By Gilbert Meilaender, Science of Virtues ScholarValparaiso University
In order to think about the possibility of a science of
virtues, we must, of course, reflect on what we mean by virtue. In the simplest sense virtues are
dispositions to act in certain morally good ways. Thus, a courageous person is disposed to face danger without
fleeing, and we would be hesitant to characterize as courageous someone who
runs away from danger. Yet,
strangely enough, a person characterized by courage might in some circumstances
flee from danger without causing us to doubt that he possessed the virtue. Although fleeing is not itself a
courageous act, the one who flees might nonetheless have the virtue. And, on the other hand, a person who
lacked the virtue of courage might on occasion face danger without
fleeing. Sometimes, therefore, we
will discover no perfect fit between virtuous character and a disposition to
act in specific ways.
little better characterization of virtues is to think of them as something like
skills that we acquire through habituation. The pitcher who throws a low strike over the outside corner
of the plate may just be lucky.
If, however, he can do it time after time--habitually--he has acquired a
skill. Virtues are something like
that, though also a bit different.
They are not simply skills that, like technical competence, enable us to
carry out a particular task with proficiency; rather, they are skills that fit
us for life generally. Acquiring
virtues is more like learning to drive a car than it is like merely being able
to parallel park. Driving requires
a capacity to respond in fitting ways to countless circumstances that arise
along the way, not just the ability to carry out a single maneuver.
account of virtues as something like skills more closely approximates a
reasonable description of what we mean by virtue, but even habituation cannot
be the complete story. It is hard
for a pitcher to become skilled, because throwing that low, outside strike is
inherently difficult, no matter how badly he wants to throw it. In virtuous action, however, much of
the difficulty may come precisely from what we want, from our own contrary
inclinations. If I deliberately
throw a pitch outside the strike zone, that does not mean I lack the capacity
to throw a strike. But if I
deliberately cheat the opposing team, I seem to lack a certain virtue. Thus, virtues are not only habitual;
they also, as Philippa Foot put it, engage the will in a way that skills do
should not pit habit and will against each other, however. If time after time I willfully cheat
the opposing team, a day may come when I do so habitually--and can no longer
find my way back to virtuous behavior.
then, we should say that, as skills engaging the will, virtues are traits of
character that shape who we are and what we see. Virtue and vision will be inextricably intertwined. As Stanley Hauerwas once put it, “as
persons of character we do not confront situations as mud puddles into which we
have to step; rather the kind of ‘situations’ we confront and how we understand
them are a function of the kind of people we are.”[ii] On the one hand, our vision of human
flourishing will be shaped by the virtues or vices that mark our
character. On the other, we will
regard as virtuous only those traits that help to form a life we think
praiseworthy. There is no
normatively neutral ground to be found here.
then, a simple question at the heart of my own project, a question that becomes
more rather than less puzzling the longer I think about it: Should we devote our energy and
resources to work that aims to retard human aging and to extend indefinitely
the maximum life span of human beings?
Vision and virtue will intertwine as we puzzle over such a
question. If we are formed by
virtues such as patience, hope, and love, how will they shape our sense of what
goals are worth seeking? And will
not our vision of what constitutes a flourishing human life help, in turn, to
determine whether we think such traits are virtues or vices?
Foot, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays
in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp.
Hauerwas, A Community of Character
(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 114f.
So, I've been thinking a good deal about the questions you raised in your excellent presentation in Chicago two weeks ago, Gil. Specifically, I been mentally searching for one single example in any piece of (fiction) literature where immortality is considered a good (and/or virtuous) thing. I simply cannot find it--perhaps others might. In the meantime, an interesting exchange happened between me and my 13-year-old son at home. I only really watch one television show with the kids (and only Ian knows what that is :-), but Tate suggested that I watch "The Event" with him last week "because it's really a pretty good show, Mom." How could I refuse? For those of you not familiar with the plot (and I am assuming that is--like me--most of you), this show is about a group of aliens who come to Earth because our planet's life-sustaining systems are so similar to their own. Now, on their planet, these aliens age; but an interesting phenomenon occurs when they hit Earth--they stop aging. So, whatever ages they were when they left their planet become their ages for, presumably, all of eternity--or until they return to their home planet or die here.
This, as you can imagine, sets up some really interesting philosophical conundrums: What exactly is the perfect age to become immortal? If we could, as Gil put it, have just one more day, what "day" would that be? And if we are capable of defying death and extending the end of life, do we really just want to extend the aging process forever? (For those of you who have walked with family or friends through this sometimes debilitating and discouraging process to the very end, I believe you would emphatically say "No!") We also need to be cautious that we are not confounding immortality with invincibility (which the producers of this show have carefully achieved). That is, just because we could live forever, this would not necessarily mean that we might not die of other causes--like a gunshot wound. The characters in "The Event" are vincible yet immortal; those in Natalie Babbit's Tuck Everlasting never die and cannot be killed. This is rare; even immortal vampires can be "killed," although it takes a good deal of effort (most authors use dismemberment and fire). Yikes! Who wants to go that way?!
Still more questions arise: Will everyone live forever, or just a select few? Who will control these choices? We all can imagine situations where this kind of power could be devastating to all of humanity (indeed, on "The Event," the immortal aliens may bring the end of Earthly humanity). Still other questions are out there, but I've gone on long enough. I do think that those of us in the ivory tower need to pay close attention to what people in the "real world" are doing with these topics, and literature, film, and television can help us obtain a glimpse into the philosophical musings of others.
Clearly I'm still not convinced that there is no selfish ambition in our quest for immortality. I do believe this is, at its heart, a theological issue of faith and the question of spiritual eternity. But perhaps, Gil, you could pick that up. I don't think we need aliens, though, to convince us that immortality is not a good thing; we've amassed ample evidence all by ourselves.
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