjust and inexpedient in their own case they are not ashamed of practicing towards others; they demand just rule for themselves, but where other men are concerned they care nothing about it. Such behavior is irrational [except, Aristotle goes on to note, when it is directed against natural slaves].

Hence even if the well-being of a citizen of polis A is not necessarily affected by the fact that polis B is being conquered and oppressed by polis C, it would nevertheless be unjust for members of polis A to engage in such actions themselves against polis B; and if they were to do so, they would forfeit their flourishing, since it is impossible for “robbers and plunderers [to] attain the chief good.” (Pol. VII.3). Here, then, the scope of those to whom we owe obligations of justice is wider than the scope of those upon whose eudaimonia our own eudaimonia depends.

Likewise, in NE VIII.1 Aristotle describes the virtue of philia (sometimes translated in this context as “friendliness,” since it seems somewhat weaker than full-fledged friendship) as properly directed at other human beings generally, not just at fellow citizens: “human beings have a natural friendship for one another,” and “in our travels [thus, evidently, in contexts outside one’s own polis] we can see how human being is akin and friend to human being,” so that “we praise friends of humanity.” While the kind of friendliness we owe to all of humanity may be a rather tepid form of benevolence compared to what Tessman would understandably prefer, the fact remains that it apparently covers a range of obligations (since Aristotle calls it a virtue and something to be praised) to people upon whose eudaimonia one’s own eudaimonia evidently does not depend, even if one’s own eudaimonia does depend on one’s responsiveness to such obligations.

I think these observations put in doubt the legitimacy of Tessman’s slide from the claim that for Aristotle the individual’s flourishing “just requires the flourishing of some particular others” and not “the flourishing of all,” to the claim that for Aristotle “other-regarding virtues are directed only toward an exclusive circle of others.” (pp. 74-75). On this point she strikes me as failing to distinguish between two different issues: whether the ruling class of the Aristotelean polis is inclusive in the sense of owing what Aristotle considers just treatment to outsiders, and whether it is inclusive in the sense of owing outsiders just treatment correctly understood. Of course Aristotle’s account of what is properly owed, within the polis, to slaves, women, etc., is radically defective, because he has a radically defective, objectionably inegalitarian view of the content of justice; but that doesn’t mean that he has a non-universalist, non-inclusive view of the scope of justice. After all, in his notorious defense of natural slavery in Politics I, Aristotle tries to show that the enslavement of natural slaves is just, not that it doesn’t matter whether justice is shown toward slaves. (And in Politics VII.2-3 we are given the corollary that enslaving anyone who is not a natural slave is unjust.)

Tessman does seemingly acknowledge that “since justice, for Aristotle, entails treating equals equally and unequals unequally,” there is by his lights “no vice of injustice committed when some people (such as the slaves or the wives of citizens) are denied material goods or economic opportunities.” (p. 75). Yet she continues to couple this acknowledgment with the (at best ambiguous) insistence that “one should not be satisfied, as Aristotle is, with an agent whose other-regarding virtues are directed only toward an exclusive circle of others” (emphasis added), as though the problem were with the scope of Aristotelean other-regarding virtues rather than with their content.

An even clearer example of what Tessman misses here is provided by the Stoics, who are quite explicit and insistent in preaching the universal scope of proper moral concern, and yet who are also quite happy with an inegalitarian reading of the content of such concern. I’m thinking in particular of Roman Stoics like Seneca and (when he had his Stoic hat on) Cicero – in possible contrast with the earliest Greek Stoics such as Zeno of Citium, whose lost Republic appears to have favoured eliminating social distinctions between rich and poor, male and female, citizens and aliens.

20 thoughts on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Greeks: Burdened Interpretations

  1. Thanks for this. I had similar concerns about her talk of “the ancient Greek idea of collective flourishing,” as though Plato and Aristotle were simply representative of Greek thought about eudaimonia, though my own thoughts were hardly elaborated in this much detail.

    Concerning her statement that nowadays “conditions of and assumptions about life have changed so dramatically from the ancient Greek context,” so that today (unlike then) “there is no single, unified, harmonious polity to map a route to flourishing,” I note that she backs up this claim with a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Hmm. Weren’t we just talking about that?

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  2. I wanted to comment on this long parenthetical.

    (I am incidentally baffled by Tessman’s claim that “[c]ontemporary virtue theorists tend to accept … a life that is self-assessed as a good life to actually be a good life.” (p. 78). I can’t imagine which virtue theorists she has been hanging out with. In this connection, I’m also puzzled by Tessman’s frequent citing of Philippa Foot’s Virtues and Vices (1978) as representative of contemporary virtue theory, while never mentioning the much more Aristotelean approach in Foot’s more recent Natural Goodness (2002).)

    I don’t find Tessman’s argument baffling at all. I actually think the logic is pretty straightforward. The key to understanding it, I think, is to see how strong (perhaps counterintuitively strong) a conception of justice and virtue she has. On p. 76, she claims that virtue “requires a pursuit of not just my own well-being, and not just the well-being of those whose well-being I depend on, but also the well-being of those whose very lack of well-being may have been a condition of my privileges.”

    Assume that there are very many people whose privileges depend on the lack of well-being of others, and assume that there are very many of these others. Assume further that both facts are opaque to the privileged, and that the explanation for this opacity is a culpable form of indifference to the well-being of the non-privileged. Then a huge number of people will be viciously unjust, i.e., have the “ordinary vices of domination.” Now assume (with Sumner, mentioned around pp. 60-61) that flourishing requires the self-conscious endorsement of one’s own goodness. If so, huge numbers of vicious people will assess themselves as morally good, but will be systematically wrong about it. In other words, most people will regard themselves as virtuous, but in fact be vicious.

    Tessman’s view is that the preceding scenario is actually the case, but not recognized as being the case by most contemporary virtue theory. Most contemporary virtue theorists would not go so far as to pronounce virtually every member of our society as viciously unjust. But on Tessman’s view, virtually everyone is vicious. Virtually everyone displays the “vices of ordinary domination.” Doing so in inescapable in a society like ours, built (on her view) on a foundation of ordinary domination.

    I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but it’s not a baffling claim, and not, as far as the literature is concerned, a totally outrageous one. She mentions Hursthouse, Hooker, Sumner, and the early Foot as examples of her generalization. I don’t think the later Foot contradicts the earlier Foot in this respect; as far as this issue is concerned, both Feet seem to be on the same footing.

    Ideally, Tessman might have given us a systematic literature search of some kind, but as a rough generalization, I don’t think she’s that far off in her claim. Her basic point is that virtue ethicists regard the average member of their own society as either virtuous or at least morally decent; the vicious person is an exception to the statistical norm, not the norm itself. Tessman’s claim is the reverse of that, or perhaps stronger than the reverse of it: vice is either ubiquitous or the statistical norm. In other words: the average person is clearly vicious; possibly most people are vicious; indeed, it’s possible that almost everyone is vicious. Despite this, most people would endorse the claim that they are at least decent or approximate virtue; few people go around thinking, “I am vicious.” Meanwhile, most virtue ethicists would second what most people think. But they’d be just as wrong as the people themselves.

    That’s a strikingly radical view, but it’s not baffling or unintelligible–just very pessimistic. Unduly pessimistic? I don’t know. I certainly qualify as vicious by her standards. Would I endorse that claim? Only occasionally. Tessman-virtue demands that I acknowledge it more forthrightly and consistently–which, I must admit, I’m reluctant to do.

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    • Irfan, the bit I said I found baffling and the bit you said you don’t find baffling seem to me to be radically different things, so that I have trouble seeing how what you said is a comment on my parenthetical. I was talking about the question of whether contemporary virtue theory typically takes subjective self-assessment of the goodness of one’s life as dispositive; I would have said: obviously not. What does anything about how widespread the vices of domination are follow one way or ‘tother from that?


      • To put it another way: even virtue theorists who don’t think the vices of domination are as serious or as widespread as Tessman does are still very unlikely to take self-assessment of the good life as dispositive, nor does any commitment to do so seem to follow. So my bafflement at Tessman’s comment remains, and is now joined by my bafflement at yours!


        • I think she can more charitably be read as saying that contemporary virtue ethicists wrongly take far too many self-assessments of the agent’s virtue at face value. I don’t think she needs to be read as saying, literally, that virtue theorists regard self-assessments as conclusive simply because they’re made, full stop. I grant that she sounds as though she’s saying that, but I don’t think she is. Her point is that most virtue theorists are far too credulous and accepting when it comes to self-assessments, to the point of ratifying huge swatches of self-assessments as true when they’re false. It’s a claim about the pervasive, systematic nature of the error, not the absurdity that virtue ethicists regard self-assessments as literally self-underwriting.


          • I’m still at sea. I was talking about self-assessments of the agent’s flourishing; here you refer to “self-assessments of the agent’s virtue.” Of course those things are closely related for virtue theorists, but they’re not identical, and one of the reasons that virtue theorists don’t take self-assessments of the agent’s flourishing at face value is that they, UNLIKE most people, take virtue (inter alia) as necessary for flourishing. I remain bewildered.


            • A bit more. You say:

              “Her basic point is that virtue ethicists regard the average member of their own society as either virtuous or at least morally decent”

              I’m skeptical as to whether this is a correct characterisation of contemporary virtue ethicists. I’ve always more or less taken it for granted that one of the upshots of virtue theory is that most people fall pretty far short of virtue. If I’m wrong about that, and the consensus among contemporary virtue theorists is that most people are approximately virtuous, then I would agree with Tessman in challenging that consensus. But I still wouldn’t explain that consensus as the product of a tendency to take self-assessments (of either flourishing or virtue) at face value, since such a tendency is one of the main things that virtue theory explicitly attacks.


              • The consensus of virtue theorists is that most people are approximately virtuous, but I was taking Tessman to be arguing that most people are vicious. If the consensus of virtue theorists is that most people are approximately virtuous, they would be likely to take self-assessments mirroring that judgment (Putative virtuous agent: “I am approximately virtuous”) at face value (Virtue theorist: “Yes, that’s likely to be true”) . But Tessman rejects both claims. And as our discussion tonight suggested, she can do that compatibly with accepting the claim that there are degrees of virtue. There may be degrees of virtue above a threshold, but nothing but vice below it. If an agent is a dominator, then she’s ordinarily vicious. If 99.5% of people are dominators, then 99.5% are vicious. If that reading is right, it goes well beyond what most virtue theorists would say.

                That said, it’s not clear to me what follows on Tessman’s view (all in) from an ascription to someone of vice in this ordinary sense. It seems to me that the thing to say is that in one set of cases, they’re capable of virtuous action across a set of domains, but lack virtue tout court. On the other hand, I would say that if the vice is culpable enough, and far-reaching enough (or harmful enough) even in one domain, it may render the agent incapable of virtuous action tout court.

                One problem with Tessman’s discussion is that it’s hard to get a fix on how to apply her claims to cases. If the mechanisms that permit the accumulation of wealth in a society are sufficiently unjust, we might be tempted to infer that anyone who’s wealthy is either actively unjust or passively complicit in injustice. I think Tessman wants to say that the latter are engaged in domination, a vicious action that probably renders them vicious. What’s unclear to me is what it takes to reverse that verdict.

                I happened last night (July 23) to see this film below that strikes me as an excellent depiction of “ordinary vice” in Tessman’s sense (a one-time engagement at the New Hope, PA Film Festival). I’m not sure how well it comes out in this preview, and am not sure where (if anywhere) the film is showing. But it depicts the (unscrupulous) lengths to which a wealthy family will go to get special needs education for their autistic child, at public expense. Some of the discussion in our group tonight expressed puzzlement about what counts as “domination” in Tessman’s sense. I think the main characters in this film capture it perfectly. I’d describe it in more detail but don’t want to spoil it in case it finds its way past the Princeton/New Hope area.


                • “If the consensus of virtue theorists is that most people are approximately virtuous, they would be likely to take self-assessments mirroring that judgment (Putative virtuous agent: ‘I am approximately virtuous’) at face value (Virtue theorist: ‘Yes, that’s likely to be true’).”

                  Ah, I see. Well, that’s not at all what I took Tessman to mean about taking self-assessments at face-value. I took her to mean that most virtue theorists would take a person’s self-assessment as approximately virtuous as grounds for accepting it. But on your reading she means that most virtue theorists would judge someone to be approximately virtuous on the independent grounds that most people are, which would in turn be the grounds for accepting the person’s self-assessment; in other words, your interpretation reverses the relation between what’s grounding and what’s grounded from what seems to me the natural way to read Tessman’s claim. Your use of the term “mirroring” is ambiguous between those two relations.

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            • Well, what Tessman explicitly refers to is the goodness of the agent’s life, neither the agent’s virtue nor her flourishing. But I take virtue to be more relevant to self-assessment than flourishing, since it’s the part of flourishing that bears more directly on the agent’s agency than, say, her possession of external goods. Assessing how one’s life stacks up in terms of external goods is a relatively trivial or obvious matter. Assessing one’s own virtue is the more difficult one, where judgments might more likely go astray. One isn’t likely to go too far wrong in accepting an agent’s assessment of the state of her external goods at face value. But one can go radically wrong in accepting the agent’s assessment of her own virtue at face value. Tessman’s point is that most virtue theorists have done the latter.


              • “Assessing how one’s life stacks up in terms of external goods is a relatively trivial or obvious matter. Assessing one’s own virtue is the more difficult one, where judgments might more likely go astray. One isn’t likely to go too far wrong in accepting an agent’s assessment of the state of her external goods at face value. But one can go radically wrong in accepting the agent’s assessment of her own virtue at face value. Tessman’s point is that most virtue theorists have done the latter.”

                I think a correct assessment re external goods is actually far from “trivial or obvious” (recall that for Aristotle such an assessment is going to include not just questions like “do I have adequate food and shelter” but also “do I have healthy friendships, are my friends doing well, do I live in an appropriately just and supportive sociopolitical environment, are my material possessions the ones best suited to help me live virtuously,” etc.); and that a correct assessment of inner psychic goods that are neither external nor virtue-based may well be more difficult still.

                Nevertheless, I agree with you that self-assessment of virtue is likely to be even more difficult than these, and that this is what Tessman is likely focusing on. But I still find her statement strange, for the following reason: it’s absolutely standard for virtue ethicists (at least those in the Socratic-Aristotelean tradition) to make the following claim, indeed it’s pretty much Virtue Ethics 101: “People may think they are happy because they score high on measures such as subjective pleasure and external goods; but their self-assessment as happy may well be mistaken because they are likely not to realise that happiness is an objective quality that includes moral virtue, and that if they lack moral virtue then in fact they are not living happy or successful lives regardless of how much subjective pleasure and external goods they may have achieved.”

                If I’m right that the above claim is central to most of contemporary virtue ethics, then it would seem to follow that virtue ethicists are NOT inclined to accept judgments of the goodness of one’s life at face value, precisely because they suspect that the virtue component has not been included in the equation, and that if it were the correct assessment would have to change. Thus would seem to contradict both the claim that virtue ethicists treat self-assessments of the goodness of one’s life at face value, and the claim that they think most people are approximatelty virtuous.

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                • Responding to your 7/25, 11:21 am comment: yes, I think we now agree. And I agree that my use of “mirroring was ambiguous. But I think the very interpretation you give of Tessman (which I agree with) answers the concern of your second comment, which I’ll respond to separately.


                • Even as I wrote that comment, it occurred to me that I was leaning too heavily on “relatively” in the sentence, “Assessing how one’s life stacks up in terms of external goods is a relatively trivial or obvious matter.” What I was trying to say was that it’s trivial relative to (in comparison with) self-assessments of one’s virtue, not that it’s trivial full stop. It’s far from trivial, actually.

                  I think the claim you find strange can be explained away by adopting one of Tessman’s (admittedly controversial) assumptions. Just assume that virtue ethicists generally take the average person, or most people in the sample under consideration (by them), to be approximately virtuous. I think Tessman’s point is that those people’s self-assessments would then be taken at face value by virtue ethicists. Indeed, their positive self-assessments are in part constitutive of their claim to approximate virtue: you can’t be virtuous or approximately virtuous unless you take yourself to be so, at least in some weak sense of “take yourself.” (Outright self-loathing is incompatible with virtue, as is a radical under-estimation of one’s just deserts. Even if humility or modesty were virtues, they couldn’t require the avowal of literal falsehoods, much less self-deception, about the state of one’s good character, assuming it was good.)

                  So as I interpret it, her claim is: Most virtue ethicists think that most people are approximately virtuous. These approximately virtuous people will tend to have positive self-assessments. Naturally, then, virtue ethicists uncritically accept and parrot these positive self-assessments. But “most virtue ethicists” are wrong, as are the people about which they’re theorizing. In fact, most people, perhaps almost all people, are unjust. Hence they lack virtue. Possibly, most people are all downright vicious (but “ordinarily” so). Since they (the people in question) take themselves to be virtuous, and virtue ethicists ratify this (false) self-assessment, both parties all involved in a kind of large-scale confabulation about how virtue actually operates in our societies. In other words, the theorists go around believing self-assessments that are false, and giving credit to virtue that doesn’t exist, integrating both suppositions in their theorizing. The sad truth is, no one has virtue. We’re all fucked up, all the way down (or almost all the way).

                  I have mixed feelings about Tessman’s argument. On the one hand, I do think there’s something to it. On the other hand, I think it suffers from some real over-statements, or at least, under-determination by evidence or argument.

                  The over-statements and under-determination are too obvious to belabor. But as for the “something to it”: I am inclined to think that Tessman’s assessment of virtue ethicists, though over-stated, is true in many cases, or maybe, true of a certain strain of virtue ethics. I’ve often been struck by the complacency with which virtue ethicists assume that the average person is basically or approximately virtuous, without considering the hypothesis that many, many of us may be captive to ordinary vice. Riesbeck mentioned Hursthouse in this connection. I’d have to go back and trawl through my virtue ethics books to find examples, but I think they’re there.

                  As a general rule, I’d say that there isn’t quite enough cross-fertilization between virtue ethicists and, say, Marxism (or radical politics generally), psychoanalysis, and moral theology. All three schools of thought tend to have more pessimistic conceptions of human psychology than standard-issue secular virtue ethicists. They all might profit from talking to each other (if they could endure the conversation). Radical politics fixates on injustice more insistently than garden variety virtue ethics tends to do, and both psychoanalysis and certain brands of moral theology fixate more insistently on the darker sides of human nature. I’d say that the virtue ethics literature could use supplementation by all of the above (and vice versa).

                  Though I missed it, Alasdair MacIntyre regularly used to run a class on Aristotle and Lacan at Notre Dame, designed to force complacent Aristotelian ethicists through the muck and murk of Lacanian theory. The students would emerge morally shell-shocked, which was his point. Lacan goes out of his way to comment on Aristotle’s ethics, and Le Jacques pronounces The Philosopher incomprehensible. He does that because from Aristotle’s perspective, 100% of Lacan’s theorizing operates within the context of vice. Every pleasure Lacan valorizes or takes for granted (“jouissance“) is, from an Aristotelian perspective, an expression of vice. And every virtue that Aristotle recommends strikes Lacan as too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

                  I suspect that many students were under the impression that the point of the exercise was to express pious Aristotelian horror at Lacan’s moral transgressions, but MacIntyre’s point was just the reverse: it was Lacan, not Aristotle, that was likely to be the better guide (descriptively, not normatively) to the predicament of the twentieth century moral agent. So the horror was misplaced, unless it was horror at oneself: MacIntyre’s point was that Lacan’s account was a better description of us than Aristotle’s ethics could be.

                  Tessman’s project shares a sort of affinity with that: her assumption is that feminism, not Aristotle, is a better guide to the predicament of the twentieth and twenty-first century moral agent. And Aristotelian ethics/virtue ethics has to be conceived or revised accordingly.


                • I just happened to take a week-long intensive course on Lacan-influenced psychoanalysis (which is why I’ve been so absent for the last week). The course was officially on the thought of the Israeli psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger, but ended up focusing on Lacan. As per usual, the Phallus ended up obscuring the Womb.

                  Anyway, if you’re at all interested, I recommend (or “recommend” or perhaps [re]commend) Lacan’s short essay, “Aristotle and Freud: the other satisfaction,” in On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973 from Encore: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX. Sample sentence; “…if anything freshened the air a bit after all this Greek foot-dragging around Eudemonism, it was certainly the discovery of utilitarianism,” p. 58). He means Benthamite utilitarianism, of course. Take that, Aristotelians!


  3. I agree with all of that.

    I’ve argued that Aristotle does not restrict the scope of justice to the members of one’s own polis (in an article titled, creatively enough, ‘Aristotle and the Scope of Justice’), but that paper focuses on relations with people beyond the polis rather than on the cases of slavery and the subjection of women that Tessman highlights (I have written about those elsewhere, but in ways that speak less directly to Tessman’s concerns). I think Roderick’s point about the difference between the scope and content of other-regarding concern is especially important and worthy of elaboration. It’s no defense of Aristotle to point out that he thinks that slaves and women are owed other-regarding concern and that free men can show them appropriate concern even while enslaving them and denying them equality; these are severe errors. Yet it’s important to appreciate that that’s what he thinks, because it shows that the distance from Aristotle himself to a view that rejects slavery and the subordination of women is not really so great. Aristotle’s views on these matters depend on mistaken views about the nature of the people involved and the nature and effects of the relations involved. Rejecting those views makes for a very different understanding of society and politics, but those views are far from fundamental to Aristotle’s philosophy. Not only can one reject them and retain a less revised sort of Aristotelian ethics and politics than Tessman does, but Aristotelian resources might even be better able to explain the inadequacies of those views than anti-Aristotelian views can. After all, despite Aristotle’s endorsement of slavery for some human beings, domination or despotism — treating others as a master (a dominus, a despotes), which for him means treating them as though they had no interests independent of their contribution to your interests — is for him paradigmatic of injustice, and the class of supposedly ‘natural’ slaves is effectively defined as the class of those human beings whose rational capacities are radically deficient in such a way that they are not harmed but rather benefited by being dominated. By Aristotle’s own lights, human beings whose capacities for rational agency are not radically defective are not so benefited, but harmed, and dominating them is unjust, ignoble, and contrary to one’s own good insofar as justice and benevolence are necessary for one’s own flourishing. Treating others as free people means treating them as agents with independent interests who are fitting partners in cooperation with a view to mutually beneficial common goods rather than mere instruments or obstacles to your own self-interest, yet relating to others on those terms is itself in your own interest, and constitutively so as well as instrumentally. Recognizing that there are no ‘natural slaves’ would transform his thinking about practical politics beyond recognition, but it does not entail fundamental revision to his philosophical thought. So too, recognizing that his views of women’s psychology are mistaken and that traditional patriarchal inegalitarian households are unjust would transform his thinking about life in the Greek polis, but it does not require especially fundamental philosophical revision.

    All that might just be bickering about the proper interpretation of the history of philosophy, but I take it that it goes deeper than that. What it suggests — as I think Roderick is also suggesting — is that an Aristotelian eudaimonist can take on board the aspects of liberatory politics that Tessman wants without abandoning eudaimonism of a strong sort that grounds the other-regarding aspects of the virtues in the agent’s own flourishing. Tessman seems in this chapter to reject eudaimonism in that sense — she seems to make flourishing dependent on moral demands that are supposed to be independent at least of the agent’s own flourishing and to insist on a moral obligation to pursue the flourishing of others independently of one’s own — but the more I re-read what she says the less clear it is.

    Liked by 3 people

    • This is a tangential response to your comment, but I couldn’t help chuckling at this:

      So too, recognizing that his views of women’s psychology are mistaken and that traditional patriarchal inegalitarian households are unjust would transform his thinking about life in the Greek polis, but it does not require especially fundamental philosophical revision.

      “Chuckling” not because I agree or disagree–or because I find you generally risible–but because I read a paper yesterday that makes the reverse case, and couldn’t help thinking of you as I read it, and wondering how you’d react. The paper is Sarah Pourciau’s “On the Digital Ocean” (Critical Inquiry, Winter 2022), and it argues that Aristotle’s sexism is embedded in his metaphysics, and is most clearly on display in his arguments against an actual infinity. Apeiron is feminine, and peras is masculine; Aristotle attempts, generally, to impose peras on the apeiron, and well…I don’t want to spoil it for you. The argument generally follows Emanuela Bianchi’s The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos (Fordham, 2014). I haven’t read the latter, but I take the argument to be that sexism is intrinsic to the matter-form relation in Aristotle.

      Which, if true, would require a fair bit of revision to Aristotle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Pythagoreans, from whom Plato and Aristotle ultimately derive their peras-apeiron dualism, did indeed connect it with the male-female duality. Also with odd and even, right and left, one and many, rest and motion, square and oblong, good and evil. Good times.
        I think it’s true that the form/matter duality in both Plato and Aristotle is flavoured with the same male-female duality. That the connection is an essential one I’m less convinced.

        Liked by 1 person

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