Virtue is acquirable? Maybe just for men

[Updated 5 Sept 2013]

In contemporary virtue theory, virtue is almost always thought of as acquirable: no one is born with it, and some manage to achieve it.  The reasoning behind this claim tends to be quick, but the basic idea is that, since we hold people responsible for their character, it had better be something they can do something about.  Moreover, it’s often said, this is how people have always thought about virtue.  But the noble warriors in Homer Illiad don’t acquire their virtue: they’re born with it.  And Josh Knobe and Brian Leiter argue that, for Nietzsche, virtue is similarly heritable.  (I happen disagree, but leave that to one side.)

But Homer wasn’t a philosopher and Nietzsche is usually an outlier.  Perhaps perfect consensus doesn’t exist on the acquirability of virtue, but near consensus does. Jane Austen, insightful as usual, suggests otherwise.


Her answer seems to be: for men, but maybe not for women.  Here’s a quote from Pride and Prejudice:

As for Mary, she was mistress enough of herself to whisper to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table:

“This is a most unfortunate affair, and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation.”

Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply.

Mary Bennett is expressing what I suspect was an all-too-common conception of female virtue.  Instead of being something that one achieves, i.e., something that one does not start with but can with some effort acquire, female virtue is something that one can only lose, i.e., something that one does start with and can all-too-easily give up.  Not only that, but once one loses it, it is gone forever.

I’ve expressed reservations about the notion that chastity is a virtue elsewhere (fidelity might be, but that’s quite different).  Thinking about it in this light only makes my reservations stronger.


Here’s a nice example of the insane approach to virtue still practiced today.  Mom browses through her sons’ facebook news feeds with them (no problem there; they’re minors).  Sees a selfie of a girl in pajamas, possibly not wearing a bra.  Gasps.  Clutches pearls.  Faints onto the divan.  Blocks girl’s profile forever. (Or at least thinks she does; her sons are probably a little more adept with the interwebs than she is….)  Nietzsche had something to say about this kind of thing:

The church combats the passions by cutting them off in every sense: its technique, its ‘cure’, is castration. It never asks: ‘how can a desire be spiritualized, beautified, deified?’ — it has always laid the weight of its discipline on eradication (of sensuality, of pride, of greed, of the thirst to dominate and exact revenge). But attacking the root of the passions means attacking the root of life: the practices of the church are hostile to life… (The Anti-Christ, “Morality as Anti-Nature”)

Instead of slut-shaming and ostrich-ing, maybe she could have told her sons that, regardless of how a woman dresses and presents herself, they should treat her with respect.

4 thoughts on “Virtue is acquirable? Maybe just for men

  1. Interesting! I have the same intuitions that you express in your final paragraph, but I wonder if you could say a little more to substantiate them. Why should we worry about seeing virtue as something that one can only lose, rather than as something one can work to acquire? Obviously the fact that different standards are used for different genders is indefensible, but what’s wrong with the basic idea of a virtue that you can only lose?

    • Thanks, Nick. Well, virtues are meant to be dispositions to think, feel, and act in particular ways. I see no reason to think that once one stops thinking, feeling, and acting in a particular way, that one could never start again. So the idea that a virtue is something one could lose (especially so easily!) for good is a non-starter. So that leaves us with the weaker notion of a virtue that one could lose and then re-acquire. At that point, the only difference is the starting point: do you start out having it, then (potentially) lose and reacquire it, or do you start out not having it and then acquire it?

      Traditionally, at least, virtues require higher-order cognitive and affective mental states. You’re not really, say, generous unless you have particular dispositional beliefs, desires, and sentiments about generous acts, thoughts, and emotions. For instance, a generous person doesn’t just give to others, but believes that it’s good to alleviate suffering and make people happy, and is disposed to approve of the same attitude in others (and to disapprove of its lack or contrary). I find it hard to imagine that children are born with such higher-order mental dispositions, though I’m happy to hear evidence to the contrary. If that’s right, then people don’t start with virtues, though they may start life with inclinations to do and think in ways that a virtuous person would.


      • Hey Mark,

        Yes, I do think this is plausible. However, it’s probably worth noting that this is a distinctly (neo-?) Aristotelian conception of virtue, and that some (indeed many) societies have conceived of virtue very differently, namely, as something that most essentially involves how you are seen, both in the eyes of important members of the community and in the eyes of some deity. Thus, for shame-based virtues (like chastity and honor) I think that the idea that they can be irrevocably lost is not so strange, because they essentially involve becoming ‘polluted’ in the eyes of the community.

        Obviously, today’s ethicists prefer the Aristotelean model because it comports well with modern liberal ideals. But these are not the ideals that created and sustained virtues like chastity. So, one worry is that in defining virtue this way you automatically turn chastity into a strange, illogical thing. Perhaps someone wedded to traditional ideals of chastity and honor (as I am not) would find this move question-begging.

        • Interesting point, Nick. I’m actually quite amenable to the idea that part of what it takes to be virtuous is that others think of you in certain ways and signal those thoughts to you. But even then it should be possible to regain virtue, unless it’s impossible for others to change their minds about you. It might be hard to get that to happen — disgust and contempt are pretty incorrigible — but it’s at least possible.

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