Virtue ethics and creativity.

As I mentioned last week, for the first half of term I’ll be writing about theories of virtues, whether creativity counts as one, and if so whether that has implications for virtue ethics. My guiding, preliminary thoughts are something like the following.

Obviously, creativity is a virtue. Under any decent conception of what a virtue is, the ability to think innovatively and do something new has to be captured by it. Now, this need not necessarily be aesthetic. People can, after all, be intellectually creative, like Einstein insofar as he revolutionised physics. Lyndon Johnson showed political creativity in his ability to craftily shift legislation through Congress using his understanding of legislative loopholes. And Ryan Giggs shows creativity in sport insofar as he can pick out the perfect pass that few others could conceive of.

But clearly aesthetics is a major domain for the creative. We assign that characteristic to The Beatles or Nabokov or David Fincher far more quickly than any of the people I’ve already mentioned. The problem arises, though, when we consider that we want to resist the possibility that the virtue of creativity has any moral implications.

Let’s take the notion of virtue ethics in the abstract for now, before honing in on the theories of Hume and Aristotle. It seems that what we want from such a theory is an account of what characteristics it is admirable and worthwhile for a person to have, before conclusions are derived about what we should do. This way, we begin with ideas about what’s good, and derive implications about what is right. So, justice could be claimed as a virtue, as it commonly is, and this entails that it is right to act justly.

So far, so good. But if we are going to add the virtue of creativity to our list so that it sits alongside justice, the structure of our theory requires that we explain what corresponding actions are right and wrong in the world. However, this seems plainly absurd. Creativity is a virtue, but Iris Murdoch had no duty to write novels, and her failure to exercise this talent would have been no moral failure. The same goes for a lazy Ryan Giggs. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to Einstein and LBJ, but if so that seems to be because the exercise of their creativity would be instrumental to the realisation of so much human well being: scientific discovery and political decision making are both crucial to enhancing human well-being. So perhaps they did have duties to exercise their talents, and we shouldn’t shy away from calling this a moral issue. But sport and art seem to be in a different category.

This is the puzzle. Unfortunately, it looks to me like two major virtue ethicists – both Hume and Aristotle – might not accept the problem as I present it.

Taking Aristotle first, we can be encouraged by the fact that the Nicomachean Ethics does cast the net quite wide as to what a virtue can be. Aristotle even has time to talk about wit, when it’s inconceivable for moral philosophers to mention that today.

However, Aristotle also seems to deem it necessary that all virtues are voluntary. That is, we can do something to acquire them. Our decisions determine if we succeed. This is plausible for virtues like courage and temperance and justice – we are free to do the actions necessary for achieving these virtues. But as an analysis of creativity, it catastrophically fails. We may be able to do things that enhance the chance that we’ll come up with something creative, but it seems entirely possible that no amount of effort upon my part would allow me to soar to the aesthetic and innovative heights that Mozart, a child prodigy, did. This strongly suggests creativity can be involuntary. Yet even then, it is a virtue.

But irrespective of this, Aristotle doesn’t appear to possess the distinction I’ve been wishing to draw between what’s good and what is right. The latter concept is simply alien to Greek thought, as many modern virtue ethicists (especially Anscombe) were at pains to point out. So even if Aristotle did have the conceptual resources to classify creativity as a virtue, he’d be happy to group it alongside justice and the other virtues as just another example of something that we should do. We would want to resist such a conclusion, but there’s no clear way for Aristotle to do so. He has no apparent way of ‘ranking’ or ‘prioritising’ the various virtues.

The same can’t be said of Hume, on both points. First, Hume would certainly be happy to classify creativity as a virtue if he had thought about it. I mean, come on, the scope he offers is staggering. I took notes whilst reading the Second Enquiry this week, and included in its list of virtues are cheerfulness, politeness and cleanliness. And for Hume, all such virtues have their status grounded in the fact that they have utilitarian benefits. They are of use to individuals. And so it’s easy to see how something like creativity, which has the potential to confer so many benefits on the world, can easily be counted too. Like Mill, Hume even locates the value and role of justice within this framework.

And it looks like Hume can offer an explanation of why justice is a ‘central’ virtue with some serious moral implications, whilst aesthetic creativity hangs on the peripheries of our ethical picture. Since justice – the upholding of law in the name of protecting person and property – is essential to the peaceful progress of society, its value is far greater than most virtues. Its utility is demonstrably higher than that of a virtue like benevolence.

If we went down this line, we still wouldn’t have the rigid distinction between good things and right, dutiful things that I originally wanted. But Hume would at least offer an answer of sorts insofar as he could say that ‘right’ refers to that particularly important class of good things that are so central to well-being, whilst the mere ‘good’ picks out the lower class of virtues.

But I’m not so sure this is plausible. If I murder one person, I commit a deep moral wrong. However, the disutility of my act appears minor when contrasted with the loss, say, of David Fincher’s laziness meaning that hundreds of millions of people are deprived of the joys of watching The Social Network. But Fincher’s laziness wouldn’t be wrong at all, whilst my committing murder would. It’s not clear if Hume’s attempts to track these thoughts by connecting them to utility can pay off.

Either way, we still carry the strong intuition that creativity is a virtue which, at least in aesthetic cases, carries no moral implications. But by calling it a virtue, we seem committed to saying that it somehow has some. And if Hume is correct, its implications could be colossal.


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