3rd TOP Q: Can Virtues Conflict Or Must Every Truly Virtuous Action Be Approvable According To Every Other Virtue As Well?

Would you ever call a terrorist brave?  Were there brave Nazis?  Does fighting using unjust tactics or fighting for an unjust cause make one’s own willingness to face mortal threats less brave or can one have the virtue of bravery even though one resorts to evil techniques or serves evil purposes?

Assuming the soldier or the terrorist really believes that he fights on the side of justice and to loyally protect and advance his people’s well being, should we strip him for all credit for courage simply if his cause is wrongheaded?  And if we should ever do so, then just how wrongheaded must the cause be?  Are all soldiers who fight on what turns out to be the less morally justified side equally undue any credit as brave?  Or must your cause be unambiguously evil?

What about people who knowingly intend to do what they think is evil but exhibit fearlessness in the face of danger in the process?  Can a fearless murderer ever be judged brave, even as we rightly condemn all his other character flaws, his deeds, and his overall person?

To call someone brave is to honor them and acknowledge an excellence in them.  Must this always be an overall character assessment that their brave actions were simultaneously compatible with all the other virtues—justice, mercy, kindness, truthfulness, loyalty, humaneness, etc.—or can we say that sometimes an action which is unjust, unmerciful, unkind, untruthful, disloyal, and/or inhumane, etc. is nonetheless brave in one regard.  Or if an action fails with respect to other virtues does this ruin all creditableness even for its otherwise impressive dimensions?

Might there ever be a case in which a morally preferable and admirable instance of bravery involved disloyalty, dishonesty, injustice, etc.?  What if you had to break the law, lie to numerous people, and even disloyally betray one’s own family in order to bravely help a slave escape your plantation during the days of slavery, at risk to your own life?  Does one virtue always have to depend on adhering to all the others? Or, on the other hand, should we just make sure we understand that proper loyalty should be to the person who is being unjustly treated (the slave) rather than necessarily to one’s relations, that true moral justice means violating unjust laws, etc. and that there really is no conflict?

Clearly we would call you brave despite your breaking with other virtues when the brave action is the morally superior one, but why not call you brave even when bravery your bravery involves you in wickedness?  Why moralize the term?  And similarly, if you betray your slaveholding parents’ wishes and sneak out a slave, should we not call you disloyal just because what you do is moral?  Why moralize loyalty like that?

Is a snitch not a disloyal person simply because she does what justice requires?  Is someone who breaks both legal and moral law by covering up a murder for her mother not a loyal person just because what she does is legally and morally unjust?  You may call her someone who abets a crime but would you really deny her the name “loyalty”?  (Another solution to this problem is to do as Christopher Hitchens does and just call loyalty a pseudo-virtue and a vice, which I think he does because so often loyalty is most relevant in precisely these choices between the just thing and the faithful one.)

I have a lot of thoughts on these issues as I spent a good amount of time working them out in my dissertation.  I will likely, sooner or later, explore my views in a future blog post.  But in the meantime, I’m keenly interested in Your Thoughts on the subject.

So, today’s open philosophical question, put in a nutshell is, “Can virtues conflict or must every truly virtuous action be approvable according to every other virtue as well?”

Your Thoughts?

Other open questions:

1st TOP Q: “How, If At All, Can People’s Claims To Simply Intuit That There Is A God Be Rationally Refuted Or Supported?”

2nd Top Q: “Is It Unfair To Call All Religions ‘Scams’?”

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • jude jones

    Yes, virtues can conflict.

    Oh, you want reasons?! OK, first a disclaimer: I think in this situation we might wind up in a discussion involving semantic differences surrounding the word ‘virtue’. In a fully developed Aristotelean sense, I don’t think the virtues strictly speaking would “conflict”. To begin with the completeness of Virtue should entail that anyone who TRULY and completely manifests one of the virtues would probably manifest most of the rest and at least not be non-virtuous. However, Aristotle does seem to talk as if there are grades of having certain virtues….so we have to decide whether by “the virtues” we mean to keep Complete Virtue in view or are content to speak more colloquially along the lines of grades and incompleteness. I go for the latter, since I think Complete Virtue largely chimerical, and so am deliberately bracketing that problem even as I acknowledge it. So for me the word ‘virtue’ will mean a porous process of being human in some excellent way, rather than the ideal of complete moral goodness.

    Actually my more considered opinion begins from the disclaimer. SINCE THERE IS NO realization of the ideal of Complete Virtue, the denial of the attribution of virtue about one area of character to someone who lacks it in another area of character more or less voids the usefulness of the concept of virtue for any but morally totalizing purposes that stem from the contemplation of the ideal of Complete Virtue. I like my ethics as messy as the people to whom it applies. Lacking an example of someone WITHOUT conflicting virtues, we are obligated to redouble our effort of perceiving and evaluating discrete virtues (if there are any) that exist alongside intense abuses of other potentially virtuous capacities and the real character distortions they may involve. So yes, I think there are brave Nazis; and acknowledging the fact allows us BOTH to see that evil is not an essential but an instrumental trait, and also to acknowledge the depth of tragedy in a character that CAN be good (i.e. ‘brave’ in this instance) but nonetheless makes countervailingly evil choices about fundamental behavioral orientations (doing Nazi things). In other words for me the conflicting of virtues intensifies both the reality of the virtues and the evil of vice, both in itself an in the eye of the beholder.

    I take it that your question is not REALLY meant to be about mere ‘imperfection’ in virtue, but about genuine conflicts of forms of ‘excellentness’ in the capacities of a human being, given that some of those excellentnesses can be oriented to evil, correct? But if the question IS also inclusive of simple ‘imperfection’ issues, then my response is more or less the same only less sharp-edged (i.e. I wouldn’t necessarily call every ‘vice’ evil–I’m using that to label the very bad direction of a human ability that COULD be oriented to good).

  • Daniel Fincke

    Well, the main thrust of the problem for me is one I only touched on briefly above, and that is the impossibility of complete virtue even for an ideal agent since the different virtues have different excellent ends. Fulfilling the excellence of loyalty in some cases means being unjust. If we always prioritize justice over loyalty, we are obeying the inclination of one excellence within us, the one that is good at being just, at the expense of another excellence within us, the one to be loyal. I find it a problem given the realities of our finitude and the complexity of circumstances that we cannot maximally fulfill every power we have together in harmony in every circumstance.

    And so the choice to me becomes in every case to figure out which combination of powers we can fulfill to maximize our excellence in that particular situation. And this even means, beyond local situations, having to make broad choices about large courses of actions, even life plans. I may have to choose against certain skill excellences, for example, for the sake of others or for the sake of achieving a superlative level of excellence with respect to one skill that would be, for its rarity of refinement and or its further impacts, far more valuable than a greater number of developed skills which do not go to rarefied heights.

    And similarly in moral issues, there might be tough choices to develop certain virtues that might harm others. This may be a question worth posing all on its own, but I suspect that developing the capacities of bravery for warfare involves opening up and shutting down other parts of yourself that could damage other virtues. While a superhuman can be imagined who can kill a man with his bare hands one day and the next day be the most empathetic, relatable, and tenderhearted father the next day, I imagine that for many people there are real psychological limits to how one can shape oneself and shift between multiple psychological and emotional configurations. Stealing yourself for war and softening yourself for love could involve using the same psychic resources in opposite ways and make some people have to sacrifice part of how they do the one for the sake of doing the other.

    Hopefully, of course, it’s not a total either/or. I don’t think military formation has to make people completely, or even just harmfully, shut down with respect to empathy. But I think that there are risks that one must choose deliberately and that there could be changes in the ways in which one performs the opposite virtues to the ones that one invests oneself in as a matter of deliberate cultivation.

    And not only do these challenges of moral/emotional/psychological shape shifting present themselves but also dilemma problems coming from competing values. I can imagine two different cultures oriented around different virtues with different value priorities.

    For example, a loyalty culture both values loyalty as a good and cultivates the virtue of loyalty, and it does so, presumably, because that virtue has proven itself (at least in some past era) to be one of the most indispensable and constructively helpful traits. Such a culture might find that, in their particular economy of virtues and institutions and laws, loyalty is so important that other goods can be sacrificed for it. We don’t have a loyalty culture and even we acknowledge that the marital bond can trump the interests of justice enough that marriage partners cannot be forced to testify against each other, for example.

    Now, another culture, might put loyalty over justice in ways we feel go too far given our culture’s own value rankings and related virtue rankings. It seems to me unfair to say a priori that justice always has moral priority over loyalty and that our culture must be the superior one to that other culture (or that we are wrong to allow marital loyalty to trump justice in the way we do).

    And even if we did judge that all cultures that prioritized loyalty over justice really were wrong to do so morally (or even that only a particular culture miscalculated in its particular ways of prioritizing loyalty), I still think it would be unfair to say that their unjust prioritizations of loyalty constituted “false” instances of loyalty or merely a vicious perversion of loyalty. Even if a given loyalty culture, or all of them, were mistaken to prioritize the excellence of loyalty, I still think they deserve credit for being genuinely loyal and, even, excellently so.

    But, of course, there are some caveats, like how do we even define “excellence” without incorporating some standards of what should be done beyond just what a powerful impulse of loyalty impels. In other words, if there are no standards of justice curbing what is loyal or not, then what’s the difference between loyalty as an unchecked passion and loyalty as expression of excellent control?

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