Williams on Virtue

But–and this is the point–it is rarely the case that the description that applies to the agent and to the action is the same as that in terms of which the agent chooses the action. “Just is indeed such a case, one of the few, and a just or fair person is one who chooses actions because they are just and rejects others because they are unjust or unfair. But a courageous person does not typically choose acts as being courageous, and it is a notorious truth that a modest person does not act under the title of modesty. The benevolent or kindhearted person does benevolent things, but does them under other descriptions, such as “she needs it,” “it will cheer him up,” “it will stop the pain.” The description of the virtue is not itself the description that appears in the consideration. Moreover, there is typically no one ethical concept that characterizes the deliberations of a person who has a particular virtue. (Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy p.10)

Bernard Williams’ thought here is often taken to embody a significant insight into ethical deliberation. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how the thought goes. It does undermine the blunt conception on which the ethically virtuous person’s actions arise from a standing desire “to do what is virtuous,” activated by the thought “this is virtuous!”  However, a further claim is suggested shortly thereafter:

The deliberations of people who are generous or brave, and also the deliberations of people who are trying to be more generous or braver, are different from the deliberations of those who are not like that, but the difference does not mainly lie in their thinking about themselves in terms of generosity or courage. (11)

This suggests a stronger reading–that the virtue concepts do not at all influence the deliberation of the virtuous person, nor the person who tries to be virtuous. Setting aside the peculiar case of modesty, this rings false. Someone trying to perform the courageous action may tell themselves “you can do this,” “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “stop being weak, goddamnit” while wavering between two actions. That none of these descriptions employs the word “courage” is partially a matter of register–“courage” is reserved for contexts of ceremony or commendations. It is also a function of the background virtue of modesty.

Without presupposing the unity of the virtues, it still seems right that a certain “moral modesty” must be present to have any virtue whatsoever. It is incompatible with a genuine virtue, as opposed to a self-serving facsimile of virtue, to take one’s actions to be exceptional. If I take myself to be doing something especially difficult or worthy of praise, it will tempt me to shirk, or perhaps I will resent that burden and the resentment may undermine my resolve (this is not meant to rule out recognizing virtue to be rare).  Perhaps this modesty explains why the courageous person does not use the word brave in considering his own actions.

Even this conclusion fails to match Williams’ rhetoric. For there is a sense in which the concept ‘modest’ plays a role in the modest person’s deliberations. The modest person does not boast, and will not even consider boasting, if they are sufficiently modest. Refusing to consider an action can still be explained by one’s evaluations. Loving one’s family will preclude even considering the possibility of cheating them, but it will thereby explain why one doesn’t consider that possibility. Similarly, the modest person doesn’t consider boasting because he views boasting as arrogant, or unduly vain.

So there is real sense in which ‘modesty’, or at least its opposites, feature in the moral cognition of the virtuous person.  This should not be surprising: for without a peculiar sort of ignorance it could not be otherwise.  If modesty is a mean between arrogance and self-abnegation, then the modest person must tacitly take himself to be modest.  He must at least think “I do not praise myself too much, nor do I regard myself too poorly.”  For if he took himself to be overly humble, that would motivate him to change his actions, and he would tend towards boastfulness (if it did not motivate him, that would be a sort of motivational inertia incompatible with virtue).  Modesty will cause him not to dwell on this fact, to view it as an unimportant matter if mentioned, or to make him think “there but for the grace of god…”  Still, he will be aware that he is modest.

If that picture of the virtuous man is implausible, that is a different objection, and one which I suspect tells against the theory.


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