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Posted by on Nov 2, 2013 in Ethics, Philosophy | 5 comments

Is physical strength a virtue?

Judging by the way so many people revere elite athletes, it seems arguable that physical strength is a virtue in the ancient sense of that word, i.e. a human excellence, or an excellence in a human being who possesses it. Or at least it is commonly regarded that way.

That’s controversial enough, but could it even be an excellence with moral or ethical significance? That sounds like a very strange notion to modern ears, but Aristotle would (arguably) have thought so, and the idea can be developed as part of a sophisticated ethical theory that deals with at least the most obvious objections on the ground of absurdity, etc. This would obviously have consequences for current debates about human enhancement technologies.

In the current issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, Kyle Oskvig broaches this tricky subject. He does not offer a full defence of Aristotle, but he does show that an evolved, reconstructed version of Aristotelian ethics can make such ideas seem much less crazy than we moderns are inclined to think. Check it out!

  • keddaw

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Richard, but as a moral error theorist are you not simply engaging in pandering when even listening to virtue and Aristotelian morality?

    Having said that, it does amuse me to see the massive disconnect between a virtue ethicist seeing a great physical specimen and looking at Lance Armstrong’s cheating.

  • RussellBlackford

    (Pssst – it’s “Russell”, not “Richard”.)

    You ask why why would I “even listen” to someone who might subscribe to, say, an Aristotelian value system?

    But I don’t think it works like that. Even if I subscribed wholeheartedy to moral error theory as that tends to be interpreted by current philosophers, I might be wrong in doing so. Knowing that might make me inclined to listen to people elaborating various value systems and assessing how plausible they sound. A whole range of things like this might even converge to make me give up on being a moral error theorist. After all, subscribing to a metaethical theory does not entail thinking that in doing so you are making infallible and unrevisable judgments.

    But in any event, a system of values might be appealing to me even if I don’t think it is objecting binding on me. I might think someone is mistaken in believing that some system of values is objectively binding while also thinking that they are offering a system of values that I could have all sorts of reasons for adopting as my own (even though I will then be free to abandon it if a more attractive one comes along). So why not listen to people if they offer various systems of values that may be more or less integrated, more or less comprehensive, more or less internally consistent, more or less consistent with my own deepest values (which I may be able to identify through rational reflection), and so on? I may learn much from the experience of listening.

    Shorter version: even if I subscribed wholeheartedly to moral error theory as it is commonly understood in the metaethical literature, I might still have many reasons to enter into rich, complex discussions about the merits of different values and value systems. It wouldn’t give me a reason to stop listening to what people have to say, even if I suspect that these people are probably making the error (as I see it) of believing that their values are objectively binding on all comers.

  • keddaw

    Who is Richard then?

    Nurse! Bring me my pills…

  • http://jambeeno.com/ Jambe

    If one accepts (even for purposes of argument) that virtues exist in any form, it seems fair to suggest that strength can be among them. It feels more straightforward to class “fitness” as a virtue, though, perhaps because fitness is vaguer and yet more intuitively relatable to the public good (that is to say, fit people are less burdensome on e.g. families, hospitals, insurance networks, etc than their unfit counterparts).

    This departs from virtue ethics and Oskvig’s “innateness” angle, but I think deontological or consequentialist approaches are more outward-looking, perhaps less narcissistic and/or navel-gazy than virtue ethics. The West is too obsessed with individualism as-is, and I doubt it can withstand more earnest virtue-peddling without suffering more Great Man theorization (which I see far too much of in my techy job, by the by; Jobs this and Ives that, Gates and Ford and Bezos and Zuck and blah blah blah, fiscal giants being the New Gods of our age).

  • http://baopu81.wordpress.com/ Scott Barnwell

    re: “Even if I subscribed wholeheartedy to moral error theory as that tends to be interpreted by current philosophers, I might be wrong in doing so. Knowing that might make me inclined to listen to people elaborating various value systems and assessing how plausible they sound.”

    re: ” might think someone is mistaken in believing that some system of values is objectively binding while also thinking that they are offering a system of values that I could have all sorts of reasons for adopting as my own (even though I will then be free to abandon it if a more attractive one comes along).”

    Very well said Richard, I mean, Russell ;)

    You sound like you’re channelling Zhuangzi.