Thursday, February 2, 2017

On Virtue and Character


The questions of who we are to be and how much we can change people are the two most significant questions in philosophy.  If we take the view that philosophy exists not for its own sake but in order for us to live well, and who we are is the main element in the quality of our lives then this follows by basic reasoning.  The second statement of the last sentence is formed through the knowledge of we are our minds and our minds contain (or are) the summation of all of our individual traits – both that which is innate and that which formed through experience.  Both the sensations (emotions) and the content (knowledge both practical and theoretical) of the mind are significant due to their individual impacts on the lives of all individuals as well as their societal effects.  Knowing what is to be changeable and what is unalterable is the topic of this paper.
The main aims of this paper is to show the distinctions between virtue and character and to explore the social significance of this.  I will be exploring and ultimately discarding the notions that motives are altered through habituation and morality is grounded in reason.  Further exploration between character and virtue, between motivation and ability and stating that ultimately which is of greater significance depends upon what is of greater consequence for what is of significance is what improves or impedes the prosperity of those concerned.
One might inquire then what is virtue and what is character.  A virtue is a trait that is beneficial or desirable (we can discuss the difference of the two and which is the case – if virtue is a cultural construction or not – at a later date) that is exhibited by an individual.  Character depicts solely mental traits and motive and nothing external.  Obviously actions are done out of motive, but the motive and the action are separate.  This must be the case, because though we can describe what a person is doing with perfect eloquence and descriptive powers, this in no way begins to describe the man’s motives.  The same can be said of a description of his motives – it does not begin to describe the action being performed.
Virtues can be described with perfect cohabitation with the ghastliest of intentions and character.  Schopenhauer mentions this in his critique of courage (pg. 88[1]).  And character can exist without virtue.  Religious practices of meditation and prayer are exemplary examples of this.  In the Buddhist faith there is the practice of meditating and attempting to wish universal happiness and tranquility to all sentient beings and in the Christian faith one can very well genuinely pray for the salvation of the human race – but despite their goodness these actions lack virtue through their impotence.
Schopenhauer posits that a person’s character is born when they are and all attempts to change it will be futile (131[2]).  It should be known that what Schopenhauer is talking about is different than what Aristotle is when the latter speaks of the paramount importance of early and upright habituation (Nicomachean Ethics[3]).  The main question here is what Aristotle means by generosity; whether he refers to the act of giving or the state of mind where one gives for the sake of the recipient rather than the self – for if being virtuous is the goal of the giver than it is a form of Egoism.  One wishes to be “good” or virtuous because one will profit from this form of goodness – not because they are concerned with the well-being of others which is goodness of character as Schopenhauer means.  This in effect highlights the distinction between character and virtue.  When Aristotle is talking about virtuous habituation, he is talking about raising a child into an adult, and the adult routinely doing something to become virtuous (ibid[4]).  This in no way equates to moral character.
If a person routinely goes to a soup kitchen he will not be necessarily habituated into a saint – if character is an aspect of virtue that would have to be Aristotle’s argument.  Though it should be noted Aristotle’s Psychological Egoism and the disparate views of ethics between the two largely caused through influences in Christendom (ibid[5]).  Someone of good will and benevolent temperament is likely to do something similar to soup kitchen work or bell ringing, but there are other motives for these things and simply doing them repeatedly does not change a person’s moral character.  A person cannot be habituated towards goodness – he can only be taught and practice skills that allow him to act on his previously existing character. 
There is nothing anyone can do via reasoning nor reward to improve one’s character.  If one’s motives are of compassion, then according to Schopenhauer they are already grounded in morality.  If they are not there is nothing one can do to incentive someone to not act according to their egoism.  They can incentivize them to act as if one cares for others (see section on manners) but never to radically shift their interest or aims.  The mistake of moral education is the belief that humans can be made good either through reasoning (as Kant argues) or through habituation (as Aristotle argues) when neither is the case.
What is the purpose of manners then if they do not habituate compassion (which Rousseau[6] realized) and they do not further goodness?  Manners are taught essentially to act as if one is not selfish.  The fact that one is selfishly motivated is shown in the fact that if one betrays moral norms we punish him through isolation – those whose interest is not in themselves would take no interest in their punishment.  Moral education is done to maintain the illusion of goodness in society.  Some will preach that “all things should be illuminated,” but I daresay that a happy illusion that allows the populous to function is better than all things being shown for what they are.  Even if a kindness exists for personal profit, its action being performed is often superior than the possible alternative which is no action at all; people suffer only when they mistake a nicety for genuine concern and rely causally or psychologically on aid which is not to be expected.
To say a person is born with their moral character is not to say that a person’s character is homogenous or a person will show the same aspect of his character all his life long.  Rather, a person is born with certain dispositions and ingredients of a moral framework, and which he acts upon or reveals will be largely determined by the fortunes in his life among other factors (Schopenhauer pg. 144[7]).
One may be compelled to ask if character is innate and there are situations where virtue and motives of self-interest (selfishness) are sufficient for desirable outcomes then why should we ask questions about it at all?  Knowledge of our limitations and that which is fixed is just as useful as knowledge of that which is malleable.  Even if curing all ill-will would improve the lot of humanity, if we can demonstrate it is not within our power to change what is given to us at birth then we can demonstrate that attention and resource should be paid elsewhere; towards virtue and aiding the good will that exists for example. 
To say that character is fixed is in no way a stance towards a lack of mental health care, job opportunities or other rehabilitative measures for either the criminal element of society or society generally.  The view that character is innate is not irreconcilable with the view that the State should attempt to deter crime through non-punitive means or improve the lives of its citizens.
Firstly, we must address the fact that European States that emphasize rehabilitative measures over punitive measures have created lower re-offense rates and violent crime in European States in general is lower than in America which touts to be “tough-on-crime.”  If less violence and re-offense of criminals is the purpose of our justice system, rather than the senseless suffering that is retributive justice, then it appears these policies are social goods to be emulated where imitation of policy produces similarity in results. 
Secondly, on the follow up question of whether or not this invalidates the paper’s thesis that character is innate, I argue that rehabilitation affects things that are not a person’s fundamental character.  What is changed is a person’s economic status, attention is provided to virtues and conditions which affect a person’s expression of character.  Crimes do not happen more in war-torn areas because there is more evil in the region – it is because the conditions exist which allow evil to express itself rather than preferable expressions of virtues (self-interest that helps rather than hurts the community) and goodness.
There are a litany of reasons why criminal action occurs, and all save one can be prevented by Government policy.  Crimes of finance can be prevented with economics; crimes caused through mental illness can be mitigated through health care; crimes of belief can be stopped before they occur through education and shifts in culture.  However, the existence of Scheidenfruede (ibid – 97[8]), makes it so a kind of redemption and life amongst the public is not possible for all and further harm can only be prevented through imprisonment – even the saintliest of good will is wasted on the worst of Man.  Man can be made successful as what he is, but he cannot be made good.
Such as a Pragmatist approach to philosophy is to guide our lives a Pragmatist approach to politics entails acting upon knowledge of the human animal, all its variances, and creating a framework of institutions and laws that allow the various forms to co-exist peacefully and flourish based on what is possible (what a person is) and not what we desire to be the case.  To ask of sainthood, of moral greatness, of the common is asking the Romans to fulfill the role of Christ – it is against their nature, and a thing can only be as its nature dictates.  The goal of politics is to have men live well, not to be good.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Writings of Schopenhauer – Schopenhauer
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
Discourse on Nature of Inequality – Rousseau



[1] Courage is not a virtue at all although sometimes it is a servant or instrument of virtue; but it is just as ready to become the servant of the greatest villainy.  It is really a quality of temperament.
[2] Since a man does not alter, and his moral character remains absolutely the same all through his life; since he must play out the part which he has received, without the least deviation from the character; since neither experience, nor philosophy, nor religion can effect any improvement in him, the question arises, What is the meaning of life at all?
[3] “Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought [e.g., wisdom, comprehension, intelligence] and virtue of character [e.g., generosity, temperance, courage, justice]. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time. Virtue of character [i.e., of ethos] results from habit [ethos]; hence its name ‘ethical’, slightly varied from ‘ethos’. Hence it is also clear that none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally.
[4] Then surely knowledge of this good is also of great importance for the conduct of our lives, and if, like archers, we have a target to aim at, we are more likely to hit the right mark.”
[5] [V]irtue of character is concerned with pleasures and pains. For it is pleasure that causes us to do base actions, and pain that causes us to abstain from fine ones. Hence we need to have had the appropriate upbringing—right from early youth, as Plato says—to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education.
[6] In reality, the source of all these differences is, that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how, always asking others what we are, and never daring to ask ourselves, in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity and civilisation, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.
[7] Human misery may affect us in two ways, and we may be in one of two opposite moods in regard to it… we feel it in our own person, in our own will which, imbued with violent desires, is everywhere broken, and this is the process which constitutes suffering… The man who is entirely dominated by this mood will regard any prosperity which he may see in others with envy, and any suffering with no sympathy.  In the opposite mood human misery is present to us only as a fact of knowledge, that is to say, indirectly.  We are mainly engaged in looking at the suffering of others… we are filled with sympathy; and the result of this mood is general benevolence, philanthropy.  All envy vanishes, and instead of feeling it, we are rejoiced when we see one of our tormented fellow-creatures experience any pleasure or relief.
[8] But it is Scheidenfruede, a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature.

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