Follow up to Symposium Question on Knowledge and Decision

A week ago, I posted a symposium question to ask the following question:

Is deciding to act virtuously necessary to have knowledge of virtue?

Thanks to those of you who participated. The discussion was very good — I thought everyone introduced something new to the table. After a few round of comments, a better phrased question occurred to me:

Can we really have knowledge of virtue without a willingness to be virtuous?

I like it better since it “willingness” allows the possibility of unconscious “decision” and it doesn’t set up an opposition between knowledge and decision. Here are a few of insights from your comments that interested me:

1. jalberg introduced the difference (Newman’s) between real and notional assent. He also mentioned the “painful knowledge” that comes from the awareness that I am not behaving as I ought.

2. brussell pointed out that decision and knowledge are mutually dependent in a kind of virtuous circle of operations. He also introduced the possibility that we may have “unconscious prehensions” leading us to act, that the word “decision” may be too limited a conception.

3. TheEpistemologist wondered whether virtue might be built into our humanity apparatus (my term) and also introduced that virtue is “absolute and real.” He also mentioned that even if we don’t “have virtue,” we all act out of a desire for the good, that maybe virtue gets its “objective” element from that. He also introduced the notion of “practicing virtue” into the discussion, as if virtue were akin to a skill. At one point, he also noted that a lot depends on what we call “knowledge” of virtue, that the question may turn on a semantic conclusion.

4. darthphilosophicus wondered whether virtue had anything to do with conformity to reason. He also introduced four conditions for knowledge of virtue: (1) self-knowledge, (2) experience acts of virtue on the” receiving end”; (3) a loving disposition, and (4) the experience of acting virtuously.

These are all great observations, questions to ponder and food for much thought!

Let me attempt a response to my own question. My answer is implicit in two earlier posts and it would be good for you to review them: “What is a virtue?” and “Two types of problems.” To begin, I think we have to distinguish between “learning about virtue” and “learning virtue.” Successful accomplishment of the aim of learning (i.e. knowledge) will look very different depending on which of these two cases we mean. If we mean by knowledge something that accomplishes the “learning about” version, then I would answer my own question, “No. It is not necessary to be willing to act virtuously in order to learn about (i.e. have knowledge) virtue.” IF, however, our aim is to become virtuous, then “learning-about” is not the kind of “knowledge” we are after, and we are still in the condition of learners. I do not see how this latter knowledge is possible, unless we are willing to act virtuously. Here the skill analogy seems apt. The path to knowledge will be guided by the “internal good” that is only made available to the virtuous. All a virtuous master can do is bear witness to the existence of such goods, in order that the one learning. (See the “What is virtue? post.)

I also ask you to remember the two types of problems, convergent and divergent, and the drastic difference between them. A convergent problem will converge on an answer that independent questioners will arrive at independently. The kind of ethical knowledge we can learn from books is of a type correlate to convergent answers. Only convergent problems can be solved and communicated in written form. Neither personal commitment nor decision has any bearing on such knowledge.

The situation is quite different when dealing with divergent problems, which have no fixed answer and which are the site of much disagreement. I think the Socratic question, “What is a virtue?” is a divergent problem and its solution requires skillful habituation to interior norms that are available only to the already virtuous. Any verbal answer given will be at best a partial truth — as will its opposite. This sets up a dialectical necessity which is also a personally-involved, weighty struggle. There is no “ethical life” that is immune to this dialectic. I also think that every human has an inchoate sense at least of what virtue is, even if confused and unconscious. It is built into our desire for the good, which is built into all activity and all speaking and all participation in community with others. Many other “voices” are also within, so that it takes skillful attunement to learn to trust that voice against others that speak otherwise. I think the truly virtuous never really depart from the “school of virtue.”

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