Humean role-models.

As I blogged the other week, Hume held a radically utilitarian theory of the virtues. He claimed that something is a virtue simply if it is an agreeable or useful disposition which aids you or society. So screw the tradition of restricting the class of virtues to serious and deep concepts like justice and courage and benevolence. Hume happily incorporates things as trivial as cleanliness into his picture. And when describing the sort of ideals we should aspire to, he tells the following tale:

You are very happy, we shall suppose one to say, addressing himself to another, that you have given your daughter to Cleanthes. He is a man of honour and humanity. Every one, who has any intercourse with him, is sure of fair and kind treatment. I congratulate you too, says another, on the promising expectations of this son-in-law; whose assiduous application to the study of the laws, whose quick penetration and early knowledge both of men and business, prognosticate the greatest honours and advancement. You surprize me, replies a third, when you talk of Cleanthes as a man of business and application. I met him lately in a circle of the gayest company, and he was the very life and soul of our conversation: So much wit with good manners; so much gallantry without affectation; so much ingenious knowledge so genteelly delivered, I have never before observed in any one. You would admire him still more, says a fourth, if you knew him more familiarly. That chearfulness, which you might remark in him, is not a sudden flash struck out by company: It runs through the whole tenor of his life, and preserves a perpetual serenity on his countenance, and tranquillity in his soul. He has met with severe trials, misfortunes as well as dangers; and by his greatness of mind, was still superior to all of them. The image, gentlemen, which you have here delineated of Cleanthes, cry’d I, is that of accomplished merit. Each of you has given a stroke of the pencil to his figure; and you have unawares exceeded all the pictures drawn by Gratian or Castiglione. A philosopher might select this character as a model of perfect virtue.

Julia Annas throws up her arms:

It is always hard to be sure that we have got Hume’s tone right, but if he is not being ironic here it is obvious that something is amiss. A yuppy lawyer who is great company at parties is a model of perfect virtue? Can this be serious? What has gone wrong here? We do not need to go into Hume’s account of virtue in depth to discover it (one reason why the example is useful in the present connection). What the description of Cleanthes brings out is that someone may have a character that is useful and agreeable to himself and others, and still be utterly uninspiring, somebody that nobody could take an ideal of a good person to be.


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