Essay is due in on Tuesday afternoon, so time to start gathering all my thoughts and readings over the past three weeks (the blogging has helped. All past posts on this are collected here).
Checking my email archives, it looks like I said I would explore “the literature on what virtues are with an eye towards defending the claims that something like ‘creativity’ is a virtue, and its importance has been neglected.” I’ll be tweaking that a little, but it captures my aims here quite well.
So, I need to squeeze five thousand words out of this topic. Here’s the plan:
First, acknowledge the difference between a theory of virtue and a theory of virtue ethics. A theory of virtue makes claims about what a virtue is and what virtues there are. A theory of virtue ethics does that too, but it also claims that the entirety of our moral thought is best done in terms of virtues. So only the latter ambitiously tries to explain what right actions are and what we should do in terms of the virtues. A theory of virtue could deny that virtues should play such a central role in moral thought.
Second, distinguish the Aristotelian and Humean traditions, which analyse virtues very differently. Not only does Hume offer a theory of virtue whilst Aristotle offers a theory of virtue ethics. More importantly, Hume offers a consequentialist account of what a virtue is, whilst Aristotle instead seems to argue for an account of virtues in which intentions matter, and the character traits are in themselves intrinsically valuable. For the sake of my argument that creativity is a virtue, this disagreement has little impact. I’m going to try to argue that creativity should be considered a virtue under both theories. However, the problems this claim raises for each theory differ drastically, as we shall see.
Third, I guess a word on what on earth creativity is would be wise. Kieran will help me with the abstract analysis, but my understanding will be guided by the belief that any decent definition will have to encompass all of the following forms of creativity: in sport, politics and science, as well as art.
Fourth, down to the business of showing why Hume would have been happy to consider creativity a virtue if only he had thought about it a bit more. Using Appendix 4 of the Second Enquiry, this should be easy. All we need to do is show how creativity causes so much good in the world. Hume cared little about the vague linguistic differences between skills, traits and virtues.
The same, however, can’t be said for the Aristotelians, who mean something a lot more specific by ‘virtue’. So fifth, we need to show how creativity can be taken to aim intrinsically at excellence, or ‘the Fine’. Again, with the help of Kieran and this time Goldie, I believe this is do-able.
Sixth, the problems for Hume produced by adopting creativity as a virtue. It looks like the utility of creativity in an individual is far higher than the utility of justice. Martin Scorsese murdering one person would be a huge harm and negative act, for sure. But the consequences for human happiness of his hypothetical laziness meaning that we were deprived of the joys of watching Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and all his other magnificent films seem far greater. If this looks doubtful, remember that the modern movie industry ensures this art reaches hundreds of millions of people. So Hume might have to swallow an awkward pill: creativity, it turns out, is an even greater virtue than justice.
But Aristotelians face related problems, which brings us to point seven. If they are committed to a theory of virtue ethics, then conclusions about what virtues there are entail claims about what actions are right and wrong. So if creativity is a virtue, it looks like we have to say that Martin Scorsese’s hypothetical laziness would have been wrong. But the idea of tying up artistic abilities with claims about what is moral is presumably something we would want to resist.
Of course, a theory of virtue ethics could incorporate creativity and avoid this problem by eliminating the category of right action, but I’ll take it that that is no more palatable than the previous path.
I don’t intend on solving these paradoxes. Nor will I bother to endorse Hume over Aristotle or vice versa, though the problem I aired yesterday has stirred deep doubts in me about the former. But the philosopher’s role is as much to map out the options available as it is to say which one we should choose. Yes, that’s a partial cop-out. But I’ve had three weeks and I have five thousand words. I’d need more time to consider what conclusions should be drawn out of this mess.
That’ll do for now. I’ll link to a Google Doc when the essay is done.