Virtue & Existentialism summaries

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy 130 – Ethics (Spring 2003)

Virtue & Existentialism summaries

[Students and professors, please read.]

On reasoning:  we form, maintain, and compare value-/ethics-systems BECAUSE we have reasoning.  If we care that our ethical systems make sense, we must employ all of our reason-effort into scrutinizing those systems.  Plato might have said those systems must reflect a well-balanced tripartite soul (reason/appetites/willpower–they must be well-balanced tripartite systems).

Summary Chapter 8:  Socrates/Plato

Sim between Plato & Aristotle: temperance, reason (reason also in common with Kant).

Combining virtue & conduct:

“‘(D)oing the right thing’ doesn’t guarantee that you are a good person with a good character.  However, if you strive to develop a good character . . . then, on the basis of this character trait, you will automatically make the right decisions about what to do…” — “For Kant, a good character in the form of a good will (virtuous disposition), a fundamental respect for other people and respect for the nature of the moral law itself, is essential to the moral decision process,” (p. 326).  So… we are responsible not only for our individual choices, but for our developed character, which develops with every choice we make, and which also influences the choices we will make.  We choose (and change) our disposition by choosing (and changing) the behavior we practice.  Aristotle would agree:  “…the act must be done on a regular basis, as an expression of the kind of person we strive to be.  In other words, we have to acquire some good habits.  This means we can’t hope to be virtuous overnight–it takes time to mold ourselves into morally good people, just as it takes time to learn to play a musical instrument well,” (p. 376).

Summary Chapter 9:  Aristotle

Aristotle’s virtue theory reflects that right action depends on the situation–a virtuous person will reason out the Golden Mean in/for each unique situation.

Criticism:  Virtue theory doesn’t solve conflicts between two virtuous people (answer:  “But labeling Aristotle an ethical relativist is wrong.  He never states that morals are completely culture-dependent or that each social group determines what counts as their moral code.  On the contrary, Aristotle is quite adamant about virtues having a rock-bottom value for each situation; it is just that situations may differ, and one may be called upon to do more in one context than in another,” (380).

Conflict: with Christianity / attaining virtue through faithfully following divine commands vs. attaining virtue through using own reason, 383 (ironic twist:  natural law implies divine and human reason are the same type of rationality, and so God and commands accessible through individual reason, 344).  I would say the conflict here is with the fundie, not Aristotle.

Problems with teleology:  It could be said that (rather than basing virtue on what we do best) Socrates/Plato/Aristotle assumed our purpose is based on how humans are unique from (most) other living beings–we are unique in that we can reason–but is that the only defining way in which we are unique (or, for that matter, is it the only defining thing we do best?)?  But to say that to reason is our purpose–isn’t that like saying we are a tool, and so must perform our function?  Just because we are capable of a function, or capable of excelling at a function, or unique in our ability in that function, does not mean that function defines us or gives us a set purpose–not to mention, things can change–there may be something even greater than human reason.  Or maybe “not thinking” is a virtue?  Or–are we condemned to be free (or to think)…and therefore…”not thinking” (just as “not choosing”) is bad faith?

Summary Chapter 10:  Authenticity

Good Intentions Matter:

Mayo:  still possible to “do your duty” and be a bad person (405).
Me:  are you acting out of duty/respect, or with evil intentions?  Is a person with bad character capable of acting with good intentions, is a person with good character capable of acting with evil intentions?…does one evil-intentioned act make a person evil? …does one good-intentioned act make a person good?  What purpose is served by pointing out it is possible to have good intentions even though you have bad character?  Doesn’t that kick someone when they are down, so to speak, and sort of discourage them from even considering good intentions?…as if to imply they’ll always have bad character, that a good intention for them is surely a rare thing?  I would think it would be more useful to say, it is possible to be a good person and act with evil intentions–keeps people on their toes.
Kant:  duty to / respect for cat. imp. implies good will/character/virtue.  Keep practicing at it, develop higher virtue.  “An act or a disposition can’t be called good if it isn’t backed by a good will,” (408).
Foot agrees:  motivation/intention determines whether act/trait is virtuous.  “…if the intentions behind the act are bad, then cool-headedness and courage cease to be virtues. … The ‘virtue’ value is simply switched off when the good intention is absent.”

Good Character & Rules of Conduct:  Lack of Temptation vs. Self Control (cont.)

“For Kant the person who makes the effort to overcome his or her inclination is a morally better person than the one to whom virtue comes easily,” (408).  “True virtue, say Kant’s followers, shows itself precisely in the face of temptation – and not in its absence. … (S)omeone who wouldn’t cheat his or her customer’s because of a sunny disposition toward them is really just doing what he or she wants, out of self-gratification (inclination), not out of principles,” (409).  Remember–what if the storekeeper stopped liking the customers (his or her inclination changed)?  I think this should be reworded to explain that, if one is just going with their inclination (whether or not it serves some utility), rather than taking the cat. imp. into consideration, then, according to Kant, one is not considering the moral implications of their actions (has no respectful duty to include it in their reasoning, if they even use reasoning), which Kant would see as lacking a virtuous disposition (as would Plato/Socrates/Aristotle, as they also valued reason).  I would also point out that virtue doesn’t come easy until (if ever it does come easy) after you have practiced, practiced, practiced using reason, and gotten good at it (like learning how to drive).  During that practicing period, when it still requires effort, when you feel clumsy at it, when temptation to neglect reason (or give up learning to drive) is still an issue…it is counterproductive to beat yourself up about not having reached the goal of Virtue (about not being a good driver)–instead, give yourself credit for being on your way to the goal.

“Aristotle, however, believed that the person who takes pleasure in doing a virtuous action is the one who is truly virtuous. … the fact that there is struggle is a sign that the person is lacking in virtue in the first place,” (408).  Aristotle must be saying that since virtue, a rational character, is developed by using your reason (something Kant would agree with, as he considered virtue a respectful sense of duty to the cat. imp., which values logical reasoning)–then any temptation to neglect using your reason (Plato:  let your appetites win, Kant: ignore cat. imp., Driver’s Ed. Teacher:  rely on short-cuts in your technique) is unreasonable and therefore lacking in virtue (not a very good driver), because a characteristically reasonable, virtuous person (good driver) would never be tempted to neglect using their reason (forget how to drive).  I don’t think Kant would disagree.  It’s nothing to fret over–just keep practicing (go to traffic school).   :-)

Existentialism and the Quest for Authenticity

Kierk’s Religious Authenticity:

On Angst:  “Kierkegaard believed that everyone, even a child, has intimate knowledge of what anguish feels like; he believed that you feel dread or anguish when you look into the future–you dread it because you realize you must make choices,” (417).

Kierkegaard believed truth is subjective, but he didn’t believe in cognitive relativism.  “There is no objective truth about life, only a personal truth, which will be a little bit different for each individual,” (417).  To him, the personal truth is what matters–“Subjectivity is Truth” were his actual words.

“This is the ultimate meaning of life and the ultimate virtue:  to become an authentic human being by finding your own meaning,” (417)–as opposed to taking someone else’s word for it, or going by what you were raised with.

Three Stages to Authenticity:

1.  aesthetic stage/sensuous enjoyment (wants to enjoy the world of the senses).

2.  ethical stage (wants to be good by following social conventions).

3.  leap of faith/religious stage (leaves standards of society behind, leaves reason behind– trusts God).


Husserl–phenomenology  (influenced many philosophers)–“Its main thesis is that there is no such thing as a consciousness that is empty at first and then proceeds to order and analyze the objects of sense experience; instead, our mind is already engaged in the process of experiencing the world from day one.  We can’t separate the concepts of the experiencing mind and the experience of the mind, and, because it is impossible for philosophy to say anything about a nonexperiencing mind and the unexperienced object-world, phenomenology sees its primary task as describing, as clearly as possible, the phenomenon of experience itself,” (421).

Heidegger’s Intellectual Authenticity

“There is no such thing as a person who is distinct from his or her world of experience — we are our world of experience. … Humans are there for themselves; they are aware of their existence and of certain essential facts about that existence, such as their own mortality,” (420.)

When “The They” (Das Man) do the thinking for us; we objectify ourselves–this is inauthentic.  “According to Heidegger, we often refer to what ‘They’ say, as if the opinion of those anonymous others has some obvious authority.  We bow to what ‘They’ say and believe we are safe from harm and responsibility if we can get absorbed by this ubiquitous ‘They’ and don’t have to think on our own.  In other words, we try to take on the safe and nonthinking existence-form of things–we objectify ourselves. … Humans can’t just become things, because we are the ones who understand the relationship between ourselves and things. … In the end, humans are different because we can ask, What is it for? and understand the interconnections of the world we live in,” (421).
“We may pretend to be nothing but victims of circumstance, … but we also can choose to realize that we interact with our world and affect it,” (422).

“…we are always engaged in something (the state of being engaged in something Heidegger called care–Sorge).  Sometimes this involves caring for others, but mostly it involves engaging in our own existence:  We fret, we worry, we look forward to something … We are always engaged in some part of our reality, unless we get caught up in another deeper element of human nature:  a mood, such as dread or anguish–Angst,” (422).

On Angst:  “It does not involve fear of something in particular; it is, rather, the unpleasant and sometimes terrifying insecurity of not knowing where you stand in life and eventually having to make a choice–perhaps with little or no information about your options … You realize that all your concerns and all the rules you live by are relative, in the deepest sense; you realize that you have viewed the world a certain way, within a certain frame, and now for some reason the frame is breaking up,” (422).

“Being authentic means, for Heidegger, that you stop being absorbed in your doings and retain an attitude that ‘things may mean something else than what I expect.’ … forcing yourself to realize that reality is in flux, that things change, including yourself, and that you are part of a world of changing relationships.  And this causes angst, because this means you have to give up your anchors and security zones as a matter of principle.  In the end, angst becomes a liberating element that can give a new and perhaps better understanding of ourselves and the world, but it is hard to deal with while we are in the midst of it,” (423).

Sartre’s Ethical Authenticity

“Instead of saying, as many other atheists did, that we can find our values in our own human context and rationality, Sartre held that without the existence of a God, there are no values, in the sense that there are no objective values. … we must realize that because no values exist outside ourselves, we, as individuals in a community, become the source of values,” (424).  “Whatever choice we make sends out the message to everyone else that ‘this is okay to do’,” (428).

“And the process by which we create values is the process of choice.  When a person realizes that he or she has to make a choice and that the choice will have far-reaching consequences, that person my be gripped by anguish…” (424).

“If he realizes the enormity of the situation and still makes his choice as best he can, shouldering whatever consequences may develop, he is living with authenticity,” (424).

“Animals and things can exist without making choices, but humans can’t, because humans are aware of their own existence and their own mortality,” (426).

Assuming you have no choice, or that one’s actions are determined by the situation, or choosing (this is a choice) not to choose, are examples of inauthenticity, bad faith.  “We are free to choose, but we are not free to refrain from choosing.  In other words, we are condemned to be free,” (428).

We aren’t ‘actually’ our intentions, we are ‘actually’ our conduct — intentions mean nothing to the real world if we don’t actualize them.  What hasn’t happened yet does not factor in to the equation of what is real, who you really are, your actualized self.  This does not mean intentions behind conduct do not determine the virtue of the conduct.  But it does mean that there is no virtue in doing nothing, you can not develop your virtue if you don’t back up your ideals with action (I think this is the theme behind the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”).  Unactualized ideals do not reflect who you actually are — just that you are not (authentically) who you wish to be.  If you do not live your ideals, but you still think you are the type of person found in your ideals, you are thinking inauthentically.  The type of person you actually are is the type of choices you actually make.  This doesn’t mean it is bad to have ideals and set goals for yourself — it is just saying (to me) — DO IT!!!  Make it count!!! The time is now!!! Actualize your potential!!!


“(His) thoughts on the Overman are generally referred to as a transvaluation of values:  Through rejecting the herd (slave) mentality of the majority, the individual (master) can reach an authentic set of values for himself,” (words in parenthesis are mine) (426).

Bergson/true self

“…we need to listen to the murmurs of our own self that are hiding behind the facade of our civilized lives…” (427) — reminds me of the subconscious, and the Freudian slip.

Erikson, ego integrity–basically the result of a successfully resolved identity crisis.


He believed the face of the Other, the differentness of the Other, is why we take responsibility for the Other.  But I think the similarities of the face is why we take responsibility, and why we can expand our moral universe to include animals.  Strangeness more often invokes anxiety.

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