This is definitely work in progress, if you can call it that.
Tim Schroeder and I have defended a view according to which even though virtuous people seem different from the rest of us in many ways, it basically comes down to a difference in desires. A person who has a deep intrinsic desire for the right and the good de re (or desires for the various things that are right and good) is as a result not only disposed to act differently but also has a different mental life in many ways, emotional and cognitive. For the purpose of this post, though, it doesn’t matter if we talk about what we intrinsically desire or what we care about as long as we assume neither is a cognitive state.
I would like develop this view further, with attention to questions I keep getting.
One is :“if a virtuous person does the right thing out of a desire, how come she often feels a sense of duty, not desire?” Warning: I plan to post my answer soon!
Other questions concern the phronimos, but I have no view about the phronimos, only about the good person.
When I think of virtue I start with the expression ‘good person’, which has equivalents in many languages and is often used interchangeably with ‘virtuous person'' and "moral person".
‘Good person’ has different connotations from ‘phronimos’ – for example, the latter is more associated with wit, good taste, healthy eating habits and self-esteem. But some believe that the good person is nonetheless a phronimos.
I used to. Aristotle is a hero of mine. But consider good persons with fairly low intelligence, ADHD, or (especially) Autism. Being a phronimos requires intellect and various sorts of skill and competence. Just like blindness cannot make a person less good, a person is never less good in virtue of having a purely cognitive limitation (note the word ‘person’ - my cats can’t be virtuous, but they can’t be vicious either, as they cannot possess concepts like “harm”, “help”, “promise”, “deceive”, “unfair”, “happiness” “innocent”, etc.) If you care (deeply) about the right things, you’re good.
1) Aren’t good people cognitively different?
I care about owls, so I notice the word ‘knowledge’ contains the word ‘owl’. Analogously, if you really care about wellbeing and justice, you notice the sad homeless man in the corner (“invisible” to most) or the sexist lyrics of a popular song. Such cognitive differences add up, compound even, resulting in a rather different view of the world. Another example: with strong interest in piano-playing, you’ll learn it better than without interest, even with the same practice time. Similarly, if really interested in sparing people’s feelings, you’ll pick up better social skills (ceteris paribus!). However, noticing the homeless man purely because you are an observant anthropologist does not imply you are a better person, and you are not a worse person for social cluelessness due to autism alone.
2) People with autism lack empathy. A moral defect?
Two things must be distinguished: detecting that people are suffering and “feeling their pain”. These parts are connected through caring about them. If you – a neurotypical – care about my wellbeing and detect my suffering, you’ll “feel my pain”. If you are autistic, and you care about my wellbeing, you might fail to be sad for me – but strictly because you can’t detect my suffering. That’s no more a moral defect than being deaf and not hearing me scream. That’s different from the other way to lack empathy – as in a narcissist detecting my suffering and, due to not giving a damn, feeling nothing. That’s a moral defect.
3) Can a cognitive deficiency make your life worse in some respect?
Sure! So can blindness, which doesn’t make you a bad person.
4) Isn’t wisdom different from being smart?
One can be smart without being wise, but…wise without being smart? Being un-smart limits the growth of one’s deliberative abilities, even with good will, experience, and practice (and why would deliberation about ends require less brain-power than deliberation about means?). Applying imprecise generalizations to unique situations requires intelligence - and sometimes a type of quickness, even. If I overlooked a way to have phronesis with low intelligence, could someone please help me? What about autism?
5) Are you saying adolescents can be virtuous !? (see e.g Hursthouse).
I support a real virtue/"natural" virtue distinction. No child (or adult) is virtuous simply for being what personality psychologists call “agreeable”. Some sweet-tempered people don't care about the right or the good (and some natural grouches do). Many adolescents are selfish, but virtuous adolescents are not freaks of nature. I have had first-year undergraduates who worked closely with the homeless since highschool, or who wanted help with moral dilemmas stemming from the realities of political activism. I, preoccupied at the time with whether I’ll get some paper into some journal, admired their moral seriousness. Maybe they needed this old bag's advice, but they were good people.
Questions? Comments? Wisdom?