PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 10

 - Virtue and Habit II


Although we become virtuous by acting as the virtuous person does, a close reading of Aristotle’s text shows that, on his account, it is not enough to be virtuous that we act in certain ways. What’s needed, according to Aristotle, is that you knowingly act virtuously for its own sake from a stable character, and do so with pleasure. Professor Gendler turns to Julia Annas’s suggestion that Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow may be helpful in characterizing the condition that you take pleasure in the virtuous act. Finally, a critique of virtue ethics from John Doris and situationist psychology is raised which offers experimental evidence that casts doubt on the existence of stable character traits.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 10 - Virtue and Habit II

Chapter 1. Aristotle on the Requirements of Virtue [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: OK. So today I’m going to give you your money’s worth in the sense that some of you might be taking this class to see whether you would want to take another philosophy class at some point in the future. And though a lot of what we’ve been doing in this class is typical of what one would do in a philosophy class, one of the things of which we haven’t done that much is close reading of extended passages from texts. And so what I want to do today is to read through as a group–which means I talk and you listen, so it’s not really a group. But read through with you all out there smiling back at me, one section of Aristotle’s Ethics, in particular Book two Chapter four, to try to situate for you the two responses that we read for today that both exemplify the theme of the course.

So roughly the first quarter to third of lecture will be going through this passage from Aristotle. I’ll put the text up for you and I’ll talk you through it. And then what I want to do is to bring out to you how it is that the two articles we read for today pick up on very specific and very precise portions of the Aristotelian text. So as I said, we’re going to be looking closely at something in the book that we’ve been reading from Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

In particular, we have heard many times recitation of Aristotle’s claim that virtues of character are acquired through habituation. That just as one becomes a player of the harp by playing the harp, so too one becomes just by acting as the just one does, brave by acting like the brave one does. But Aristotle himself realizes that this cannot be the full story and he begins his discussion in Book two, Chapter four, something that we’ve read twice already in this class–once a few weeks ago and reread for Tuesday.

Aristotle remarks that “someone might be puzzled by what we mean by saying that we become just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions. For one might suppose that if we do just or temperate actions, we are thereby just or temperate.” Aristotle wants to correct a possible misconception of what it is that he’s claiming. In particular, he wants to point out that although it is a necessary condition on being just and temperate, that one do just and temperate actions, it’s not a sufficient condition. That is, although it’s a requirement to be just and temperate that you have to act in the way that the just or temperate person does, it’s not enough to do that. You need some other things in addition. And what we’re doing today is refining the understanding that we’ve gotten already. We knew already from the previous readings and lectures that Aristotle says: in order to be just you have to act as the just one does and habituate yourself to that sort of action. And now he’s going to give us some additional conditions on justice, temperance and the other virtues.

So he says, “for actions to be done temperately or justly, it does not suffice that they themselves have the right qualities; rather the agent must also be in the right state when he does them.” Now what could Aristotle mean by that? What does he mean by saying for an action to be done justly, it does not suffice, it’s not sufficient, for the action to have the right qualities? In addition, the agent has to be in the right state when he does it.

Well suppose I act in a temperate fashion simply because the resources required for me to act in an intemperate fashion aren’t available. Suppose the reason that I refrain from drinking the chocolate milk that’s typically in my fridge is because there’s no chocolate milk in my fridge for me to drink. Suppose the reason that I refrain from going to a party on Saturday night is because there are no parties available for me to go to. I have in that case, says Aristotle, acted as the temperate person would. But I haven’t done so as the result of being in the right state.

Or I might, intending to give an object to somebody to whom it doesn’t belong, mistakenly return it to its rightful owner. If I do that, I return the object to its rightful owner. I act as the just person would. But I don’t do so for the right reason.

Aristotle wants to say that if you’re temperate only because you don’t have the opportunity to act in an intemperate way, but that if you had that opportunity you would, and that if you act as the just person would not because you’re aiming to be just, but only because you’ve got faulty information, your activity doesn’t count as an instance of the virtue with which he is concerned. In particular, Aristotle says that there are three conditions that you need to satisfy for your just act to count as a virtuously just act or your temperate act to count as a temperate act and so on.

First, you need to do the action knowing that you’re doing something virtuous. Second, you need to decide to do the action exactly because doing so is virtuous. And third, you need to do so from what he calls a “firm and unchanging state.” So the first condition is that you be in a situation where you know what act is the virtuous one. The second is, you choose it because it’s the virtuous one. And the third is that your choice isn’t a one off thing which is happening in this situation, but not in others. But rather that your choice is expressive of, indicative of, arising from a state of character that you have that persists over time. And I’ll give some examples in a minute.

Aristotle says in summation that “actions are called just or temperate when they are the sort that a just or temperate person would do” where the just or temperate person is not the one who merely does the actions, but the one who does them “in the way that the just or temperate person does them.”

So the question that that leaves us with is this: What is the way that a just or temperate or brave or otherwise virtuous person does those acts? So let’s run through it with the example of bravery, how it is that we might satisfy the three Aristotelian conditions?

The first condition you recall is that you have to do the action knowingly. So suppose I’m out there on the battlefield and I know that there are two groups of soldiers–the brave ones and the cowardly ones. And I am totally clear that I have no interest whatsoever in risking my life. So I make the decision that my plan is to do whatever the cowardly soldiers do. And I set myself up in such a way that I put myself in the middle of a group of people whom I take to be cowardly soldiers and I follow along with what it is that they’re doing. If it turns out that I have mistakenly selected a group of brave soldiers to imitate rather than a group of cowardly soldiers to imitate, I will perform a behavior that is the same behavior that the brave person would, but I won’t perform it in the way that the brave person did. I thought that I was imitating the cowardly soldiers, but because I was mistaken about who the brave ones were and who the cowardly ones were, I mistakenly imitated an action that turned out to be brave. Aristotle says: No credit. No credit for virtuous action.

The second requirement is that in addition to knowing which action is the virtuous one and which is the non-virtuous one, I have to decide to perform the action because it’s virtuous. So suppose now I’m in a similar situation. I’m out on the battlefield. I know which group is the cowardly group and I know which group is the brave group and I decide because I want to get a good reputation that I will do as the brave soldiers do. So I’m knowingly performing an act that is brave, but I’m not performing the act that is brave because it is brave, because in so doing I will express a virtue, because in so doing I will bring to fruition this ideal state that Aristotle has emphasized the importance of. I’m doing it because I’m interested in getting a medal. I’m doing it because I’m interested in getting a good reputation. Aristotle says, even if I do the right thing, even if I do the right thing knowingly, if I do it with the wrong motivation in mind. No credit.

Third, Aristotle says that in order for an action to count as an expression of virtue, I not only have to do it knowingly and for the right reason, I have to do it in such a way that it expresses a characterological feature of mine that extends over time. So suppose that I just this once decide to act brave for the sake of being brave, even though usually I tend to act in a cowardly way. Aristotle says even if I do it knowingly, even if I do it under the description “brave act”, which I’m doing for its own sake, if in so doing I don’t express a continuous feature of my character that leads me to do this typically in circumstances requiring bravery, no credit.

And in fact, Aristotle imposes a fourth condition as well. And that fourth condition is articulated in the opening paragraph of Book two, Chapter three. And it reads as follows: “We must take someone’s pleasure or pain following on his actions to be a sign of his state. If someone who abstains from bodily pleasures enjoys the abstinence, he is temperate. If he’s grieved, he is intemperate. If he stands firm against terrifying situations and does not find it painful, he is brave. But if he finds it painful he is cowardly.”

So let’s go back to our list. In order for an action to count as virtuous on Aristotle’s picture, you have to do it knowing that it’s the virtuous act. You have to do it because it’s the virtuous act for its own sake. You have to do it as an expression or result of a standing character feature that you have. And you have to do it with enjoyment. You have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel to you like it’s an imposition to act that way. The brave person on Aristotle’s view is the person who knowingly, for the sake of being brave, regularly, and with pleasure acts as the brave person does.

Now next Thursday, we will start looking at an ethical theory which challenges one and two. We’re going to look at an ethical theory, consequentialism. A particular version of it, utilitarianism which says that the moral worth of an act doesn’t depend in any way on the knowledge or intentions of the person performing the act. The texts we read for today consider respectively the fourth and third condition.

So the text that we read from Julia Annas asks the question, what does it mean to satisfy Aristotle’s fourth condition? What does it mean? What does it feel like to be an individual for whom the performance of acts in accordance with virtue is something that one does with enjoyment?

And the other text that we read for today–the John Doris text–calls into question whether the idea that in order for an act to be virtuous it has to come from a firm and unchanging state, presupposes something faulty about human psychology.

So the two texts that we’re reading for today actually come straight out of a careful understanding of what’s going on in Book two, Chapter four of The Nicomachean Ethics. So I’m going to turn now to those texts, but before I do so I’m going to check that everybody’s clear on where we got these four requirements, on what it is that they add to the initial idea that we become brave by doing brave acts, just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones. And that people are clear how that came out of the Aristotelian text that we’re looking at. So questions before we move on?

Chapter 2. Julia Annas and Flow [00:16:02]

All right, so the paper that we read by Julia Annas, who is a scholar of ancient philosophy, asks the following question: what would it be like to be an Aristotelian good person? That is, what is what’s sometimes called the phenomenology–the what it feels like from the inside–of Aristotelian virtue? Aristotle’s told us that the brave person is the one who acts brave without feeling pain at the bravery, who finds it natural and pleasurable to act as the virtuous person does. Annas’s question is, what does that feel like from the inside? And her answer is that what it feels like from the inside is the kind of internal harmony that we’ve been talking about in many of the lectures in this unit of the course.

“Exercising virtue is something that in the virtuous person involves a harmony of feelings and deliberations, rather than a feeling of overcoming inclinations.”

It is to be in a state of internal harmony. One’s reflective commitments, one’s instincts, one’s apprehension of the world around one, the patterns of attention that one has to the environment, all of those come together in such a way that it doesn’t even feel like one is contemplating an alternate possibility. The brave person on the Aristotelian picture doesn’t stand on the battlefield and think, “Huh, I wonder what the brave person should do and what the cowardly one should do. Oh, that cowardly thing is so tempting, but I guess I’ll avoid it.” The brave person stands on the battlefield and–like the person who has turned a normative law into a descriptive one from last class–feels as if there’s nothing else to be done then the brave action.

On the Aristotelian picture, the just person, when faced with the possibility of giving back the right amount of change or the wrong amount of change in the transaction, doesn’t think to himself, “Hm, I wonder if whether I ripped off my partner I would get caught. Hm, I guess I wouldn’t. I suppose I’ll do the right thing.” The virtuous person on the Aristotelian picture doesn’t even contemplate the alternative activity. And consequently feels no need to overcome the alternative temptation. There’s not a feeling of resisting a pull in the other direction. There’s a feeling that the world presents itself to you with what is to be done, and that you go on to do that. Just as when you go over to your friend’s for dinner, there is I take it, no thought on your part, “What beautiful silver candlesticks: should I bring them home with me or should I leave them here?” So too for the Aristotelian virtuous one is that feeling with respect to anything that we might think of as a moral dilemma.

Now Aristotle also has quite a bit to say about what it’s like to be in a state where these feelings come apart, where they pull in different directions. And the selections that we’re going to read from Aristotle for next Tuesday discuss exactly that question. What is it like to be somebody who has to force themselves to be virtuous? Whose instincts run the other direction? But he’s in a position and need to ask that question exactly because he’s already told us in Book two what it is like to be in this harmonious, virtuous state.

Now Julia Annas’s suggestion is that we can give articulation to this idea in a contemporary scientific paradigm by drawing on a particular idea from positive psychology, this idea of flow.

So Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born psychologist, has for the last 30 years or so talked to people who excel in some domain or other and asked them what it feels like when they are doing the activity which they do so well in a way that is completely absorbing and engaging. So he talks to composers and he talks to rock climbers and he talks to firefighters and he talks to musicians and he asks them what it feels like to be in a state: an athletic state, a musical state, a creative state, a state of absorption in effective parenting, whatever it is that you do and you do well and you enjoy. What does it feel like to be in that state?

And what he says–as you should know, if you had the chance to watch his TED talk–is that it is when our attention is deliberately focused on what we are doing that the action is most experienced as effortless. In a state of complete absorption, we’re attentive to the subtle nuances of the experience. You’re playing basketball and the location of the hoop and the ball and your hand and the other players is just there for you as a single apprehension. You’re engaged in an absorbing chess game and you have a feel for the location of the pieces on the board. You’re engaged in a conversation with someone you love or someone you care for and all of the nuances and all of the subtleties of that interaction are apparent to you.

Now what Annas notices is that there are two particular features of flow experience that are actually central to the ancient harmony-of-the-soul notion of virtue. And the first is that flow activity, activity in which you are fully absorbed, is experienced as what she calls autotelic. She’s actually there making use of terminology that Csikszentmihalyi himself uses. Auto meaning: self, telic meaning: end. Something that is autotelic is an end in itself. It’s not a means to an end. It’s something that has–wow, I’m remembering something from Plato’s Republic, from those opening pages from our very first reading assignment. It’s something that we experience as having intrinsic value. It’s something that when we do it, we’re not thinking of it merely as a means to some other end. We’re thinking of it as something that is enjoyable for its own sake.

A painter who’s painting paintings thinking: ”How much am I going to be able to sell this for on the market?” is not at the time of painting absorbed in painting for its own sake. An athlete who thinks about their performance only in terms of how many points it will get for them or their team won’t become fully absorbed in the activity. It turns out that even for things of instrumental value, the most effective way to do them with excellence is to become so absorbed in them that they feel to us to be of intrinsic worth.

And this give us, I think, a new insight on that three-way divide that we had in the opening pages of Book Two of Plato’s Republic, when we were told that there are things that are instrumentally valuable, things that are intrinsically valuable and things that are both. It gives us a way of understanding how even for things that are merely instrumentally valuable, we can get caught up in our engagement with them in such a way that they feel to us to have intrinsic worth. And this is of course, both a virtue and a vice.

The most famous commodity with merely instrumental value is of course, money. The bills in your pocket, I hasten to tell you, are not worth as pieces of paper much more than a fraction of a penny. But they have instrumental value within a system of economic give and take. But even within that system of economic give and take, they are only of instrumental value because money for its own sake isn’t useful. Money is useful because it allows us to purchase other things that are useful for their own sake–beautiful cars, beautiful foods, time to spend with our friends and family, opportunities to visit parts of the world. All of those are things that we can buy with money. But money in itself is of only instrumental utility.

Nonetheless, exactly the human psychological function that enables us to treat something like making a shot in a basketball game, which is of course only of instrumental value, as if it were of intrinsic value–that allows us to get caught up in experience, that allows us to have this experience of flow, can be redeployed so that we come to think that whoever dies with the largest number in their bank account has somehow won a game whose point values weren’t arbitrary. So there is–as is very often the case–both an upside and a downside to this fact about human psychology: the fact that we are capable of experiencing things that might not have intrinsic value as if they did.

And in fact, experiencing things in that way is one of the most powerfully engaging things that we can do. Exactly because when all of our energies are directed towards the activity, we lose ourselves in it. There is a feeling–and Csikszentmihalyi describes this beautifully in the last five minutes of the TED talk that I sent you to. There is this feeling of complete absorption, a feeling of unselfconsciousness, a feeling of a breakdown between the boundaries of the self and the boundaries of the world. You become part of the scene with respect to which you’re experiencing the flow. And indeed, the moment you let self-consciousness reemerge, the flow gets disrupted. Any of you who has ever played a sport or a musical instrument or been in a play or given a lecture knows the danger of stepping out of the scene and listening to yourself doing it, how disruptive that can be of the experience.

So Annas’s suggestion is that Aristotle’s idea of virtue is the idea that virtue and the activity of virtue should feel flow-like. It should feel absorbing. It should feel non-reflective. It should feel that when you are in the act of being brave or just or temperate or magnanimous or magnificent or any of the other Aristotelian virtues, that what you experience at that moment is a feeling that you’re doing something about which there was no choice. This is just the way the world is–with respect to which you feel there to be intrinsic value, and where you feel fully absorbed and unselfconscious.

And Csikszentmihalyi goes on in his more systematic work to explain that the reason that this occurs is because there is a profound match between your skill level and the challenge that the activity brings with it. When we are presented with a task, which is not challenging for us and with respect to which we have low skill, we experience what Csikszentmihalyi calls apathy. So if there’s something that’s not very hard for me, but I’m not very good at it, there’s going to be little motivation to respond to that with engagement. If my skill level is low and the task is a little bit harder, I might feel worried in the face of my inability to do it. And if my skill level is low and the challenge level is high, I might even feel anxiety.

Moving over, if my skill level is moderate and the activity is of low challenge to me, I’ll experience a feeling of boredom. I won’t find myself engaged by it. I’ll find the situation to be tedious. If my skill level is medium and the activity is of high challenge, I might feel aroused. I might feel intrigued by it. I might feel some motivation to act in that way. But the cases where we feel the most excitement in the world are the cases where we have the coping strategies that enable us to act effectively as agents.

You’ll recall that when we read the material from Jonathan Haidt for last class and the class before, he described an experiment that was done on the floor of a nursing home where the patients were either given the responsibility for caring for the plants on the floor or somebody else cared for the plants on the floor. And the happiness level of those who were engaged in productive activity was much higher. Skillful coping, being able to be a force of agency in the world is for human beings one of the primary sources of happiness. And if we think back to what we talked about a few classes ago on the importance of early childhood secure attachment, one way of understanding what secure attachment includes is a feeling of agency in the world.

If when you cry it causes your caregiver to come to you and satisfy your needs, you come to feel yourself to be effective as an agent. And so when our skill level is high, even if the challenge level is low, we’ll feel performing the activity a certain kind of relaxation. Those of you who play bubble pop games on your telephone and are good at them are presumably experiencing that. Many times we have high skill level with a low challenge activity and it enables us to feel that we’re relaxing. When we have high skill level and a challenge that’s medium for us, we get this thrill of control. The idea that here’s something you’re trying to do. You have pretty good mastery of it and it gives you this feeling of efficacy. And finally, we have one cell unexposed in this matrix. And that’s the cell that asks us what it’s like when we have both high skill level and a challenging activity. And it won’t surprise you to learn that that is where flow falls.

So Annas’s suggestion, drawing on Csikszentmihalyi as a way of understanding Aristotle, is that what it is like to be a virtuous being from the inside is to be fully absorbed in an activity that is in some sense enormously challenging. It involves scanning the world in such a way that you recognize what situations are morally demanding and acting skillfully, naturally, effortlessly, happily in a state of harmony, in a way that conforms with what the world demands of you. And in so doing one is fully absorbed in an activity which feels to one to be of intrinsic worth, and where the feeling of one’s self as a distinct agent disappears because of the absorption. So that’s the first of the articles that we read for today. One which says, here’s a demand which Aristotle makes, here’s a way of understanding that demand in the vocabulary of a contemporary work of social psychology.

Chapter 3. John Doris and the Situationist Critique [00:35:27]

The second piece that we read for today does exactly the opposite. John Doris, following a number of other philosophers including Gilbert Harman and several others, suggests that contemporary social psychology shows that it’s circumstance rather than character that’s the primary determinant of action. What determines how we act in a situation says Doris, says social psychology–that is, Doris says social psychology says–when we are in a situation, what determines our action is not something stable about our character, not Aristotle’s condition three that it be a state that persists over time, but rather incidental features of the situation. And as a result Aristotelian moral psychology, in particular in its third condition, demands that we commit what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error.

In order to explain the fundamental attribution error, let me present you with the study that serves as the paradigm instance showing the ways in which circumstance and not character appear to determine behavior. And I present this study to you both because it’s central to this literature, and because our very second class, we read a piece by one of its authors, Batson. And when we get to the punishment section, we’ll be reading a piece by its other author, John Darley.

So the Good Samaritan parable, as those of you raised in Christian religious traditions know, is a story that Jesus tells in the book of Luke when he is asked basically the question which we’ve asked Plato and Aristotle to answer for us: How is it that I can behave in the way that morality demands? And the story that Jesus tells runs as follows.

“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among robbers who both stripped him and beat him and departed leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite also when he came to the place saw him and passed by the other side. But a certain Samaritan as he traveled came where he was when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. Came to him, bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.” That’s apparently a nice thing to do to wounds. “Set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, took care of him.” And the story continues. He gives the innkeeper money to take care of the man. And Jesus says to the person who asked for a story, “this too should you do.”

So the story of the Good Samaritan is a story that, if you are thinking about it, should lead you presumably to recognize the virtue of helping the stranger in need. It should make it particularly salient to you that among the moral demands that the world places on you is that if somebody is lying injured along the wayside, and you are in a position to help them, then it would be in keeping with the demands of morality for you to stop and lean down and pour oil and wine onto his wounds–or whatever the contemporary analog of that is.

So the study that Darley and Batson did ran as follows. They took a bunch of divinity school students at Princeton–young seminarians. You can see them there in their young seminarian outfits. And it asked some of them to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. So these are divinity school students, presumably people who are committed to developing moral character in themselves. And what they’ve been asked to do is to prepare a sermon on something that makes very, very salient to them that if you stumble upon somebody who is in need of your help, you should stop and help them. And then what Batson and Darley did is they told some of these people that they were in a great rush to get to the other side of campus where they needed to deliver their lecture. And some of them they didn’t tell this to. And some of the seminarians had been told to do the Good Samaritan story and some of the seminarians had been told to prepare another story.

Now you might think if the hypothesis that what determines behavior is character were true, that those seminarians who had prepared a lecture on the Good Samaritan would be particularly likely to recognize the moral needs attaching to stumbling upon somebody who was injured. And that the question of whether they were late or early to give their lecture would have no bearing. Darley and Batson decided to test this. What they did is they had the seminarians walk over towards the lecture hall. And on their way there was somebody lying on the sidewalk in need of their help.

Now, what was predictive of whether the seminarians stopped to help this man on the wayside was not whether they had prepared a story about the Good Samaritan. It was whether they were in a rush to get to their lecture. And those of them who were very often not only didn’t help the man, they stepped over his body and rushed over to the theater.

Now all of us have experienced this. If I’m in a rush to pick up my kids and I have to pull over because there’s an ambulance coming the other way, I feel incredible annoyance. Why? Because I think, “oh that person in the ambulance, they deserve to die because I’ve got to pick up my kids”? No, it’s because when our attention is directed towards an external goal, it is very hard for us to be attentive to the moral features of a situation.

And it turns out, over and over and over again, that when we’re trying to decide what led somebody to act in a particular way; we have a tendency to over-credit features of their character–dispositional features–and under-credit situational features–features of the circumstance. So we might think for example, that whether or not–this is the opening case in Doris’s paper–whether or not you’re likely to help somebody pick up their papers when they drop them depends upon a feature of your character. Are you a helpful person or an unhelpful person? But it looks like you can manipulate whether people are going to be willing to help simply by letting them find a dime in a phone booth. (If you don’t know what a phone booth is, there’s a movie called “The Matrix” and they have phone booths in it.) Whether or not they find a dime in the phone booth is what determines whether they help.

In the Good Samaritan study, it’s not whether they’re thinking about being helpful–it’s whether they’re in a rush. In the Milgram experiments, it’s not about whether in general they behave one way or the other–it’s whether they find themselves in a circumstance where a demand is made of them. In the Vietnam “moral luck” cases, it’s not that these young men who went to Vietnam and found themselves in a circumstance had a character that would lead them to act in that way, says this theory–it’s that they found themselves in this circumstance.

So, says John Doris, the Aristotelian theory can’t be right. It presupposes a faulty picture of human psychology.

It’s 11:20 now. At the beginning of next lecture, I’ll pick up again with two results from social psychology that challenge, in certain ways, the claim that Doris is making against Aristotle, and then we’ll continues with our discussion of Aristotle’s counter side to this–what we do in cases of weakness of the will and what strategies are available to us if we don’t satisfy Aristotle’s four conditions.

[end of transcript]

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