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The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 2 of 5)

By Jonathan Pruitt

Part 1

The Foundations of Virtue

Given the goals of this thesis, the first and most important task is to establish just what virtue ethics is and what it entails. A survey of the literature will show that the field of virtue ethics is both broad and deep. Its history extends back to the Homeric epics and into current, cutting-edge moral philosophy. There is also a wide variety of virtue ethics. There are Aristotelian, feminist, and “agent-based” virtue ethics, among many others.[1] Each of these accounts of virtue has slightly different and often apparently contradictory conceptions of what virtue is. So while the amount of information about virtue ethics is not lacking, the vast number of voices in the field does create another problem: discovering what is universally true, if anything, about virtue ethics.

Contemporary virtue ethicists are quick to give broad definitions of virtue ethics. For example, Hursthouse says that

Virtue ethics has been characterized in a number of ways. It is described (1) as an ethics which is ‘agent-centered’ rather than ‘act-centered’; (2) as concerned with Being rather than Doing; (3) as addressing itself to the question, ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question, ‘What sorts of action should I do?’; (4) as taking certain areteic concepts (good, excellence, virtue) as basic rather than deontic ones (right, duty, obligation); (5) as rejecting the idea that ethics is codifiable in rules or principles that can provide specific action guidance.[2]

Schneewind adds that virtue ethics is a theory of ethics that “requires an acceptable view of the human good which will enable us to show how morality can be explicated in terms of character traits that are indispensable or useful for the attainment of that good.”[3] Unfortunately, these definitions are too broad for the purpose of this thesis. The terms they use are largely, often intentionally, undefined. Schneewind’s definition only raises the question, “Acceptable to whom and under what criteria?” while Hursthouse’s definitions highlight just how important the construal of “agent” or personhood (and the ideas presupposed by the concepts) will be to a virtue ethic. While these broad definitions help to give the contours of virtue ethics, in order to test both Buddhism and Christianity for their compatibility to a virtue view, what is essential to virtue must first be drawn out. In order to get a first approximation of the core of virtue ethics, it makes sense to start with Aristotle, who was one of the first virtue ethicists and still widely considered “its finest exponent.”[4]

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethic

Examining Aristotle’s writing on the virtues, and in particular the Nichomachean Ethics

(NE), it is clear that he had at least three key concepts in his ethic: virtue (ἀρετή), moral wisdom (φρόνησις), and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία).[5]  Aristotle begins the NE with a discussion of teleology. He argues that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[6] He takes this same line of reasoning and applies it to man, saying that just as all things aim at some good, so does the life of man. The aim of man’s life is to achieve and maintain eudaimonia. Thus the telos of man is eudaimonia. 

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” which is unfortunate because that only confuses his meaning. In contemporary culture “happiness” is something subjective, totally dependent on the state of mind a person at a given time. However, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, is not a subjective state, but an objective one with clearly defined criteria.  To possess eudaimonia is to be a certain kind of person and living within a certain kind of society.[7] A person who possesses eudaimonia is a person who embodies the virtues “throughout an entire lifetime.[8]”  The telos of man for Aristotle was not an end of man, in the sense that the life of man ended when he achieved eudaimonia. Instead, it was the goal and purpose (the aim) of man. Eudaimonia is an active and continuous state where man continues his life, but fulfilling his telos. Further, for the state of eudaimonia to be complete, this person must live within a society of people who are also practicing the virtues and who are also moving toward their telos.

Virtue, for Aristotle, is bound up in his teleology. He views “the acquisition and exercise of the virtues as means to an end,” but, the virtues are not merely a means.[9] Eudaimonia itself is a continuation and perfection of the virtues so that when one practices a virtue, he is not only brining about a desired end, but also participating in the good in a more immediate sense. If Aristotle is right and there is some “chief good” at which all things aim, then he must also be right that an act is good in itself whenever it corresponds to that chief good. For example, when a solider practices the virtue of courage, his action corresponds to the chief good so that in the moment he is courageous, he participates in the good and also helps to bring about a state of eudaimonia for himself and the society he lives in. In this way, the virtues are both a means to an end and good in themselves.

Another implication of the relationship of eudaimonia and virtue in Aristotle’s system is that in order for a person to achieve eudaimonia, he must actually possess the virtues as states of his character, “The virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.”[10] This means that he must have a certain kind of character, a character that has been transformed by the practice of the virtues to the point that he is spontaneously generous or courageous.

The final element of Aristotle’s virtue ethic is moral wisdom (φρόνησις). Moral wisdom has two aspects: “the rational choice (prohairesis) on which a person acts, and the process of

deliberation or reflection by which a rational choice is formed.” [11] Essentially, moral wisdom is the ability to choose the best action in light of the circumstances by drawing on one’s experience. For example, a person might have the virtue of generosity, but lack moral wisdom. Such a person might give his fortune away to an unworthy cause, like a fraudulent TV preacher for example. If a person possesses both moral wisdom and generosity, then he will take into account that TV preachers are often frauds, and even though they have apparently good intentions it would be best to give his money to some other cause that has a proven record of integrity and effectiveness. Hutchinson provides an excellent summary here: “All in all, practical wisdom is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”[12]

Given this brief sketch, it is clear that there are already certain assumptions lurking in the background of Aristotle’s thought. For example, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia presupposes that there is, in fact, a chief good for man, that man has a particular function or purpose. Man has a certain function (ergon) that he is meant, in some sense, to fulfill and this function is morally good so that it grounds the virtues. How eudaimonia itself is good is an important question and part of the solution for Aristotle seems to be that “the supremely happy life is the life which most closely imitates God’s life.”[13]  Aristotle’s conception of the virtues further presupposes a certain view of man, namely that individuals exist as unified persons over at least the period of their lifetime. In fact, Aristotle thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [14] Moral wisdom also presupposes that humans are certain kinds of moral agents. It supposes, for example, that a person has access to past experiences in order to make the best decisions.  In short, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deeply imbedded within his own worldview.

A Universal Account of Virtue

Given all the presuppositions mentioned here, as well as others that are not (like

Aristotle’s metaphysical biology) it is clear that his account of virtue will not translate easily into other cultures or worldviews. On the surface, Aristotelian virtue ethics and Buddhism appear to be irreconcilable because Buddhism strongly denies the commonsense understanding of a self, something critical to Aristotle’s system.  But it is not fair to discount Buddhist virtue ethics at this point because there might be ways of understanding virtue ethics that are compatible with Buddhism. Besides, many modern accounts of virtue ethics try to avoid making the kinds of assumptions Aristotle does. Slote, for example, specifically states that he wants a virtue ethic distinct from Aristotle’s, an ethic that is totally agent-based and avoids some of the Aristotelian ontology.[15] Such a move brings up an important question: is a virtue ethic only possible within an Aristotelian framework? Clearly, philosophers have answered this question negatively, but if the Aristotelian framework is not necessary to virtue ethics then the next step is to discover just what is necessary. What is needed is to separate virtue ethics, as much as it possible, from the components that are only cultural artifacts or only contingent to virtue and find out what is necessary for a successful account of virtue. In order to test different worldviews for their compatibility with virtue ethics, there must first be a way to understand virtue ethics that can be more universally applied.

Fortunately, MacIntyre tackles this precise problem in After Virtue. He examines a wide array of different accounts of virtue ethics, from those of Homer to Benjamin Franklin. Each of these accounts is just as embedded within a culture or worldview as Aristotle’s. MacIntyre points out that at first glance each account of the virtues is contradictory to the next. After his initial survey of these many systems, he asks, “Are we or are we not able to disentangle from these rival and various claims a unitary core concept of the virtues of which we can give a more compelling account than another of the other accounts so far?”[16] MacIntyre responds: “I am going to argue that we can in fact discover such a core concept.”[17]

MacIntyre suggests that in order to understand the virtue ethic of a particular culture or worldview, it must be examined against three background factors: the concept of a practice, the concept of the narrative order of a human life, and the concept of a moral tradition.[18] Each of these factors is related to and dependent upon the previous factor so that MacIntyre’s conception of a “practice” becomes foundational to his account of virtue. Of course, by “practice” MacIntyre means something largely different than its common meaning:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. [19]

Key to understanding this definition is the concept of “internal goods.” MacIntyre uses the practice of chess playing as an example. Goods external to playing chess might be a monetary reward earned in a tournament or the notoriety gained from being an exceptionally good chess player. These goods are contingently related to playing chess and could be achieved by other means. Goods internal to chess are “the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity.”[20] These are the sorts of goods that can only be achieved by playing the game of chess or some other game that is sufficiently similar. Further, these goods are both utilitarian and teleological. They are utilitarian in the sense that possessing these goods will help one to excel at the practice. They are teleological in the sense that possessing these goods constitutes what it means to be excellent at chess. In this way, goods internal to a practice both help to achieve the aims of that practice and constitute excellence within the practice.

The other key component of MacIntyre’s definition of a practice is his contention that a practice must be a “socially established cooperative human activity.”  By this, MacIntyre means that to enter into a practice is to enter into a community with established rules and standards of excellence.[21] For example, a painter will be subject to the standards and rules of excellence within the artistic community. Being an excellent painter will mean meeting the expectations and standards of the artistic community.

The second background issue for MacIntyre is the narrative order of a human life. MacIntyre suggests that it is only when a particular action is understood within the context of a single, unified human life that the action becomes intelligible. An agent’s actions are understood only when the reasons for his actions are understood.[22] Simply describing an agent’s actions is not sufficient for understanding her behavior.  MacIntyre argues that “behavior is only characterized adequately when we know what the longer and longest-term intentions invoked are and how the shorter-term intensions are related to the longer.”[23] An accountant entering information into a spreadsheet may, in the short term, only be trying to finish his current project. In the longer term, he may be trying to get a promotion. In the longest term, he is trying to make sure his family is well provided for. The only way to make sense of his action is to examine it within the narrative order of his life. Further, the narrative of human life has an ideal “genre:” the quest. According to MacIntyre, the good for man, the teleology, is to live his life as quest for the good.

The last piece of background information MacIntyre says is needed is an account of a moral tradition. Unless there is a kind of telos that “transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.”[24]In a sense, what MacInytre means by a moral tradition is simply an extension of what he means by the narrative order of a single human life. A moral tradition is the context within which the good for a human life must be understood: “Within a tradition, the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.”[25] What this suggests is that, as the individual has a telos, so does society itself. It is in society’s moving towards its telos through traditions that the good for man is to be found.  It is only within a society aimed at its telos that “the virtues matter.”[26]

With these background features explained, MacIntyre’s preliminary definition of virtue makes sense: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[27] However, he argues that such a definition introduces too much arbitrariness and that the foundation of virtue must extend beyond mere practices. A full definition of virtue must account for all three of the background factors: an account of practice, the narrative unity of a human life, and an account of moral tradition. When such factors are considered, MacIntyre’s definition of virtue becomes much more nuanced. A virtue is more than a human possession enabling one to achieve goods internal to practice; virtue is the both the means and the end to the good for man and for society as a whole.  Further, when

one practices the virtues, he is participating in not only the narrative of his own life, but the narrative of his tradition. By practicing the virtues, one both participates in the telos for himself and society as a whole; he helps to bring about the good.

The goal so far has been to arrive at conception of virtue ethics that goes beyond the broad, vaguer definitions of virtue ethics.  The account that MacIntyre offers is unique in that it provides a substantive way of understanding virtue ethics that is not bound to a particular culture or worldview. Such an account is exactly what is needed to allow for fair analysis between Buddhist and Christian conceptions of virtue. However, before moving into that analysis, what this account presupposes in terms of a worldview ought to be drawn out. There are at least two presuppositions underlying this account of virtue: a particular view of man and a particular view of the world.

Virtue ethics is an agent centered ethic. The result is that, as Smith points out, “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[28] Further, any account of virtue ethics will require a certain kind of self, a conception of self that has several minimum criteria. MacIntyre’s account requires that the self must be able to “learn, acquire knowledge, be rational or irrational, understand concepts… and even co-author their own narratives.”[29] If there is a self with these abilities, that self must further be able to “maintain their personal identity through time and change, since they, and not someone else are the subjects of their own ongoing narratives.”[30] This unity of a single human life is critically important to a theory of virtue ethics. MacIntyre argues that apart from this unity, the actions of a moral agent become utterly meaningless.

In MacIntyre’s account, the narrative unity of a person’s life allows the agent to ask,

“How ought my story to turn out?”[31] Essentially, this is the same question Aristotle asked, “What is the good for man?” [32] only framed slightly differently. The unity of a human life allows for the actions within that life to have significance and to be directed to a certain teleological end. On this point, he remains compatible with Aristotle. Aristotle strongly emphasized that the good for man, eudaimonia, was something that must persist throughout an entire lifetime.[33] Aristotle further thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [34] Both MacIntyre and Aristotle believe that for virtue ethics to succeed, a human life must be understood as a whole and aimed at particular end. This confirms that a substantive account of self will be required of any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic.

The telos for man also presupposes that man has certain ontological features. In particular, it presupposes that he actually does have a particular function or purpose. Man is meant for something. While Aristotle argues that the telos or purpose is eudaimonia, MacIntyre suggests the good for man is to participate in a certain kind of quest, a quest for the good.  He argues that “the good life for man is spent in seeking the good life for man.”[35] This is not in contradiction to Aristotle, who saw eudaimonia as a state of affairs, that even when attained must be continually pursued. Both MacIntyre and Aristotle agree that the good for man is not a static end of virtue, but the continuation and perfection of virtue.  The significance here is that man’s telos does not constitute a fundamental change in the nature of man, but rather the ideal realization of it. Therefore, the telos of man in any account of virtue should preserve man as he essentially is, only in a perfected or ideal state.[36] Such a conclusion is in line with the criteria Devettere gave for the end of man:

We can note that virtue ethicists emphasize three major defining characteristics of happiness: (1) happiness in life is mostly, perhaps totally, a result of our choices, (2) happiness thus requires deliberation and reasoning so we can make good choices, and (3) happiness also requires good character because only people of good character are able to reason well and make good choices.[37]

If moral value is essential to human nature, the telos ought to be a context where man, as essentially man, continues and perfects his moral nature so that the virtues are practiced in their most excellent form once telos is attained.  Further, this kind of good for man that is presupposed by MacIntyre and Aristotle must possess intrinsic value so that it is worth pursuing for its own sake; it must serve as a kind of ground for moral value. It must also exist in an objective way, that is, it cannot be something subjective–it must actually exist. Thus any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic must have the sort of metaphysics that allow for concepts like objectivity, intrinsic goodness, and ultimate value.

Another way that the unity of a human life is important is in how it incorporates Aristotle’s concept of phronesis or moral wisdom.  For Aristotle, moral wisdom “is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”48 With his concept of narrative unity, MacIntyre introduces the same idea. A person should act in light of the [38]narrative of her life. Doing so, a person will take into account her past experiences (her narrative past) as well as the possible future outcomes (her narrative future).

Even the concept of character, a key element in virtue ethics, presupposes the unity of a human life. The virtues are understood as human possessions or qualities that modify or develop one’s character towards it telos.[39] The only way it makes sense to talk about “development of character” is if the character of an individual is identical (in the strict, logical sense) to the character possessed in the past and will be identical in the future. If there is no unity of human life, then it remains to be seen how the virtues can be intelligibly practiced.

In addition to the unity of a human life, MacIntyre’s account further presupposes a certain kind of a world: a world that contains multiple, distinct selves that relate to each other in meaningful ways and that itself possesses a telos. MacIntyre constructs his account of virtue ethics in three stages. The first stage concerns the role of activities within the life of a person. The second stage concerns the relationship of a person’s actions within the whole of that person’s life. The final stage explains the relationship between a person’s life and a historical community.[40] It is only when the individual human life is placed within the larger context of a society that a human life becomes intelligible.  MacIntyre further argues that the virtues themselves will depend on society: “One of the features of the concept of a virtue which has emerged with some clarity from the argument so far is that it always requires for its application the acceptance of some prior account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which it has to be defined and explained.”[41]

In light of all of this, there are at least two sorts of criteria for any possible account of virtue ethics. First, the account itself ought to conform to the expression of virtue that MacIntyre has developed. That is, it should be able to be expressed in terms of practices, narratives, and moral tradition. If it cannot be expressed in these terms, then there ought to a reason why other accounts of virtue, whether Aristotle’s, Homer’s, or Eyre’s, fit MacIntyre’s account but not this particular account. Second, the worldview assumed in the account should be able to accommodate the presuppositions about man and the world he inhabits. If the account of virtue fails either of these criteria, it is not an adequate account of virtue.

 

 Notes:

[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[2] 12  Rosalind Husrthouse, On Virtue Ethics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26.

[3] 13  J.B, Schneewind, “Virtue, Narrative, and Community: MacIntyre and Morality” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 11,  653.

[4] Peter Simpson, “Contemporary Virtue Ethics and Aristotle,” in Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, ed. Daniel Statman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997),  245.

[5] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 27.

[6] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross.

[7] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 9.

[8] D.S. Hutchinson, “Ethics,” in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 203.

[9] Alasdair MacIntryre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007) 147.

[10] Book II, Nichomachean Ethics

[11] 21  Sarah Broadie Ethics with Aristotle (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991), 179.

[12] 22  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[13] Howard Curzer, “The Supremely Happy Life in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Aperion 24 (1991), 51.

[14] Stephen Clark, Aristotle’s Man: Speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology (Toronto: Clarendon, 1983),  26.

[15] Michael Slote, “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1995): 20.

[16] 26  Macintyre, After Virtue, 149.

[17] 27  Ibid.

[18] 28  Ibid., 178.

[19] Ibid., 187.

[20] Ibid., 179.

[21] Ibid., 180.

[22] 32  Schneedwind, “Virtue,” 656.

[23] MacIntyre, After Virtue,  192-3.

[24] Ibid., 203.

[25] 35  Ibid., 222.

[26] 36  Greg Pence, “Virtue Theory,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 251.

[27] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 221.

[28] R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[29] Smith, Virtue, 148.

[30] 40  Ibid., 148.

[31] Shneedwind, “Virtue,” 657.

[32] 42  Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[33] 43  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 203.

[34] 44  Clark, Aristotle,  26.

[35] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 219.

[36] There could be an objection here that man, in his current state, finds himself in a state where he is estranged from who he essentially is. However, it is rather inelegant to suggest that at any point man could be separated from what is essential to man. To make such a separation would be the end of man.

[37] Raymond Devettere, Introduction to Virtue Ethics: Insights of the Ancient Greeks (Washington, Georgetown University, 2002) 53.

[38] Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[39] Hursthouse, “Virtue,” par 3.

[40] Schneewind, “Virtue,” 655.

[41] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 179.

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