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The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character by Robert B. Kruschwitz and Robert C. Roberts, editors

Too diffident? Too authentic? Too perfectionistic? Thomas E. Hill, Derek L. Phillips, and Susan Wolf have essays for you. Many have argued that will power is partly a skill, but none I know has covered the topic as well as Robert C. Roberts. In "Will Power and the Virtues" Roberts distinguishes a willful person, one who does whatever he wants or his impulses suggest, from a strong willed person. A strong willed person acts resolutely despite other inclinations. The virtues of will power--will, courage, industriousness, and self-control--are necessary for goodness, he writes, but some evil people possess them, too.


Among the fascinating ideas covered by Roberts is the problem of assigning moral credit. One school argues someone who struggled against their own immoral impulses deserves more credit. She deserves credit because she overcame using her own will and decisions. A second school claims the mere fact that a person possesses many immoral impulses reflects badly on her. The second school suggests that a person deserves credit for "purity" of heart, being full of good impulses so she does not struggle. A pure hearted individual may have won struggles on the way to gaining purity of heart. An individual, however, having purity of heart and no prior history of struggling lacks something important for moral credit. Struggle, whether currently or in the past, forges moral identity and autonomy, .


Roberts argues that managing inclinations matters and doing so is learned. Breaking habits, creating habits, deferring gratification, and directing emotions are management skills. The more we practice these skills, the better we get at them--skills more similar to shooting a basketball than riding a bike. We get rusty. For practice, William James recommended that individuals do one thing a day they would rather not.


We should have the skill and willingness to act on ideas that:

        Impulses often quickly pass.

        Strong or vigorous actions can lesson or direct emotions.

        Self-talk helps direct emotions, for example, "it will soon be over."

Roberts concludes by noting that self-efficacy and intense caring are important elements in the virtues of will power.


Susan Wolf's essay on moral saints suffers from bad execution. Wolf defines a moral saint as someone who is always as morally good as possible, never mind that such a person does not exist. And they "have to be very, very nice." Unfortunately, the relationship between niceness and morality is only slightly greater that the relationship between green socks and morality. The person Wolf describes is not a moral saint but an etiquette saint.


Wolf distinguishes two types of moral saints, the loving saint and the rational saint. The loving saint does it all for love, and the rational saint does it all for duty or other reasons. Moral saints vary in personality. Wolf writes that some are jovial and some garrulous, but no matter his personality the saint spends all his time doing good. Wolf thinks moral saints are seriously flawed.


The moral saint, claims wolf, can not develop non-moral skills and interests. Tastes such as golf, musical instruments, and Victorian novels are out. Saints are not well rounded. They bore. Saints can not have sarcastic wit. They can not be cool like Paul Newman. (Uh-oh... I feel straw person urges racing into my brain... go away urges... must... keep... writing... must... be... nice... must... ahhhhhhh. I can't take it any more.) This argument stinks. Wolf conflates etiquette saints with moral individuals. What is morally wrong with sarcastic wit? What makes it morally different from being jovial? If sarcastic comedian Lewis Black started doing good deeds with the same surliness he has now, that would not make him less moral than people who are very, very nice. Stepford people are very, very nice, not moral people.


Cool people bore. Not much is less interesting to a thoughtful person than a shallow hipster. The not-so-cool Paul Newman of recent movies is better than the old Paul Newman who made dopey girls swoon. Individuals impressed by cool are not much more developed or well-rounded than those impressed by Rambo movies. Actual moral saints, if they exist, would be much more fascinating than those who think David Letterman is the pinnacle of civilization. You know who is more intriguing than a million cool Quentin Tarantino characters: Zell Kravinsky. The guy built a fortune out of little, gave it away, gave a kidney to a stranger, and wrote dissertations on Aristotle and Milton. And there's more: He's working on his third PhD. That sounds like a freaking fascinating guy.


The patient character Wolf describes conflicts with moral ideals. Someone unfailingly patient has serious character flaws, the everyday equivalent of a pacifist.


Wolf argues that the person she calls a moral saint fails on utilitarian and deontological grounds, though I don't know how that could be if the saint as morally good as possible. Morality is a hard enough sell without philosophers equating prigs, prudes, and prissies with moral heroes. The best point Wolf makes is that a one-dimensional life of any kind is inadequate.


Derek L. Phillips contrasts the moral and therapeutic worlds. Robert B. Louden explores some of the flaws in virtue ethics. Most of the flaws fall into the categories of not giving enough consideration to rules and consequences. Virtue ethics:

        Does not put enough emphasis on actions.

        Offers poor guidance on practical moral problems and situations.

        Creates backsliding because it is not vigilant about acts and their consequences.

        Lacks tools for distinguishing good from bad characters and for determining when characters have changed.

        Lacks principles for dealing with a complex, modern world.

        Encourages self-deception about goodness. Consistent trivial goods are assumed to outweigh greater evils.

        Creates individuals who become useful zealots for evil individuals.

        Gives too much weight to virtues related to niceness. Nice people sometimes do evils.

        Emphasizes image over substance.


Virtue ethics provides some useful language to describe actions, but are a poor excuse for a full-fledged ethical system.

James Rachels noted elsewhere (I can't remember where) that virtue ethics is at best a supplement to consequentialist and deontological theories. Virtue ethics often degrades into determining rightness by applying buzzwords. It is too unclear, too unspecific, and not beneficial enough. Virtue ethics makes clarity and accuracy difficult. Buzzword virtue categories replace thorough arguments.


One essay in here contrasts right-wing retributive justice with left-wing distributive justice, but the essay is worthless--Who gets the distribution merely changes. Both power market and lefty economic theories are distributive. Neither are meritarian or consequentialist. Government intervention in fiscal and monetary policies have a greater impact on who gets what than welfare state interventions. Worth a look.

(C) 1986†††††††††


óBook review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 30, 2009


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