Contemplating courage.

Sticking with the tension between Kantian moral theory and virtue ethics, and the debate over the value of feelings, this Finals question from last year is an interesting one which may help to shed more light on the issues at hand:

So Aristotle draws a distinction between continence and complete virtue. The former occurs when an agent performs the right action, but, to borrow the Kantian term, begrudgingly, without supportive feelings. The completely virtuous man, in contrast, enjoys virtue. He actively relishes its performance and is in complete mental harmony with his action. So the Platonic thing to say is that his soul is unified and he’s the better for it. He has no internal battle going on.

Hence when we come to the dilemma of what true courage is, Aristotle says it is standing firm in the face of frightening things fearlessly, without even a hint of the thought that one should run away. You don’t just do the courageous act. You do it courageously because it is effortless.

This is not entirely intuitive, however. Don’t we equally feel the pull of the thought that the person who is really bricking it and is so keen to run away, and yet nevertheless pulls a motive out of the bag and manages to stand firm – don’t we think this is the greater achivement?

If so, it seems that Aristotle is wrong and continence is of (at least) equal worth to what he labels complete virtue. And this, as we know from his comments on the emotions, is Kant’s position.

But our intuitions are clearly inconclusive. Another tricky example is temperance: is the man that is really desirous of cake but avoids eating it the epitome of this virtue, or is the woman that totally transcends any prior appetites the better example of this excellence? Again, Aristotle and Kant seem to differ. (A caveat is that it’s almost certainly not the case that Kant considers temperance a moral requirement at all, but if he did, this would no doubt be his approach.)

To leave the story here, though, would be to give the impression that the two thinkers are in direct conflict with one another, which isn’t entirely true. If you read the Nicomachean Ethics carefully, Aristotle has a tendency to argue we are responsible for our feelings. That is, they are the subjects of choice in some roundabout, long-term way. And as such, they are praiseworthy and relevant to ethical assessments. As before, then, this is an instance of a virtue ethicist endorsing the Kantian spirit, but disagreeing about the facts: whether or not feelings are voluntary. If Aristotle changed his mind about the nature of feelings, he would agree with Kant that continence-courage is of equal worth to its complete counterpart.

To round this off – what about those facts? Are feelings something we are responsible for in the same way, say, I would be accountable for my choosing to ignore a drowning baby as I walk across Magdalen Bridge? In a sense, this is beyond the realm of philosophy. Empirical questions of this kind are best left to the psychologists. But Aristotle occasionally contradicts himself and suggests agreement with Kant: he talks about how childhood is analogous to throwing a stone: once set off in motion, it is nigh-impossible to alter the direction. How that fits, exactly, with adults being responsible for their emotional dispositions is anyone’s guess, but you see why the seeds necessary to deny the question’s quote are sown in The Ethics itself.


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