A Ku Indeed!

Foot I: Are There Social Virtues?

Posted in Ethics, Life, virtue ethics by Chris on May 27, 2008

I just finished Phillipa Foot’s interesting article, “Virtues and the Vices” (1978). In many ways it is a straightforward article, in that it merely tries to lay out a case for what virtues (and vices) turn out to look like. So Foot is attempting to lay down some basic ground for discussion of virtue ethics. Although her aims are basic, she makes a few very interesting claims in the piece, or at least claims that made me think about a few things. I’ll likely make a few posts about the piece, stating with this one, with an observation below the fold.

One of the most interesting parts of Foot’s piece is her defense of Kant’s “from duty/in accord with duty” distinction from the Groundwork (this distinction can drive my students batty, with the suggestion that a mother who hates her children but cares for them out of respect for the moral law is morally praiseworthy, say). Although I find her defense of some prima facie counter-intuitive Kantian points to be very thought provoking, it’s not my direct aim here (perhaps another post). Rather, there’s a point that comes up within her defense that got me thinking about something different. Specifically, Foot points out that one thing Kant believes is that if a person has a natural disposition towards X, it makes little sense to morally praise a person when they actually pursue X. As a result, Foot makes the claim that virtues don’t really exist in which we are driven to pursue what we’d normally pursue anyway (if a mother naturally loved her children, why would it be morally praiseworthy that she cared for them?).

At the same time, there are things that are morally praiseworthy that require us to do things that our natural dispositions wouldn’t recommend. As a result, Foot suggests that virtues are correctives. in other words, Foot suggests, virtues exist (or are developed) as ways of correcting what we might be naturally driven to do when those natural dispositions would normally lead us astray. Thus they act as correctives on our drives, reorienting us towards what in a situation might be good. As an example, our drive towards self-love might drive us to ignore the needs of others. Thus the virtue of benevolence, or of generosity, might be needed to correct that drive and allow for a contrary disposition and motivation towards the common good. Similarly, we might naturally avoid harm, but such a natural disposition can result in cowardice in the wrong situation (where others might be harmed and I do not help due to a desire to escape my own harm).

In the discussion, Foot makes the following claim:

The care that one ordinarily takes for one’s life, as for instance on some ordinary morning in eating one’s breakfast and keeping out of the way of a car on the road, is something for which no virtue is required. As we said earlier, there is no general virtue of self-love as there is a virtue of benevolence or charity, because men are generally attached sufficiently to their own good.

Although I generally find myself in agreement with Foot’s claims, it made me think of two things.

1. Are there virtues that are corrective not of our natural dispositions, but of social dispositions?

2. Are men generally attached sufficiently to their own good?

These questions are related. First, think of #2. I surely think it’s true that people attend to their most basic goods. People eat when hungry, seek out warmth when cold, and so on. So on a very basic level, people are “generally attached sufficiently” to their own natural goods.

But there are, if we follow Aristotle, perhaps, other goods that are ours “by nature” but that which we need society to acquire. So, say, one might think of “having friends” as one, or “participating in politics” as another. If these are natural goods, they are goods that the hermit, or the exile, cannot achieve. But moreover, they are natural goods towards which a man may have no innate disposition whatsoever. So at least on this basic level, Foot’s claim should, it seems, be restricted on some level. There are some human natural goods that we are not driven towards (at least not in the sense that we are driven towards the others).

But there’s more, I think. Typically, we think of people as always self-interested by nature, and so we think as Foot does that such self-interest needs to be corrected for — say, by virtues that are developed within a social framework. But it seems to me, at least in my own experience, that some people learn within society to attend to their basic needs, perhaps a few of the social goods mentioned above, but besides that to be tremendously self-sacrificing. One might, say, think that one has an obligation to sacrifice everything except for the most basic natural and meager social goods. Perhaps such a person is an extremely sacrificing utilitarian. Or perhaps we might say that such a person has “overdosed” on virtue in a way. Whereas in terms of their more animalistic “nature” they are driven towards narrow self-interest, in certain societal frameworks a person can be driven too much in the opposite direction — to failing to recognize that being a particular self, one with plans and projects, is also necessary to live well.

My intuition here is that extreme self-sacrifice can be a failure of the good. I’m tempted to think here in terms of Bernard Williams, and clearly my thought pattern is similar to his, though maybe not identical. In any case, it seems to me that the ‘good’ must include some substantive level of personal good, beyond basic natural needs and beyond meager social goods. What is “enough” is not my aim here to settle — just to point out that extreme self-sacrifice might not be a exemplary human goal to strive for.

If it’s not, then according to Foot’s analysis, some virtue is needed to bring us in line with just such a life, one that is not entirely egoistic, but yet one that is not entirely self-sacrificing either. In a way, we need a virtue to correct for too much virtue (of course, when virtues become “self-consuming” they might not literally be virtues anymore, a point that Foot herself would agree with if she accepted this analysis).

In any case, such a virtue, even if it were seen as a Footian corrective, would not be a corrective of any natural dispositions towards self-interest. If anything, it would be a corrective of a social disposition, one that was acquired within certain types of communities, networks, families, or other forms of social groups.

If this is right, there would be two types of virtues. One type would be natural, and would serve as a corrective against natural stinginess, cowardice (against extreme atomic individualism, perhaps). But there would also be virtues that act as correctives against possible social dispositions, ones that can lead a person to become self-effacing (correcting against extreme collectivism, perhaps). Such people exist. Now, clearly such dispositions towards extreme self-sacrifice are not natural, so correctives against it would be “social” virtues.

What would such a virtue be called? And is it right to think that such virtues exist?

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2 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on May 28, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    Extremely interesting, Chris. I can’t join a discussion until next week some time, but I’ll be back. Also I have to get over my consuming envy of you for having Parker.

  2. Chris said, on May 28, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Hi Bill — good to “see” you. No problem, I’ll be here, so feel free to post whenever you find the time. I plan on making a decent string of posts between now and the seminar (July), so I’ll be checking in very regularly.

    On Parker, well — can you believe it, she rolled her eyes at my wife today for the first time (in response to a comment my wife made to her), and she’s not even 3 yet. So some of that envy might well be misplaced — I may have a real firestorm of a teenager on my hands in the coming years!

    🙂


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