Assess the view that self interest can only be realised in the context of a virtuous life.

Philosophers who argue that morality is constitutive to self interest are taking a stronger position than most contractarians because they are claiming morality is not simply sufficient for self interest, but it is jointly necessary and sufficient. In other words, the conditions under which I act in my own interest are exactly the same as the conditions under which I am moral.

Plato argues that the telos of a person is to reach a state of eudiamonia; flourishing or fulfilment. He suggests living a virtuous life is the necessary condition for reaching eudiamonia and this means that being a virtuous person is not just instrumental of your self interest but it is constitutive of it. Plato’s virtues include; wisdom of your intellect; courage of spirit or ‘thumos’; and discipline of appetite.

But you must take into consideration that ‘Are all of Plato’s virtues necessary for self interest?’ It is arguable that perhaps wisdom isn’t a necessary virtue; a person could still have self interest and not be wise. For example, young children with very little knowledge and experience of the world around them are partial to committing to ‘virtuous’ deeds for a mere reward given afterwards. However, without wisdom you can’t be self disciplined, but you could have other people to discipline you who are wise; e.g the government.To which Plato responded to putting philosophers in charge.

However, these philosophers, including Plato, could have just picked the wrongest of virtues, or a set of virtues that only reflect one culture – which inevitably wouldn’t be in individual self interest. For example, Plato’s virtues are the virtues of ‘strong’ men in ancient Greece but do not include virtues like love and caring – which may be considered more in someone’s self interest.

Another criticism with Plato’s argument is that his virtues were strict and fixed as he believed they would be timeless. But as we can see that the virtue of courage may have been better in ancient Greece but in the 21st Century, that virtue may be better replaced by the virtue of ‘humour’ or ‘love’. This also suggests he was wrong as he had no justification for his argument because he couldn’t predict the whole of time – leaving him unjustified.

Another philosopher, Paul of Tarsus, also has a set of virtues which would lead to eudiamonia in the afterlife. His Pauline virtues are faith, hope and agape. However, it arguable that agape – altruistic, charitable love – isn’t in ones self interest but in the interests of others, as in being charitable is for giving to others. However, you could argue that in by being charitable to others gives you a sense of achievement, which is in your own self interest.

On the other hand, Mill creates an individualistic teleological argument whereby he believes that we should be able to create and follow are own virtues. He gives the example of considering virtues as trees instead of railway tracks. That there is no one fixed set of virtues that will get me to my own personal destination telos but I must discover, in my own way, the virtues I consider best. This is the most reasonable argument made so far as it takes into consideration that each individual isn’t reaching for the same telos, so may have to approach it with different virtues. However, Mill’s argument could be considered too open, thus making it likely for people to do as they please; which may be in their own self interest but may not be virtuous; this will then open the idea that there is no connection between the two. Therefore, Mill’s virtue ethics also fails to show that virtue is a necessary condition of self interest.

Another problem which all virtue theories share is that there are, in fact, non-virtuous ways to act in ones own self interest. If I am particularly strong or cunning and able to do what is good for me, whether it is virtuous or not, then I could act in an immoral way and still be self interested. Hobbes acknowledges this when he argues that, if we do not make a moral contract with others not to harm or kill each other we are able to achieve what our strength and cunning can achieve. Hobbes does argue that being moral is a good thing; this is because it is a good way of realising my self interest. but it is not the only way.

An implication of this is that a Hobbesian can explain how it is possible for an immoral person to be happy while still recommending morality. It is therefore better than Plato and Mill who cannot explain this.

Overall it has been argued that self interest can not be only realized by being virtuous but it can be realised in many ways – whereby being virtuous is constitutive/sufficient of this. However, a moral life does remain a good way in deciding in which moral things we should do but it isn’t the most satisfactory answer – as we cans see from Plato, Mill and Paul’s arguments.

(Fin. I don’t exactly know if I finished this or not. I mean it seems like a good-ish end. Hmmm. Tell me what you think!)

2 responses to “Assess the view that self interest can only be realised in the context of a virtuous life.”

  1. Good subject. Personally, I think that morality is a simple choice that a person makes each day, minute to minute. We all have to make decisions many times each day, those decisions will define our morality regardless of our intentions or motives. Some would argue that all of our actions are designed to benefit our own self interest. Good food for thought. I think self interest is the number one factor dictating the behavior of 99% of the people in the world. That is why we have so many problems, lack, war etc. What are your thoughts on these issues. Are morals important to you? Do you think living a virtuous life is an endeavor worth following?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When it comes down to moral philosophy, I tend to veer more to a Kantian argument, believing in the theory that we have a duty to comply with specific morals rather than morals out of self interest. In regarding issues such as lack and war, Kant’s categorical imperative inevitably provides a more sound outcome than other moral philosopher’s ethics; if were to rationalise that war is 9/10 times based on an emotional inclination from one party to attack another, than this theory will (hopefully) overcome this (with Kant’s perfect and imperfect duties we would be able to see that war isn’t the answer). Also, the mere fact that Kant denotes the categorical imperative as something that we would want universal consensus on, war and lack would most likely cease to happen – as many people are against war and poverty, and the rationality that casualties of war and lack are usually innocent bystanders to the conflict.

      (I hope I made sense XD)

      Liked by 1 person

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