Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 3, the Laches and the question of expertise in teaching young people

The Laches is the next dialogue we will explore from the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders. It is a splendid example of just how good Plato was at dramatizing situations, though precisely because of that it also raises the issue of whether good dramatic writing is helpful to, or gets in the way of, good philosophizing. The scene includes two elderly Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias, who wish to know who is best qualified to teach their young sons, and how. They are watching a military display, so they end up asking two generals, Nicias and Laches, what their opinion is, and Laches, in turn, invites Socrates — who is nearby — to join the conversation.

Nicias happens to be in favor of professional instruction, while Laches is more skeptical. And Socrates turns the discussion into an exploration of the nature of bravery as an aspect of goodness, on the grounds that a good teacher ought to know what goodness is, before imposing his views on young boys. Nicias, incidentally, was the general that ended up in charge of the ill fated Athenian siege of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, a siege he almost completed successfully, until the arrival at the last minute of the Spartan general Gylippus, who killed Nicias despite the fact that the latter had spared Gylippus on several previous occasions. Also noteworthy is that fact that this is the first dialogue in which Socrates brings up the controversial notion of the unity of the virtues, the idea that one cannot coherently be, say, courageous but unjust, an idea that makes sense only if one sees all virtues (including courage) as inherently moral in nature.

The dialogue is probably best seen as an example of the combination of two approaches to advancing a philosophical argument: the logos, obviously, i.e. the presentation of a given argument by way of reason; and what the ancient Greeks called the muthos, which translates to a story, or a myth, but that for them had a broader and more positive connotation than it has for us today.

So, the Laches begins with Lysimachus and Melesias wondering how to best educate their sons, in order for them to grow up good as men capable of enjoying a good life. They think that some sort of higher education is needed, perhaps of a military type, which is why they approach the two generals, Nicias and Laches. Lysimachus assumes that virtue can be taught, and that generals are suitable to advise him on the value (notice: as distinct from the specifics) of military training, two assumptions that Socrates eventually questions.

Laches is the one who notices Socrates nearby, and suggests that the philosopher joins the conversation, introducing him as an expert on education, something that Nicias wholeheartedly endorses. Laches also praises Socrates for his bravery at the recent battle of Delium, suggesting that had more Athenians behaved that way the battle would have had a far more favorable outcome for the city.

LYSIMACHUS: Socrates, and Nicias and Laches, people of my age really can’t keep in touch with the younger generation any more, we just potter around at home most of the time feeling our age.

SOCRATES: Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advice I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them.

At this point, Nicias talks about the advantages of military training, listing a number of them. The most important one turns out to be that military training makes one brave, which implies that virtue can be taught, and that it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. Laches disagrees: for him bravery is not a type of knowledge, but a behavior that depends on one’s character.

It is at this point that the two generals ask for Socrates’ opinion, who says that military training here is just a means to an end, and since that end is the boys’ education, what is needed is an an expert in education, not military training. (And he immediately disavows being such an expert.)

SOCRATES: To follow on from what I was just saying, then, if we were wanting to consider which of us had the most expertise in athletics, how would we go about it? Wouldn’t we choose the man who’d learnt about athletics, who’d practised, and who’d been trained in the sport by top coaches?

MELESIAS: I think so.

SOCRATES: So, even before we consider that, we should ask in what subject we’re looking for teachers, shouldn’t we? … So what we have to consider is this: is any of us an expert in caring for the character, and able to care for it properly, and which of us has had good teachers?

Nicias candidly explains to Lysimachus how Socrates works:

NICIAS: You seem not to know that whenever anyone comes face to face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although they may have started on a completely different subject at first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they’re talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present life-style, and of the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him on every angle.

Socrates then explains that whenever one claims that he can improve X by adding Y, he ought to know what Y is. Here Nicias and Laches think they can educate the boys by adding goodness to them, so they should know what goodness is.

SOCRATES: So the qualification we need is this: we need to know what goodness is, don’t we? Because if we hadn’t a clue what goodness actually is, there’d be no way in which we could possibly give anyone any advice on the best way of acquiring it, would there?

LACHES: No, I don’t think there would, Socrates.

Socrates then zooms into the obvious aspect of goodness that is pertinent to the discussion, since two of his interlocutors are generals: bravery. What is that? Laches attempts a definition by describing the behavior of a good infantryman, saying that to be brave is to stand and fight. But it doesn’t take long for Socrates to dispatch of this by counterexamples: sometimes the brave thing is to retreat in order to be able to fight another day, and at any rate, soldiers are not the only ones who can be brave.

SOCRATES: [bravery is standing to fight] with the possible exception, Laches, of the Spartan infantry. At the battle of Plataea, so the story goes, the Spartans came up against the troops with wicker shields, but weren’t willing to stand and fight, and fell back. The Persians broke ranks in pursuit; but then the Spartans wheeled round fighting like cavalry and so won that part of the battle.

LACHES: That’s true.

All right, says Laches, then let’s modify our definition: bravery is endurance. Well, responds Socrates, only if endurance is accompanied by wisdom, since endurance for its own sake is hardly a virtue. Here it is Nicias who offers help, fine tuning the definition of bravery by distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge: doctors and farmers, for instance, have technical knowledge that is different from the sort of knowledge that they are interested in at present, i.e., knowledge of good and evil. If they changed the definition of bravery as “endurance with knowledge of good and evil” the counterexamples put forth earlier by Socrates would lose force.

Socrates pushes back against Nicias’ revised definition, even though scholars seem to agree that what Nicias is saying actually reflects Socrates’ own preferred answer. If courage is endurance with knowledge of good and evil, then what about animals and children? Is Nicias denying that they can be brave too? That’s right, answers Nicias. Contra popular belief, animals are not brave, and children aren’t either, at least until they mature a certain understanding of things. Animals and children sometimes behave as if they were brave, but they cannot properly be described as such because they do not actually appreciate the dangers of what they are doing.

NICIAS: ‘Brave’ is not a word I use to describe animals, or anything else that’s not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding; I prefer ‘fearless’ and ‘foolish.’ … So you see, what you and most people call brave, I call reckless: brave actions are those coupled with wisdom, as I said.

I find this point to be analogous to contemporary discussions about morality: are primates who, say, show an inclination toward sharing resources fairly with other members of their group acting morally? No, they are acting in a moral-like fashion, but unless they are capable of understanding what they are doing and why (and there is no evidence that they do) applying the moral label to their actions is a category mistake.

Socrates isn’t done, though. He points out to Nicias that now he can no longer distinguish between bravery and goodness, and yet he had previously agreed that bravery is but a part of goodness. They now appear inextricably linked to each other.

That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, with Socrates admitting that they don’t really know the answer, and that they would all well served by looking for someone who can teach them this sort of things. But in reality Nicias’ final proposal is pretty good, and the issue raised by Socrates is answered by the (Socratic!) notion of the unity of the virtues. While nowadays we think that someone can be, for instance, courageous and yet unjust, for Socrates (and the Stoics who followed him on this) that’s an oxymoron. All virtues are unified by wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, so that only a just person can be courageous, in the moral sense of the term.

As counterintuitive as the notion of the unity of virtues is, I have come to really appreciate its power, which i really prescriptive more than descriptive. It does not negate that someone can act in what looks like a courageous way even though that person is also acting unjustly, and perhaps we should simply use two different words to distinguish such cases. Common sense courage, call it courage-c, may be displayed by a daring criminal, for instance. But virtuous courage, call it courage-v, is precluded to such individual. More difficult is to account for the reverse situation, say someone who understands what is and is not just, and yet fails to act on it for lack of courage. Socrates would say, I am guessing, that such a person is not really just, he only understands justice at an abstract level, but he has not internalized the concept as a matter of practice.

Which brings me to the crucial issue mentioned above, yet only indirectly tackled in the Laches: can virtue be taught? The answer appears to depend on what one means by “taught.” Virtue is certainly not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, as the case of someone who understands justice and yet fails to act on it demonstrates. But it isn’t a matter of practice only either, since Nicias has made clear that one’s acts should be informed by one’s understanding, if they are to count as moral. So virtue can be taught, but such teaching is a combination of sophia and phronesis, i.e., theoretical and practical wisdom.

(next: the Lysis, in which Socrates investigates the nature of friendship)

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86 thoughts on “Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 3, the Laches and the question of expertise in teaching young people

  1. labnut

    I said that utilitarianism, as a philosophy, cares not for people’s motivations. This is rather uncontroversial.

    Indeed. A simple way of looking at it is as follows:
    Deontology – the nature of the act is of primary concern;
    Virtue ethics – the intention and character of the agent is of primary concern;
    Utilitarianism – the nature of the outcome is of primary concern.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. labnut

    If someone benefits themselves at the expense of others most of the time and then only does things which benefit mankind when it also benefits them, how can you say that is consistent with being a utilitarian?

    Apart from the fact that Massimo never said that, you have raised an important point.
    Consider these points:

    1) The nature of consequentialism is such that every moral situation must be considered anew, according to its special circumstances. Consequences can be immediate, long term or hidden for the time being, making the judgement process tricky. Consequently[!] the agent has considerable leeway in the way s/he assesses the situation. Different agents will exercise different judgements, reaching different conclusions. Thus consequentialism places a heavy burden on the judgement of the agent. How reliable that judgement is can be seen in the wilful abandon with which people break traffic laws, or taxation laws.

    2) In all cases moral judgement is an act of restraint where one foregoes a desired act for moral reasons. It is an act of self denial. It can be a surprisingly difficult act of denial(that affair, any one?; that insurance claim, any one?)

    3) Just as important, the moral judgement requires a willingness to recognise the harmfulness of the outcome when balanced against the desirability of the act. The desirability of the act can cloud one’s vision of the harmful consequences(adultery, any one?)

    4) When considering the outcomes, as a consequentialist must, there is always a balancing act as one weighs desired outcomes against undesired outcomes. It is a considering attitude that says, one the hand this, on the other hand that.

    Now read through that list again and two things should strike you:
    1) successful execution of consequentialism requires certain essential aspects of character;
    2) these required aspects of character are practical judgementwisdom; the will to do the right thingcourage; sensitivity to to doing the right thingjustice the ability to balance all thingstemperance.

    I have just listed the four cardinal virtues. In other words, the successful execution of consequentialism is crucially dependent on aspects of character that are identical to the four cardinal virtues. This means that consequentialism, at its very heart, requires that you have the character of a virtue ethicist, otherwise your consequentialist behaviour will be inconsistent or incoherent at best, or dishonest at worst.

    Now here’s the thing. Every virtue ethicist knows that the virtuous behaviour is a disposition that must be developed by conscious training and that it is a life long process of travel towards the ideal destination. The consequentialist is unknowingly dependent on the virtuous character and thus does nothing to develop virtuous character. Therefore his behaviour will likely remain inconsistent, contradictory or dishonest.

    Overcoming these likely defects in consequentialist behaviour requires attention to the development of character. In other words, virtue is the necessary foundation of consequentialism. But in that case, acquiring virtue makes consequentialism, as a moral philosophy, redundant.

    For these reasons it can be seen that consequentialism is inherently incoherent.

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  3. Robin Herbert

    In short if Utilitarianism is, as it is presented, a theory that says we should prefer certain kinds of actions over others then it can’t simply dodge the question of why we should prefer those actions over others by saying that motivation is not part of the theory.

    If it is just a rule for assigning the labels “good” and “bad” to actions then it can avoid the motivation question.

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  4. SocraticGadfly

    Robin … Aristotle was OK at measuring inanimate nature, so-so at measuring non-human animate nature … and pretty crappy at empirical observation of humans.

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  5. brodix

    One idea that might be interesting to consider would be the conservative/liberal dynamic, as it works in the field of philosophy.
    While most academic philosophers likely consider themselves fairly liberal, politically, it is a field operating on premises as conservative as any fundamentalist religion. That there are core texts and premises, that while they can be discussed endlessly, provide a foundation that cannot be conceivably be questioned, or the whole enterprise would fall apart.
    Since philosophy doesn’t consider itself populist, like religion, its reaction to these premises not being particularly functional, or the texts popular, is to retreat further into the academy.
    The fact remains that ideals are projections of the linear experience from a small point in an ultimately cyclical and reciprocal reality.

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  6. sethleon2015

    EJ wrote – Confucius wrote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

    I don’t believe Confucius ever ever wrote that line. I believe it is a popularization of this qoute by Xunzi:

    “Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as knowing, knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues until it is put into action.”

    This suggests that virtue is ultimately a practiced capacity to act according to context based on the unity of various perceptive and cognitive faculties. In the cultivation of virtue there is it seems a lot of debate on the hierarchy of the faculties (what comes first). Ryle, I believe places ‘knowing how’ as prior to ‘knowing that’. Confucianism favors adherence to traditionally defined rule based practices. The Taoists place an importance on practice that is free of the coercion of fixed rules.

    My view is that our capacity for virtue fluctuates, is an ongoing process, and we all have greater capacities in some contexts than others. I think in a normal healthy human, our base level perceptive and cognitive faculties integrate at such a deep unconscious level that arguing which comes first, or which is more important can distract us from what is most useful. I think what is useful is attentive practice of all the faculties in alignment or against the backdrop of our values and the stories we tell ourselves. Aristotle’s baked bread may emerge from a recipe but the best bread will come from the experienced baker who has learned to alter the recipe to conditions.

    Enjoying the post and dialgoue, but way too much of a Plato neophyte to speak directly to the text.

    Thanks Massimo.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    I don’t regard courage as a virtue in the moral sense

    Most moderns don’t. But that’s how most Hellenistic philosophis regarded it. Which means it is a prescriptive, not descriptive, concept.

    ej,

    If the Laches is not an attempt to reach an assertoric definition of courage, then I don’t see it has much of a purpose at all.

    I’m sorry you don’t, but moral philosophy often is in the prescriptive business. (“Assertoric” seems needlessly derogatory.)

    You read Plato philosophically; I read him rhetorically. You believe him to be s moral philosopher; I believe him to be a political philosopher.

    He is both, but mostly a moral philosopher. But I was objecting to the word “agenda” in context, as it implies he had a plan all along, when in fact one of the interesting things in reading the early, middle, and late dialogues is precisely that one gets an approximate sense of how Plato’s thought evolves.

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  8. wtc48

    sethleon: “My view is that our capacity for virtue fluctuates, is an ongoing process, and we all have greater capacities in some contexts than others.”

    This puts me in mind of a baseball team, in which we are both manager and players: the manager’s function is to employ the players, as far as possible, each to the best effect in any given context. Virtue is implied in the goal of winning, but as two teams are in competition, both managers may work to virtuous effect, but only one can win, and acceptance of this condition is part of the game. From this standpoint, it is interesting that none of the debaters in “Laches” refers to this aspect of battle, which is both inevitable and somewhat paradoxical: that one can do everything well (i.e. virtuously) and still lose the battle.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author

    wtc,

    one can do everything well (i.e. virtuously) and still lose the battle.

    That was understood by all schools of virtue ethics. Which is why the Stoics, for instance, developed their focus on giving your best to the attempt, but then accept the outcome with equanimity. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. labnut

    But I was objecting to the word “agenda” in context, as it implies he had a plan all along

    More than that. it has a pejorative implication. When we talk about a meeting agenda, the meaning is neutral, referring to the plan for the meeting. When we say someone has an agenda we actually mean something rather different. It contains an implication of subterfuge and lack of openness about one’s intentions. So when someone argues for something and we say he has an agenda, we usually mean that he has unstated motivations that lie behind his arguments, that he would rather not reveal, usually because his motivations would weaken his credibility.

    For example, consider the case of a tender adjudication meeting, of which I have a lot experience. Someone consistently argues that a given company should be awarded certain kinds of tender, despite apparent disadvantages. I suspect he has an agenda and this is later confirmed when I discover his wife’s cousin is the CEO of the company. No money changed hands(apparently) but his agenda was to help family.

    Now we certainly could not say this of Socrates. In a given dialogue he may not reveal his immediate motivation for rhetorical reasons, so that he can lead the subject on the path towards revelation. This is not an agenda, in the normally understood, pejorative sense of the word, but a common teaching technique.

    Given the potentially pejorative implication of the word agenda we should not apply this to a person unless the context makes it clear that we are using the word in a value neutral way.

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  11. sethleon2015

    Interesting analogy wtc. If we consider the concept of ideal play(ing), I think the manager and the faculties are not so clearly separated. There may be moments when the manager abstractly plays (outside the game) with the faculties, there may be in game moments when one faculty or another may be a dominating player to the detriment of the team and the manager disappears. I think for the well prepared team in ideal play, the players in one sense self-manage by expressive the proper dose according to faculty, and in another the engaged manager plays alongside — interrupting only as the novel game situation requires.

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  12. labnut

    I don’t regard courage as a virtue in the moral sense

    Courage in virtue ethics means much more than physical bravery. It is commonly used to mean persistence, determination, perseverance and being capable of acting on one’s convictions regardless of the consequences. In this sense it is an admirable virtue. When acting on one’s moral convictions, regardless of consequences, it becomes a moral virtue. In all cases it must be weighed against the fourth great cardinal virtue, that of temperance.

    For example, early in my career as a metallurgist, I was instructed to forge test certificates for the foundry castings we made(yes, this does really happen). Fearing that I would lose my job and jeopardise the security of my young family, I complied. In this case I lacked the moral courage to follow the dictates of my conscience and act morally.

    Or to consider another example. It is winter here, and to get out of bed early on a cold morning, to go for my usual run, requires another kind of courage. This is courage as a virtue. Running through the fatigue and pain is also courage, and a virtue. But if I do this to such an extent that I become injured I have failed to exercise temperance, the fourth virtue.

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  13. sethleon2015

    What I think I am trying to say above is that for us the manager is itself a faculty. It is perhaps special faculty in it’s capacity to sense the others in play, and I think the best managers develop that receptive capacity so that any game plan can be adjusted.

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  14. brodix

    Putting it in the context of current news, it seems the trade wars are getting serious.
    Everyone has their agendas, but how do they add up, given all the reciprocity, blowback and unintended consequences?

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  15. SocraticGadfly

    Per Massimo, all the late Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophic schools of thoughts focused on virtue, particularly as expressed through eudaimonia. The “all” includes Epicureans, Skeptics and even Cynics. Now, how you got there? That had great prescriptive differences among the different schools.

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  16. SocraticGadfly

    WTC — could there be a sabermetric version of virtue ethics expressed in baseball terms?

    “He has a VORP* of 5.5!”

    = Virtue Over Replacement Philosopher.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    SocraticGadfly

    Aristotle was OK at measuring inanimate nature, so-so at measuring non-human animate nature … and pretty crappy at empirical observation of humans.

    Someone who knew more about the process of embryonic development than was known in the 17th century, someone who had a good first approximation of Newton’s second law of motion (and pretty much inventing the mathematically described law of nature), someone who had inferred the existence of cells, at least in some cases, someone who got his information about dolphins by the process of tagging – was more than just OK and so-so, he was outstanding.

    I don’t get this silly prejudice against Aristotle, where flat-earthers like Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus were hailed as proto-scientists but Aristotle gets all the great stuff he did swept under the carpet and the stuff he got wrong amplified.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Robin Herbert

    labnut

    Indeed. A simple way of looking at it is as follows:
    Deontology – the nature of the act is of primary concern;
    Virtue ethics – the intention and character of the agent is of primary concern;
    Utilitarianism – the nature of the outcome is of primary concern.

    “not the primary concern” is different from “not a concern at all”, which is what was claimed.

    As I say, it seems to make perfect sense to everyone but me that someone would care nothing at all about the well-being of others and only care about his own well-being and yet decide to always act to increase the general well-being of humanity even to the detriment of his own well-being.

    Why would he do this? I don’t get what you all get about that.

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  19. Robin Herbert

    labnut

    Indeed. A simple way of looking at it is as follows:
    Deontology – the nature of the act is of primary concern;
    Virtue ethics – the intention and character of the agent is of primary concern;
    Utilitarianism – the nature of the outcome is of primary concern

    Note that if Harvey the deontologist sees his duty and acts in ways that he knows are unlikely to be effective then he hasn’t done his duty.

    If Deirdre the virtue ethicist has lots of great intentions but never gets around to carrying any of them out then that doesn’t seem particularly virtuous.

    So consequences are important for both these positions.

    And as I pointed out, if John acts always to increase the well-being of mankind even to the detriment of his own well-being and you wouldn’t consider that as virtuous, then I would like to know what you mean by virtuous.

    Indeed, if John manages to act according to his utilitarian principles then he is acting as though he had a strong sense of duty.

    And note that John cannot carry out the plan of utilitarianism and fail to act as a virtuous person, nor can he be a consistent utilitarian and fail to act like a person with a strong sense of duty.

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  20. Robin Herbert

    And of course David, the radical selfish hedonist is completely a consequentialist. The consequences he favours are his own happiness, pleasure and general well-being.

    He has a strong sense of duty to himself.

    And he may consider all of these things virtues.

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  21. Robin Herbert

    So, I have to ask myself, if there are children somewhere, just like my own, painfully dying and parents, just like me, watching helplessly and I, the person who could help, spends the money in some way on myself or my family could I still consider myself virtuous? Not me.

    Could I look at the same situation and consider that I have done my duty? Done all that I ought? Again, not me.

    So, for me, the positions converge the more you look at them.

    I feel that I am a somewhat virtuous person but there are people in need that I could help that I am not helping so I could be more virtuous, I could be a lot more virtuous.

    I feel that I have a duty to my children, which hopefully I am discharging, but it is a pretty lacklusture idea of duty if I don’t have a duty to the people who most need help.

    So the “simple way of looking at it” is sometimes misleading.

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  22. Massimo Post author

    Seth,

    What I think I am trying to say above is that for us the manager is itself a faculty.

    Well, Marcus Aurelius believed we do have such an overseeing module, the hegemonikon, and Epictetus thought the main purpose of Stoic training was to improve it’s main faculty, prohairesis, our ability to arrive at correct judgments.

    Robin,

    Why would he do this? I don’t get what you all get about that.

    Again, the point is that the agent’s motivations are irrelevant in utilitarianism. What the agent does is morally salient in terms of its consequences. As to real cases, I gave you some: imagine a sociopathic Elon Musk (okay, not difficult to imagine) who gives millions to good causes because he wants to be in the news, have tax benefits, and so forth. If his actions increase overall happiness, then for the utilitarian they are fine. For the deontologists, those actions have positive consequences, but Musk gets zero morality points. For the virtue ethicist the consequences may be good, but Musk is not virtuous.

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  23. labnut

    So the “simple way of looking at it” is sometimes misleading.

    Well, yes. That is inherent in simplifications. When I say there are three great branches of ethics: act, character and outcome based ethics, I am making a large simplification, but, I hope, a useful simplification. This inevitably glosses over important details.

    To criticise it on these grounds is not a fair criticism. It is a bit like criticising the title of a book, or its chapter headings. Every reader should know that brief headline descriptions are just pointers to the nature of the contents. For substance, nuance and qualification, read the contents.

    But try finding and reading a book with no title, table of contents or chapter headings and you will discover the importance of these brief headline simplifications.

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  24. labnut

    Robin,
    So, for me, the positions converge the more you look at them.

    You are saying something important here, but not in the way you think 🙂

    In my earlier comment I made the claim that the practice of consequentialism requires certain qualities of character, which on examination, turn out to be the four cardinal virtues. Therefore virtuous character is properly basic to being a consequentialist. The same argument can be made for act or duty based ethics.

    The convergence you talk about is not really a convergence of positions but rather that all ethical acts spring from and are modulated by character, but are expressed with different emphases that we call ‘act’, ‘virtue’ or ‘outcome’.

    So whichever branch of ethics you practise, it requires a virtuous character in the first place in order to practice that branch of ethics. Now if that is the case we should be concentrating our efforts on developing virtuous character and the rest will follow naturally. This is precisely the argument of the virtue ethicist, concentrate your efforts on developing virtuous character and the proper acts, duty or outcomes will follow naturally.

    However, developing virtuous character is far from trivial. It is a process of lifelong development of the right dispositions that will guide your behaviour. The virtue ethicist will argue that this is where all the emphasis should go, since it is basic to, and precedes act or outcome based ethics.

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  25. brodix

    I have to say I find this whole conversation deeply disturbing.

    Out on planet Earth there are enormous economic disparities, overwhelming refugee flows from devastated areas of the planet, etc and while there is significant recognition of these problems and work to fix them, or patch over the consequences, there just doesn’t seem to be much in the way of intellectual effort to really dig down into why things are the way they are.

    For a negative example, here is an essay on the intellectual underpinnings of neoliberalism;
    https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/05/meet-economist-behind-one-percents-stealth-takeover-america.html

    So if one considers oneself a philosopher of ethics, wouldn’t there be some collective effort to really examine the world as it is and the philosophic underpinnings of why, then start from this foundational level to lay the groundwork for how to improve the situation, not just engage in the most pedantic, endless and useless debates over what it means to be virtuous??? I don’t even think this rises to the level of virtue signaling, just the academic equivalent of old dogs arguing over a bone.

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  26. Massimo Post author

    brodix,

    I have to say I find this whole conversation deeply disturbing

    After all these years you read my blog, I find your comment disturbing. How is it “pedantic” to discuss what virtue is and how one ought to be virtuous? Do you really think I’m not concerned with the rise of neoliberalism and the consequent economic and environmental havoc? Do you not see a connection between that raise and the fact that a lot of people don’t bother asking themelves the central question of Greco-Roman moral philosophy: what sort of person ought I to be?

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