In recent years some of Plato’s readers, influenced by discussions of the ‘ethics of virtue’ over recent decades, have been moved to ask whether Plato espouses such a view, and have given various different answers. The question is difficult, because the phrase still doesn’t have a clear-cut meaning. This is caused partly by the fact that its component expressions, ‘ethics’ and ‘virtue’ are likewise ambiguous. And even ‘of’ causes difficulties, because there’s little agreement about what, in the phrase ‘ethics of virtue,’ the relation between virtue and ethics is supposed to be.
Start with the simple idea that an ethics of virtue is an ethical position that makes virtue prominent by using virtue expressions often. Then it’s easy to determine that Plato does espouse such a position. But this standard isn’t interesting: the prominence could easily be caused by trivial expository considerations. We want more than word-counting. We want to focus on substantive philosophical issues. If virtue terms are prominent, then why? Does Plato have grounds for making them so? One can’t describe a position properly without identifying some grounds on which it’s adopted.
As I’ve hinted, the historical question whether Plato espouses an ethics of virtue hasn’t been raised in a vacuum. It’s been occasioned in recent decades by particular concerns within ethics itself. We should keep our eyes on those concerns. Therefore, one of our tasks is to determine whether, when Plato talks much of virtue and virtues, his reasons for stressing virtue are the same as the ones that are now philosophically active. My eventual answer will be: no. But I’ll start by reviewing some of the reasons that have been advanced in the last few centuries.
Prominence is a relation. If virtue concepts are common in Plato, we have to ask, prominent in contrast to what? What do they overshadow? What else might someone have stressed instead? We also want to know: to what are virtue terms applied? Various kinds of things can be called virtuous: people, their actions,
their intentions, and so on. Which applications are prominent in Plato, and for what reasons?
Some usable answers are forthcoming from recent discussions. As to field of application: nowadays an ethics of virtue is typically thought of as giving priority to virtue terms as used of persons or their characters. Usually an ethics of virtue tries to tell us primarily what kind of person it’s ‘good to be.’
Actions can be called virtuous too, of course, or be said to have particular virtues, like being courageous or just. But in a typical ethics of virtue these days, virtuous actions are specified, or defined, as actions that a virtuous person would do. Thus an action’s virtue is usually thought to be somehow derivative from the virtue of the character or personality that produces it. The action inherits its evaluative character from the agent from whom it stems.
We’ve now touched on the main point that we need to understand about Plato. In his Republic he, too, pictures the virtue (or absence thereof) of an action as derivative from the virtue (or absence thereof) of a person. But in Plato’s picture the dependence is quite different from the modern one. On his view, we’ll see, a just action is one that brings about or maintains justice in a person, not one that comes from it. That difference betokens other important differences between Plato’s concerns and more recent ones.
An ethical view that isn’t an ethics of virtue is most likely (there are exceptions; see Frankena 1970) a so-called ethics of duty. Such a view doesn’t recommend actions by saying that they’re what a virtuous person would do—which is how an ethics of virtue recommends actions. Rather, an ethics of duty typically does two things. First, it usually gives general characterizations identifying types of actions—characterizations like ‘keeping promises’ and ‘telling the truth.’ (Thus an ethics of duty specifies sorts of actions directly, rather than by the roundabout way of saying that they’re what a virtuous person would do.) Second, an ethics of duty specifies those types of actions as actions that are required or obligatory; that’s what it means to call them duties, or to say that one ought to do them.
Those who espouse an ethics of duty often say that because it specifies actions directly, it makes telling what to do much easier than an ethics of virtue does (see Frankena 1970; Schneewind 1990). An ethics of duty has to indicate how we can tell, in a given situation, ‘what a virtuous person would do.’ We’ll see later how Plato, with his ethics of virtue, seems to try to answer this question.
The history and historiography of philosophy from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century reveal a definite occasion for asking whether Plato has this kind of reason for emphasizing concepts of virtue over those of duty and action. I sketch the picture with an extremely broad brush.
In the earlier part of this period, partly under the influence of legal thinkers like Grotius and Pufendorf, it was thought important to treat ethical standards as, in important ways, like a legal code, with clear rule-like specifications of what a person is to do and is not to do—in other words, as an ethics of action and, often, as an ethics of duty (Schneewind 1990). In the nineteenth century, there was a reaction against this, under the influence of Schiller and Hegel, and then increasingly in the second half of the twentieth, especially in English-speaking philosophy. This reaction largely involved objections to Kant’s ethics, which stressed duty vigorously.
These objections issued in a movement, especially since the 1950s, favoring an—as it came to be called—ethics of virtue, offered as a supposedly superior alternative to (especially) Kantian ethical thinking, and also favoring the evaluation of actions as opposed to persons and their characters.
Beginning with Schiller’s and Hegel’s criticisms of Kant (and stimulated, no doubt, by Kant’s chilly disregard of Greek ethics), this movement harked back strongly to classical Greek philosophy in general—to Aristotle most of all, but also sometimes to Plato. The thought was that Greek philosophers represented the kind of thinking that was so sadly lacking in Kant and others like him.
As a result, many find it apposite to ask whether this historical picture—of this or that Greek philosopher as offering an ethics of virtue as against Kantian duty-centered thinking—is correct. Consequent on asking that question, of course, one asks the additional question: does Greek ethics offer grounds supporting an ethics of virtue? And are these grounds like the modern ones?
Does Plato say directly why he talks so much about virtue, or argue for doing so? No, he just does it, seemingly unselfconsciously. He does it a great deal in his early works, where he seems to be strongly under the influence of Socrates (esp. the Crito, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, Hippias Major, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, and, I’d say, Republic 1 as well), where he tries to define various virtues and, in the Meno, virtue itself. This seeming link between Socrates and Plato’s early discussions of virtues, together with a selective view of non-philosophical Greek literature, has made some of Plato’s readers believe that he unthinkingly absorbed an interest in virtue from earlier writers and from his ‘culture.’
That view can’t be sustained, for two reasons. For one thing, there’s plenty of talk within Greek literature, both in Plato’s time and before, that doesn’t revolve around virtue, and doesn’t treat the virtue of persons as focal. In fact, there’s plenty of talk about actions that are required by a standard emanating from some other source than virtue. The gods issue lots of commands, and punish mortals for disobeying them. Zeus does that with thunderbolts. Greek mythology is full of such pictures (Lloyd-Jones 1983). There’s no good ground for saying that ‘attractive’ standards of goodness and virtue there dominate ‘imperative’ standards arising from commands.
These commands come from both divine and legal sources (and even from both, as in Plato’s Crito
). True, Plato has no confidence in the power of law and law courts to regulate society, and throughout he gives this job over primarily to education. Nevertheless his Laws
, written near the end of his life, is anything but skeptical of the power of law to set standards, though that’s largely because it gives law an educative role too (Laws
Plato’s early works, by contrast, are chiefly devoted to attempts to define virtue terms (along with a couple of others, such as friendship in the Lysis). Strikingly, however, Plato often cites cases of virtue that aren’t persons or their characters, but rather actions or action types (e.g., Euthyphro 5d–e, 7a). He doesn’t say that persons are conceptually primary instances of virtue.
The Republic is like Plato’s earlier works in focusing on virtues possessed by persons, especially the virtue of justice, which the Republic tried to define. However, the work shows that Plato recognizes a different approach to ethics, which emphasizes actions and general rules. The interlocutors in the conversation accept the action- and rule-oriented approach. All of their attempts at defining justice in this way are refuted within Book 1. A definition of justice as speaking the truth and repaying what one owes is proposed and refuted (331d; N.B.: such references without the name of another Platonic work are to the widely standardized pages of the Republic); likewise a definition of it as helping friends and harming enemies (332d). Plato is on his way to arguing against, not only these particular definitions, but the whole approach of trying to define a virtue by means of direct specifications of the actions that fall under it.
Actions are likewise the focus of the conversation in Book 1 between the character Socrates and his chief adversary, Thrasymachus. The latter’s way of broaching the topic (338–339) sounds for all the world like a present-day treatment of the question, “Why does it make sense to do what’s right?”
Not only is Thrasymachus’ focus on just or right actions, including notably those that are required or forbidden by laws. Thrasymachus also maintains that most actions that are so called actually harm the persons who do them. So he asks, “Why should anyone do them?” Thrasymachus himself asserts that doing them is simply “high-minded foolishness” (êlithios, 348c). (Notice that as the word “high-minded” shows, Thrasymachus doesn’t think that everyone acknowledges that they act only in order to further their own well-being; rather, he ascribes to people a notion of non-self-regarding motivation, and Plato agrees; see White 2002: 189–214.)
The same preoccupation with actions is exhibited further in the restatements of Thrasymachus’ position by Glaucon and Adeimantus in Republic 2. The question on the table thenceforth is, then: is it in fact foolish to perform just actions?
Once Plato has disposed of these definitions, as we’ll see, he’s on his way to rejecting—clearly, self-consciously, and emphatically (443c–e)—the whole
action-oriented approach to defining justice. Instead he opts in the rest of the Republic
for a kind of ethics of virtue—though not, as we’ll see, the kind that’s common nowadays.
What we might initially expect from Plato as a response to Thrasymachus’ position is, of course, an argument for saying that doing just actions is indeed beneficial. But that’s not what we get. From its inception in Books 2–4, and its continuation thereafter, Plato’s response has little directly to do with just or obligatory actions. Instead it deals with virtues, and especially justice as a virtue, both of characters or personalities (‘souls’ or psychai), and also, by analogy to persons, of city-states (poleis) or social organizations of individuals.
Critics have objected that Plato has switched the terms of the debate in the middle of it, and hasn’t shown his reply to be relevant to Thrasymachus’ position. This matter doesn’t concern us here.
What does concern us is Plato’s shift in application of the term justice. In Plato’s early works and in Republic 1, the talk was of virtues, both of persons and of actions. Thrasymachus’ outburst (336b) led us to think primarily about justice as applied to (he thinks, “foolish”) actions. Thereupon Plato forced us to shift our attention back again to justice as applied to persons and their characters. These shifts have implications for whether we’re dealing with an ethics of virtue or not.
What that series of shifts conveys is this. Plato’s Socrates (and probably the historical Socrates, with his interest in the health of the individual’s soul) wanted to focus on defining virtue terms as applied both to persons and to other things, including actions. The relation between these two kinds of application wasn’t fully articulated. T...