Rather than asking at the start how virtues relate to rules, principles, maximizing, or a final end, we should look at the way in which the acquisition and exercise of virtue can be seen to be in many ways like the acquisition and exercise of more mundane activities, such as farming, building or playing the piano. This helps us to see virtue as part of an agent's happiness or flourishing, and as constituting wholly, or in part that happiness. We are offered a better understanding of the relation between virtue as an ideal and virtue in everyday life, and the relation between being virtuous and doing the right thing.
Reviews: "A good smart read.
Anton, Metapsychology Online Reviews. Highly recommended. Whether I live happily will depend at least in part on the dispositions I have developed as I have lived my life, the way these are maintained or decay, and their mutual interrelations Neither virtue nor happiness is at bottom a matter of the circumstances of a life, but rather a result of living it a distinction which is central to many of Annas' arguments: roughly, the difference between the external situation and the internal decisions that take place within it to guide action. The overall picture that Annas presents is appealing, sensible and cohesive.
Where the account seems less satisfying, however, is in its generality. A reader can't help feeling a lack of detail in the discussion of the unity thesis, for instance, when Annas does not discuss the possibility of conflicts and how these are to be resolved. This raises the worry that the picture makes acting virtuously seem too easy, in the sense that it doesn't do justice to how hard it can be to discern the virtuous thing in some situations. The skill analogy might still be useful here, particularly if we turn to skills like engineering that may require deliberation and working within competing design constraints.
Perhaps the psychology of innovative engineers may help illuminate the psychology of the virtuous person. Still, even if we had a detailed understanding of the psychology of virtue, why think that all virtues will always be aligned in directing us what to do? What happens when if? Even for someone quite sympathetic to the thesis, it's not clear that this last claim is fully plausible; aren't we in fact sometimes weighing competing claims -- claims that could be based in the characteristic responses of different virtues -- against one another as we deliberate?
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Surely the virtue of practical wisdom does involve something like this weighing in the difficult cases. We must sometimes wonder what justice, generosity, kindness, and so on really entail in a particular situation. It may be kinder on a daily basis to rock my child to sleep, but in the long run I'm not doing him any favors if I don't work toward teaching him to fall asleep on his own, which may take quite a bit of courage and perseverance.
Generosity to my students in the form of lengthy comments on papers may compete with generosity to my son in the form of extra bedtime stories.
Aïe Aïe Aïe !
Annas might respond that because all virtues involve the exercise of practical wisdom, they can never truly conflict; someone who was truly generous would know whether it was more appropriate on a given day to exercise her generosity toward her students or toward her son the way a tennis player may know how best to return a clever shot. And it is not truly kind to my son to rock him to sleep every night. It is possible in the former case that either action is generous, and the search for the generous action is asking too much.
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The latter raises a new worry, however: does the unity thesis require us to define and understand virtues in a way that artificially departs from our everyday thinking about virtue against the cornerstone of Annas' methodology? If we always have to say about an apparent conflict that this is not actually what courage, kindness, or justice entails, then we risk blurring the boundaries of these concepts.
Perhaps a more detailed discussion of individual virtues would alleviate this worry. And given the unity thesis, the worry as stated probably wouldn't bother Annas.
Still, it is difficult to resist calling what a daring criminal does "brave"; if we don't call it that, aren't we departing in significant ways from our commonsense conception of bravery? A related worry points to further vagueness in the unity thesis. Annas distinctly excludes industriousness from the class of virtues on the grounds that it is not, in itself, directed toward the good; a criminal could easily be hard-working.
Traits that are truly virtues as opposed to other kinds of admirable traits reciprocally imply one another and are directed toward the good. This seems plausible from the examples she uses, but she doesn't push into less clear cases, such as courage and industriousness. It makes sense to say that benevolence may require courage, lest it fail at crucial times and thus not be true benevolence.
But benevolence could similarly require industriousness. A practical skill is acquired through experience and habituation, but the result is not routine but an educated and intelligent application of thinking in action. This way of thinking of virtue shows how virtue does not conform to modern expectations of 'moral reasoning' and enables us to see how many contemporary objections to virtue as it figures in ethical theories misfire.
The book does not present an ethics of virtue, but shows how the account can illuminatingly distinguish among different varieties of virtue ethics, depending on the conception of the good to which they are committed. The book also shows how an account of virtue which emphasizes its structural likeness to a practical skill fits a theory of eudaimonism, which takes us to have the aim, over our lives as wholes, of achieving happiness or flourishing. Intelligent Virtue.
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- Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas.
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N2 - The book develops an account of virtue which, in a contemporary version, foregrounds the idea that virtue is an exercise of practical intelligence ideally, a form of practical wisdom similar to the practical exercise of a skill. AB - The book develops an account of virtue which, in a contemporary version, foregrounds the idea that virtue is an exercise of practical intelligence ideally, a form of practical wisdom similar to the practical exercise of a skill.