📙 Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics
Author: Kevin Hermberg and Paul Gyllenhammer
Full Title: Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics
Although ethics, generally speaking, might benefit from phenomenological investigations, Virtue Ethics is a tradition that is particularly well suited to the depth descriptions of phenomenology.
Such descriptions, however, are largely unthematized in the current literature on phenomenology.
One does not trust someone who does not hold herself in sufficiently high regard.
Most basically, Virtue Ethics is concerned with our ability to become better than we are or to flourish. Virtue Ethics depends, therefore, upon our appreciation of the flow of interpretive objectification, where our embodied relationship to things is the focal concern.
A focal object is any object that solicits a primal enthusiasm, promotes sympathy with others, and requires tolerance.
A trademark feature of Virtue Ethics is its focus on flourishing as the basis of an excellent life. I bring this focus into dialogue with phenomenology by showing how the natural attitude limits our well-being because of the way it takes reality as something given, ordinary, and stable. As a remedy to this problem, I discuss avenues of engagement that help foster in us more open, enthusiastic, and responsible dispositions, which, in turn, allow us to relate to things, others, and ourselves in more fulfilling ways.
When our natural attitude, that is, our taken for granted flow of life, forgets to nurture our relationships to the body, wilderness, and a focused expertise, our lives are not as excellent as they could be.
Other than the structure of intentionality, perhaps the most well-recognized phenomenological notion is the natural attitude.
Descriptively, the natural attitude indicates the way that humans become so engrossed in their activities that they lose sight of the fact that all regions of engagement are mediated by a historical/temporal horizon.
How we feel in terms of our overall well-being is a fundamental concern for all people.
Husserl realizes the importance of our overall affective disposition when he discusses orthoesthetics (Husserl 1989, 71). This theme has been taken up by others outside the phenomenological tradition under the headings of care for the self and somesthetics.
Unless we recall that we are active forces that give meaning and shape to the world, we are easily lost in the destructive stasis of our mundane, daily lives.
If we do not establish fundamental goals as a way to reinvigorate our lives, then our stagnant existence will leave us empty rather than full, bored rather than passionate, sick rather than healthy.
Apathy is a sure sign that something is going wrong in our lives. Thus, we need to seek ways to break down the barrier of the natural attitude and to provoke again a spirit of wonder.
Here, I take as a guide Albert Borgmann’s account of a focal object, which generates the virtues of enthusiasm, sympathy, and tolerance (Borgmann 1984, 176–82).
First and foremost, focal objects require patience or tolerance because we need to focus on them. This means that we need to disburden ourselves from other concerns—concerns that may interrupt the focus needed for a deeply rich object.
Second, when I reach out to others in my enthusiasm about a focal object, hoping they will sympathize with my discovery, other people may not immediately understand why I find this object exciting. Here, a potential hostility can arise between people since objects of enthusiasm are not always recognized as mutually significant. In this case, tolerance is demanded from me for the simple fact that others are not the same as me.
The need for the good is dramatically set in motion by reckoning with the oblivion that awaits us all.
Although we never know the time and place of our death, we can attempt to hold it off for as long as possible. A fundamental way of doing this is to recall that the human body is itself a focal object that offers itself as an infinitely dense object of discovery and renewal.
Under the heading of passive synthesis, Husserl describes the embodied level of sense that originally orients us toward things. There are affective forces that draw us toward and drive us away from objects in the world (Husserl 2001, 196ff.). We know this realm of passive synthesis is real because we can witness the way in which our own bodies are habitually responsive to the world. In times of great distress, we can even hate our own bodies because of a sense of powerlessness before it.
Traces of our earliest experiences remain in our present through habits. And these present traces, as forces, become evident to us when we strive to describe the form of our relationship to the world. Such descriptions require us to take stock of the home-worlds in which we once did, and currently do, participate for they shape our lives so deeply.
What is nice about Husserl’s focus is his concern with the subject’s experience with changes in the norm. Husserl, in other words, can meaningfully discuss how an embodied norm is idiosyncratic at times, and how a change in that normative horizon can be deeply good for the individual, even if nothing of significance has changed in the social or statistical levels.
At this point, I am more concerned with finding avenues of renewal—avenues for being open to the rich diversity of life—rather than some definitive path to ultimate well-being. And the path into affective-evaluative renewal is paved by our appreciation of the dynamic nature of our embodied selves.
Although qualitatively richer senses of the good arise through our active involvement with our Home-world, actually leaving our culturally saturated horizon of familiarity offers even more dramatic alterations in our appreciation of the good.
Of course, the wilderness does not only present cumulative challenges to our sense of being; we choose to enter it for the almost spontaneous beauty it has to offer. Here, being engulfed is the phenomenological experience I would like to focus on in more detail. This experience is a gestalt shift from our home-horizon in which we are also engulfed, but in a way that we do not sense as immediately because of our familiarity with that horizon.
First, unlike experiences of beautiful art works, which take us out of daily life in framed, safe, and limited ways, Nature is an inexhaustible source of awe because there is no institutionally created frame that directs our appreciation or comfort.
Since there are no institutional values or artistic intentions to criticize or blame for Nature’s ugliness, the factual aspect of Nature’s brutality strikes us as emotionally powerful and simply not the same as authored forms of ugliness.
The absence of others allows us to lose ourselves into the environment, which is experienced as a release from the pressures of social life. This lack of social pressure is felt like a great weight lifted off of our whole being. I would venture to say that entering the wilderness is a way to find the goodness (rather than alienation) inherent to the anonymous consciousness that occupies so much of Sartre’s early phenomenological descriptions. By loosening the grip of the “look of the other,” which, for Sartre, brings about intra- and intersubjective hostilities, we are released from the mechanism that brings about senses of shame, self-loathing, guilt, as well as acts of sadism and masochism.
Although this reckoning with finitude (death, comprehension, and power) is alarming, there is nonetheless a strange sense of calmness and empowerment. Standing at the intersection of being and the self, we are emotionally charged because, against the backdrop of all the dead and absent beings in history, we have some time left in the world. We are brought back to an appreciation for our lives—the absolute beauty of living and breathing at this instant.
If alienation is fundamentally a mood of “not feeling at Home,” and if this mood is an integral part of the human drama, then developing an expertise is an important therapy for this ailment. By becoming skilled or conversant with a discipline, we commune or harmonize with a part of reality, which not only gives content to our sense of self but grants us access to a community of like-embodied subjects.
A profound responsibility, therefore, rests on us to become and maintain an expertise because of this communal need.
We can also see that the phenomenological focus on the evaluative origin of the objective world (through the study of passive synthesis) is coordinated with a quest for the good life or virtue. Since any and all focal objects are taken up by people who care about revealing their significance to themselves and others, objective insight is made possible by the enthusiastic engagement with objects that are worthy of awe and respect. Virtue has given us reality and virtue can keep us passionate about discovering more about reality.
Dreyfus, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus. 1990. “What is Morality? A Phenomenological Account of the Development of Ethical Expertise,” in David Rasmussen (ed.), Universalism vs. Communitarianism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 237–64. —. 1991. “Towards a Phenomenology of Ethical Expertise.” Human Studies, 14, (4), 229–50. —. 2004. “The Ethical Implications of the Five-Stage Skill Acquisition Model.” Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, 24, 251–674.
My more modest aim is to extend the suggestions of Dreyfus and Taylor and argue that there is both a methodological proximity and, to a lesser extent, a substantive ethical proximity between phenomenology and Virtue Ethics around the centrality of character to moral flourishing.
One of the central methodological commitments that can be discerned in phenomenology is what we might call a disciplining of rationality or theoria, to invoke Aristotle. This involves disciplining the claims of metaphysics, but it also involves renewed attention to the question of the conditions for reasoning and rationality.
If there is an emphasis on the Lebenswelt that is the condition for particular forms of reasoning, including ethical reasoning, then we can again begin to see some methodological connections with elements of both Virtue Ethics and communitarian political thought, which affirm our historical embeddedness and the deep context-dependence of moral and political judgments and forms of agency.
Ethics is only intermittently treated in Husserl, and it is with Heidegger, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Levinas that phenomenology begins to be more expressly concerned with ethics.
Moreover, for Dreyfus and Dreyfus (as for virtue ethicists), there is not likely to be any overall theory or principle that unifies the behavior of someone whom we consider to be morally mature. Instead, such a person attends to the particularity of each situation, but can only do so because of the maintenance of l’habitude and “intentional arcs” (an idea taken from Merleau-Ponty) that allow us to establish links with our environment and fellow creatures, such that we are solicited to respond to it and them in more and more refined ways.
Rather than see critical rationality as overriding our intuitive ethical comportment, they advocate a reversal of this priority and side with caring over justice. Considerations of justice tend to be part of the competent stage of skill acquisition, but something like practical wisdom is more typical of the phenomenology of expertise.
Perception, for all of the phenomenologists, has an orientational structure (up/down, figure/ground, etc.)3 that solicits us to optimally come to grips with it, and we see things in terms of actions and in relation to potential uses of them by others. Is it plausible to extend this to something like “moral perception”? Aristotle does, and calls it a practical aisthesis, a vision that discloses the concrete situation of action in all its givenness
Phenomenologically, at least, it does seem that our perceptual field is structured by such solicitations; we see someone struggling in a current of water as requiring our help, and not just any help but help of a specific kind tailored to the context.
Rather than attempt to institute a nonmoral decision procedure for morality, Dreyfus’ view, like Aristotle’s, appeals to those who already have some orientation to the good or some desire for moral virtue, as we will see in consideration of Taylor shortly. And failure is possible: achieving moral flourishing does depend on one’s culture, in the sense that if the cultural conditions are not right, it is at the very least highly unlikely that one will become a phronimon.
In Sources of the Self and elsewhere, Charles Taylor utilizes a phenomenological anthropology and transcendental reasoning to argue against both naturalist metaethical positions and rule-following/duty-oriented normative accounts of the deontological and utilitarian varieties.
Of course, beyond his methodological worries regarding these forms of ethical theorizing, Taylor is also well-known for his central claim regarding our orientation to the “good.” As he puts it: One could put it this way: because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence determine the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in Narrative form, as a “quest.” But one could perhaps start from another point: because we have to determine our place in relation to the good, therefore we cannot be without an orientation to it, and hence must see our life in story. From whichever direction, I see these conditions as connected facets of the same reality, inescapable structural requirements of human agency.
While Levinas has little to say about ethics traditionally conceived—that is, with prescribing moral norms, justifying them, or metaethical analysis of ethical discourse—his work offers a continual reminder of the way otherness interrupts and conditions our totalizing explanations. This “other” orientation might help to open up a tradition of virtue ethics that is less about prudential concern for oneself, or the kind of ethics of self-mastery that to differing extents can be discerned in the work of both Aristotle and Heidegger, and more about our obligations to the other that cannot be fleshed out in rule-following terms.
Act-centred ethics, because they focus on discrete acts and moral quandaries, are naturally very interested in formulating decision procedures for making practical Choices. . . . Agent-centred ethics, on the other hand, focus on long-term characteristic Patterns of action, intentionally downplaying atomic acts and particular Choice situations in the process.
Together phenomenology and virtue ethics offer some complementary antitheoretical trajectories for thinking about ethics that promise to be mutually enlightening.
I take the following to be core elements of Aristotle’s account of virtue, and hence as those things any phenomenology of virtue must acknowledge: first, virtue involves perception, not merely judgment; second, virtue is autotelic, valuable for its own sake; third, virtue is not the same as knowledge; fourth, virtue crucially involves the emotions; finally, virtue involves experiencing the world in a non-egocentric way—it involves what I will call a “recessive self.”
My task in what follows will be to provide a model of perception that both makes Aristotle’s view plausible and reveals something about the structure of virtuous experience. I will begin by presenting an enactivist view of perception rooted in J. J. Gibson’s (1979) notion of affordances. I will argue that perception is constituted fundamentally by a recognition of the possible actions available to an acting agent. I will refine this account by arguing that moods and emotions further perceptually delineate possible actions. The phenomenology of virtue, I contend, is best understood on the model of attunement to those possibilities of action characteristic of virtue.
Aristotle regarded moral expertise as fundamentally perceptual in character. The morally wise person (phronimos), on Aristotle’s view, literally sees the world differently:
To become virtuous is thus to alter the way the world is disclosed.
The crucial distinction that Aristotle invokes in claiming that phronesis is perceptual is a distinction between perceiving and judging. Phronetic knowledge is perceptual because it is not the result of conscious judgment.
As I will argue, the core of Virtue—of phronetic perception—is training oneself to have those emotional states which allow one to perceive the appropriate range of possible actions within situations.
Aristotle identifies emotional perception as crucial to moral action and much of the literature in virtue ethics follows suite.
Emotions (broadly construed) constitute a means by which particular affordances stand out in our perceptual environment.
Depression, likewise, can rob our affordances of their worth: to be depressed is to no longer see a wide range of actions as worth pursuing.
Because emotions are not merely the subjective froth atop all perception—because they partially constitute what we perceive—there is no such thing as an emotionless perception (“Dasein always has its mood,” as Heidegger says).
The model of affordances allows us to understand virtue itself as perceptual in character. When one acquires phronesis, one sees what a particular situation demands and responds accordingly. This is achieved through the appropriate kind of training of the emotions.
All perception is to be understood as perception of action-possibilities. The virtuous person perceives the world differently precisely because she sees the range of possible actions more perspicuously and immediately than the nonvirtuous person does.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “optimal experience” (flow experience) provides several clues to the structure of a phenomenology of Virtue that recognizes Virtue as a kind of expertise.
The phronimos experiences the world differently, and part of the structure of this difference is in the place accorded to one’s self-regarding interests in experience. The world of the phronimos is not one that is colonized by endless thoughts of how something relates to these interests. He is not distracted by such interests or by reflection on them. The phronimos has interests, it is true—and these are vital to all moral deliberation and action—but these interests are much wider than those of mere self-interest; their orbit does not have at its center the ever-demanding ego.
The saint (phronimos) experiences the world differently and accomplishes this by maintaining a different attunement to the world—by having, as James puts it, “an inborn genius for certain emotions”
The Virtues of Agency: A Phenomenology of Confidence, Courage, and Creativity
Phenomenology is the description of experience in the terms in which it is lived rather than in the terms we impose upon it because of our theories about the nature of reality.
The world of our everyday, lived experience is an arena charged with meaning; we experience the object of our experience primarily as a summons to action, a summons that affects us below the level of our explicit, reflective subjectivity, drawing instead on an intimacy of bond between self and world.
We experience our world as calling us to action at every level from the minimally practical, as when we experience the handrail as calling from our grip, to the maximally ethical, as when we experience another Person in distress as commanding our compassion and support.
Now we easily recognize that a child will have to undergo and actively participate in a process of bodily development in order to acquire the skills necessary to carry out the activities called for by living in the world. What a phenomenological reflection on the experience of agency reveals beyond this, though, is that, to be such appropriately responsive agents, we must also grow as subjects; this growth, too, is one that we must actively participate in, as well as undergo. Agency, in short, is not naturally occurring, but is achieved—as Aristotle says about the polis, it is natural to us, but does not occur by Nature—and ethical agency is fundamentally a matter of undamaged development, itself predicated upon proper care.
The child must be empowered to develop habits of “ontological self-confidence”—recognizing herself to be a real and worthy being in her own right—if she is to be capable in the future of developing a healthy personal and interpersonal life.
The early development of the child is the gradual process of transformation from experience as something simply undergone—the “happening” of a texture of emergent feelings, motions, sounds, etc.—to experience as something substantially shaped by doing. This shift to “doing,” a shift that itself hovers between something undergone by and something done by the child, is the performative emergence of the child’s agency, an emergence that is a transformative of and within the original setting of intertwinement.
Laing argues that we are all animated by a fundamental uncertainty about our own reality, and healthy human life is a matter of accomplishing a sense of confidence in one’s own reality. Laing refers to this most basic confidence as “ontological security.”
Now, for the child to become an agent, the child needs to develop a sense of itself as a “force” in reality, as one whose sense of importance carries weight in shaping how things are, as a will that makes a difference.
The child cannot on its own confirm its own worth, its own agency. Doing so is a cooperative venture between (m)other and child, but it is a cooperative venture in which the (m)other holds virtually “all the cards,” so to speak, for the (m)other is precisely the one with an autonomous will and a developed sense of agency, whereas the child inhabits this terrain fundamentally in the mode of vulnerability and thus does not have an equal “hand” to play.
Most fundamentally, then, to become an agent—to become a “self”—the child needs to develop a confident sense of its own reality, which means it must be able to rest, trustingly, in the support of its (m)other. Allowing this rest is perhaps the primary responsibility of the parent (and not one that is automatically fulfilled).
At a most basic level, our existence as agents is not simply a natural condition, but is a matter of character, of habit, and this first of all in the sense that one must become habituated to a sense of self-confidence. Confidence, then, before being a self-conscious view of a subject about itself is the very fabric of a self;
Courage is the further ability to take that self into the realm of another that does not give confidence. It is essentially the ability to rely upon one’s already established self-confidence to support oneself as one holds onto a plan or a value in a challenging situation, that is, precisely a situation that does not already offer one confirmation.
An attitude of proto-courage, then, is demanded of us simply to become agents.
Whereas primary confidence is a lived recognition of oneself as real and primary courage is a lived recognition of oneself as capable, primary creativity is a lived recognition of oneself as a generative source.
To be an agent capable of navigating this world effectively requires one be sufficiently plastic in one’s responsiveness to cope with undefined situations, and it is the cultivation of such plasticity of agency, such openness, that is the virtue of primary creativity.
Through play, the child engages with the world as a site in need of the child’s spontaneous generation of meaning, thereby becoming practiced in inhabiting the domain of possibility and creativity.
Agency is not a given characteristic of the human being. It is, rather, a cooperatively cultivated stance: a Virtue.
To fully assume our agency—our freedom—is to cultivate these different virtues, and a deficiency in any one of these amounts to a deficiency in our very being as agents.
In short, healthy agency requires that we have found ourselves before the actual, in the actual, and beyond the actual, an intersubjective accomplishment that itself depends on an appropriately nurturing environment that provides the growing child with a stable trusting environment in which it can rest, secure in its sense of self, the appropriate encouragement to explore, risk, and work, and encouragement to play.
The virtuous agent is, ultimately, the person able to recognize reality as such, to cope with the real needs of the situation.
This is an agent, that is, who experiences the world as calling on her creativity to realize “what is called for,” where the world itself does not provide an easy answer to what that is. This agent is an agent of coConsciencewho realizes that she is responsible to the world, that her creativity is required in determining what that responsibility involves, and who has the strength of will to stand behind that recognition. In short, it is the virtues of agency that allow us to receive the call of the good.
Correlates of the Good Life: Body, Wilderness, and Expertise
Also missing from the natural attitude is an awareness of the fact that regions are made possible through individual action, making the person a constitutive force in the meanings that hold sway in the world.
novel. Although the plot is in the text, we have to accept the fact that the plot does not exist all on its own. The plot reveals itself through the finite intentions of the reader.
Analogous to texts, all objects have a density and richness that can provoke a renewed appreciation of them. As we discover them, we are left in awe of all that they have to give us.