Brownlee’s Aspirations and Aspects of Virtue

In “Moral Aspirations and Ideals” by Kimberley Brownlee, she asserts that ideals and aspirations are distinct moral categories. She defines an ideal as a “model of excellence,” and aspirations as a “position of… striving for, or deep desire or longing for, an ideal.” She contends these distinct aspirations are a necessary component in actively shaping the moral universe. It is only by wanting to act to achieve, or at least strive to approach, an ideal that a model of excellence takes form and is defined. She goes further to attack the ideal of the Virtuous Person, claiming that standard virtue ethics wrongly promotes a figure to emulate who, having reached perfection, no longer aspires to ideals and is therefore not useful as a model for a moral agent. I will show that the concept of aspirations is already bound up with ideals in standard virtue ethics, and that the Virtuous Person is still useful as a model for moral agents.

First, it is important to state at the outset that I agree with Brownlee that aspirations are necessary to define ideals. Having a model and attempting to emulate that model are necessarily parts of each other. It is meaningless to say that something is an ideal or model if there is no complementary concept of action, such as emulation or aspiration. The word “destination” implies that a “journey” is required to reach it. Without the active principle of journeying, a destination becomes simply a “location,” and without a destination, the activity becomes “wandering.” To explain this further, it is necessary to review some core components of virtue ethics.

An ideal, or a virtue, is only properly understood through action. A virtue such as courage is an ideal. A virtue is a choice, which is itself an action. We choose how to act; even in failing to act we have made a choice. Failing to act as it relates to courage would be cowardice, which is a vice. In choosing an action, an agent applies reason and wisdom gained through practice to decide which action is appropriate for herself. The virtue is the action which is neither too far one way, such as cowardice, nor the other way, which is brashness. Courage cannot be understood except by courageous acts. Virtue cannot be understood without virtuous acts. To say that someone aspires to virtue, that is, that they have a position of longing for or deep commitment to courage, is not of any use without the consequent action of doing something courageous. That is why the component of aspiration that Brownlee calls striving is important. Striving is the effort to achieve a goal or ideal; it is the component of aspiration that involves action. If we strive to do nothing, that is not virtuous, as it does nothing to approach the ideal. If we strive for bad things, that is not virtuous, it is vicious. Therefore, the only object of the active component of aspiration, striving, that makes any sense is to strive for the ideal. The ideal is the mean, the mean is the virtue, and the virtue is only known through action. Virtue is the thing at which pursuits aim. Aristotle described virtue as an “active condition,” hexis, not a “state” which would imply that it is static and unchanging. No one possesses virtue except to the degree that he or she acts virtuously. When we say that someone “has” virtue, what we are really saying is that person has had a lot of practice at choosing virtuous actions.

The only other way to interpret aspirations is through the non-active component of desire. Aristotle thinks that if we see the good, we will see its beauty and nobility, and we will desire it. If we do not desire the good when we see it, we are not virtuous. If we desire what is not good, and we act to attain it, we are vicious. If when we see the good, and having applied reason to our subjective circumstance behold its virtue, we then desire to act to attain it. Sometimes we perceive the virtue, but desire the vice. If we act to attain the virtue regardless of desiring the vice, we are said to be merely continent. It is important to stress again that a person is not virtuous or vicious except as it relates to action, although refraining to act when it is required can be said to be vicious. The more we act to attain the virtue, the more we will desire to act to attain the virtue. As we continue in this fashion, we will eventually no longer desire the vice and rather desire the virtue. When we have developed to the point where we both desire the virtue and act to attain it, and we act so smoothly that it may appear effortless, then we are no longer simply continent, we are virtuous. As desire is a mechanism of attaining virtue, so aspiring is a mechanism of attaining ideals.

Do we become virtuous simply by desiring to be virtuous? Of course not. First the agent desired the ideal by recognizing its beauty when she applied her reason to the choice that presented itself to her. She saw that it was beautiful because it is the ideal. The beauty in the ideal becomes fully evident to the agent not just by beholding it, but by then acting in such a way as to attain it. A person who is virtuous is continuously and actively applying reason and the wisdom gained from past actions to make choices, which implies the moral agency necessary to make any action relevant. To those who witness these acts, the ideal or the virtue will also begin to look beautiful and they, too, will desire to act in such a way as to attain it. The person as an ideal, that is, a model of excellence to be emulated, is a model because of the way she acts. She is courageous because she acts courageously. This, again, is my understanding of Aristotle, and it already explains the necessity and instrumentality of aspiration as it pertains to ideals.

Next, Brownlee invokes the concept of the Virtuous Person (VP), and claims that such a person is not useful as a model because she has become a “possessor of full and perfect virtue” and therefore is no longer aspiring to attain an ideal. Considering what has been demonstrated so far, my simplest refutation of this is as follows: 1) a VP is an ideal; 2) an ideal has within it the desire to act in accordance with that ideal as a necessary component; therefore 3) a VP has striving as a necessary component. The word “perfect” implies an objective value and often a superlative hierarchy. An ideal is necessarily subjective to the agent who selects that ideal as a model, and the ideal as it relates to virtue is not at the top of a ladder but rather the mean between vices. When I say that someone is my ideal of a particular virtue, what I am really saying is that I can perceive that this person is faced with similar dilemmas as myself, and that the choices and actions that person takes when faced with such dilemmas are ones that I admire and consider to be noble. Because ideals require making rational choices relevant to us subjectively, the objective ideal of a Virtuous Person may differ. You could say it is not the person I admire as much as it is the virtue as practiced by that person. Just because a person has become well-practiced at making good choices does not suggest that they no longer desire to make good choices. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The more that an agent acts virtuously, the more she desires to continue to act virtuously because of the pleasure derived from having acted in such a way.

Aristotle and other virtue ethicists admit that such a “perfect” person is exceedingly rare, but not deeply impossible. I think it is wrong for Brownlee to promote a feature of aspirations as being unrealizable on the one hand, then claiming degrees of unrealizability on the other. If an ideal is the grandmomma of all goals, it may be the hardest goal to reach, but it is still attainable. I would submit that the only ideals that are beyond reach are those that have been incorrectly defined or inadequately pursued. We incorrectly define an ideal when it is set too high or too low, or fallaciously attribute idealism to a vice such as in Brownlee’s Nazi supremacy example. We inadequately pursue an ideal when we desire it but fail to act by setting and achieving the constituent goals that approach the ideal. It is also important to remember that morals involve not just individuals, but other people. A virtuoso musician might be incredibly capable on their instrument but unable to collaborate well in an ensemble. Similarly, musicians who by themselves seem merely adequate can sound transcendent and closer to an ideal when heard within their ensemble, having practiced with each other and complementing each other to become more than the sum of their parts. People are incredible beings, with an emphasis on the activity inherent in “being.” To be virtuous it is not enough to simply exist.

Matthew Ebert
PHIL 450 -1001
Dr. Schweitzer
15 March 2017