Rory O’Connell, PhD student at the University of Chicago interviewed our visiting scholar Winfried “Anselm” Mueller in June 2016.
Rory O’Connell: When did you first become interested in the topic of virtue?
Anselm Mueller: I am not quite sure, because it must have happened about half a century ago. My PhD thesis, on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, betrays quite different interests. When I came to Oxford in 1965 to do more research in philosophy and was made to write brief essays for supervision sessions, I picked up, for this purpose, all sorts of topics that were in the air at the time – a time when philosophy was flourishing in Oxford. I remember that the philosophy lecture list announced more than 100 classes for any one term, many of them offered by big names. My interests still related to theoretical philosophy. But I did go to a lecture on “Virtues and Vices” that Philippa Foot then gave. Being new to the place, I was not aware that what she was doing in that lecture – e.g. approaching ethical questions via examining the ascription of goodness to components of plant and animal life – was not at all typical of Oxford moral philosophy, which at the time was dominated by Richard M. Hare’s Utilitarian Prescritivism. However, when I studied the lecture list, I myself could not help feeling that the topic of virtue was somehow soft and marginal if not out-dated! Why on earth did I nevertheless attend that lecture?
My first supervisor in Oxford was Anthony Kenny, himself an expert on Aristotle’s Ethics and his account of virtue. It must have been the wise and kind advice given by Tony that made me choose Philippa’s lecture. Later on I was supervised by Elizabeth Anscombe. Among the many topics that I discussed with her was that of practical reasoning, which her book Intention had brought to the attention of philosophers and which I suppose drew me into the philosophy of action and later ethics. It was through Elizabeth also that I got to know her friend Philippa well. Over the years we had many conversations about questions of moral philosophy, esp. in 1998-99, when I was on sabbatical leave at Corpus Christi College, and Philippa was in the course of writing her wonderful book Natural Goodness. Without the influence of these three brilliant philosophers as teachers and friends I would probably not have found virtue such an intriguing and fertile subject matter.
RO: So there was a degree of luck in it! What are your own research interests in relation to virtue now?
AM: You do not need to do “Virtue Ethics” in order to be interested in the notion of virtue. In the moral philosophy of Kant, for instance, the ideas of autonomy and law are central; nevertheless he published a voluminous treatise half of which he brings under the title “Doctrine of Virtue”. And neither Philippa Foot nor Elizabeth Anscombe (whose famous paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” tells her colleagues to replace the study of “moral obligation” by that of virtue) wanted to be classified as Virtue Ethicists. They treated the notions of human nature and practical rationality as central to ethics.
In the Aristotelian tradition, the virtues of character are viewed as reliable disposition to act well in the various domains of human life. This may give rise to the investigation of questions such as: what kind of constitution makes the virtues reliable, how they may come to be formed (and lost), whether they leave room for freedom and individual ideals, whether there is a continuum of moral qualities between virtue and vice and whether virtue allows for weakness of will; or: to what extent an objectivist understanding of morality can accommodate cultural and historical variation in the specification of the virtues; or: what is the source of the distinction between different virtues, what a life of virtue looks like in regard to physical needs, to relationships, to one’s roles in society, to the cohesion and welfare of a political community; or: how it relates to one’s well-being, self-interest, pleasures, goals and, ultimately, happiness.
I have tried to take up these questions in a book I published in 1998 under the title Was taugt die Tugend? Elemente einer Ethik des guten Lebens. But already in that book, and later in some articles written in English, my chief interest was in the sort of rationality that the virtues seem to incorporate and confer on ways of acting well. This topic is itself one that branches out in a number of directions. But it is, I think, fundamental to a correct understanding of what a virtue is. And you have to get reasonably clear about it in order profitably to tackle those other questions.
RO: If you were forced to summarize, what would you say the importance of rationality to virtue was?
AM: To get clear about this, we must first of all distinguish two uses of the word “reason”. More particularly, we may ask on the one hand: “Why is it that human beings ought to practise virtues such as justice or courage?” and on the other, questions like: “Why ought you (as justice happens to require here and now) to give 200 dollars to NN”? In answer to the first question we have to mention a reason that explains the fact that the practice of those virtues is good for a community of human beings, whether these are aware of that fact and its explanation or not; perhaps we will show that they cannot get on well, or at all, without them: that the virtues are “rational” in the sense of functional. An answer to the second question, by contrast, will tell us what leads you to act as you do when you act as you ought to. Here, the reason is a consideration that prompts you to give someone 200 dollars. And this consideration is not the functionality of justice but rather, e.g., your having borrowed 200 dollars from them. In giving them the money, you are then not acting justly unless you do it because you borrowed 200 dollars from them. The rationality of virtue here amounts to this: Acting justly does not consist in giving the money, but rather in letting yourself be guided by a kind of reason that is characteristic of justice.
What, however, about the question “Why act justly”? It seems to sit somehow between the two questions just considered. On the one hand, it is not answered by the particular reason that you may have here and now, in accordance with justice, to give someone 200 dollars or, say, to treat two people alike. Nor, on the other, will our reasons for acting justly typically be the same as the reasons why justice is functional or necessary for a human community. Well, in general, our reasons for acting justly will be rather indeterminate, mixed and inarticulate. You may have a vague idea that you have to follow your conscience, or that you want to be this kind of person rather than that, or that by acting justly you will qualify for an eternal reward – or whatever. (And, by the way, some kinds of such “background motivation” would actually call your justice into question; e.g. if your “just” conduct is a matter of satisfying others’ expectations, or of appearing to be just.)
So there are these ways in which the idea of virtue raises questions of rationality. But there are others. Thus, it can be virtuous – or vicious – to treat a certain sort of situation as a reason not to act in a certain sort of way. (Honesty requires you to treat the falsehood of a claim as a reason not to make it.) Again, it can be virtuous – or vicious – not to treat a situation as a reason to respond in a certain manner. (Courage requires you not to treat a small risk as a reason to abandon an important aim.) Nor is it only ways of acting whose virtuous or vicious character is determined by what I call a “motivational pattern”. An emotion, too, can be morally good or bad: on account of the kind of behaviour or thought the emotion’s subject inclines towards in response to relevant situations. (Think of, say, compassion on the one hand, envy on the other.)
We can also ask whether virtue or vice are at work wherever we can speak of reasons for this or that sort of conduct; whether the implementation of the virtues in varying circumstances requires a kind of deliberation that is qualified specifically to cope with ethical challenges … – and other questions concerning practical reason. Further, various issues raised by an Ethics concerned with the virtues seem not to relate to their rationality at all: How are the virtues identified, and counted? How are they formed? Can they be lost? Do not many virtues primarily serve other people rather than the virtuous agents themselves? If so, how can great philosophers claim that acting well is constitutive of happiness? And so on. On inspection, however, almost none of these questions can be adequately answered unless we first gain a clear understanding of the ways in which the notion of a virtue involves the notion of practical rationality.
Anselm Mueller is Professor Emeritus, University of Trier, and a Visiting Professor with the project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”. A student of Elizabeth Anscombe and Anthony Kenny at Oxford in the early sixties, Professor Müller has taught philosophy at Oxford University, Australian National University, University of Trier, University of Luxemborg, and Keimyung University. He has written many books and articles in the following areas: ethics, rationality, action theory, philosophy of mind, and the history of philosophy.
Rory O’Connell is a PhD candidate in philosophy at The University of Chicago. He works on practical reason and the philosophy of action.