Why Be Virtuous?

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

As part of the Music and Ethics class, I post something on the course blog each week for the students to read, consider, and then comment on. This is the first of the blog assignments, and I thought it would be interesting to post it here as well, for you folks to interact with:

Blog Assignment #1: Why Be Virtuous?
In class today, I gave you Plato’s view on the interaction between virtue and the human soul, and how a life lived excellently must mean a life lived with virtue. Plato’s is not the only view on the matter, of course. There are other views, by other smart people, on the meaning and purpose of virtue.

Let’s start off the blog assignments by reacting to a few of those perspectives. Here are four statements on reasons to be virtuous. They aren’t quotes, they are my own paraphrases of the views held by different philosophers:

  1. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of the nature of the human soul – we were created to be virtuous, and we do damage to our own nature, our own souls, if we deceive others and act with cruelty.” (Plato)
  2. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of God’s decree – He commands us to do certain things and not to do certain other things, and out of either love or fear, we ought to obey his commands.” (William of Ockham)
  3. “The best reason to be virtuous is the force of social pressure – if you are dishonest and cruel to others, society will shun you, and your capacity to enjoy life will be diminished.” (Ayn Rand)
  4. “The best reason to be virtuous is for the cause of greater social good – society as a whole is better off when people are honest and compassionate toward one another.” (Peter Singer)

There are certainly more options than the ones I’ve presented (include the option to say we shouldn’t be virtuous!), but let’s start with these. Which of the four statements above seems the most true to you? This isn’t a survey, don’t just jot down your answer; give us a little insight into why you think your option is the best choice.

Next in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

7 thoughts on “Why Be Virtuous?

  1. aly hawkins

    Is it cheating to say 1 and 4? I want there to be a choice that marries the mystical importance of personal virtue (Plato) with the communal importance (Singer). In my view, these are inseparable.

  2. michael lee Post author

    It’s funny, Plato and Singer would probably get along quite well, although they would be at each other’s throats all day long over the clash between their ideas.

    The difference between the two is in the ultimate ends. Plato was interested in what it means to be a virtuous person, and saw societal structures as a means toward creating a just person (that’s the whole driving force of his Republic) where Singer, I think, says just the opposite. He says that the individual is important only so far as their actions contribute to a maximally happy society. He takes this to the extent of saying that a person has no rights or privileges as a person until they are rationally capable (say, around 6 months old). He would be perfectly willing to let parents abandon children prior to the age of reason, as long as it didn’t cause greater unhappiness in the surrounding community. The only rights of the pre-rational person are the rights that adhere to them because of the happiness it brings others to establish those rights.

    I should say two things. First, Singer’s use of happiness is subtle and sophisticated, not simply “kid has lollipop” kind of happiness. Much closer to the Greek idea of ‘full contentment and self-realization’.

    Second, Singer is not some nut-job. He’s a distinguished professor of Bioethics at Princeton. The guy who attaches more rights to a full-grown ape than to a 3-month old child is a distinguished professor at Princeton.

  3. Cliff

    1 and 4 seem to be more grace-oriented views of virtue. 2,3 represent the Law. I am attracted to the former, but too often live as if the latter were more important.

  4. Bobby

    [quote comment="120588"]

    Second, Singer is not some nut-job. He’s a distinguished professor of Bioethics at Princeton.[/quote]

    You of all people should know being a distinguished professor has no influence on anybody being a nut-job.

  5. bill metanoya

    I remember a routine from Bill Cosby about Fat Albert where he tells this funny story about Fat Albert that lasts 15 minutes and at the end he says, “I told you that story, so I could tell you this one.” Virtue is like that. The foundational story (character, soul, meaning and purpose of life, nature of God and man, goodness, righteousness, evil and wrong…) is crucial to fully understand virtue. Virtue rests upon and springs forth from a set of core beliefs. Virtue is the fruit born from the character of the individual. In that regard each person quoted stands on a very different foundation, with Plato and Singer at polar opposites.

    I’ll be very interested to see the class comments.

  6. michael lee Post author

    I’m rereading portions of Plato’s Republic in preparation for this lecture (delayed until tomorrow, on account of that whole kid-having thing) …

    I can’t get over how fantastic Plato’s reasoning and writing is. Book II of the Republic is where he makes his case for the inherent worth of virtue, the idea expressed in the view I posted above for him. It’s the passage that the well-known Ring of Gyges argument is from, and it’s widely held to be one of the earliest systematic expositions of a philosophical argument.

    He moves from point to point with clarity and intensity, making his case with such force that it set the tone for the whole history of moral theory to come. So many of the questions that philosophers have grappled with in the intervening 2300 years had their first hearing in this little passage: what is the meaning of justice, why ‘ought’ we to be good instead of evil, how do we come by moral knowledge, what’s the difference between the moral obligations of a person in isolation and a person in community, what’s the relationship between law and justice ….

    Good, good stuff.

    I can’t wait for Sophia and Josiah to be old enough to talk about this stuff with me. Of course, they’ll probably be strict utilitarianists just to rebel.

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