Moral philosophers and virtue: What is wrong with being bad?

This contribution is from Andreas Eriksen


The podcast Philosophy Bites once asked Ronald Dworkin “Who is the most impressive philosopher you have met?” Dworkin’s first response was John Rawls: “He is one of those very few philosophers whose saintliness infected the philosophical diction. Reading him has the enormous advantage that knowing him makes what he says sound true. He is an example of what he says.”

But is it particularly meritorious for a moral philosopher qua professional to exemplify one’s own theory? This post is an attempt to articulate a distinct philosophical defense, where I argue that the subject matter of moral philosophy can itself require the form of understanding that guides virtue. I will continue somewhat anecdotally and then make a more analytical point about what moral understanding means.

In the preface to his Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), Bernard Williams said that writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business, partly because “one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one’s own perceptions more directly  than in, at least, other parts of philosophy.” This is surely not just true of writing and developing moral philosophy, but also of teaching it. Teaching a theory is not reciting it, but rather giving it the voice it requires, explaining how it tries to answer a question, and taking a stand concerning its merits. The “hazardousness” Williams refers to could indicate that a form of bravery is required in doing and teaching moral philosophy; one must be willing to expose oneself to public disclosure of one’s grasp of what constitutes moral relations. This will not merely reveal one’s theoretical comprehension, but also something about one’s moral character. In the end, one must be willing to assert what really matters, not just to an imaginary impartial spectator, but also to oneself.

The basic idea that I extract from this is that teaching moral philosophy stands in a reciprocal relationship with genuine appreciation of moral standards: your moral sensitivity says something about plausibility of what you teach (a generalization of Dworkin’s point), and what you teach says something about your moral sensitivity (my version of Williams’s point). But does of this lead to the further claim that teachers of moral philosophy have to be morally virtuous?

In the preface to his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), J.L. Mackie acknowledges his debt to the classical moral philosophers. However, he emphasizes that he is in agreement with Locke that the ”truest teachers of moral philosophy are the outlaws and thieves.” At first, one might think this makes sense if one takes outlaws as foils that highlight what is valuable about real commitment to moral values. That is, through outlaws we learn about morality in the way we learn about the human condition by contrasting it with animals. That was not Mackie’s point. Rather, he believed we should learn from the outlaw attitude of practicing rules of justice out of convenience, not as a response to an objective moral reality.

I believe this illustrates how the relation between teaching moral philosophy and possessing moral virtue depends on a substantive theory about the status of moral values. In other words, the requirements of excellence in teaching moral philosophy depend on what one takes the subject matter to consist in. For example, Mackie did not believe in objective moral values, hence outlaws provide paradigms of insight. Through their way of living together, they show how unnecessary it is to cling to the superstitious belief in moral objectivity. Allegedly, rational self-interest is the only enlightened foundation.

In turn, if one believes that moral philosophy can and should clarify the virtues as responses to objective moral values, then this seems to require genuine sensitivity to  the demands of kindness, justice, honesty and more. They must to some extent “see” what the virtuous person “sees.” Teachers who lack proper appreciation of these values seem deficient qua moral philosophers. There is something they do not get about their own professional subject matter, namely moral life. Of course, this does not imply that the kind of saintliness ascribed to Rawls sets a standard all must meet. But it does mean that one’s character must be sufficiently shaped by a conceptual space governed by moral values, so that one can at least grasp part of what virtue responds to (even though one may lack full virtuous responsiveness).

It is crucial to understand the attitude of appreciation in the right way here. The claim is not that teachers who lack the understanding that guides moral virtue will necessarily lack access to the correct propositional content. To the contrary, we can imagine non-virtuous teachers who possess the right beliefs, or at least they state largely correct intellectual claims to their interlocutors. By appreciation, however, I am thinking of a mode of awareness that goes beyond mere intellectual endorsement. The difference between appreciation and mere belief is evident in aesthetics; think of the dissimilarity between acknowledging that Bach was great and experiencing his greatness. Similarly, moral appreciation refers to a complex emotional responsiveness that is deeply integrated with character.

The type of appreciation that is at issue here is a form of understanding that guides virtue as described by Aristotle. In the Nichomachean Ethics, the virtuous person is described as having certain feelings “at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way” (1106b20). The moral feelings have been habituated to create harmony between what one acknowledges as good and the kinds of actions one takes pleasure in. The virtuous person does not merely endorse certain moral propositions, but identifies with the values these propositions refer to. This identification makes the values appear in a distinct light. They appear as noble or worthy of allegiance, as opposed to just correct according to theoretical reasoning. For Aristotle, then, virtuous thought cannot be separated from emotional engagement. Learning to be good is not merely acquiring the right set of beliefs, but taking the moral content to heart, making certain responses to value part of one’s “second nature.” This Aristotelian theme has been acutely explored by many, but my use of the term appreciation in this connections draws particularly on Stephen Darwall’s Welfare and Rational Care (2002).

Non-virtuous moral philosophers fail to understand the parts of their own subject that are only available through this form of appreciation. Again, the claim is not that moral philosophers have a professional duty to be exceptionally virtuous. Rather, the point is that their lack of the form of understanding that guides virtuous action is a distinct professional deficiency. When this lack is revealed through immoral action it simultaneously reveals a lack of sensitivity to one’s professional subject. This claim seems to be phenomenologically supported. When moral philosophers transgress important norms, we are not only disappointed by the acts per se, but also by how these acts reflect on their appreciation of moral theory. “Didn’t they get it?” we are prone to think if we admired their work or lectures. Or perhaps the acts cast a shadow of doubt over the philosophical message they have tried to convey. Unlike Rawls, knowing them can make what they say sound untrue. That is, unless the teacher is a philosophical skeptic about moral values. I’m not sure what the judgment would be if Mackie himself became an outlaw.

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