Friday, September 23, 2011

Virtue Ethics: A Survey

Nafsika Athanassoulis
Keele University, United Kingdom
Originally published: August 28, 2004

Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.”

Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example, a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty. Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, theories of virtue ethics do not aim primarily to identify universal principles that can be applied in any moral situation. And virtue ethics theories deal with wider questions—“How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”

Since its revival in the twentieth century, virtue ethics has been developed in three main directions: Eudaimonism, agent-based theories, and the ethics of care. Eudaimonism bases virtues in human flourishing, where flourishing is equated with performing one’s distinctive function well. In the case of humans, Aristotle argued that our distinctive function is reasoning, and so the life “worth living” is one which we reason well. An agent-based theory emphasizes that virtues are determined by common-sense intuitions that we as observers judge to be admirable traits in other people. The third branch of virtue ethics, the ethics of care, was proposed predominately by feminist thinkers. It challenges the idea that ethics should focus solely on justice and autonomy; it argues that more feminine traits, such as caring and nurturing, should also be considered.

Here are some common objections to virtue ethics. Its theories provide a self-centered conception of ethics because human flourishing is seen as an end in itself and does not sufficiently consider the extent to which our actions affect other people. Virtue ethics also does not provide guidance on how we should act, as there are no clear principles for guiding action other than “act as a virtuous person would act given the situation.” Lastly, the ability to cultivate the right virtues will be affected by a number of different factors beyond a person’s control due to education, society, friends and family. If moral character is so reliant on luck, what role does this leave for appropriate praise and blame of the person?

This article looks at how virtue ethics originally defined itself by calling for a change from the dominant normative theories of deontology and consequentialism. It goes on to examine some common objections raised against virtue ethics and then looks at a sample of fully developed accounts of virtue ethics and responses.

Table of Contents

1. Changing Modern Moral Philosophy

a. Anscombe
b. Williams
c. MacIntyre

2. A Rival for Deontology and Utilitarianism

a. How Should One Live?
b. Character and Virtue
c. Anti-Theory and the Uncodifiability of Ethics
d. Conclusion

3. Virtue Ethical Theories

a. Eudaimonism
b. Agent-Based Accounts of Virtue Ethics
c. The Ethics of Care
d. Conclusion

4. Objections to Virtue Ethics

a. Self-Centeredness
b. Action-Guiding
c. Moral Luck

5. Virtue in Deontology and Consequentialism

6. References and Further Reading

a. Changing Modern Moral Philosophy
b. Overviews of Virtue Ethics
c. Varieties of Virtue Ethics
d. Collections on Virtue Ethics
e. Virtue and Moral Luck
f. Virtue in Deontology and Consequentialism

1. Changing Modern Moral Philosophy

a. Anscombe

In 1958 Elisabeth Anscombe published a paper titled “Modern Moral Philosophy” that changed the way we think about normative theories. She criticized modern moral philosophy’s pre-occupation with a law conception of ethics. A law conception of ethics deals exclusively with obligation and duty. Among the theories she criticized for their reliance on universally applicable principles were J. S. Mill‘s utilitarianism and Kant‘s deontology. These theories rely on rules of morality that were claimed to be applicable to any moral situation (that is, Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle and Kant’s Categorical Imperative). This approach to ethics relies on universal principles and results in a rigid moral code. Further, these rigid rules are based on a notion of obligation that is meaningless in modern, secular society because they make no sense without assuming the existence of a lawgiver—an assumption we no longer make.

In its place, Anscombe called for a return to a different way of doing philosophy. Taking her inspiration from Aristotle, she called for a return to concepts such as character, virtue and flourishing. She also emphasized the importance of the emotions and understanding moral psychology. With the exception of this emphasis on moral psychology, Anscombe’s recommendations that we place virtue more centrally in our understanding of morality were taken up by a number of philosophers. The resulting body of theories and ideas has come to be known as virtue ethics.

Anscombe’s critical and confrontational approach set the scene for how virtue ethics was to develop in its first few years. The philosophers who took up Anscombe’s call for a return to virtue saw their task as being to define virtue ethics in terms of what it is not—that is, how it differs from and avoids the mistakes made by the other normative theories. Before we go on to consider this in detail, we need to take a brief look at two other philosophers, Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre, whose call for theories of virtue was also instrumental in changing our understanding of moral philosophy.

b. Williams

Bernard Williams’ philosophical work has always been characterized by its ability to draw our attention to a previously unnoticed but now impressively fruitful area for philosophical discussion. Williams criticized how moral philosophy had developed. He drew a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is characterized mainly by the work of Kant and notions such as duty and obligation. Crucially associated with the notion of obligation is the notion of blame. Blame is appropriate because we are obliged to behave in a certain way and if we are capable of conforming our conduct and fail to, we have violated our duty.

Williams was also concerned that such a conception for morality rejects the possibility of luck. If morality is about what we are obliged to do, then there is no room for what is outside of our control. But sometimes attainment of the good life is dependant on things outside of our control.

In response, Williams takes a wider concept, ethics, and rejects the narrow and restricting concept of morality. Ethics encompasses many emotions that are rejected by morality as irrelevant. Ethical concerns are wider, encompassing friends, family and society and make room for ideals such as social justice. This view of ethics is compatible with the Ancient Greek interpretation of the good life as found in Aristotle and Plato.

c. MacIntyre

Finally, the ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre acted as a stimulus for the increased interest in virtue. MacIntyre’s project is as deeply critical of many of the same notions, like ought, as Anscombe and Williams. However, he also attempts to give an account of virtue. MacIntyre looks at a large number of historical accounts of virtue that differ in their lists of the virtues and have incompatible theories of the virtues. He concludes that these differences are attributable to different practices that generate different conceptions of the virtues. Each account of virtue requires a prior account of social and moral features in order to be understood. Thus, in order to understand Homeric virtue you need to look its social role in Greek society. Virtues, then, are exercised within practices that are coherent, social forms of activity and seek to realize goods internal to the activity. The virtues enable us to achieve these goods. There is an end (or telos) that transcends all particular practices and it constitutes the good of a whole human life. That end is the virtue of integrity or constancy.

These three writers have all, in their own way, argued for a radical change in the way we think about morality. Whether they call for a change of emphasis from obligation, a return to a broad understanding of ethics, or a unifying tradition of practices that generate virtues, their dissatisfaction with the state of modern moral philosophy lay the foundation for change.

2. A Rival for Deontology and Utilitarianism

There are a number of different accounts of virtue ethics. It is an emerging concept and was initially defined by what it is not rather than what it is. The next section examines claims virtue ethicists initially made that set the theory up as a rival to deontology and consequentialism.

a. How Should One Live?

Moral theories are concerned with right and wrong behavior. This subject area of philosophy is unavoidably tied up with practical concerns about the right behavior. However, virtue ethics changes the kind of question we ask about ethics. Where deontology and consequentialism concern themselves with the right action, virtue ethics is concerned with the good life and what kinds of persons we should be. “What is the right action?” is a significantly different question to ask from “How should I live? What kind of person should I be?” Where the first type of question deals with specific dilemmas, the second is a question about an entire life. Instead of asking what is the right action here and now, virtue ethics asks what kind of person should one be in order to get it right all the time.

Whereas deontology and consequentialism are based on rules that try to give us the right action, virtue ethics makes central use of the concept of character. The answer to “How should one live?” is that one should live virtuously, that is, have a virtuous character.

b. Character and Virtue

Modern virtue ethics takes its inspiration from the Aristotelian understanding of character and virtue. Aristotelian character is, importantly, about a state of being. It’s about having the appropriate inner states. For example, the virtue of kindness involves the right sort of emotions and inner states with respect to our feelings towards others. Character is also about doing. Aristotelian theory is a theory of action, since having the virtuous inner dispositions will also involve being moved to act in accordance with them. Realizing that kindness is the appropriate response to a situation and feeling appropriately kindly disposed will also lead to a corresponding attempt to act kindly.

Another distinguishing feature of virtue ethics is that character traits are stable, fixed, and reliable dispositions. If an agent possesses the character trait of kindness, we would expect him or her to act kindly in all sorts of situations, towards all kinds of people, and over a long period of time, even when it is difficult to do so. A person with a certain character can be relied upon to act consistently over a time.

It is important to recognize that moral character develops over a long period of time. People are born with all sorts of natural tendencies. Some of these natural tendencies will be positive, such as a placid and friendly nature, and some will be negative, such as an irascible and jealous nature. These natural tendencies can be encouraged and developed or discouraged and thwarted by the influences one is exposed to when growing up. There are a number of factors that may affect one’s character development, such as one’s parents, teachers, peer group, role-models, the degree of encouragement and attention one receives, and exposure to different situations. Our natural tendencies, the raw material we are born with, are shaped and developed through a long and gradual process of education and habituation.

Moral education and development is a major part of virtue ethics. Moral development, at least in its early stages, relies on the availability of good role models. The virtuous agent acts as a role model and the student of virtue emulates his or her example. Initially this is a process of habituating oneself in right action. Aristotle advises us to perform just acts because this way we become just. The student of virtue must develop the right habits, so that he tends to perform virtuous acts. Virtue is not itself a habit. Habituation is merely an aid to the development of virtue, but true virtue requires choice, understanding, and knowledge. The virtuous agent doesn't act justly merely out of an unreflective response, but has come to recognize the value of virtue and why it is the appropriate response. Virtue is chosen knowingly for its own sake.

The development of moral character may take a whole lifetime. But once it is firmly established, one will act consistently, predictably and appropriately in a variety of situations.

Aristotelian virtue is defined in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics as a purposive disposition, lying in a mean and being determined by the right reason. As discussed above, virtue is a settled disposition. It is also a purposive disposition. A virtuous actor chooses virtuous action knowingly and for its own sake. It is not enough to act kindly by accident, unthinkingly, or because everyone else is doing so; you must act kindly because you recognize that this is the right way to behave. Note here that although habituation is a tool for character development it is not equivalent to virtue; virtue requires conscious choice and affirmation.

Virtue “lies in a mean” because the right response to each situation is neither too much nor too little. Virtue is the appropriate response to different situations and different agents. The virtues are associated with feelings. For example: courage is associated with fear, modesty is associated with the feeling of shame, and friendliness associated with feelings about social conduct. The virtue lies in a mean because it involves displaying the mean amount of emotion, where mean stands for appropriate. (This does not imply that the right amount is a modest amount. Sometimes quite a lot may be the appropriate amount of emotion to display, as in the case of righteous indignation). The mean amount is neither too much nor too little and is sensitive to the requirements of the person and the situation.

Finally, virtue is determined by the right reason. Virtue requires the right desire and the right reason. To act from the wrong reason is to act viciously. On the other hand, the agent can try to act from the right reason, but fail because he or she has the wrong desire. The virtuous agent acts effortlessly, perceives the right reason, has the harmonious right desire, and has an inner state of virtue that flows smoothly into action. The virtuous agent can act as an exemplar of virtue to others.

It is important to recognize that this is a perfunctory account of ideas that are developed in great detail in Aristotle. They are related briefly here as they have been central to virtue ethics’ claim to put forward a unique and rival account to other normative theories. Modern virtue ethicists have developed their theories around a central role for character and virtue and claim that this gives them a unique understanding of morality. The emphasis on character development and the role of the emotions allows virtue ethics to have a plausible account of moral psychology—which is lacking in deontology and consequentialism. Virtue ethics can avoid the problematic concepts of duty and obligation in favor of the rich concept of virtue. Judgments of virtue are judgments of a whole life rather than of one isolated action.

c. Anti-Theory and the Uncodifiability of Ethics

In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle warns us that the study of ethics is imprecise. Virtue ethicists have challenged consequentialist and deontological theories because they fail to accommodate this insight. Both deontological and consequentialist type of theories rely on one rule or principle that is expected to apply to all situations. Because their principles are inflexible, they cannot accommodate the complexity of all the moral situations that we are likely to encounter.

We are constantly faced with moral problems. For example: Should I tell my friend the truth about her lying boyfriend? Should I cheat in my exams? Should I have an abortion? Should I save the drowning baby? Should we separate the Siamese twins? Should I join the fuel protests? All these problems are different and it seems unlikely that we will find the solution to all of them by applying the same rule. If the problems are varied, we should not expect to find their solution in one rigid and inflexible rule that does not admit exception. If the nature of the thing we are studying is diverse and changing, then the answer cannot be any good if it is inflexible and unyielding. The answer to “how should I live?” cannot be found in one rule. At best, for virtue ethics, there can be rules of thumb—rules that are true for the most part, but may not always be the appropriate response.

The doctrine of the mean captures exactly this idea. The virtuous response cannot be captured in a rule or principle, which an agent can learn and then act virtuously. Knowing virtue is a matter of experience, sensitivity, ability to perceive, ability to reason practically, etc. and takes a long time to develop. The idea that ethics cannot be captured in one rule or principle is the “uncodifiability of ethics thesis.” Ethics is too diverse and imprecise to be captured in a rigid code, so we must approach morality with a theory that is as flexible and as situation-responsive as the subject matter itself. As a result some virtue ethicists see themselves as anti-theorists, rejecting theories that systematically attempt to capture and organize all matters of practical or ethical importance.

d. Conclusion

Virtue ethics initially emerged as a rival account to deontology and consequentialism. It developed from dissatisfaction with the notions of duty and obligation and their central roles in understanding morality. It also grew out of an objection to the use of rigid moral rules and principles and their application to diverse and different moral situations. Characteristically, virtue ethics makes a claim about the central role of virtue and character in its understanding of moral life and uses it to answer the questions “How should I live? What kind of person should I be?” Consequentialist theories are outcome-based and Kantian theories are agent-based. Virtue ethics is character-based.

3. Virtue Ethical Theories

Raising objections to other normative theories and defining itself in opposition to the claims of others, was the first stage in the development of virtue ethics. Virtue ethicists then took up the challenge of developing full fledged accounts of virtue that could stand on their own merits rather than simply criticize consequentialism and deontology. These accounts have been predominantly influenced by the Aristotelian understanding of virtue. While some virtue ethics take inspiration from Plato’s, the Stoics’, Aquinas’, Hume’s and Nietzsche’s accounts of virtue and ethics, Aristotelian conceptions of virtue ethics still dominate the field. There are three main strands of development for virtue ethics: Eudaimonism, agent-based theories and the ethics of care.

a. Eudaimonism

“Eudaimonia” is an Aristotelian term loosely (and inadequately) translated as happiness. To understand its role in virtue ethics we look to Aristotle’s function argument. Aristotle recognizes that actions are not pointless because they have an aim. Every action aims at some good. For example, the doctor’s vaccination of the baby aims at the baby’s health, the English tennis player Tim Henman works on his serve so that he can win Wimbledon, and so on. Furthermore, some things are done for their own sake (ends in themselves) and some things are done for the sake of other things (means to other ends). Aristotle claims that all the things that are ends in themselves also contribute to a wider end, an end that is the greatest good of all. That good is eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness, contentment, and fulfillment; it’s the name of the best kind of life, which is an end in itself and a means to live and fare well.

Aristotle then observes that where a thing has a function the good of the thing is when it performs its function well. For example, the knife has a function, to cut, and it performs its function well when it cuts well. This argument is applied to man: man has a function and the good man is the man who performs his function well. Man’s function is what is peculiar to him and sets him aside from other beings—reason. Therefore, the function of man is reason and the life that is distinctive of humans is the life in accordance with reason. If the function of man is reason, then the good man is the man who reasons well. This is the life of excellence or of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is the life of virtue—activity in accordance with reason, man’s highest function.

The importance of this point of eudaimonistic virtue ethics is that it reverses the relationship between virtue and rightness. A utilitarian could accept the value of the virtue of kindness, but only because someone with a kind disposition is likely to bring about consequences that will maximize utility. So the virtue is only justified because of the consequences it brings about. In eudaimonist virtue ethics the virtues are justified because they are constitutive elements of eudaimonia (that is, human flourishing and wellbeing), which is good in itself.

Rosalind Hursthouse developed one detailed account of eudaimonist virtue ethics. Hursthouse argues that the virtues make their possessor a good human being. All living things can be evaluated qua specimens of their natural kind. Like Aristotle, Hursthouse argues that the characteristic way of human beings is the rational way: by their very nature human beings act rationally, a characteristic that allows us to make decisions and to change our character and allows others to hold us responsible for those decisions. Acting virtuously—that is, acting in accordance with reason—is acting in the way characteristic of the nature of human beings and this will lead to eudaimonia. This means that the virtues benefit their possessor. One might think that the demands of morality conflict with our self-interest, as morality is other-regarding, but eudaimonist virtue ethics presents a different picture. Human nature is such that virtue is not exercised in opposition to self-interest, but rather is the quintessential component of human flourishing. The good life for humans is the life of virtue and therefore it is in our interest to be virtuous. It is not just that the virtues lead to the good life (e.g. if you are good, you will be rewarded), but rather a virtuous life is the good life because the exercise of our rational capacities and virtue is its own reward.

It is important to note, however, that there have been many different ways of developing this idea of the good life and virtue within virtue ethics. Philippa Foot, for example, grounds the virtues in what is good for human beings. The virtues are beneficial to their possessor or to the community (note that this is similar to MacIntyre’s argument that the virtues enable us to achieve goods within human practices). Rather than being constitutive of the good life, the virtues are valuable because they contribute to it.

Another account is given by perfectionists such as Thomas Hurka, who derive the virtues from the characteristics that most fully develop our essential properties as human beings. Individuals are judged against a standard of perfection that reflects very rare or ideal levels of human achievement. The virtues realize our capacity for rationality and therefore contribute to our well-being and perfection in that sense.

b. Agent-Based Accounts of Virtue Ethics

Not all accounts of virtue ethics are eudaimonist. Michael Slote has developed an account of virtue based on our common-sense intuitions about which character traits are admirable. Slote makes a distinction between agent-focused and agent-based theories. Agent-focused theories understand the moral life in terms of what it is to be a virtuous individual, where the virtues are inner dispositions. Aristotelian theory is an example of an agent-focused theory. By contrast, agent-based theories are more radical in that their evaluation of actions is dependent on ethical judgments about the inner life of the agents who perform those actions. There are a variety of human traits that we find admirable, such as benevolence, kindness, compassion, etc. and we can identify these by looking at the people we admire, our moral exemplars.

c. The Ethics of Care

Finally, the Ethics of Care is another influential version of virtue ethics. Developed mainly by feminist writers, such as Annette Baier, this account of virtue ethics is motivated by the thought that men think in masculine terms such as justice and autonomy, whereas woman think in feminine terms such as caring. These theorists call for a change in how we view morality and the virtues, shifting towards virtues exemplified by women, such as taking care of others, patience, the ability to nurture, self-sacrifice, etc. These virtues have been marginalized because society has not adequately valued the contributions of women. Writings in this area do not always explicitly make a connection with virtue ethics. There is much in their discussions, however, of specific virtues and their relation to social practices and moral education, etc., which is central to virtue ethics.

d. Conclusion

There are many different accounts of virtue ethics. The three types discussed above are representative of the field. There is a large field, however, of diverse writers developing other theories of virtue. For example, Christine Swanton has developed a pluralist account of virtue ethics with connections to Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s theory emphasizes the inner self and provides a possible response to the call for a better understanding of moral psychology. Swanton develops an account of self-love that allows her to distinguish true virtue from closely related vices, e.g. self-confidence from vanity or ostentation, virtuous and vicious forms of perfectionism, etc. She also makes use of the Nietzschean ideas of creativity and expression to show how different modes of acknowledgement are appropriate to the virtues.

Historically, accounts of virtue have varied widely. Homeric virtue should be understood within the society within which it occurred. The standard of excellence was determined from within the particular society and accountability was determined by one’s role within society. Also, one’s worth was comparative to others and competition was crucial in determining one’s worth.

Other accounts of virtue ethics are inspired from Christian writers such as Aquinas and Augustine (see the work of David Oderberg). Aquinas’ account of the virtues is distinctive because it allows a role for the will. One’s will can be directed by the virtues and we are subject to the natural law, because we have the potential to grasp the truth of practical judgments. To possess a virtue is to have the will to apply it and the knowledge of how to do so. Humans are susceptible to evil and acknowledging this allows us to be receptive to the virtues of faith, hope and charity—virtues of love that are significantly different from Aristotle’s virtues.

The three types of theories covered above developed over long periods, answering many questions and often changed in response to criticisms. For example, Michael Slote has moved away from agent-based virtue ethics to a more Humean-inspired sentimentalist account of virtue ethics. Humean accounts of virtue ethics rely on the motive of benevolence and the idea that actions should be evaluated by the sentiments they express. Admirable sentiments are those that express a concern for humanity. The interested reader must seek out the work of these writers in the original to get a full appreciation of the depth and detail of their theories.

4. Objections to Virtue Ethics

Much of what has been written on virtue ethics has been in response to criticisms of the theory. The following section presents three objections and possible responses, based on broad ideas held in common by most accounts of virtue ethics.

a. Self-Centeredness

Morality is supposed to be about other people. It deals with our actions to the extent that they affect other people. Moral praise and blame is attributed on the grounds of an evaluation of our behavior towards others and the ways in that we exhibit, or fail to exhibit, a concern for the well-being of others. Virtue ethics, according to this objection, is self-centered because its primary concern is with the agent’s own character. Virtue ethics seems to be essentially interested in the acquisition of the virtues as part of the agent’s own well-being and flourishing. Morality requires us to consider others for their own sake and not because they may benefit us. There seems to be something wrong with aiming to behave compassionately, kindly, and honestly merely because this will make oneself happier.

Related to this objection is a more general objection against the idea that well-being is a master value and that all other things are valuable only to the extent that they contribute to it. This line of attack, exemplified in the writings of Tim Scanlon, objects to the understanding of well-being as a moral notion and sees it more like self-interest. Furthermore, well-being does not admit to comparisons with other individuals. Thus, well-being cannot play the role that eudaimonists would have it play.

This objection fails to appreciate the role of the virtues within the theory. The virtues are other-regarding. Kindness, for example, is about how we respond to the needs of others. The virtuous agent’s concern is with developing the right sort of character that will respond to the needs of others in an appropriate way. The virtue of kindness is about being able to perceive situations where one is required to be kind, have the disposition to respond kindly in a reliable and stable manner, and be able to express one’s kind character in accordance with one’s kind desires. The eudaimonist account of virtue ethics claims that the good of the agent and the good of others are not two separate aims. Both rather result from the exercise of virtue. Rather than being too self-centered, virtue ethics unifies what is required by morality and what is required by self-interest.

b. Action-Guiding

Moral philosophy is concerned with practical issues. Fundamentally it is about how we should act. Virtue ethics has criticized consequentialist and deontological theories for being too rigid and inflexible because they rely on one rule or principle. One reply to this is that these theories are action guiding. The existence of “rigid” rules is a strength, not a weakness because they offer clear direction on what to do. As long as we know the principles, we can apply them to practical situations and be guided by them. Virtue ethics, it is objected, with its emphasis on the imprecise nature of ethics, fails to give us any help with the practicalities of how we should behave. A theory that fails to be action-guiding is no good as a moral theory.

The main response to this criticism is to stress the role of the virtuous agent as an exemplar. Virtue ethics reflects the imprecise nature of ethics by being flexible and situation-sensitive, but it can also be action-guiding by observing the example of the virtuous agent. The virtuous agent is the agent who has a fully developed moral character, who possesses the virtues and acts in accordance with them, and who knows what to do by example. Further, virtue ethics places considerable of emphasis on the development of moral judgment. Knowing what to do is not a matter of internalizing a principle, but a life-long process of moral learning that will only provide clear answers when one reaches moral maturity. Virtue ethics cannot give us an easy, instant answer. This is because these answers do not exist. Nonetheless, it can be action-guiding if we understand the role of the virtuous agent and the importance of moral education and development. If virtue consists of the right reason and the right desire, virtue ethics will be action-guiding when we can perceive the right reason and have successfully habituated our desires to affirm its commands.

c. Moral Luck

Finally, there is a concern that virtue ethics leaves us hostage to luck. Morality is about responsibility and the appropriateness of praise and blame. However, we only praise and blame agents for actions taken under conscious choice. The road to virtue is arduous and many things outside our control can go wrong. Just as the right education, habits, influences, examples, etc. can promote the development of virtue, the wrong influencing factors can promote vice. Some people will be lucky and receive the help and encouragement they need to attain moral maturity, but others will not. If the development of virtue (and vice) is subject to luck, is it fair to praise the virtuous (and blame the vicious) for something that was outside of their control? Further, some accounts of virtue are dependent on the availability of external goods. Friendship with other virtuous agents is so central to Aristotelian virtue that a life devoid of virtuous friendship will be lacking in eudaimonia. However, we have no control over the availability of the right friends. How can we then praise the virtuous and blame the vicious if their development and respective virtue and vice were not under their control?

Some moral theories try to eliminate the influence of luck on morality (primarily deontology). Virtue ethics, however, answers this objection by embracing moral luck. Rather than try to make morality immune to matters that are outside of our control, virtue ethics recognizes the fragility of the good life and makes it a feature of morality. It is only because the good life is so vulnerable and fragile that it is so precious. Many things can go wrong on the road to virtue, such that the possibility that virtue is lost, but this vulnerability is an essential feature of the human condition, which makes the attainment of the good life all the more valuable.

5. Virtue in Deontology and Consequentialism

Virtue ethics offers a radically different account to deontology and consequentialism. Virtue ethics, however, has influenced modern moral philosophy not only by developing a full-fledged account of virtue, but also by causing consequentialists and deontologists to re-examine their own theories with view to taking advantage of the insights of virtue.

For years Deontologists relied mainly on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals for discussions of Kant’s moral theory. The emergence of virtue ethics caused many writers to re-examine Kant’s other works. Metaphysics of Morals, Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View and, to a lesser extent, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, have becomes sources of inspiration for the role of virtue in deontology. Kantian virtue is in some respects similar to Aristotelian virtue. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant stresses the importance of education, habituation, and gradual development—all ideas that have been used by modern deontologists to illustrate the common sense plausibility of the theory. For Kantians, the main role of virtue and appropriate character development is that a virtuous character will help one formulate appropriate maxims for testing. In other respects, Kantian virtue remains rather dissimilar from other conceptions of virtue. Differences are based on at least three ideas: First, Kantian virtue is a struggle against emotions. Whether one thinks the emotions should be subjugated or eliminated, for Kant moral worth comes only from the duty of motive, a motive that struggles against inclination. This is quite different from the Aristotelian picture of harmony between reason and desire. Second, for Kant there is no such thing as weakness of will, understood in the Aristotelian sense of the distinction between continence and incontinence. Kant concentrates on fortitude of will and failure to do so is self-deception. Finally, Kantians need to give an account of the relationship between virtue as occurring in the empirical world and Kant’s remarks about moral worth in the noumenal world (remarks that can be interpreted as creating a contradiction between ideas in the Groundwork and in other works).

Consequentialists have found a role for virtue as a disposition that tends to promote good consequences. Virtue is not valuable in itself, but rather valuable for the good consequences it tends to bring about. We should cultivate virtuous dispositions because such dispositions will tend to maximize utility. This is a radical departure from the Aristotelian account of virtue for its own sake. Some consequentialists, such as Driver, go even further and argue that knowledge is not necessary for virtue.

Rival accounts have tried to incorporate the benefits of virtue ethics and develop in ways that will allow them to respond to the challenged raised by virtue ethics. This has led to very fruitful and exciting work being done within this area of philosophy.

6. References and Further Reading

a. Changing Modern Moral Philosophy

Anscombe, G.E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (1958).
The original call for a return to Aristotelian ethics.
MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985).
His first outline of his account of the virtues.
Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985)
Williams, B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).
Especially Chapter 10 for the thoughts discussed in this paper.

b. Overviews of Virtue Ethics

Oakley, J., “Varieties of Virtue Ethics”, Ratio, vol. 9 (1996)
Trianosky, G.V. “What is Virtue Ethics All About?” in Statman D., Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Edinburgh University Press, 1997)

c. Varieties of Virtue Ethics

Adkins, A.W.H., Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Ancient Greece from Homer to the End of the Fifth Century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972).
An account of Homeric virtue.
Baier, A., Postures of the Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985)
Blum, L.W., Friendship, Altruism and Morality (London: 1980)
Cottingham, J., “Partiality and the Virtues”, in Crisp R. and Slote M., How Should One Live? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)
Cottingham, J., “Religion, Virtue and Ethical Culture”, Philosophy, 69 (1994)
Cullity, G., “Aretaic Cognitivism”, American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 4, (1995a).
Particularly good on the distinction between aretaic and deontic.
Cullit,y G., “Moral Character and the Iteration Problem”, Utilitas, vol. 7, no. 2, (1995b)
Dent, N.J.H., “The Value of Courage”, Philosophy, vol. 56 (1981)
Dent, N.J.H., “Virtues and Actions”, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 25 (1975)
Dent, N.J.H., The Psychology of the Virtues (G.B.: Cambridge University Press, 1984)
Driver, J., “Monkeying with Motives: Agent-based Virtue Ethics”, Utilitas, vol. 7, no. 2 (1995).
A critique of Slote’s agent-based virtue ethics.
Foot, P., Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).
Her more recent work, developing new themes in her account of virtue ethics.
Foot, P., Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978).
Her original work, setting out her version of virtue ethics.
Hursthouse, R., “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20, (1991)
Hursthouse, R., On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: OUP, 1999).
A book length account of eudaimonist virtue ethics, incorporating many of the ideas from her previous work and fully developed new ideas and responses to criticisms.
McDowell, J., “Incontinence and Practical Wisdom in Aristotle”, in Lovibond S and Williams S.G.,Essays for David Wiggins, Aristotelian Society Series, Vol.16 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)
McDowel,l J., “Virtue and Reason”, The Monist, 62 (1979)
Roberts, R.C., “Virtues and Rules”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. LI, no. 2 (1991)
Scanlon, T.M., What We Owe Each Other (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
A comprehensive criticism of well-being as the foundation of moral theories.
Slote, M., From Morality to Virtue (New York: OUP, 1992).
His original account of agent-based virtue ethics.
Slote, M., Morals from Motives, (Oxford: OUP, 2001).
A new version of sentimentalist virtue ethics.
Swanton, C., Virtue Ethics (New York: OUP, 2003).
A pluralist account of virtue ethics, inspired from Nietzschean ideas.
Walker, A.D.M., “Virtue and Character”, Philosophy, 64 (1989)

d. Collections on Virtue Ethics

Crisp, R. and M. Slote, How Should One Live? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
A collection of more recent as well as critical work on virtue ethics, including works by Kantian critics such as O’Neill, consequentialist critics such as Hooker and Driver, an account of Humean virtue by Wiggins, and others.
Crisp, R. and M. Slote, Virtue Ethics (New York: OUP, 1997).
A collection of classic papers on virtue ethics, including Anscombe, MacIntyre, Williams, etc.
Engstrom, S., and J. Whiting, Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics (USE: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
A collection bringing together elements from Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics on topics such as the emotions, character, moral development, etc.
Hursthouse, R., G. Lawrence and W. Quinn, Virtues and Reasons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
A collections of essays in honour of Philippa Foot, including contributions by Blackburn, McDowell, Kenny, Quinn, and others.
Rorty, A.O., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (USA: University of California Press, 1980).
A seminal collection of papers interpreting the ethics of Aristotle, including contributions by Ackrill, McDowell and Nagel on eudaimonia, Burnyeat on moral development, Urmson on the doctrine of the mean, Wiggins and Rorty on weakness of will, and others.
Statman, D., Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Edinburgh University Press, 1997).
A collection of contemporary work on virtue ethics, including a comprehensive introduction by Statman, an overview by Trianosky, Louden and Solomon on objections to virtue ethics, Hursthouse on abortion and virtue ethics, Swanton on value, and others.

e. Virtue and Moral Luck

Andree, J., “Nagel, Williams and Moral Luck”, Analysis 43 (1983).
An Aristotelian response to the problem of moral luck.
Nussbaum, M., Love’s Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Nussbaum, M., The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Includes her original response to the problem of luck as well as thoughts on rules as rules of thumb, the role of the emotions, etc.
Statman, D., Moral Luck (USA: State University of New York Press, 1993).
An excellent introduction by Statman as well as almost every article written on moral luck, including Williams’ and Nagel’s original discussions (and a postscript by Williams).

f. Virtue in Deontology and Consequentialism

Baron, M.W., Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology (USA: Cornell University Press, 1995).
A book length account of a neo-Kantian theory that takes virtue and character into account.
Baron, M.W., P. Pettit and M. Slote, Three Methods of Ethics (GB: Blackwell, 1997).
Written by three authors adopting three perspectives, deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics, this is an excellent account of how the three normative theories relate to each other.
Drive,r J., Uneasy Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
A book length account of a consequentialist version of virtue ethics, incorporating many of her ideas from previous pieces of work.
Herman, B., The Practice of Moral Judgement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Another neo-Kantian who has a lot to say on virtue and character.
Hooker, B., Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).
A modern version of rule-consequentialism, which is in many respects sensitive to the insights of virtue.
O’Neill, “Kant’s Virtues”, in Crisp R. and Slote M., How Should One Live? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
One of the first Kantian responses to virtue ethics.
Sherman, N., The Fabric of Character (GB: Clarendon Press, 1989).
An extremely sympathetic account of Aristotelian and Kantian ideas on the emotions, virtue and character.
Sherman, N., Making a Necessity of Virtue (USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics is person rather than action based. It looks at the moral character of the person carrying out an action.

Character-based ethics

  • A right act is the action a virtues person would do in the same circumstances.

Virtue ethics is person rather than action based: it looks at the virtue or moral character of the person carrying out an action, rather than at the ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of particular actions.

Virtue ethics not only deals with the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, it provides guidance as to the sort of characteristics and behaviours a good person will seek to achieve.

In that way, virtue ethics is concerned with the whole of a person's life, rather than particular episodes or actions.

  • A good person is someone who lives virtuously - who possesses and lives the virtues.
It's a useful theory since human beings are often more interested in assessing the character of another person than they are assessing the goodness or badness of a particular action.

This suggests that the way to build a good society is to help its members to be good people, rather than to use laws and punishments to prevent or deter actions.

But it wouldn't be helpful if a person had to be a saint to count as virtuous. For virtue theory to be really useful it needs to suggest only a minimum set of characteristics that a person needs to possess in order to be regarded as virtuous.

...being virtuous is more than having a particular habit of acting, e.g. generosity. Rather, it means having a fundamental set of related virtues that enable a person to live and act morally well.

James F Keenan, Proposing Cardinal Virtues, Theological Studies, 1995


Virtue ethics teaches:
  • An action is only right if it is an action that a virtuous person would carry out in the same circumstances.
  • A virtuous person is a person who acts virtuously
  • A person acts virtuously if they "possess and live the virtues"
  • A virtue is a moral characteristic that a person needs to live well.
Most virtue theorists would also insist that the virtuous person is one who acts in a virtuous way as the result of rational thought (rather than, say, instinct).

The three questions

The modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre proposed three questions as being at the heart of moral thinking:
  • Who am I?
  • Who ought I to become?
  • How ought I to get there?

Lists of the virtues

This poses a problem, since lists of virtues from different times in history and different societies show significant differences.

Most virtue theorists say that there is a common set of virtues that all human beings would benefit from, rather than different sets for different sorts of people, and that these virtues are natural to mature human beings - even if they are hard to acquire.
The traditional list of cardinal virtues was:
  • Prudence
  • Justice
  • Fortitude / Bravery
  • Temperance
The modern theologian James F Keenan suggests:
  • Justice
    • Justice requires us to treat all human beings equally and impartially.
  • Fidelity
    • Fidelity requires that we treat people closer to us with special care.
  • Self-care
    • We each have a unique responsibility to care for ourselves, affectively, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
  • Prudence
    • The prudent person must always consider Justice, Fidelity and Self-care.
    • The prudent person must always look for opportunities to acquire more of the other three virtues

Good points of virtue ethics

  • It centres ethics on the person and what it means to be human
  • It includes the whole of a person's life

Bad points of virtue ethics

  • it doesn't provide clear guidance on what to do in moral dilemmas
    • although it does provide general guidance on how to be a good person
    • presumably a totally virtuous person would know what to do and we could consider them a suitable role model to guide us
  • there is no general agreement on what the virtues are
    • and it may be that any list of virtues will be relative to the culture in which it is being drawn up.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

By Robert  Darnton

Most Americans take it for granted as a natural extension of "life" and "liberty" But as the author shows, the pursuit of happiness is an idea that has long been debated - and whose meaning is still up for grabs.

Robert Darnton is Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton University. He is the author of, among other books, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) and The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995). This essay is adapted from a lecture given in Tokyo on October 6, 1993, to celebrate the opening of the Japanese Institute for Advanced Study, and draws heavily from the following works: Robert Mauzi, L'idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle (1979); Howard Mumford Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness (1953); Ursula M. von Eckardt, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Democratic Creed (1959); and Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 (1982).

                                                               * * *

The idea of happiness has become so deeply embedded in American culture that it sometimes disappears from sight. It is everywhere and nowhere, an implicit assumption that colors a world view, hardly an idea at all. But an idea it very much is, and, if seen from the perspective of the history of ideas, it has a long and impressive pedigree.

It appears among the ancients in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and especially in the thought of the Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans incorporated the concept of happiness into a general philosophy of pleasure and pain, which led to an ethics of rational self-interest. The Stoics linked it to withdrawal from the dangerous hurly-burly of civic life and contentment in the minimal pleasures of life in Arcadian retreats. "Happy is he who, far away from business, like the race of men of old, tills his ancestral fields with his own oxen, unbound by any interest to pay," said Horace in the first century B.C. One could find similar sentiments scattered throughout the Augustan poetry and Ciceronian rhetoric of the Romans.

Not, however, among the early Christians. Before his death in 604 A.D., Saint Augustine characterized life on this side of the City of God as the pursuit of vanity through a vale of tears. His message corresponded to the human condition as it was experienced by most people for the next thousand years, when men and women worked the fields in a state of semislavery, ate little more than bread and broth, and died young. Theirs was an existence best summed up by Thomas Hobbes's description of life in the state of nature: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

By the 15th century, however, philosophers were facing a revived notion of pleasure - earthly as in Boccaccio and refined as in the court of the Medici. To be sure, the classical revival was snuffed out in Florence by Savonarola's bonfire of vanities in 1497 and in Rome by the troops of Charles V during the sack of 1527. The reformations and religious wars made happiness as a consummation to be desired this side of the grave look more unlikely than ever.

But in the Age of Enlightenment the idea of happiness revived once again, attached to other notions such as progress and prosperity. The Enlightenment philosophers took happiness to be the end of man's life as an individual and of society's existence as a collectivity. The most radical of them, Diderot, Rousseau, Helvétius, and d'Holbach, built the concept of happiness into a modernized Epicureanism, reinforced with a strong civic consciousness.

Having reached this point, philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries could not turn back, despite the countercurrents of pessimism stirred up by figures such as Nietzsche and Freud. Jeremy Bentham's rallying cry, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number," actually was formulated by two philosophes of the Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson in Scotland and Cesare Beccaria in Italy. Bentham worked it into a philosophy of enlightened self-interest derived from Epicurus and Lucretius and adapted to the reform politics of Britain. For Karl Marx, the prophet of socialist happiness, liberal reforms could never reconcile individual and collective interests, because class interests stood in the way. Instead, Marx imagined happiness as a historical state to be reached at the end of a dialectical process by society as a whole.

Such, in a snapshot, is how a history of the idea of happiness might look if seen at a very great distance, like the earth photographed from the moon. But from such a perspective, everything blurs into everything else. What would notions of happiness look like if seen up close? I would like to examine two such views located at what I have identified as the great turning point in the history of happiness, the Age of Enlightenment. More precisely, I want to explore two famous phrases: "We must cultivate our garden," offered by Voltaire as the conclusion to Candide (1759), and the right to "the pursuit of Happiness" proclaimed by Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. The effort, I hope, will shed light on that curiously quicksilver phenomenon known as "the American way of life."

The last line of Candide, "We must cultivate our garden," is the final remark in a philosophical discourse that accompanies a fast-moving, picaresque plot. Spoken by the chastened protagonist, it is meant to answer a question. But what was that question? None of the characters in the final chapter of the book ask Candide anything. They chatter past one another as they have done throughout the entire story. The question is provided by the story itself. In pursuing his true love, Cunegonde, from one adventure to another, Candide is pursuing happiness. How can happiness be found? That is the question posed by the novel, as by the entire French Enlightenment, and the answer can be reformulated as "Happiness lies in the cultivation of our garden."

Of the many glosses on the text, four stand out: Stoic withdrawal (by shutting themselves up in the garden, Candide and his companions turn their backs on politics); pastoral utopianism (the little society supports itself by farming, cutting itself off from commercial capitalism); secular salvation through work (everyone in the group labors hard, thereby staving off poverty, boredom and vice); and cultural engagement (cultivation means commitment to the cause of civilization). There is something to be said for each of these interpretations. Each fits the context of Voltaire's concerns in 1758 as he composed Candide: his quarrel with Frederick II; the horrors of the Seven Years War; the even more horrible disaster of the Lisbon earthquake; Voltaire's debate over the problem of evil with the followers of Leibniz and Wolff; and his recent decision to retire as a country gentleman to Les Délices, where he worked hard at creating a garden of his own.

The garden motif also summons up the Christian Utopia of Eden, a favorite target of Voltaire in his youth. As a freethinking man about town in Regency Paris, he celebrated the pleasures of high society or "le monde" and derided Christian asceticism. Thus, in his youthful credo, "Le Mondain," he mocked the barbarity of our mythical ancestors in a weedy, unkempt Garden. He pictured Adam as an ape-man dragging his knuckles on the ground and Eve as a foul-smelling slut with dirt under her fingernails. Instead of Eden, Voltaire celebrated the world of wit and beauty enjoyed by the rich and the well-born in "le monde." Happiness was not to be found in paradise but in Paris, not in the afterlife but in the here and now. "Terrestial paradise is where I am," concluded "Le Mondain." It was an Epicurean credo, flung in the face of the church, and it captured the spirit of salon society in the early 18th century. But it had nothing to say to most of humanity, which lived in misery outside the salons.

By 1758, Voltaire had seen more of the world. But he did not cease to delight in the good things of life. The last chapter of Candide includes a description of the hospitality offered by a philosophic Turk, whose little farm provides a model for Candide's: exquisite sorbet, a fine selection of fruits and nuts, "mocca coffee which was not mixed with the bad coffee of Batavia" (Voltaire was a coffee addict), courteous service by the two daughters of the host, and intelligent conversation. Candide had received the same kind of hospitality, though on a grander scale, from the philosopher-king of Eldorado, the Utopian society described in the middle of the novel. Voltaire himself offered it to visitors at Les Délices and later at Ferney. What distinguished this kind of good life from the Epicureanism advocated by the young Voltaire in "Le Mondain"?

The setting, for one thing. Candide settled his community at the eastern edge of European civilization, just as Voltaire established his estate at the eastern boundary of France, far from Paris and far from politics. "I never inform myself about what is going on in Constantinople," the philosophic Turk tells Candide. Of course, Voltaire worked hard to keep himself informed about intrigues in the French capital, but he had cut himself off from court life. He had withdrawn from "le monde," and he had changed his tone. A new note of anger and darkness crept into all his writing after he fled from Frederick II and Berlin. He found himself increasingly confronted with unhappiness - and, worse, evil.

Consider one of the unhappiest moments in Voltaire's life. It occurred in 1730. His beloved mistress, the great actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, suddenly died after playing the lead in his tragedy, Oedipe. Voltaire had sat by her bed in her last agony, and he may well have witnessed the unceremonious disposal of her corpse. Death struck Adrienne Lecouvreur before she had time to renounce her profession and receive Extreme Unction. As actors and actresses were excluded from the rites of the church, her body could not be buried in hallowed ground. Therefore, it was dumped in a ditch and covered with quicklime to speed its decomposition.

This obscene act obsessed Voltaire right up to the moment of his own death, when he feared that his body would receive the same treatment. It appears in some of his most impassioned poetry, in the Lettres philosophiques, and even in Candide. In chapter 22, Candide visits Paris and is told the story in all its horror. He then remarks: "That [was] very impolite." Not what we would expect by way of a comment on a barbarism that had set a lover's blood to boil.

But Voltaire filled the word "politeness" with a passion that may escape the 20th-century eye. The first characteristic Candide noticed among the inhabitants of the Utopian society of Eldorado was their "extreme politeness." He marveled at their good manners, elegant clothing, sumptuous housing, exquisite food, sophisticated conversation, refined taste, and superb wit. The king of Eldorado epitomized those qualities. Like the philosophic Turk at the end of the book, he "received them with all imaginable grace and invited them politely to supper." Utopia is above all a "société polie" or "policée," which amounts to the same thing.

The 18th-century notion of "police" could be translated roughly as rational administration. It belonged (conceptually, not etymologically) to a series of interlocking terms - poli, policé, politique - that extend from culture to politics. For Voltaire, the cultural system of the Old Regime shaded off into a power system, and the code of polite society belonged to the politics of enlightened absolutism.

The interpenetration of culture and politics is the main theme of Voltaire's most ambitious treatise, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751). This was a crucial work for 18th-century writers, a book that defined the literary system of the Old Regime and that created literary history in France. In it, Voltaire effectively argued that all history is literary history. Kings, queens, and generals do not count in the long run, although they attract most of the attention of their contemporaries and occupy a good deal of Voltaire's narrative. What matters above all is civilization. So, of the four "happy" ages in the history of mankind, the happiest of all was the age of Louis XIV, when French literature reached its zenith and the politeness ("la politesse et l'esprit de société") of the French court set a standard for all of Europe.

By civilization, Voltaire meant the moving force in history, a combination of aesthetic and social elements, manners and mores ("moeurs"), which pushes society toward the ideal of Eldorado, a state in which men are perfectly "polis" and "policés." So Voltaire understood politesse as power, and he saw an essential connection between classical French literature and the absolutism of the French state under Louis XIV. This argument underlies the key episodes of Le Siècle de Louis XIV. Louis masters the French language by studying the works of Corneille, he controls the court by staging plays, and he dominates the kingdom by turning the court itself into an exemplary theatre. That idea may be a cliché now, but Voltaire invented it. He saw power as performance: the acting out of a cultural code. This code spread from Versailles to Paris, to the provinces, and to the rest of Europe. Voltaire does not deny the importance of armies, but he interprets the supremacy of Louis XIV as ultimately a matter of cultural hegemony. The script for his court tour de force was written by Molière, whom Voltaire describes both as a "philosophe" and as "the legislator of the code of conduct in polite society" ("le législateur des bienséances du monde.")

However anachronistic and inaccurate, this view of history conveys something more than the chase after the good things in life in "Le Mondain." It conveys direction, purpose, power - something akin to the "civilizing process" of Norbert Elias. It also demotes kings and puts philosophes in their place as the true masters of history, and it makes the historical process look progressive - uneven, to be sure, but one in which barbarism retreats before the forces of politeness.

Candide finally joins those forces. He becomes a philosophe - not a false philosopher, like his tutor Pangloss, but a true one, who opts for engagement instead of withdrawal. His pursuit of happiness, in the person of Cunegonde, does not lead to a happy ending. When he finally marries her, she has become ugly and disagreeable. But the pursuit has taught him to commit him- self to something more substantial: polite society, or the process of civilization.

"The pursuit of Happiness" is even more familiar to Americans than "We must cultivate our garden" is to the French. It is the most memorable phrase in the American Declaration of Independence, the rhetorical climax to Thomas Jefferson's enunciation of natural rights and revolutionary theory: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." What did Jefferson mean by "the pursuit of Happiness?" And what does his meaning have to do with a subject that belongs to the history of mentalities - namely, "the American way of life"?

Analysts of political discourse often determine meaning by showing what is not said as well as what is said. "Life, liberty, and property" was the standard formula in the political debates of the English-speaking world during the 17th and 18th centuries. In substituting "the pursuit of Happiness" for property, the Declaration of Independence deviated significantly from other founding charters - the Petition of Right and the Declaration of Rights connected with the English revolutions of 1640 and 1688, for example, and the declarations of the American Stamp Act Congress of 1765 as well as the First Continental Congress of 1774. If "the pursuit of Happiness" is to be viewed as a speech act, its meaning must consist, at least in part, in an implicit comparison with the right of property. By omitting property from his phrasing, did Jefferson reveal himself to be a secret socialist? Can Americans cite him today in order to legitimate demands for social welfare legislation and to oppose the advocates of minimal, laissez-faire government?

Before tearing Jefferson out of the 18th century and plunging him into the midst of our own ideological quarrels, it would be wise to ask how "happiness" resonated in the context of his time. As a philosophically minded lawyer, he had a thorough knowledge of the natural law tradition, which went back to Plato and Aristotle and was formulated for the law students of his generation by Locke, Pufendorf, Burlamaqui, and Blackstone. The most important of these was Locke. (Jefferson had a personal distaste for Blackstone's Commentaries.) In fact, Locke was so important that many scholars have considered him the grandfather of the American Declaration of Independence, which advanced a contractual theory of government that seemed to come straight out of his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690).

The Second Treatise certainly provides grounds for asserting a right to revolution if the government violates its contractual obligations to the citizenry. But a right to happiness? Locke kept to the usual trinity - "life, liberty, and property." In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), however, he stretched "property" into "lives, liberties, and estates," and then went on to talk of "that property which men have in their persons as well as goods." In doing so, he shifted ground from law to psychology. Property in one's person implied the liberty to develop the self, and self-development for Locke was an epistemological process. It took place when men combined and reflected on sensations, the primary signals of pleasure and pain, according to the procedure described in the Essay. Thus, the sensationalism of Locke's epistemology could be combined with the natural rights of his political theory in a way that would open the road to the right to happiness. In short, Locke, too, was a philosopher of happiness. He said so himself: "As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness is the necessary foundation of our liberty."

But Jefferson did not need to combine passages from the two John Lockes, the Locke of the Second Treatise and the Locke of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, because the work had already been done for him by his friend George Mason. Mason was the one who did the most to stretch "property" into "happiness" in the philosophical deliberations of Virginia's radical squierarchy. Like Jefferson, Mason had a library packed with the works of philosophers, ancient and modern, in Gunston Hall, his country estate. Having worked through this material while participating in the agitation over the Stamp Act, Mason drafted a series of manifestos about representative government and natural rights. He discussed them with like-minded country gentlemen - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry - around dinner tables and through correspondence. He debated them in free-holder meetings, held in the brick courthouse of Fairfax County, in 1774 and 1775.

Then, in May 1776, the Virginians met at Williamsburg and declared themselves independent of Great Britain. Mason provided the philosophic justification for this revolutionary step by drafting a "Declaration of Rights," which included the phrase: "All men are created equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights . . . among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." Mason's wording runs exactly parallel to the famous phrase that Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence a month later. It suggests that happiness is not opposed to property but is an extension of it. Jefferson made no pretense to originality. He described his statement of principles as the mere "common sense of the subject." And a half-century later, when he discussed the Declaration of Independence in a letter to James Madison, he explained further: "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind."

"Common sense" and "the American mind" - we are entering territory the French call "the history of mentalities," and which I would prefer to describe as anthropological history. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz has analyzed common sense as a "cultural system" - that is, as an admixture of attitudes, values, and cognitive schemata that ordinary people use to make sense of the world. Ordinary people, not philosophers. True, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, and their crowd look like American-style philosophes. And when compared with today's statesmen, they look like giants. But they were also Virginia farmers who inhabited a common-sense world of tobacco plantations, Georgian manor houses, Episcopal churches, county courts, taverns, horse races, and (let us not forget it) slavery. The plantations kept them separated from one another in semiautonomous units ordered according to patriarchal principles. The churches and courthouses drew them together in settings that reinforced the social hierarchy. The taverns and horse races gave them a chance to vent their passions and strut their status. And the slavery indicated the limitations of statements such as "all men are created equal."

This contradiction did not weigh too heavily with men who thought of themselves as successors to the slave-holding patricians of Augustan Rome. Their libraries confirmed the message of their larders. The classicism of their education echoed the classical architecture of their houses. Cicero and Seneca rang true, because they conformed with the values of order and hierarchy given off by the everyday surroundings in Virginia. So did Locke, the spokesman of a Whig aristocracy aligned against an alien, absolutist monarchy. In short, the philosophizing fit the social environment, not as an ideological afterthought but as the reflective gentleman's way of making sense of what his common sense already proclaimed. "Sense" in this respect belonged to what Max Weber called "Sinnzusammenhang," or "elective affinities": it was a way of ordering reality.

How did the Virginians describe reality in more casual moments, when they were not composing theoretical manifestos? Here is Jefferson again, writing from his country estate in 1810:

I am retired to Monticello, where, in the bosom of my family, and surrounded by my books, I enjoy a repose to which I have been long a stranger. My mornings are devoted to correspondence. From breakfast to dinner, I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms; from dinner to dark, I give to society and recreation with my neighbors and friends; and from candle light to early bedtime, I read. My health is perfect; and my strength considerably reinforced by the activity of the course I pursue. ... I talk of ploughs and harrows, of seeding and harvesting, with my neighbors, and of politics too, if they choose, with as little reserve as the rest of my fellow citizens, and feel, at length, the blessing of being free to say and do what I please.

This is happiness, something embedded in the daily course of life. It is an American way of life - but closer to Horace and Virgil than to the America of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.

Also, it should be added, the Horatian glow dimmed during the next 16 years, a period when Monticello nearly collapsed into bankruptcy and its master felt increasingly alienated from the Jacksonian variety of politics, a speculative surge of capitalism, and an evangelical revival of religion. By cultivating his garden in Monticello, Jefferson withdrew from the world - unlike Voltaire, who used Ferney as a fortress for conquering it.

If Jefferson himself found an increasing disparity between his ideals of the 1770s and the realities of the 1820s, how did Americans see any continuity at all between his way of life and theirs during the next century-and-a-half? Horatian Jeffersonianism and industrial capitalism seem so far apart that one would think they have nothing in common. Yet they are bound together by a common thread: the pursuit of happiness.

As the intellectual historian Howard Mumford Jones has shown, that theme provides one of the leitmotifs of American jurisprudence. If, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, I have a right to happiness, shouldn't the courts enforce it? Unfortunately, the Declaration of Independence did not become part of constitutional law, except as it was rewritten in the form of the Bill of Rights, and the Bill of Rights does not mention happiness. The state constitutions, however, do. Two-thirds of them have adopted some variant of Jefferson's phrase. So for more than a century Americans have gone to court, suing their authorities and one another over a right they believe belongs to them by fundamental law. They have claimed the right to happiness in order to set up massage parlors, sell contraceptives, and smoke opium. They have rarely succeeded, but their attempts indicate the prevalence of a general attitude - that the pursuit of happiness is a basic ingredient of the American way of life.

Of course, a great deal besides constitutional law went into this cultural pattern. The open frontier, the availability of land, the gold rush, the seemingly endless opportunities for getting rich and getting ahead - all oriented values around the notion of happiness in the 19th century. In each case, happiness appeared as something to be pursued, not something showered down from heaven; and the pursuit often led westward. In this respect, the Jeffersonian ideal also provided a jumping-off point, because the agrarian, yeoman democracy favored by Jefferson provided the ideological impulse for the conquest of the frontier. In the Northwest Territory Act and the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson himself tried to shape the settlement of the West in a way that would perpetuate the society of farmer- philosophes he had known in Virginia. Horace Greeley and other publicists echoed this idea when they proclaimed, "Go West, young man!"

The real impulse, however, was money, money and land, the chance to get rich quick. The gold rush precipitated a general Drang nach Westen. Ever since 1848, it has seemed that the whole country has tried to move to California. I am exaggerating, of course, because the great waves of immigrants who were carried across the Atlantic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries generally washed onto the East Coast and emptied themselves in the slums between Boston and Baltimore. Many of the poor from Kiev and Naples never got farther west than the East Side of Manhattan, although their descendants usually crossed the Hudson and settled in the suburbs of New Jersey - not exactly in Jeffersonian freeholds but on their own plots of land, in houses with gardens and white picket fences, which turned into the new version of the American dream. To such people, America really was the land of opportunity, even if it took two generations to extricate themselves from the slums, even if suburbia was a far cry from the Oregon Trail.

Thus did the Jeffersonian vision become transformed into the American dream, a vision that was basically materialistic but that inflamed imaginations throughout the Old World, where millions struggled to get out and to get ahead. The dream is still alive today, although the immigrants generally come from Latin America and settle in Miami, Houston, and Los Angeles. But its realization remains an elusive goal to many African Americans, whose ancestors - who did the work on Jefferson's plantation - were legally excluded from its pursuit and who provided a living witness to the tragic flaw in the American dream.

That did not prevent the dream from gathering more force in the second half of the 20th century. Technology seemed to bring happiness within the reach of nearly everyone, because it provided the means of controlling the environment, of enjoying pleasure and mitigating pain. The point may be so obvious that we cannot see it, because we have become insulated from the pains of everyday life that existed in the age of Jefferson. If I may provide a homely example, I would cite George Washington's teeth. Washington had terrible teeth. He lost them, one by one, and finally acquired a full set of false teeth, made of bone, lead, and gold. The "Father of Our Country" and the toothache - it seems incongruous, but having read thousands of letters from the 18th century, I often think of the dread of rotting teeth, the horror of the itinerant tooth puller, the sheer pain in jaws every- where in the early modern world. Dentistry may not look like a particularly noble calling, but it has weighed heavier than many professions in the hedonistic calculus we have inherited from Epicurus and Jeremy Bentham.

To dentistry, add medicine in general, vaccination, public hygiene, contraception, insurance, retirement benefits, unemployment compensation, lightning rods, central heating, air conditioning ... the list could go on forever, because it leads through the endless array of goods we associate with the so-called consumer society and the services we expect of the "welfare state." I know that these are hard times for millions of Americans and that my remarks may sound hollow. But I have spent so much time in the 18th century that I cannot fail to be impressed with how much control man has gained over his environment in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The pursuit of happiness in America has spilled over from science and technology into popular culture, a favorite subject for historians of mentality. The most exotic varieties bloom in southern California: hot tubs, "perfect" waves, "deep" massage, fat farms, love clinics, and therapy of every conceivable kind, not to mention the happy endings that still prevail in Hollywood. This kind of popular culture can easily be caricatured, but it cannot be dismissed easily, because it has spread throughout the country and now the world. One encounters the face of "Joe Happy" - a circle with a smile in it - everywhere: pasted on windows, pinned in buttonholes, even, I have found, dotting the i's in students' papers. Along with the current greeting - "have a nice day" - it expresses the thumbs-up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed form of public behavior that can be so annoying to Europeans, who prefer the limp handshake, the down-at- the-mouth Gauloise, and the café slouch as a style of self-presentation.

Of course, many other strains run through the patterns of culture in everyday America, and many run counter to the pursuit of happiness. In order to situate the motif of happiness within the pattern as a whole, it is important to keep three considerations in mind. First, America has always contained a vocal minority of cockeyed pessimists. The American jeremiad arrived on the Mayflower, along with sermonizing about the "City on a Hill," or colony of saints. While Thomas Jefferson expanded on Locke, Jonathan Edwards defined happiness as follows:

The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. It will not only make them more sensible of the greatness and freeness of the grace of God in their happiness; but it will really make their happiness the greater, as it will make them more sensible of their own happiness; it will give them a more lively relish of it.

Americans have been avid consumers of anti-utopian literature: 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and dark varieties of science fiction. They also have produced a vast amount of pessimistic literature, from Hawthorne and Melville to T. S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Updike. The Civil War, the closing of the frontier, the Great Depression, the Beat generation, and the antiwar activists of the 1960s represented so many stages of disillusionment with the American dream. Most young people today feel they live in a world of limited resources rather than unlimited opportunity. Public opinion polls indicate that they do not expect to do better than their parents. If they no longer worry about a nuclear catastrophe and the Cold War, they sense economic contraction and ecological disaster everywhere. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, many of them feel angry - at the government and at the world in general, for AIDS represents the ultimate denial of the pursuit of happiness as a way of life.

Second, those who continue to believe in happiness as an end often pursue it with an earnestness that looks self-contradictory. They take up extreme forms of asceticism. They diet, they jog, they lift weights, they deprive themselves of tobacco, meat, butter, and all the pleasures that Falstaff categorized under the rubric "cakes and ale." To what end? To live forever? Aging has now become a major industry in America, and the American way of life has evolved into the American way of death - that is, the subculture of funeral "homes" and pastoral cemeteries that dress death up so prettily as to deny it. But most of America's worldly ascetics have transformed the old Protestant ethic into a new cult of the self. Self magazine, the "me generation," and the appeals to building a better body and developing a more assertive or better-balanced personality all express a general egoism that looks like the opposite of the Stoical and Puritanical varieties of self-discipline  practiced by the Founding Fathers.

Egocentric asceticism brings us to the third point, John Kenneth Galbraith's characterization of the American way of life as "private wealth and public squalor." Despite food stamps and Social Security, the welfare state never made much headway in the United States. True, the national parks and some of the state systems of higher education opened the door to happiness for many millions. But the consumer culture (we do not have a national sales tax) and the cult of rugged individualism (we do not stand in line at bus stops) stood in the way of state-sponsored projects to assure a minimal degree of happiness for the entire population.

Roosevelt's New Deal, launched to the tune of "Happy Days Are Here Again," provided no answer to the problems of poverty and racism. Those problems continue to fester at the center of our cities, while individuals pursue their personal welfare in the private enclosures of our suburbs. It is, I believe, a national disgrace, but it is also a general problem - one that goes back to the opposition between the private and the public varieties of happiness that were incarnated in Voltaire and Rousseau, and back even further to the Epicureans and the traditions of antiquity. While remaining rooted in the Jeffersonian tradition, the American pursuit of happiness shares promises and problems that have characterized Western civilization in general.

What to make of it all? The leitmotifs in patterns of culture do not lead to bottom lines, so I will not try to end with a firm conclusion. Instead, let me cite two examples of the pursuit of happiness I recently came upon. The first expresses the technical, commercial, and individualistic strain. Dr. Raymond West announced a couple of years ago that "happiness is a warm stethoscope," and offered a new invention to an astonished world: a stethoscope warmer, which would make health checkups more pleasurable and abolish forever the unpleasurable sensation of "ice cubes on the back."

The second example is less trivial. It expresses the collective end of the American republic as it was originally defined by Thomas Jefferson, and it comes from the inaugural address President Clinton delivered in January 1993: When our founders boldly declared America's independence to the world and our purposes to the Almighty, they knew that America, to endure, would have to change. Not change for change's sake, but change to preserve America's ideals - life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Noble words. But Clinton would do well to think of Washington as well as Jefferson - Washington the statesman and Washington the victim of tooth decay. Imagine Washington sitting down to a banquet in Candide's garden. If we are ever to bring together the two ways of pursuing happiness, the individual and the social, we should follow Washington's example, set our jaws firmly, grit our teeth, tuck in, and dedicate ourselves to the public welfare. Such, at least, is the view of one American at a moment when the welfare state looks as beleaguered as Monticello.

Source: The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 19, No. 4 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 42-52