Virtue, Narrative, and the Moral Identity

Virtue ethics and narrative ethics (or, more accurately, narrative approaches to ethics) have both made something of a comeback in modern moral philosophy, with many ethicists and moral philosophers claiming that virtue ethics simply make more sense in the modern than, say, ethical theories built on laws and duties. Narrative ethics, with its more psychological approach to understanding the self and moral action, also seems to make a good deal of sense with its grammar of self-actualization and elevation of the history of the self as constitutive of the whole person.

Both approaches tend to focus on character and dispositions as being of prime importance. Narrative ethics see the unfolding of the moral life as coherent only within a narrative framework – that is, only within a framework where a history is seen as an account of a series of temporally connected events. The immediate result of this is, as noted above, a kind of psycholog-ization of ethics. The narrative concept of the self is fundamentally subjective – the self is seen as constituted primarily by this history, a history constructed in the form of personal narrative.

Virtue ethics tends towards the less psychological, focusing more on ‘how to be’, which though at first glance also seems to invite psychologism is a more objective approach, since the virtues that the person seems to acquire are, generally and broadly speaking, objective kinds of things. Honesty, justice, courage are all things that we, as virtuous people, should strive to acquire regardless of our personal narratives – our disposition, habits and desires should be educated so that we desire and acquire the virtues.

These are rough sketches but serve well enough for me to note the strengths and weaknesses of each before attempting a synthesis of the two. Narrative approaches to ethics highlight the very important role that narrative plays in our thinking and in our life – our actions, habits and dispositions are all temporally connected and when viewed in this light our moral lives acquire a kind of meaning that cannot be had by thinking of moral actions as isolated, atomistic things. We can trace the developments of virtues, vices and character in a narrative framework and can easily see the impact of our choices and actions. The weakness here lies in the conception of the self as constituted by a narrative history when it can be strongly argued that our narratives selves are far more often than not smokescreen of self deception.

Virtue ethics showcase strongly how we should be – we should strive to be virtuous. However, the theory can falter in a few telling ways one of which is as follows – how do we prioritise the virtues? Suppose we have to choose between A and B where A is honest but unkind and B is kind but dishonest – both actions are virtuous, but to simply assert that we must act virtuous gives us no answer and leads to either infinite regress or appealing to something outside the framework of virtues. Thus, a pure or radical virtue ethic cannot be the whole story – we need something outside the virtue framework to really give it coherence.

Here I would offer a possible theory that may be a step forward: consider virtue ethics and narrative ethics as ethics of action and ethics of identity, respectively. Virtue ethics tells us how we should be, and we achieve that through action, through habit and actually doing whatever virtuous thing is at hand. Narrative ethics gives a framework for articulating the unfolding of our actions and their consequences. Virtue ethics, then, shows us how we should be and how we can achieve that, while narrative ethics gives us a grammar for articulating it.

Put another way, the essence of the moral identity is fundamentally found in action which unfolds and is primarily understood in a narrative form.

What this ‘theory’ avoids is the psychologism of normal narrative approaches by focusing not on the narrative of the inner life as constitutive of the self and determinative of the moral identity but rather focusing on the actions as constituting the self. Character is shaped and developed by action and is therefore primarily (but not exclusively) public. The inner narrative can be checked, as it were, against the character displayed in the moral actions constituting the essence of the moral identity.

By locating the essence of the moral identity in our public actions, we have de-psychologized the narrative approach while retaining its fundamental insight, and by retaining this fundamental insight have given a grammar to the ethics of virtue.

Aquinas on Necessity

‘It should be noted that there are two kinds of necessity, namely, absolute necessity and conditional necessity. That necessity is absolute which proceeds from prior causes in the order of generation, and these are the material and the efficient causes; for example the necessity of death which comes about from matter, namely from the disposition of contrary components–and it is called absolute because there is no impediment to it. This necessity is also called the necessity of matter. On the other hand, conditional necessity proceeds from causes which are posterior in generation, namely, from the form and the end; for example, we say that it is necessary that there be conception if a man is to be generated. And this necessity is also called conditional, because it is not absolutely necessary that this woman conceive but only under this condition, namely, if a man is to be generated. And this necessity is called the necessity of the end.’ (Thomas Aquinas, ‘On the Principles of Nature)

Reading Notes 2/22/15: How God Became Jesus and Aquinas

I picked up the response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book, ‘How Jesus Became God’, which is titled, ‘How God Became Jesus’. So far it’s a solid little volume – Simon Gathercole’s piece on what the earliest Christians thought of Jesus is so far the winner of the group, though I did enjoy Mike Bird’s expositions of the return-of-YHWH-to-Zion theme in the NT. What caught my eye with Gathercole was an interesting note on Psalm 110:1, which, to paraphrase Gathercole, shows that Jesus doesn’t simply climb over his enemies, as it were, to defeat them, but rather they are placed under his feet by God. That would be itneresting to flesh out further within the context of a Christus Victor atonement theory. All in all a handy little book on some key New Testament christological topics – early Christian worship, Jesus’ self-understanding, burial traditions, etc. It feels a bit rushed in places and it definitely could have been bigger, but, given the popular nature of Ehrman’s book, it makes sense that a poplar level response was put out. Enough references are made to more specialized studies, though, that should the reader want more it can be easily found. Also, despite its rush to press and some negative reviews floating about, this is not a knee-jerk conservative reply to a big bad nonchristian scholar. While a bit rushed feeling, as I said, this represents genuine engagement with a serious scholar raising good questions about the nature of early Christian devotion to and worship of Jesus

I also got a selection of readings of Aquinas, which is already proven very helpful. All the big topics are covered – the soul, being and essence, principles of nature, ethics, proofs of God – and it’s handy to have all this in one good-sized paperback for quick reference (I’m a big believer in references books, in case you didn’t know). Aquinas’ style is fairly easy to read though the subject matter can be a bit dense. His writing and argumentation definitely improves the older he gets though – his first works are pretty wham-bam, but by the time we get to the Summa, it’s a very patient, almost relaxed style.

Reading Notes 2/15/2015: The Metaphysics of Modality and Philosophy of Mind

My reading the last few days has generally been drawn from ‘The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality‘, and ‘Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings‘. A few notes on the former and latter:

– Regarding modality, I generally took it for granted that modalities are, as it were, ‘built-in’ to reality. An interesting thesis I read, however, by Nicholas Rescher, is that possibilities of the modal variety are mind-dependent. That is, what Rescher calls ‘hard core’ possibilities – possibilities that are totally unactualized – exist only in the mind conceptually. This took me for a bit of a loop, because how good modality be mind-dependent? Surely possibility has to be a real feature of the real world. But then I thought a bit harder – perhaps by distinguishing possibility from contingency, the former having to do logical necessity and the latter having to do with metaphysical non-necessity. Keeping that distinction in mind, modal idealism isn’t so farfetched sounding. Modal possibility can exist firmly within the mind while metaphysical contingency can exist firmly within the real order of things. If, however, one were to take Plantinga’s line of actualism, in which possible worlds are constructed out of states of affairs, then modal idealism wouldn’t have as much appeal. An interesting line in Rescher’s argument is geared towards denying any kind of Platonic ‘space’ for possibilities to exist in outside the natural order – so if one took a slightly Platonic line, then modal idealism would indeed be rather senseless.

– Regarding philosophy of mind, I guess it never occurred to me that functionalism, if true, functions (haw haw) as an argument against reductive physicalism, which is a little funny because, as is well known, functionalism is a materialist theory of mind – this seems to be fairly well known in the literature, though, and I’ll chalk this one up as my own lack of thinking it through. Multiple realization (or realize-ability) also seems to pose a threat to more reductive flavours of physicalism, but I’m not quite sure I have a good enough grasp on MR to really come to any conclusions.

– The most interesting thing I’ve read in the PoM volume is a Kripke-flavoured argument by Joseph Levine regarding qualia – in a nutshell (because the argument is fairly long), he argues that there is an ‘explanatory gap’ in a statement like (1) Pain is c-fibers firing that there isn’t in a statement like (2) heat is molecules in motion – (2) can be functionalized while (1) cannot. From this, he argues that the truth or falsity of (1) is inaccessible epistemically. Levine accepts that qualia are real (or at least accepts that the intuition we have that qualia are real is something we should follow), and since he doesn’t want to take the eliminativist line, he’s left with a bit of a head-scratcher. I’m going to go into more detail about the argument at a later time, so for now, this is all you get.

A Review of “Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ” Part 1 | theologia vera

Here’s a more in depth review which interacts and engages with the main poonts of the book – definitely worth reading: