Orientation to the Common Good

“Spike” from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This post is the second of two in a series Virtue in Context: Varieties of Exemplarity.

I could go in for being tremendously helpful to others because I have lived in terror of my fellow human beings most of my life, believe (with good reason) that people are the most dangerous mammals on earth, and want to avoid getting on the wrong side of a human being. Bears are unpredictable and alarming, but, unlike a lot of people in my neighborhood, bears don’t carry guns. Mountain lions are territorial, but no mountain lion will seek to destroy my reputation because he is politically opposed to my work or my institution. And no other animals have anything like the destructive power of our species. I don’t want humans to be angry with me, so I am always on hand to help out when folks are asked to volunteer, and, although I don’t think that it is possible to kill people with kindness, I am relatively confident that I can, at least, disarm them.


That’s my story. It is a story filled with lots of moments in lots of days when I help other people. It is not a story of good character or virtue or exemplary conduct. It is a story about one way to carry on in the wake of whatever hurt me. And it is a story about my injury, my anxiety, my need for security, and my strategy for self-defense. The story is all about me.


If there is a thing that the three big names have in common with more ordinary moral excellence and practical wisdom, one clue can be found in the profound sense in which the big names and, I hope, at least some of the more usual admirable people are directed, in the first instance, to something like the larger common good. This orientation shows itself in the big names’ insistence on non-violence (if we were to seek something trait-like, it might start round the wrong side with kinds of actions, orientations, and behaviors that were to be avoided should the heavens fall). Whatever sorts of courage these figures had—and they were each very brave—the courage showed itself partly in the discipline required to avoid violence (understood broadly) when situations and circumstances were dangerous, infuriating, worrying, and bleak. And the shared insistence on non-violence, on my reading of the work of these people, expressed their overall orientation to common good.


What might a glance at these exemplars suggest about matters of virtue and character? How can we bring in some neo-Aristotelian thought?


Probably unsurprisingly, I expect that the neo-Aristotelian thinker most helpful here is Aquinas. I will be happy to talk about the advantages Aquinas brings to those of us interested in neo-Aristotelian thought about virtue. The Angelic Doctor, as near as I can tell, was much more down-to-earth than Aristotle and had to think seriously about moral psychology in much more detail than did Aristotle. For the moment, I will focus on the way in which acquired virtue is directed to the common good in Aquinas.


The kinds of cultivated strengths that count as virtues for Aquinas are all corrective. In effect, Aquinas begins from an understanding of human beings as at odds with themselves. Like any kind of organism, human beings are inclined to what is good for human beings. Unlike other kinds of organisms, pursuing human good and avoiding what is bad for humans is not straightforward for us. We are social animals with intellect. The kind of intellect humans have is fundamentally discursive—Aristotle’s term for us is the talking, chatty animals. Discursive intellect develops in community, develops through experience and teaching, and finds its home in shared social life. Our sociality and our cognitive capacities are intertwined. We do best when we are reasonably attracted to the things that draw us, reasonably averse to the things that harm us, when our actions are reasonable responses to our circumstances, and when we enjoy ordered, good lives with our fellows. Although such a happy condition suits us, almost none of us can manage it, even when we have good characters. If I manage to develop a good character, then I will be less prone to self-sabotage, and will be a much better person with whom to live and work with than I would be otherwise. But even a person who has worked hard to develop a better character—to grow in acquired virtue—will likely make mistakes.


Moral exemplars who work at being good human beings will tend to develop something of virtue on this neo-Aristotelian understanding of virtue. Because sociality is crucial to human nature—and it is hard to see how anyone could disagree with Aquinas on this point—no trait can count as a virtue if it is a source of profoundly anti-social conduct, or if its exercise is fundamentally damaging to sound aspects of human community. For example, no trait that makes it impossible for a human being to enter into relations of friendship or justice can count as a virtue for Aquinas or for Aristotle.


Aquinas had a different vision of the common good than did Aristotle, and a different understanding of the ethical challenges faced by human beings generally, but it seems reasonable to urge that the qualities of temperament and character that suit people to friendship and orderly social life are virtuous qualities, qualities that find their proper life and expression in the context of an implicit understanding of common good (an understanding that tends to become explicit in the life and work of major figures).


In this context, moral exemplarity often shows itself as clearly in what people avoid doing as in what they do, and virtue helps us govern what we do and what we don’t do, what we say and what we don’t say, what we think and what we fail to think.


A Concluding Remark

What can make moral exemplarity look like a singular phenomenon is, at least on a kind of Thomist picture, that we are concerned with what is involved in being good human beings. But the sorts of things that contribute to being a good human being are highly sensitive to individual human beings’ circumstances, talents, strengths, limitations, and so on.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.