Feb 10, 2019

My Students' Interest in Aristotle's Social Virtues

This semester I am teaching two sections of Foundations in Philosophy at Marquette University.  We are running through a number of texts and thinkers (you can read the list of them here), and among those are Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  Because I added more Plato, we can't do quite so much from Aristotle, so we are giving the Ethics just three days.  

The first was devoted to books 1 and 2 - so teleology, happiness, and the nature of virtue.  Next class session, we're doing the first part of book 3, a bit of book 6, and parts of book 7 - so matters of moral responsibility, choice and deliberation, and the issue of weakness of will (akrasia).  Our most recent class session last week was devoted to books 3 and 4 - where Aristotle goes into depth in examining each of the virtues (except justice and practical wisdom) and their associated vices.

I created a poll for each class section in which the students could choose the three virtues they most wanted me to go over in class.  About 40% of my students participated, and the numbers weren't exactly the same from section to section.  But there was one interesting area of overlap.  Students were definitely interested in - and wanted to know more about - the "social virtues".

The three that Aristotle discusses that particularly have to do with our social existence and nature are found at the end of book 4.  They often get short shrift when people are presenting Aristotle's moral theory - if you run out of time, they tend to get skipped - but his focus upon them as distinctive virtues, irreducible to other moral dispositions, worthy of examination, discussion, and development - that's actually an important innovation on Aristotle's part.

What are these three virtues?  One of them is Truthfulness.  Not truthfulness or honesty in all matters - a good bit of that falls under the virtue of justice - but rather truthfulness about oneself, about who one is, what kind of person one is, one's value and achievements.

Another of these is Friendliness.  Not the same thing as friendship - that's discussed at considerable length in books 8 - but rather a broader disposition that one might show to more than just one's friends.  This one, it turns out, has to do with giving pain or pleasure to others, and participating in common activities.  It involves being able to set limits, but also join in to what one ought to.

And then there's Good Humor.  It's very interesting that Aristotle would single this out as a virtuous disposition.  But it makes good sense - as I pointed out to my class, one old (and not too bad) definition of human being is animal ridens, the animal that laughs.  Humor, comedy, and joking are an important dimension to human existence.

My students wanted to think through what Aristotle had to teach us about all three of these (and about Courage, Right Ambition, Generosity, and Good Temper).  Both classes gave the highest preference to Good Humor.  Quite interesting. . . 

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