The Virtue of the Wise: The Relationship Between Wisdom and Morality
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Baron, Adam Samuel
In this paper, I mean to examine the relationship between wisdom and morality within the basic framework of neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics. Roughly speaking, I mean to question whether a ‘wiser’ person is, necessarily, a more ‘moral’ one. In contemporary Virtue Ethics, using the work of Rosalind Hursthouse as something of a standard view, I take her to conceive of a ‘moral’ person and a ‘perfectly virtuous’ person as roughly equivalent, or at least a ‘perfectly virtuous’ person as being a paragon of the measure of what it is to be moral. Given wisdom’s role in determining virtue, this is an assumption with which I mean to take issue. In doing so, I conceive of wisdom as having two standards: what I would like to refer to as the normative (that concerned with right and wrong) and the evaluative (that concerned with good and bad). This distinction has precedence in other, albeit slightly conflicting, forms. My main discussion of the distinction between right and good is drawn from that of W.D. Ross, who takes ‘right’ to refer primarily to actions, with ‘good’ more specifically referring to the action’s outcomes and motives. While following Ross’s general principles, I am struck by Hursthouse’s insistence that wisdom is directed towards that which is ‘good’ as opposed to that which is ‘right’ while it is clear, in the context of virtue ethics, that wisdom is meant to serve as a guidance of action and would thus be, by Ross’s distinction, geared towards the ‘right’. I am inclined to agree with Hursthouse insofar as I will argue that wisdom is directed both towards actions and the good, in the sense that an action of a particular agent given a certain circumstance can be good or bad, better or worse. But moving beyond that, I discuss why it is that theories of morality that focus on actions, which virtue ethics very consciously says it does not do, have often appeared insufficient to account for our full understanding of moral behavior. My argument is that, through her use of the construction of “the virtuous agent” as her moral exemplar and insistence on the Aristotelian application of the term ‘virtuous’ to mean perfectly virtuous, Hursthouse, along with other contemporary virtue ethicists, has inextricably, and I would like to think mistakenly, linked the achievement of wisdom (that which is concerned with the good) with one’s moral status (that which is concerned with the right). If to be fully virtuous is to truly possess phronesis which allows one to be so, and to be fully virtuous is to be the height of moral achievement, then her argument would necessitate that one cannot be perfectly morally upstanding, i.e. do the right thing, without possessing phronesis. At the very least, I read Hursthouse as taking it for granted that the wiser a person, the more close they attain to perfect virtue, the more moral they are. Instead, I would like to propose that wisdom serves a different purpose, one that is more intrapersonal rather than interpersonal. I would like to argue that, as opposed to wisdom serving as a measure between individuals as to who has more and is thus capable of making more virtuous (moral) decisions, wisdom serves as an internal arbiter which, according to the level one possesses, provides a certain breadth of options at one’s disposal in one’s attempts to adhere to the dictates of virtue. Wisdom directs one towards good or bad ends, decisions, actions, reactions, all of which can be better or worse than another individual’s; wisdom does not, on its own, direct one towards that which is right, the normative best that one is capable of achieving, and so it does not seem that it can be so directly linked with one’s moral status. Alternatively to Hursthouse’s formulation, I would suggest that an individual’s moral motivation lies in his ability to act in accordance with the dictates of virtue as he sees it, given the individual’s present level of wisdom. The second of Hursthouse’s core principles for ‘right’ action is that the agent must know what she is doing (in that she should fully understand why she is doing it) in order for it to be right; if, however, she does not fully understand why she should undertake an action, say one that she is told is the one that the ‘virtuous agent’ would pursue, then that action cannot be right for that agent. It should be recognized that individuals possess varying capacities for wisdom but that that fact alone should not preclude any particular individual from enjoying the possibility of attaining a fully moral character because they are incapable of attaining the epitome of phronesis. It is perhaps true that a wiser person can make an evaluatively ‘better’ decision than a simpler person, but this does not necessarily equate to a more moral decision. It can be countered that this approach relies too heavily on an individual’s own conception of virtue, no matter how bizarre or uncultivated it might be. To this, I will argue that this approach assumes, like Hursthouses’s own account, that an individual has done what can be done to foster his or her capacity for wisdom such as it is, and that the agent’s overriding, discernible motive for action is to live and act in accordance with her present understanding of the harmony of virtues, the way in which the values and relevance of the myriad virtues come into play in any given situation. This last point goes towards distinguishing action from virtue as opposed to action from mere principle. In this way, I hope to show that one’s moral motivation, one’s status as a fully moral being, is not directly tied to the achievement of perfect virtue but instead that one is fulfilling one’s moral obligations when taking actions that are, to the best of the agent’s present understanding, consistent with the dictates of virtue. A wiser person may be capable of making evaluatively better actions, but perhaps not normatively more correct ones.