Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists, unlike Aristotle himself, seem willing to agree that significant moral change – a change wherein, for instance, a vicious individual becomes virtuous or vice versa – is possible. They unanimously insist, however, that if and when such a change occurs, it can only occur over a prolonged period of time. A single experience or a sudden insight might lead to a desire or even a decision to change, but change itself is a slow and torturous process. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a favorite example of those who make this claim. Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors, scholars argue, might have inspired remorse and a desire to change, but (or so they insist) the Scrooge who wakes on Christmas morning is still – as far as his moral character is concerned – a mean and miserly man, and he will continue to be such for a long period of time, until his good actions gradually eat away at his vices and eventually replace them with virtues. Two related reasons are often given for this claim. First, it is said that experience is a pre-requisite of virtue: Scrooge’s character cannot change except via the experience of attempting to be kind or generous. Second, it is said that someone like Scrooge can have no hope of cultivating virtue unless his old vicious habits are lost. Since both cultivating virtues and eradicating vices are lengthy and time-consuming processes, it follows that Scrooge’s character can only change after a considerable space of time and a great deal of concerted effort.
While conceding that Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors might have brought about a conversion experience and a desire to change, scholars insist that Scrooge’s character itself could not have changed overnight; not, indeed, for a significant space of time afterwards. Why? Consider the following claims about why Scrooge (or someone like him) could not undergo a sudden change in character. Julia Annas says that Scrooge may well have recognized the value of virtue on Christmas Eve, but that he could not have changed, because “Coming to see that being loyal or brave is a worthwhile way to live is just the first step. Becoming virtuous requires habituation and experience…We need experience to understand what it is to be loyal or brave”. Linda Zagzebski, similarly, argues that Scrooge may have had a “sudden insight or abrupt change of mind” but that he could not have undergone a sudden change in character. Such changes are impossible, Zagzebski argues, because virtue presupposes a special form of moral knowledge, a knowledge that enables one “to know the right thing to do in a way that cannot be predicted in advance…an insight into particulars that may not be fully captured by any general rule.” Such insight, Zagzebski argues, can only arise through experience. Though Rosalind Hursthouse does not appeal specifically to Scrooge, she makes a similar claim about the space of time needed for moral change to occur, saying that an individual who decides to change nonetheless “has a lot to learn about people and about life before he acquires the sensitivity, perception, and imagination necessary for being thoroughly virtuous…one who has hitherto ruthlessly pursued money and power and now sees them as dross is not in the best position to deal with people of modest ambition as he should.”
In all of the instances cited above, the argument for the necessity of experience does not center on virtue itself. The claim, rather, is that virtue presupposes a kind of moral understanding. One might well wish to be kind (say) without any real understanding of what kindness is, but one cannot actually be kind without that understanding. What is kind will vary dramatically depending on the context and the person involved, yet genuinely kind people have no difficulty navigating these dramatically different contexts. Indeed, one’s ability to exercise the same virtue in dramatically different contexts is a mark of having it: kind people simply seem to “get” what kindness is. The same can be said of other virtues as well. It is this – the understanding that virtue presupposes – that is asserted to be connected to experience.
If a kind of moral understanding is essential to virtue, an analogous kind of moral understanding seems equally essential to vice. The popular book (now an HBO series) Game of Thrones has a character, Ramsay Bolton, who is renowned for his cruelty. Ramsay is no mere bully. He delights in inflicting pain and enjoys devising ever more complicated and creative tortures. In fact, part of what makes him so despicable is the creativity of his cruelty. One of his favorite games is to allow his captives to think they have found a way of escaping, let them escape, and then recapture them just when they think their attempt has succeeded. In the season 6 finale, Ramsay has captured Rickon, the little brother of the protagonist Jon Snow. When Jon arrives with his army, Ramsay brings Rickon outside, tells him to run toward his brother, and begins shooting arrows at him. As Jon (of course) gallops to save his brother, Ramsay continues to shoot arrows, each time narrowly (and deliberately) missing Rickon. Only at the very last moment, as Jon is reaching down to sweep his brother up onto his horse, when escape seems imminent, does Ramsay allow his arrow to find its mark. Rickon dies, and Jon is forced to endure not merely the pain of losing his brother, but the additional pain of narrowly failing to save him. Mad with grief, Jon does exactly what Ramsay intended him to do all along: he orders his hopelessly outnumbered army to attack.
The example of Ramsay Bolton indicates that a kind of moral understanding is just as essential to Ramsay’s cruelty as it is to a virtuous person’s kindness. Ramsay is able to be extraordinarily cruel only because he has developed a thoroughgoing understanding of cruelty. His cruelty is creative, and his creativity stems precisely from his understanding of what will cause his victims the most pain. Among other things, he understands that if he allows his victims a hope of defeating or escaping him, it will make their inevitable failure all the more painful. Much as he enjoys inflicting physical pain, he also understands that one tortures more effectively by crushing spirits than by inflicting physical pain. He has enough insight, imagination and sensitivity to see that Jon cannot help but ride to save his brother and that he will blame himself for his failure to do so, however inevitable his failure might have been. Someone who lacked Ramsay’s understanding of cruelty could never be as cruel or as loathsome as he manages to be.
Cases like Ramsay’s indicate that moral understanding can play as much a role in vice as in virtue. It certainly does seem to be the case that virtuous action presupposes an ability to comprehend the morally relevant features of a situation. This comprehension may mean understanding what the actual practice of a given virtue involves, or it may mean exhibiting a kind of moral sensitivity or imagination. But a similar understanding is evident in vices like cruelty. The cruelest people manifest a deep level of understanding of how to inflict the most pain, and come up with tortures that others might never even conceive of. This very ability implies the possession of a sensitivity and imagination analogous to that possessed by the virtuous person. The thoroughly cruel individual is acutely good at understanding what will hurt his victims the most. For the remainder of our discussion, then, I will assume that vice involves a moral understanding analogous to that of virtue.
Is the moral understanding of virtue retained, even when one cultivates a vice? It is plausible to think that it is. In the first place, just as the virtuous man can put his understanding of his old vices to the service of his virtue, so too can the vicious man put his understanding of how virtuous people think to the service of his vice. In the second place, if we agree that conversions like Scrooge’s are at all plausible, then moral understanding must not be entirely lost. Scrooge’s conversion is made possible because he is reminded of how he used to see the world, and of how his old self compares to the new. Even if the reminder is not achieved by ghostly apparitions, I suspect most of us find it plausible that conversions can be achieved in this way. But this presupposes that the individual in need of conversion can comprehend those old emotions. If Scrooge had entirely lost the moral understanding he possessed as a child or a young man, his conversion would be impossible. He would be unmoved by the sight of his sister or his former self or the woman he loved. The fact that he can be moved, however, would seem to indicate that the understanding is still there, albeit buried under the weight of his vices.
I think that considerations like these make it plausible to think that moral understanding is not lost in the transition from virtue to vice any more than the understanding of a skill is lost when one ceases to use it. One might still argue, however, that the loss of a virtue or vice is importantly different from the loss of a skill, and that that difference means that the relevant understanding must be lost. I will conclude by considering some of these objections.
One difference between the typical case of the loss of skill and the loss of virtue is that ceasing to practice a skill might seem compatible with retaining understanding in the way that the loss of virtue does not. Suppose, having been a karate master, I stop practicing my art and become a maintenance man. My job as a maintenance man might well mean that I don’t think about my old skill and don’t practice it, but it is not antithetical to karate. I just now do something different. Consider, however, a rather different situation. The basketball great Charles Barkley was at one time a good golfer. Like many professional athletes, Barkley did not play golf often – so it would not be correct to say he had the “skill” of golf in the sense we have been using the term – but when he did play, he played well. But one day, Barkley developed what is known in golf as a “case of the yips”. The more he tried to fix his golf swing, the worse it became. Barkley is now spectacularly bad at golf, his swing the butt of jokes.
Barkley, of course, never developed the understanding of golf that a truly skilled golfer possesses. It’s not clear that it would even be possible, for instance, for Barkley to become spectacularly bad at basketball – a sport he does have the requisite understanding of – in the way he is bad at golf. But I raise the case of Barkley because one might argue that the loss that occurs in a significant moral change is more akin to the radical change that occurred in Barkley’s golf swing than it is to the loss that occurs when one simply ceases to practice a skill. That is to say, maybe the very process of becoming vicious necessarily drives out or eliminates one’s virtuous moral understanding in a way that merely ceasing to practice a skill does not. Maybe the very process of becoming cruel means that kindness must become incomprehensible to me; maybe an inability to understand generosity is part and parcel of what it means to be greedy.
All that is required for significant moral change, however, is that the reasons characteristic of one’s former good habits cease to function as reasons, not that those reasons become incomprehensible. As Ebeneezer Scrooge became attached to money, his goals changed. In the light of his new goals, he came to view love as a frivolity and Christmas as an attempt to part him from his money. He created new habits and developed new ways of acting. The cultivation of those habits is, to be sure, incompatible with the actions characteristic of his old self. It is incompatible with Scrooge becoming a miser, for instance, that he regularly have generous or empathetic or loving thoughts or that he be moved by concern for others. On a daily basis, it even seems that empathy has become altogether incomprehensible to Scrooge: he tells the men who come to collect for charity that it would be better if the poor were to starve, and there is every indication that he means it. But that Scrooge acts in this way does not necessarily imply that his former moral comprehension has been irretrievably lost. It only means that it is not now action-guiding for him. Yet at the same time, the very fact that Scrooge can be moved by the sight of his former self and by the reminder of the sister who he loved indicates that his former moral understanding, however deeply buried, is still there. It is simply not an understanding that he has made use of. Scrooge’s conversion occurs not because his nocturnal visitors give him new reasons or a new perspective, but because they successfully re-awaken a moral comprehension that has long been dormant.
If virtues and vices are states of character that are permanent and difficult to change, shouldn’t what I am proposing already be ruled out? Isn’t the very notion of permanence incompatible with a relatively quick transition from virtue to vice? Not necessarily. On my account, an old vice or virtue is relatively easily resumed once the moral shift has been made. The now virtuous former philanderer can resume his old ways relatively easily if for some reason he is moved to reject his 30 year practice of chastity. Scrooge can resume the loving and generous practices of his youth if for some reason he comes to see his lifetime of greed as gravely misguided. Virtue and vice are stable states of character because the constant practice of them makes such moral changes deeply improbable. The more our former philanderer practices chastity, the better chastity appears to him, the more rewarding he finds the practice of it, the more difficult it will become for him to see his former life as appealing. Similarly, the more deeply the lust for money takes hold of Scrooge, the harder it will be for him to see the reasons that moved his former self as good reasons. In the end, it is the conversion experience itself that deeply ingrained habits render unlikely, and it is this that gives them their stability.
 Anton 2006; Bondeson 1974; Di Muzo 2000; Sielger 1968
 Annas, 12.
 Zagzebski, 123.
 Zagzebski, 119.
 Hursthouse, 159. See also Milgram, Practical Induction.
 Annas is the only one who uses the term “understanding,” but her term seems to encompass what Hursthouse and Zagzebski have in mind.
 Annas seems to think that virtuous people will also have a certain level of articulacy but I see no reason to insist on this.
Angela Knobel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.
To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.
Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.
A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.
Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.
One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.
Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.
It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.
Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.
We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.
I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.
It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.
Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.
They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.
These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.
It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.
As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.
What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?
To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.
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.
Recently it has been suggested that the concept of virtue can be understood as something like a skill. Like a skill, virtue is a disposition that requires habituation, where such habituation, however, cannot be reduced to mere routine. It has been central to this view that these two modes of practical knowledge, skill and virtue, are clearly distinguishable from mere habits.
According to this picture, skill and virtue are particular species of the more general categories of “acquired capacities” and “acquired tendencies.” Both rational and sub-rational animals are meant to have acquired capacities and acquired tendencies. A trained dog is said to have the capacity to control its sphincters, and if it is well behaved, it tends to exercise this capacity. An adult person has the capacity to fulfill her promises, and if she is virtuous, she will tend to fulfill them. According to this picture, only the capacities and tendencies of human beings are rational. The capacities of sub-rational creatures are mere habits. Thus skill and virtue are conceived as the rational species of two more general categories, acquired capacity and acquired tendency. They are meant to be more general because they also apply to sub-rational animals. I call this the Modern Approach to habit. It rests on the assumption that the contrast between acquired and not acquired capacities and tendencies, i.e. between habituated and non-habituated capacities and tendencies, is intelligible independently of the rational sub-categories.
I criticize this view and oppose to it what I call the Orthodox Doctrine of habit endorsed by Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. On this view, the relation between capacity and tendency on the one hand, and habit on the other hand, is not the relation between a genus and a species. Rather, habit is a formal feature that properly belongs to the idea of a rational power. According to this doctrine, sub-rational animals cannot, properly speaking, have habits; only rational animals are creatures of habit. While mere animals possess their capacities “immediately” or “by nature”, humans equip themselves with a “second nature” through repeated actions. A human is the creation of her own activity.
The opposition between the Neo-Aristotelian and the orthodox doctrines of habit thus comes to this: on the Neo-Aristotelian conception of the distinctions within the general category of capacity, the opposition rational/sub-rational is applicable to the concept of habit. There are rational as well as sub-rational habits. According to the orthodox doctrine, the rational/sub-rational opposition is not applicable to habit, since the latter constitutes a structural moment of rational capacities. There are no sub-rational habits. There are only good and bad habits: i.e. the two ways in which a rational capacity can be actualized. The wisdom of this orthodox doctrine is evident from the difficulties afflicting the Neo-Aristotelian account. So let us consider habit in its three principal dimensions: acquisition, act, and subject.
In the categorical framework of Neo-Aristotelianism, the conceptual capacities distinctive of humankind form a sub-category of acquired dispositions. Let’s assume for the moment that this is correct. What are we to say of those exemplars of our species who have yet to acquire any second nature? What are we to say of our first nature? John McDowell gives the following response: “Human infants are mere animals, distinctive only in their potential.” McDowell does not maintain that newborns belong to the class of beasts and brutes; he rather advances the thesis that the distinction between us and animals obtains at the level of first nature. An infant differs from mere animals not through its activities but through its as-yet unactualized capacities, its predispositions. Thus, when, in the course of their development, children acquire conceptual abilities and tendencies, they are actualizing a capacity that they were born with. In other words, human infants differ from mere animals by virtue of a second-order capacity, a capacity to acquire abilities. A rational second nature is thus the actualization of a second-order capacity that is in-born, and hence a first nature.
But if this capacity distinguishes us in virtue of our first nature, then the question arises as to whether the capacity to acquire rational capacities is itself a rational capacity. For mere animals can have a second nature as well, and therefore have the ability to acquire abilities. The capacities that they acquire, however, are—unlike ours—not rational. The question is what this means for the corresponding second-order capacities. What sort of distinction is there between their second-order capacities and ours? Are ours rational?
Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hegel deny that humans think from birth. A human infant differs from a mere animal in virtue of its predispositions, not in virtue of the (supposed) fact that it thinks. Infants first acquire concepts, which are applied in judgments, through practice. So why doesn’t the problem that these predispositions must themselves be rational capacities arise here? This problem only crops up if one assumes that the rational/sub-rational contrast applies to the concept of second nature. That is what leads to the question whether the relevant second-order capacity is itself rational or sub-rational. In the context of the orthodox doctrine of habit, this question makes no sense. Wherever first and second nature – ability and power – come apart, it is already settled whether the capacity in question is rational. It is the hallmark of rational lifeforms that their essential capacities are operative in individual exemplars only as mere predispositions. The spirited actuality of the human infant – and thus its mere being as “natural spirit” – consists precisely in the inactivity, the uncultivated indeterminacy of its essential vital capacities. It is precisely this unfinished quality of the individual, this dependency that is the material perspective, whose formal complement is the original sociality of humankind.
Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (beginning Fall 2016), and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.