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Is Virtue Its Own Reward?

  • L. W. Sumner (a1)


If I lead a life of virtue, that may well be good for you. But will it also be good for me? The idea that it will—or even must—is an ancient one, and its appeal runs deep. For if this idea is correct then we can provide everyone with a good reason—arguably the best reason—for being virtuous. However, for all the effort which has been invested in defending the idea, by some of the best minds in the history of philosophy, it remains unproven. Worse, in this skeptical age hardly anyone really believes it. I don't really believe it either, at least not in its strongest forms, but I think that the question is nonetheless worth examining. Even if we cannot show that virtue and self-interest coincide, we can at least measure the breadth of the gap between them.



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1 For the relevant passages in Plato's early dialogues, see Meno, 87e, and Euthydemus, 278e–282c, 289e–292e.

2 Plato, , Republic, 441c445b, 576b592b, 612a613e.

3 For an exposition of the Stoic views on the relationship between virtue and well-being, see Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), ch. 19.

4 See ibid., ch. 18.

5 This interpretation is suggested in Cooper, John M., “Aristotle on the Goods of Fortune,” Philosophical Review, vol. 94, no. 2 (1985), pp. 173–96.

6 For a discussion of this example, see ibid., pp. 182–84.

7 This interpretation is defended in Irwin, Terence, “Permanent Happiness: Aristotle and Solon,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 3 (1985), pp. 89124; and in Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), chs. 11 and 12.

8 Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 46.

9 I borrow this useful expression from Griffin, James, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

10 The mistake was clearly identified in Classen, Peter, “A Fallacy in Aristotle's Argument about the Good,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 29 (1957). It is also discussed in Wilkes, Kathleen V., “The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle's Ethics,” Mind, vol. 87, no. 348 (1978), although she defends Aristotle against the charge of equivocation. By far the most thorough explication, and defense, of Aristotle's ergon argument may be found in Hutchinson, D. S., The Virtues of Aristotle (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), ch. 3. For other interesting recent attempts to defend Aristotle's approach, see Nussbaum, Martha, “Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution,” in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, supplementary volume, ed. Annas, Julia and Grimm, Robert H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 179ff.; Whiting, Jennifer, “Aristotle's Function Argument: A Defense,” Ancient Philosophy, vol. 8, no. 1 (1988); and Sparshott, Francis, Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of the Nicomachean Ethics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), ch. 1.

11 The perfectionist nature of Aristotle's account is underlined in Martha Nussbaum's interpretation of it: “Getting the list of functionings that are constitutive of good living is a matter of asking ourselves what is most important, what is an essential part of any life that is going to be rich enough to count as fully human” (“Nature, Function, and Capability,” p. 175). Again: “[F]or Aristotle … the question as to whether a certain function is or is not a part of our human nature is … a question about whether that function is so important that a creature who lacked it would not be judged to be properly human at all” (ibid., p. 177).

12 Robert Nozick draws a similar distinction between ethical push and ethical pull in Philosophical Explanations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), ch. 5.

13 See, for example, Foot, Philippa, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), introduction, note 6 to ch. 9, and ch. 11. Michael Slote tries to persuade himself of the Stoic doctrine in From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), ch. 13, but cannot quite manage it.

14 Hume, David, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, chs. 2–5.

15 The subject-relativity of welfare does not entail that a subject is an infallible authority about the prudential value of her own life. Any adequate theory of welfare must preserve the possibility of (at least some) first-person mistakes about welfare. I discuss some ways in which people can mistake their own welfare in Section IV below.

16 I defend this conclusion at greater length in “The Subjectivity of Welfare,” Ethics, vol. 105, no. 4 (1995), pp. 764–90; and in Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), chs. 2 and 3.

17 By contrast, Epicurus appears to have endorsed a subjective theory of welfare and a patient-centered theory of the (other-regarding) virtues (see Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, ch. 16). As a result, he had a notorious problem in explaining how the virtuous life might be counted on to serve the interest of the agent.

18 I do so in Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, ch. 6.

19 See Griffin, , Well-Being, ch. 1, for an effective statement of these objections. Briefly, Griffin argues convincingly that we care not just about how the world seems to us, but about how it actually is.

20 Kohn, Alfie, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1990), pp. 7677.

21 Rimland, Bernard B., “The Altruism Paradox,” The Southern Psychologist, vol. 2, no. 1 (1982), pp. 89.

22 Hume, , Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ch. 5; Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ch. 3.

23 There is an ironic echo here of the internal disorder which both Plato and Aristotle claimed to afflict tyrants and other evil folk.

24 Kelman, Herbert C., “Violence without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehuman-ization of Victims and Victimizers,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 29 (1973), pp. 2561. See also Keen, Sam, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), pp. 2425. Similar techniques are employed by hate groups in building and maintaining the morale of their members and encouraging them to commit acts of violence against target ethnic or racial minorities; see Kinsella, Warren, Web of Hate: Inside Canada's Far Right Network (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994).

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