Friday, December 26, 2008

Julia Annas and Moral Phenomenology

In a recent article, Phenomenology of Virtue (March 2008), Julia Annas wants to know how to distinguish the content of what it is to be virtuous from what it is to be less-than virtuous. For her and myself, there must be a content to the experience of being a virtuous person. For her, this follows that virtue ethics makes claim about what type of people we ought to be, and the methodology of doing ethics in this way assumes what I also take for granted as a phenomenology--there is content in how we experience phenomena in the first-person-perspective. Both the virtue ethicist, and the phenomenologist meet on these assumptions about the subject/moral agent as an experiencer of subjective content in relation to having an experience.

In her view, she suggests Aristotle's answer that the virtuous person finds being virtuous pleasant is the solution to what the phenomenology of virtue consists. While I make no claims about her substantive proposal. Her suggestion might just be the case. She grounds her interpretation of Aristotle's answer in a very closely familiar Heideggerian way. She invokes notions of practical involvement, the exercise of being absorbed in our world through the work of social psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's "flow experience." This proposal sounds very, very, very Heideggerian to me. Consider this part of the text that captures of the core of the view:

Defensible forms of virtue ethics, in my opinion, hold that virtues are acquired
and exercised in a way which is relevantly similar to the acquisition and
exercise of practical skills. The person learning to be brave will need to ask
herself, when faced by a situation in which someone needs to be rescued, what
would be a brave thing to do here, or what a brave person would do
here...Someone who is, as we say, truly or really brave, the mature brave
person, will respond to the other person's need for rescue without having to
work out what a brave person would do, or what would be a brave action here. not
only do we not need to suppose that such thoughts occur, we can see how they
might, in the brave person, actually inhibit the needed response (p. 24)

I'm going to think about this for a while, but I anticipate this interpretation will come close to Heidegger's construal of Dasein as "being-in."


larryniven said...

It's an interesting idea, although one I'm not entirely sure what to make of yet. The kind of automatic reaction you refer to with the quoted text very much brings to mind (maybe intentionally) being in the zone while playing a sport. The issue I have with this similarity is that some things that operate the same way as being in the zone are really just reflexes and don't reflect at all one's skill at the game. Similarly, I can imagine - and, more importantly, I believe that I could find examples of - things that people do that might seem as though they're the actions of a maturely ethical person but indeed are done without even having a notion of ethics.

I guess this doesn't cause any real problems for the theory of in-the-zone morality, but it might require a matching notion of mature vice (because if we can learn good behavior, surely we can learn bad behavior, too). But would it be unexpected for the experiential content of mature vice to match that of mature virtue? My intuition says that won't be particularly good for the theory, but I've only just now started thinking about it, so you'll probably have a better answer.

Vancouver Philosopher said...

Sorry, it has taken me a while to get back to you. I actually don't have an answer, really.

I mean a phenomenology of virtue is a description of the experiential contents of what-it-is-to-be-virtuous. I'm taking your criticism as thinking "being-in-the-zone" describes conative states over cognitive ones (I may have that wrong), or something like pre-cognitive habits. This is getting underneath the descriptive element of what capital P phenomenology sets out to achieve.

Any return thoughts. At this point, this is just exploratory.

larryniven said...

You may have to go into more detail about this conative/cognitive distinction, because google's definitions of the word aren't helping me any in understanding what you mean. I did, though, mean to identify being-in-the-zone as an experiential content of acting virtuously - certainly it's been identified as experiential content in the context of sports. I guess see wiki's article, which may do a better job of explaining what I mean than I've done: If flow is the right psychological mechanism to describe mature virtue, then, as I suggested, we might have to say that certain virtuous-seeming acts are in fact not virtuous (or, at least, not maturely so?) because they lack this experiential content (i.e., they are instead conative? maybe?).

But putting aside the issue of whether or not flow/in-the-zone-ness is really phenomenological or not, I still feel like I can ask the more general question. If the experiential content of mature virtue can be matched either directly or analogously with the experiential content of mature vice, what would that do to this theory?

Vancouver Philosopher said...

If the content between mature vice and mature virtue revealed itself as the same, then that would collapse any work the distinction between vice and virtue were doing for you. Part of Aristotle's claims is that being x (whereby x is any reliable disposition over time) has a particular content to it that differs from the content of any vice.

Anonymous said...

I find it rather exciting that Julia Annas is open to doing phenomenology, and rather sad that there isn't more work on phenomenology and virtue ethics since, as you note, there seems to be a strong affinity between the two. Do you happen to know of others working in phenomenology and virtue?