What is a virtue?

The question of what exactly a virtue *is* has come up in the contributing comments of my Symposium question. Since this is a key issue in Plato studies, I think it would be helpful to expand on this matter. I will provisionally define virtue/arete (at least this is how I understand the Greeks to define it) as “a power of sustained excellence in purposive activity.” Whatever has a functional aim (whether thing, or craft or instrument or tool) has a virtue specific to it. I am able to drive a nail with a hammer (sort of), but a carpenter with skill can drive it well. A brick can be used to drive a nail, but a hammer can drive a nail well. That difference between skillful/unskillful performance or well-adapted/poorly-adapted tool can be attributed to the presence of arete/virtue in the skillful actor or useful tool.  The function of an eye is to see, but the virtuous eye can see well.

Aristotle saw that every virtue is a mean between extremes, as in the phenomenon of focusing an eye: I can focus too far or too closely so we have available corrective lenses adapted to either of these circumstances. Virtue is always relative to a purposive function, like as in a skill or instrument. One of the great innovations of the Greeks (and I believe the idea was initiated by the sophists) is to ask whether virtue can be applied to being human as such. What is the virtue of a soul, the virtue of being human? Is it a power, a skill, a form of habit, a knowledge or some other thing? And granting that there are better and worse ways of exercising our humanity, how can we discover (or know) the virtue that would “tune the instrument rightly”? Tune it to what exactly?

One helpful attempt to reconstruct a sense of what we might mean by virtue is the book, After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre and his understanding of how a “practice” works. Here is a long quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that describes MacIntyre’s account of what is internal to practices, using the example of a child, so far disinterested, being led to appreciate the game of chess:

The teaching process may begin with the teacher offering the child candy to play and enough additional candy if the child wins to motivate the child to play. It might be assumed that this is sufficient to motivate the child to learn to play chess well, but as MacIntyre notes, it is sufficient only to motivate the child to learn to win – which may mean cheating if the opportunity arises. However, over time, the child may come to appreciate the unique combination of skills and abilities that chess calls on, and may learn to enjoy exercising and developing those skills and abilities. At this point, the child will be interested in learning to play chess well for its own sake. Cheating to win will, from this point on, be a form of losing, not winning, because the child will be denying themselves the true rewards of chess playing, which are internal to the game. The child will also, it should be noted, enjoy playing chess; there is pleasure associated with developing one’s skills and abilities that cannot come if one cheats in order to win.

MacIntyre concludes that there are two kinds of goods attached to the practice of chess-playing and to practices in general. One kind, external goods, are goods attached to the practice “by the accidents of social circumstance” – in his example, the candy given to the child, but in the real world typically money, power, and fame (After Virtue 188). These can be achieved in any number of ways. Internal goods are the goods that can only be achieved by participating in the practice itself. If you want the benefits to be gained by playing chess, you will have to play chess. And in pursuing them while playing chess, you gain other goods as well – you will get an education in the virtues. The two kinds of goods differ as well in that external goods end up as someone’s property, and the more one person has of any of them the less there is for anyone else (money, power, and fame are often of this nature). Internal goods are competed for as well, “but it is characteristic of them that their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice” (After Virtue 190-191). A well played chess game benefits both the winner and loser, and the community as a whole can learn from the play of the game and develop their own skills and talents by learning from it.

McIntyre’s notion of an “internal good” peculiar to a “practice,” a good that can only be enjoyed by those who engage skillfully in the practice, is useful for getting a grip on what virtue is I think. Perhaps “a power of attuned openness to the goods internal to practice” is a candidate for what may be meant as “virtue”…

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