Every few nights, my husband I and read (at the moment, philosophy) to one another, and discuss what we've read. We have to be careful to do this early in the evening, or we don't get enough sleep.
Right now, before we tackle anything in depth, we're going through Nigel Warburton's Philosophy: The Basics, and last night we came to Aristotle's Virtue Theory.
Aristotle believed that every human wished to achieve eudaimonia, or the flourishing of a complete, happy life. One accomplished this by the cultivation of virtues. Therein lies the rub. What are virtues? The trap in trying to define virtues is the tendency to codify either one's own prejudices, or the prevailing morality of the time. For example, if I like Mercedes Benz, I might define one virtue as appreciation of fine craftsmanship.
I decided I liked the idea of cultivating virtues, but not the nebulousness of said virtues. Couldn't one perhaps apply a brand of utilitarianism--look for those things which bring about the most good for the most people--and find our elusive virtues?
Another problem with Virtue Theory is that it assumes the existence of a human nature. If we accept this as a starting point, one way to define human nature is to look at what people actually do, then try to reduce these actions to their most basic elements. We would hunt for this objective example of human nature, and then, if possible, apply our utilitarian virtue.
We began with culture. Humans are social animals, and will always form some sort of society. In the establishment of a group, there will always be two basic processes: education to impart the culture, and the development of hierarchy. I thought these two might be expressions of human nature. Bill thought these things arose naturally as a consequence of cooperative group living. Perhaps the creation of a culture was human nature? Well, not really, because the creation of culture is more of a survival skill for humans. Nonetheless, the idea of cooperating with the group was integrated into our solution in a way.
More intrinsic, and certainly more individual, than the creation of culture is the expression of emotion. Unless we're seriously ill, we all express emotions in great quantity and variety. It is certainly a distinctive (though not uniquely) human characteristic. We decided it was a good candidate for a chunk of human nature.
So where is the virtue with which one develops this nature? The virtue is empathy. When one applies empathy to emotions, the result is mercy, generosity, fairness, and a number of other qualities that benefit humanity as a whole, as well as creating eudaimonia in the individual. When empathy is not practiced, the result is greed, selfishness, and the type of sociopathy that allows acts such as murder and robbery. Empathy informs our conscience.
We briefly explored the possibility of other basic aspects of human nature, and what virtue might be applied, but again and again, we came back to empathy.
Now I suppose we should actually read some Aristotle to see if he came up with something similar.