What Knowledge Is Necessary for Virtue?

By Bailey, Olivia | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, February 2010 | Go to article overview

What Knowledge Is Necessary for Virtue?


Bailey, Olivia, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


ARISTOTELIAN ETHICS PRIDES ITSELF ON its close fit with the endoxa concerning how virtues are properly conceptualized and invoked in our evaluation of agents. However, some critics contend that its picture of the virtues is, in reality, strikingly unrealistic. One version of this criticism that has proven to have considerable staying power is the argument that Aristotelianism demands too much of the virtuous person in the way of knowledge to be credible. This general charge is usually directed against either of two of Aristotelianism's apparent claims about the necessary conditions for the possession of a single virtue--namely that 1) one must know what all the other virtues require, and 2) one must also be the master of a preternatural range of technical/empirical knowledge. In this paper, I argue that Aristotelianism does indeed have a very high standard when it comes to the knowledge necessary for the full possession of a virtue, in both of these respects. However, I deny that this has unacceptable implications when it comes to the evaluation of moral agents. The demandingness of the ideal of full knowledge to which Aristotelianism is committed can be effectively counterbalanced by the recognition that some kinds of knowledge are much more important to various virtues than others are. Aristotelians and their critics alike tend to overlook this truth. Nevertheless, it has important implications for our evaluation of agents' virtuousness.

1. The Reciprocity of the Virtues

a. The Problem

The first of the aforementioned complaints about Aristotelianism's knowledge requirement is directed against what is commonly known as the "reciprocity of the virtues thesis," the thesis that the full possession of a single virtue requires the full possession of every virtue. (1,2) Before turning to the matter of why this notion has been so widely regarded as problematic or unrealistic, it is important to have some sense of what motivates it in the first place. In fact, the thesis is a necessary product of the combination of certain broader Aristotelian commitments. To illustrate why this is so, I turn to John McDowell's argument for the reciprocity of the virtues. Other Aristotelians have argued for the same conclusion in slightly different terms, but McDowell's version of the traditional Aristotelian argument has the virtue of being relatively straightforward. (3) What is more, it is frequently the particular target at which enemies of the reciprocity thesis choose to aim.

In brief, his argument runs as follows: virtue should issue in nothing but right conduct. But there will be cases in which different concerns, pertaining to what we think of as other virtues, must shape our recognition of what a particular virtue requires of us. I could not have the virtue of kindness without the virtue of justice, for instance, because there will be cases in which a lack of sensitivity to the demands of justice will prevent me from hitting the mark with regard to kindness. As the exercise of any one virtue will inevitably run into the concerns of the others--indeed as there are "no limits to the possibilities for compresence, in the same situation, of circumstances of the sorts proper sensitivities to which constitute all of the virtues"--the virtues are best thought of as bound inextricably together. (4)

I take it that McDowell does not deny that an expert in, say, courage could act without particular generosity on occasion without compromising the courageousness of his action. Not all virtues are relevant in all situations. Normally, it would be bizarre to say that the commander's being courageous in battle was contingent upon his hitting the target with regard to generosity in his action. The strength of the reciprocity of the virtues argument depends, rather, on the requirement that virtue be cross-situationally stable. Had the situation been different, had the need for generosity come into play, would the commander have known how that need would affect the proper realization of courage? …

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