The virtues have gone out of fashion. Reference to them are nowadays mainly in contexts where we speak ironically. For example, we might mention to a friend that we have included in our tax return some trifling sum we have earned in addition to our normal income. Far from approving of this, our friend says: 'Oh very virtuous'. Or a Cabinet Minister who gets himself photographed cycling to a meeting might be accused of 'virtue signalling'. Curiously, the cognate term 'vice' is still used without irony to indicate serious moral wrongdoing. For example, if the police break up a 'vice ring', we think of serious offences involving drugs and sexual exploitation.
I shall leave it to cultural historians to offer a more scholarly account of the rise and decline of the moral outlook characterised by the virtues, and of the rise of our contemporary moral vocabulary of rights and duties. But it is roughly true that the moral outlook of the Ancient Greeks and of Christian Europe until the end of the 17th century was expressed mainly in terms of the virtues. What are the characteristics of this moral outlook?
One important strand in this approach depicts morality as fundamentally to be understood in terms of inner traits that cannot be expressed in terms of hard and fast rules. Aristotle distinguishes intellectual virtues from virtues of character. The virtues of character include courage, temperance and justice. Aristotle thinks of these virtues as correct emotional dispositions produced by early training and habituation. The Aristotelian line on virtue ethics is that right and wrong cannot be distilled into sets of objective rules. Rather, the virtuous individual is able to perceive what is required by specific moral situations. It must also be noted, however, that the application of these moral virtues must be guided by the intellectual virtue of what Aristotle calls phronesis, or a skill which guides virtuous action. Nowadays, we would think of phronesis as the ability to make sound judgements on how to behave in tricky situations.
There is a slightly different tradition of virtue ethics where the emphasis is on the inner state of the virtuous agent. The emphasis here is on the motives of the agent. In terms of this approach, it is the expression of the inner states or the motives which makes the actions right. There are hints of this in our contemporary outlook which places a high moral value on compassion (or 'empathy', whatever that is meant to be).
The inner state approach to the virtues is dominant in the theological virtues, which are usually named as faith, hope and charity or love. At one extreme of this approach, the Kingdom of Heaven is within you and the moral life becomes a pilgrimage, a vale of soul-making. The approach can be seen in one version of Catholicism but also in Puritanism and its subsets, in which virtues multiply. In my travels as an external examiner, I was once accommodated in the house of a devout Quaker. Each of the walls of my bedroom had the name of a virtue inscribed, and most bizarrely, the blankets had the names of virtues taped on. The inner sheets were inscribed 'forbearance'. There was really no option.
Ben Jonson makes fun of the Puritan obsession with virtues in some of his plays. Characters are given absurd names such as Zeal-of-thy-House-Busy. The collision between the traditional virtues of piety, including deference to hierarchical authority, and the rise of 'me-first' possessive individualism can also be seen in a play such as King Lear
The cardinal virtues are courage, temperance, justice and practical wisdom (phronesis). Nowadays, temperance is associated with a particular anti-alcohol movement and is far removed from its original wider meaning. Justice has been taken over by the post-17th century rights and duties approach to morality, and practical wisdom has become sound judgement. That leaves courage which, if no longer described as a virtue, is still seen as an admirable human quality. Indeed, it has been broadened in meaning beyond facing danger to include facing one's own diseases or demons.
Some traditional virtues should be brought out of retirement. For example, humility is a virtue not very apparent in politicians. Instead, we are told that 'lessons will be learned'. But that glib phrase does not really cut it. The other side of the coin is the virtue of magnanimity. For example, things can go wrong in complex spheres such as medical practice. But patients are always on the look out for someone to blame. 'If my father had only been given X or Y he would still have been alive. He was only 93.' Well, perhaps, but let it go.
I said at the beginning that the virtues are not much mentioned at the moment even in discussions of moral issues. They seem to belong to an age long gone by. But there is one issue which can still prompt discussion. Recently, in the news and newspapers, I have heard prominent people praising kindness. Kindness is certainly a virtue. But consider this situation. Let us imagine two young people – I shall call them John and Mary.
Let us say that John has been brought up from childhood to think of the problems of others. The natural self-centred tendencies of childhood have always been countered with 'How would you like it if…'. Moreover, let us also say that John is by nature a carefree and sunny young man. In other words, although he might not use the word 'virtue' of himself or others, he has the virtue of kindness. He will spot situations in which a kind intervention will produce a happy result and he will pleased that he has brought about the result.
Mary has had a different upbringing and has a different temperament. Her parents didn't see it as their job to draw any attention to the problems of others; they had enough of their own. Moreover, although Mary's parents were not neglectful, they were not especially affectionate. One consequence is that Mary does not by nature have the gift of feeling warm towards others and lacks a natural or spontaneous insight into their problems. Nevertheless, as a result of seeing a powerfully presented TV programme on food banks, she suddenly realises that some people have been dealt a really bad hand in life. She decides that it is her duty to help.
At the food bank, Mary meets John. John tells her he really enjoys coming to help. He feels that he is doing some good in the world and enjoys chatting to the people he meets and thinks (let us say rightly) that he gives some of the customers hope. Mary, on the other hand, does not enjoy her job in the food bank. But she conscientiously performs the duties she is assigned. She sometimes feels like giving up but her sense of duty prevails and she continues.
How are we to assess John and Mary? I am not concerned with whether they start dating. My question concerns the moral assessment of each. They would each be able to field a strong team of philosophers. In John's team, we would find not only Aristotle (as captain) but a number of well-known contemporary philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum and many others.
In Mary's team, the captain would be Kant. Kant goes as far as to say that the only morally good motive is conscientiousness – other motives such as benevolence certainly have value but not distinctively moral value. Kant places his money on conscientiousness, on doing your duty just because it is your duty. His argument is that dutifulness is the only factor under our control. A good upbringing and the gifts of nature are excellent for the lucky people who have them but only dutifulness has a distinctively moral value because it is the one thing which is up to us.
Whose side are you on?
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow