From the Right Action to Human Flourishing: On Howard J. Curzer’s “Virtue Ethics for the Real World”
By Christian B. MillerAugust 13, 2023
Virtue Ethics for the Real World: Improving Character Without Idealization by Howard J. Curzer
That hasn’t always been the usual response, though. Some 50 years ago, for instance, virtue ethics probably would not have been on the list at all. In prior centuries, a supernatural approach would have made an appearance, whereby morality is based on God’s commands or will. In the early days of Greek philosophy, virtue ethics might have been the only option mentioned, or at least the leading one.
Today, though, we have the big three, and then a bunch of less popular contenders. The three are never static; they evolve over time. Contemporary utilitarians, for instance, often reject the traditional hedonistic focus on pleasure that Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill emphasized. Few contemporary Kantians would accept Immanuel Kant’s exact formulations (he had more than one of them) of the supreme principle of morality. And virtue ethicists are continually updating Aristotle’s list of virtues or devising new accounts of the relationship between virtue, right action, and human flourishing.
Enter Howard J. Curzer’s latest book, Virtue Ethics for the Real World: Improving Character Without Idealization. Curzer is not interested in trying to show why virtue ethics is better than its main rivals. Rather, his conversation partners are other philosophers within the virtue ethics community. Written primarily (though not exclusively) with a scholarly audience in mind, Curzer’s book provides one of the most sensible and plausible developments of virtue ethics on offer today.
In developing a version of virtue ethics, most philosophers will address some standard issues. Leading contributors to the contemporary discussion, such as Rosalind Hursthouse, Michael Slote, Christine Swanton, and Julia Annas, have already staked out their own territory. Here is how Curzer maneuvers through this familiar landscape:
- Idealization. Some of the Stoics famously held that the only virtue is ideal virtue. Abraham Lincoln has to be perfectly honest, for instance, or he does not have the virtue of honesty to any extent. Curzer rejects this, going with the more common-sense approach: virtues can be good-enough character traits so long as they are above a certain threshold. Abraham Lincoln gets to count as honest even if he wasn’t perfectly honest.
- Virtue and Right Action. For many virtue ethicists, it is natural to think that morally right actions get to be that way because they are virtuous actions. If Lincoln does the honest act, then surely it is right. Curzer denies this. For instance, sometimes virtues can come into conflict, and when they do, it can be wrong to do what one of the conflicting virtues suggests. Telling the truth to the Nazi at the door if you are hiding a Jewish family in the basement is wrong, even though honest. Compassion should have the upper hand. For Curzer, “it is the practical wisdom of virtuous people, rather than the endorsement of their virtues, that grounds right actions.”
- Dilemmas. A closely related issue is how to think about dilemmas in moral life. One might hold what Curzer calls the Harmony of Virtue Doctrine (virtues never lead to actions that conflict) and the Dutifulness of Virtue Doctrine (a virtue never leads to an action that conflicts with a moral duty). But both of these doctrines are false.
- What Makes a Character Trait a Virtue? Consider pride and humility: which one is the virtue, which one is the vice, and why? Aristotle, Aquinas, and Nietzsche, not to mention contemporary virtue ethicists, have given a variety of answers. Curzer’s follows Aristotle. Whether a character trait is a virtue in my character depends upon whether it does the best job of promoting my own happiness.
- Reciprocity of Virtues. Aristotle held that if someone has just one of the virtues, then she must have all of them. They come as an all-or-nothing package. But Curzer, like every other virtue ethicist today that I know of, thinks this is false.
- Doctrine of the Mean. There is another famous doctrine from Aristotle that Curzer likes a lot. According to the Doctrine of the Mean, for any given virtue, there is at least one vice of excess and at least one vice of deficiency. The standard example is courage, which is contrasted with rashness (a vice of excess) and cowardice (a vice of deficiency).
- List of Virtues. Every virtue ethicist, it seems, has his or her own list of virtues. Here is Curzer’s, corresponding with what he identifies as 10 different spheres of our lives: courage, temperance, benevolence, ambition, forgiveness, wit, shame, justice, care, and playfulness.
Much of the territory that Curzer stakes out is highly defensible. Some of it, perhaps, does not need much of a defense in the first place. Rejecting idealization and the reciprocity of the virtues and accepting the existence of virtue dilemmas are all very safe positions to occupy these days. But Curzer does take fresh and bolder stands on other issues, such as the relationship between virtue and moral rightness.
One instance in which I needed some more convincing had to do with basing virtues egoistically in our own happiness. I would have thought that the heart of compassion is benefiting others, the heart of generosity is helping those in need, the heart of justice is giving everyone their due, the heart of honesty is not intentionally distorting reality, the heart of humility is accurately understanding and valuing your accomplishments and self-worth, and so forth. The heart of all these virtues has nothing to do with benefiting their possessors. Nor is it clear that there would be a reliable convergence between what they each aim at and the person’s own happiness.
In the second part of his book (“Character Improvement”), Curzer provides an extensive discussion of the components of a virtue, with a focus on the passions and practical wisdom, and engages with the Capabilities Approach as developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. Concerning the actual topic of character improvement, though, I came away wanting more.
Curzer’s main contribution is to advance a medical analogy for helping us to think about character improvement. Similar to how a doctor goes about treating a patient, he suggests that “[c]haracter improvers should rattle through a list of questions and observations of people with character flaws, checking for other, correlating flaws.” They should also “seek rehabilitation strategies tailored to these character flaws,” and “[s]trategies of prevention should be devised and disseminated.” This is quite fascinating, and worth exploring further. Curzer even calls for an analogue to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), namely a “DSM-V (V for virtue).”
At some point, I was expecting to find discussion of actual strategies we could use to grow in virtue (or work against vice, or both). What are some practical approaches that we can take, individually or at larger organizational and cultural levels, to foster character improvement? This is one of the leading topics in the virtue ethics literature today, and there are plenty of strategies to develop further or critically assess. There has been, for example, much discussion of the importance of virtuous role models and exemplars. Nudging people towards better behavior is another approach. Labeling people as having a virtue, even when you think they don’t, is still another. It was surprising that they didn’t make an appearance in the book.
Now, Curzer may have a perfectly good reason for not discussing the existing strategies for character improvement. As he stresses, character is incredibly complex and messy, and the same goes for character improvement. So, trying to develop one-size-fits-all strategies for fostering virtue might not be a good use of our time. I am sympathetic to this point. At the same time, though, Curzer develops a picture of virtue that is so complex that, by the end of the book, I came away with a sense of hopelessness that I personally could ever do enough to get to qualify as virtuous.
To understand this reaction, note that Curzer unpacks the components of any given virtue, 10 of them in total, as follows: “perception, passion, reason, choice, goals, action, feedback loops, imagination, focus, and collaborative decision-making.” Now, for each of these components, there are many ways to fail. We can be either excessive, deficient, very excessive, or very deficient, with respect to the occasions, objects, people, motives, and degrees of each component. For instance, Curzer likes to use the example of the virtue of courage, and the “passion component for courage includes the disposition to feel fear to the right degree, on the right occasions, for the right duration, toward the right objects, with respect to the right people.” Since there can be four different ways to go wrong, and five different areas to go wrong in, that gives us 20 different potential ways for just the passion component to go wrong when it comes to fear of bodily injury. When we add up all the potential sources of failure for all the components of a virtue, Curzer suggests that the number could reach 400 possible flaws. For one virtue! And note that all these flaws need to be avoided; otherwise, a person can’t qualify for that virtue.
This, again, leaves me in a state of hopelessness. Suppose I am told that I will be given an easy, pass/fail type of test. But here’s the catch—you fail if you get just one of the questions wrong. That’s not so bad if there are just a couple of easy questions. But now suppose you find out that there are 400 of them. Even if the questions were all easy ones, I wouldn’t like my chances. Plus, when it comes to the components of a virtue, getting them right will be far from easy.
The note to end on, though, is not a negative one. Howard Curzer is to be commended for putting together the virtue-ethical pieces in a way that is novel and more plausible than most of the options currently out there in philosophy. And that makes his book required reading for anyone interested in the subject.
Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, and author of The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2017), among many other books.
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