Friday, April 8, 2011

Dispositions and Vices and Virtues

(In this post I will be assuming for the dispositional account of virtues. Some dispositions are virtues, other are vices and some are prima facie neither)

Some dispositions (or collection of dispositions) may manifest itself either as a virtue or a vice depending on external circumstances out of the control of an agent. Take for example Aristotle's example of intelligence and courage. Being smart or brave can sometimes improve one's moral character but in other situations, make one worse as a person. You don't want your dictators to be smart nor courageous as that would magnify their evil. These are obvious and neutral examples of dispositions that can manifest in different morally relevant ways.

However, examples exist of people who had dispositions of what appeared under normal contexts to be clearly considered vices but used them to further good. Consider Oscar Schindler. This individual displayed profound greed, mendacity, cunning, hubris, and ruthlessness in his business dealings. However, his one character trait of being sympathetic to the children in concentration camps compelled him to eventually save more than a thousand of them. What is morally interesting is how he managed this.

He used his mendacity, cunning and ruthlessness, dispositions that normally are vices, to great effect in saving the children. He would have likely saved very few if any individuals had he not been as arrogant and condescending of his fellow Nazis as he was because he wouldn't have had the confidence in himself to pull off such a stunt. All of his vices were turned around by the circumstances into making his single virtue more efficacious. If Schindler had lived in the present time, he would perhaps have been a greedy business executive and fit the immoral mold common to that type. He might have been like an Eron executive or Madoff like person and (rightfully) despised. But due to circumstances outside of his control, he was given a golden opportunity to display his humanity. But such is a grace of god or pure luck and can't be to his credit.

My question is, If many of these dispositions normally considered vices Schindler had can be used to further good in certain contexts, then are all vices qua vices relative to contexts and are all virtues similarly contextually relative? Perhaps there are no absolute virtues and vices but all dispositions can be manifested either in a good way or not depending on what moral context is given. Some dispositions may simply be analytic virtues. Doubting their virtuous quality may simply be a matter of not understanding the concept, etc. But why is that? I happen to think there is at least a few absolute virtues that are always good to have (epistemic integrity being one).

There is a deeper problem with virtues. Perhaps some virtues are really collections of lower level dispositions interacting in a certain way together and not single dispositions and none of the lower level dispositions are obviously virtues themselves, or even worse, some of them may be commonly thought as vices. In other words, virtues are emergent properties of lower order properties which may themselves be amoral or even immoral. What if, for example, it is found out that integrity, generally recognized as a virtue, is really a particular combination of things like emotional intelligence and recalcitrance?