John Zeis: Virtue and Self-Alienation

Virtue and Self-Alienation

John Zeis

Recent moral philosophy has witnessed a revival of a theory of virtues which harkens back to the traditional positions of Aristotle and Aquinas.1  As a result, there has been a return to substantive questions in ethics and a re-evaluation of the assumptions of modern moral theory.  This is a welcome development in modern ethics, but the twentieth century theory of virtues cannot consist of a mere restatement of the classical positions.  Too many new questions and problems in ethics have been posed for us to expect all the answers to be garnisheed from our ancient and medieval masters.  If the revival of a theory of virtues is to be ultimately successful, we must enter into dialogue with the modern tradition.  If we do not, we risk either philosophical ghettoism or a unsystematized eclecticism in moral theory.

The object of this paper will be to contribute to this dialogue by presenting a generic problem for modern ethical theory which a theory of virtues based on the classical position will be utilized in solving.  The rationale behind this is that many of the seemingly insoluble problems that we encounter in modern theorizing about ethics result from not taking into due consideration the insights of the classical position,most particularly in its relation to those problems.

One such problem is the issue of the nature of moral
 motivation and moral worth.  The modern tradition is replete with examples of this problem.  And to a great extent, the lines of battle between different traditions are drawn by their positions on this issue.  Kant's discussion places strong emphasis upon this question, but one of the obvious gaps in Kantian theory is his ignoring the role of the virtues in relation to moral worth.  Hobbes' theory of man in the state of nature versus man in civil society presents us with a remarkable attempt to derive the necessity of being moral from even the most extreme view of man as self- interested and wholly lacking in natural moral inclinations.  But whether Hobbes' view of human nature is true is suspect, as is whether even if it were true, could all of what we consider to be necessary to the moral life be derived from this view.  The focus of this paper is why, to a large extent, defects in these theories on the nature of moral motivation and moral worth stem from their lack of due consideration of a satisfactory theory of the virtues.

Hobbesian Alienation

Hobbes' moral theory, like the classical theory of virtues, is rooted in a theory of motivation.  But the Hobbesian position is much simpler.  According to Hobbes, the springs of voluntary motion are found in the endeavors of desire and aversion.  In the absence of regulation by a civil
 authority, these desires and aversions would lead to a state of war.  The sanctions which are attached to civil law are required to keep certain desires and aversions in check so that peace and felicity may be obtained.  According to      Hobbes,  the state of nature would be equivalent to a state of war because, as egoistic hedonists, only our own desires and aversions could operate motivationally.  But since we are all equals, namely we each have the power to kill the other, we must come to a recognition of the need for law:  for without law, our equals are a vivid embodiment of our aversion to death and a frustration of all our desires.  So although we have a right to all things in the state of nature, so do our equals; and consequently when everyone has a right to all things, no one has a right to anything.  This is the recognition which necessitates creation of the law, which is the basis of all morality.  And it is only the sanctions attached to the law which engender our respect, for without such sanctions, there would not be sufficient motivation for ob?edience to the law.

I take it that this is the standard view of the Hobbesian position.  One of the features of this position which moderns have found so attractive and what has enabled it to function as a fundamental basis of all utilitarian type moral theories is that there is no internal check on the desires and aversions which are the causes of voluntary action.  As Robert Paul Wolff has expressed it:
     Desires themselves are treated by Bentham and     Hobbes as given facts of human personality.  We may be able to discover the causes of our desires, of     course, but we cannot--on their view--subject them     to a rational critique.  It would make no sense to     speak of the desires themselves as rational or     irrational .  .  .  Nor can we judge some     satisfactions to be, in and of themselves, good and others bad.2  (p.129)

I wish to articulate the Hobbesian view of human nature in his way.  There is a second intention volition of all men:  that all of one's desires be satisfied and all of one's versions be avoided, and that it is only within a human community that a need for control of desires and aversions attains significance.3 As a result, the Hobbesian view of  civil society is such that, although it is incomparably better than the state of nature, nonetheless it is still a condition which limits our natural desires, and as such, human nature itself.  For Hobbes good is whatever one desires, and living under the moral law requires relinquishing some of these goods for the greater goods of survival, peace, and felicity.  In fact, we may describe the desire for peace and felicity in Hobbes' theory as another second intention volition which curbs our second intention volition to satisfy all desires.

I think it is constructive to consider the juxtaposition
 of Hobbes and Nietzsche on this point.  Nietzsche's view of human nature, sans equality, is remarkably similar to Hobbes' .  And Nietzsche's denial of equality in human nature is precisely what enables him to cbampion moral nihilism from his otherwise very Hobbesian-like view of man.  According to my model, what Nietzsche discovered was that if man has the second intention volition to satisfy all desires and avoid all aversions, then civil society is an institution which stifles the true realization of our fundamental end.  Hobbes'morality is for the weak, cowardly, and inevitably frustrated.  What we see in Nietzsche is an elimination of the second intention Volition for peace and felicity necessary in a Hobbesian structure.  This results in unregulated freedom for the satisfaction of the desire to satisfy all desires, which yields a glorified version of Hobbes' state of war.

This is the first problem with Hobbes' view of law as constitutive of morality.  The moral law is contrary to our natural inclinations and interferes with our poten!tiality to

satisfy our second intention volition to satisfy all our desires.  As such, it is an alienating force.  We must relinquish this desire, but only because of the threat of sanction attached to violation of the law.  The second problem is well-known and is related to the first.  Since the moral law is contrary to our nature, What explains moral behavior in the absence of sufficient sanction?  Hobbes stresses the need for adequate sanction attached to the law,
and rightly so, for in his view, there can be no other motivating factor for satisfying obligations.  That this is a problem with Hobbesian theory is well-recognized, but what is not is that it is really generated by the first, and more fundamental, problem.  It is only because of our alienation from the requirements of morality that the second problem even arises.  But in the Hobbesian view of man, this alienation is unavoidable.  Since man has the second intention volition to satisfy all desires, and since this desire is unsatisfiable in a moral context, the moral law is essentially alienating.  Restrictions which are contrary to fundamental desires of the individual are imposed as a result of forces external to the nature and desires of the agent.  And consequently, when these forces are not present, there is no reason for obedience to the moral law.

Kantian Alienation

In response to the kind of alienation from the requirements of morality found in Hobbes, Kant proposed a quite different moral theory, but it too has its own version of moral alienation.  The Kantian position is constructed with a view of moral motivation which is virtually contrary to the Hobbesian theory of motivation.  Self-interest as a motivating factor is not only not necessary for moral action, its presence is in fact a sufficient condition for an agent's forfeiting moral worth in action.  If the agent is motivated by self-interest, or in fact any prudential end, moral worth is negated.  As a counterweight to the crass view of moral motivation presented by Hobbes, we can, I think, sympathize with Kant's extremism on this issue.  It is a noble attempt to restore some dignity to moral character.  But in place of the motivation of self-interest, Kant substitutes the obscure notion of motivation from duty.  This is obscure because, unlike the Hobbesian view, it is unclear how duty as such can operate as a motivating factor.  Unlike desires and aversions, it is not clear how duty is operative upon the appetite.

From Kant's point of view, acting from duty is acting from  a rational objective, and that is what constitutes the moral worth of the action.  This objective is essentially impersonal and since it must be severed from any connections of consideration of self-interest, its function as a spring of action is mysterious and just as alienating as the Hobbesian view of the moral law, only as a different sort of alienation.  Of course, Kant attempts to defend his view of moral motivation against this type of charge on the basis that as rational agents we ought to form our volitions from duty.  But then we may attribute to him the position that, as rational agents, we all have a second intention volition to act from duty.  And if this is so, then acting morally is acting from self-interest, not of course in regard to first order desires, but in regard to our second intention volition.

Despite the insistence of Kant that his moral thory is the  only one which can be reconciled with a proper theory of the nature of persons, there is still a disturbing kind of alienation which results from his position.  The form of alienation in Hobbes as I characterized it was that in following the demands of morality, a person had to accept the unsatisfiability of his second intention volition to satisfy all desires.  And if second intention volitions function constitutively, this would be a seriously debilitating form of alienation.  The form of alienation generated by the Kantian theory is not at all the same.  In Kant's theory, the person is not alienated from their second intention volitions in following the demands of morality.  this is because according to the Kantian view of human nature, the second intention volition which is relevant to morality is that one act from duty; and so one might say that, trivially, this does not generate alienation.  However, there is a form of alienation in Kantian theory, and it is that our second intention moral desire is alienated from our first order desires.  In Kantian theory if there were any correspondence between first and second intention volitions, it would be wholly gratuitous.

Just as it is instructive to compare Nietzsche with Hobbes on this question, it is I think instructive to similarly compare the Existentialists with Kant.  It is no accident that the Existentialists developed their theory on Kantian philosophical soil, for the kind of alienation I
attribute to Kant is just the kind of problem which the Existentialist thinkers are so attuned to.  In Kant's theory the second intention volition to act from duty is paramount in human action and wholly constitutes moral worth.  But since this second intention volition is severed from any causal or explanatory connections with our first order desires or volitions, it is quite difficult to see what the point of moral action really amounts to.  If moral action is merely the commitment to an abstract requirement of duty which has no intrinsic ties to our other desires and inclinations or prudential ends, it does seem as if human life is purposeless and our only hope for the moral life is some achievement of existential angst.  Granted, Kant attempts to temper the alienating features of his theory by formulating a social expression of the categorical imperative, but this seems to be a mere concession of a problem which nonetheless is misdirected.  For although it is possible to utilize his insight that it is unjustifiable to treat a person merely as a means to an end in a teleological theory of ethics, Kant would balk at this strategy and the principle itself cannot be justified simpliciter in a teleological theory; treating a person merely as a means to an end is wrong only under certain conditions.  Consequently, even the social expression of the categorical imperative is alienated from our first order desires and inclinations, and in fact that is just another way of understanding what it is about the principle that makes it a categorical imperative.

Hence I don't see how, in a true Kantian system, we can avoid this type of alienation, and the specter of existential angst seems unavoidable.

The Virtues and Alienation

It appears to me that a theory of the virtues is necessary for solving the problems of alienation which are endemic to the views of Hobbes and Kant (and consequently all derivative moral theories) on moral motivation.  My thesis is that only via some theory of the virtues can our first and second intention volitions be amicably reconciled.  In a theory of the virtues, there is a recognition that there are first order desires in the form of passions, inclinations, and aversions which are neither good nor evil in principle.4  In one respect, this is similar to the Hobbesian view of the appetite, but by identifying objects of first order desires and aversions as ''good'' and ''evil'', Hobbes incorporates egoistic hedonism into the basis of his motivational theory.  But in a theory of virtues, these desires and aversions are treated as neutral, and it is only in relation to our second intention volitions that these first order desires become identified as good or evil.  In virtue ethics, the second intention volition which is operative in morality is:  'do good and avoid evil' , and it is in the intellect's judgment of first order desires in relation to this second intention principle that our passions, inclinations, and aversions
become identified as good or evil.

The assumption behind this view of our first and second intention volitions is that moral action is perfective of the will, and so perfective of the agent's appetite.5  This is unlike the Hobbesian view wherein which some goods (i. e. objects of first order desires) must be compromised in the face of a second intention volition, or the Kantian view wherein which first order goods are demeaned in relation to duty.  Virtue ethics entails that first order desires, in the absence of teleological specification by our second intention voliition to do good and avoid evil, are neither to be taken for granted as good, nor demeaned as morally irrelevant, but must be directed to their perfection in such a way that fulfills human potentiality.6  It is precisely via this  perfection of  first order desires by our second intention volition that the virtues operate causally in fulfilling our potential.

The essential function of the intellect in Hobbes' moral psychology is that it restricts our first order desires in a way that enables us to satisfy our second intention volition for peace and security.  The essential function of the intellect (or better 'reason') in Kant is that of purging our moral considerations of the influence by first order desires. but in virtue ethics, the essential function of the intellect is neither restrictive nor purgative, but developnental and perfective.  It is in relation to the second intention volition to do good and avoid evil that first order desires
 are restructured into habits of character which are the virtues.  Engendering virtues does entail setting restrictions and purging certain kinds of motives and inclinations, but these are by no means the essential function of the intellect in its operation upon the appetite.  The unformed appetite in a theory of virtues is undisciplined and undirected, and the disciplining and directing of the appetite is what enables the agent to flourish.  The habits which are virtues are just those that the agent needs in order to satisfy the fulfillment of a well-ordered, rational, unified life, because the virtues are what enables the agent to reconcile his first order desires with second intention volitions without resulting in self-alienation.  The fulfillment of human potentiality via the virtues is the achievement of a rational, consistent, unified character which is essential to true self-enjoyment.7 '  The virtues are not merely habits of will and action which a person needs for cooperation with others, they are necessary primarily for self-perfection.  This is evidenced by the fact that the cardinal virtues, excepting justice, are not motivated by other-regarding considerations.  The prime function of the virtues is the perfection of the character of the agent such that the agent obtain a happiness which is the realization of our end as rational appetitive agents.

The shift in ethics initiated by Hobbes and carried through the modern tradition is that morality is necessary primarily for cooperative activity among human beings.  In
 neglecting the place of the virtues in morality, there is a preoccupation with dilemnas caused by the concern for the self versus concern for other.  This preoccupation is inevitable since first order desires and inclinations in modern ethical theories are seen to be in essential tension with the demands of morality.  Although Kant attempts to avoid this tension, preoccupation with this issue is implicit in his discussion of the locus of  moral worth.  Acting in accordance with duty is not enough, one must act from duty, and according to Kant one's motivation from duty is exhibited most clearly when we act dutifully even though our desires and inclinations are in opposition to the demands of morality.  Although Kant admits that in order to act from duty, it is not necessary that this opposition occur, nonetheless his admitting that in this situation moral worth is most clearly exhibited betrays an adherence to a view of moral character which is quite contrary to the view entailed by Virtue ethics.  In virtue ethics, it is also true that acting in accordance with duty is not enough, for moral worth is most clearly exhibited in actions which flow (habitually) from virtue.8  In order that tbis pattern of will and action obtain, the agent's desires, inclinations, and aversions must be shaped to coincide with the requirements of our second intention volition to do good and avoid evil.  This is possible only if the appetite is perfected by virtue.  The Kantian paradigm of the exhibition of moral worth is, in virtue ethics, an example of merely an agent who is
 struggling in the development of virtue.  The kinds of situations are paradigmatic not of developed moral character, but of an agent who does not yet have the virtue in question, even though by rational consideration and choice, he is admirably attempting to become virtuous.  Without an adequate consideration of the place of virtue in moral character, Kant is left without the means to properly illustrate developed moral character.

 In Hobbes' theory, one wonders whether there is any consideration of moral character at all.  In the absence of effective sanctions in the law, why would one act morally at all?  What is so obviously defective about Hobbesian-based ethics is that, in a certain sense, what we mean by “morally” is precisely just what one ought to do in the absence of sufficient sanction, which is also just what Hobbes cannot explain.  A theory of ethics which includes virtuous habits of character need not be so troubled by such a problem; in fact it is more a psychological, than a moral problem.  The causal efficacy of such character traits in the person of high moral character will carry them through situations where external sanctions are ineffective.

We might see how virtue perfects the appetite by examining the relationship between the virtue of temperance and desire.  Sensual desires are undeniably powerful motivations, since their satisfaction promises pleasure, which is generically good.  But left unformed and undisciplined, these desires inevitably bring misery to the agent for a number of reasons.  First, some desires ought not to be satisfied, but ought to be purged from our character entirely, because although their satisfaction brings short-term pleasure, their satisfaction in the end causes much greater misery.  My desire for a cigarette is one such example.  It is contrary to temperance because although smoking the cigarette will undeniably bring me short-term pleasure, in the long-term, it promises pain and misery.  But this is not the only reason for forming our desires temperately.  Desires can conflict with the demands made on us by other virtues.  My desire for an extended cruise in the Caribbean is of this sort.  This conflicts with the demands of temperance not because it itself promises only short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term pain.  Rather, it is contrary to the demands of justice in relation to supplying what my family needs.  In this case it is not that I ought to purge this desire from my character, but ought to concoct a more reasonable plan whereby this desire can be satisfied without conflicting with the requirements of justice.  But virtue structures desire in yet another way.  It can bring about the creation of beneficial desires.  For example, I know of a case of a man who used to be a heavy smoker and suffered from kidney stones.  His physician told him to stop smoking and drink more water.  In a difficult but masterful rearrangement of character, he substituted a habit of drinking water for his habitual smoking.  In this case temperance led him to purging the one desire which was contrary to virtue and creating another in its place which satisfied the demands of virtue.  I take this as a model of how virtue perfects the appetite.  Once perfected by virtue, the appetite and intellect work in perfect harmony, our first and second intention volitions are amicably reconciled, and we are integrated in character rather than self-alienated.



Canisius College

1 For example see Peter Geach The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), Jamesf Wallace Virtues and Vices (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), Phillipa Foot's Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) and Jonathan Jacobs Virtue and Self-Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1989).  Of course there is also Alastair McIntyre'ss After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), but his hasty dismissal of the Aristotelian conception of human nature distinguishes it from the other works cited in this note.


2 Robert Paul Wolff, "There's Nobody Here But Us Persons," Women and Philosophy, ed. by Gould and Wartofsky (New York: Capricorn Books, 1976) 129.


3 The notion of "second intention volition" is a synthesis of Harry Frankfurt's idea of second order volitions developed in his article "Freedom of Will and the Concept of Person," The Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971) 5-20 and the medieval doctrine of second intentions, which are concepts derived from reflection upon first intention concepts.  As the description implies, I am viewing second intention volitions as volitions which are constructed from reflection upon first intention desires or volitions.  Frankfurt's conception of second order volitions is that they are desires to have a certain first order desire be one's will.  His thesis is that having these second order volitions is constitutive of being a person.  My conception of second intention volitions differs somewhat from Franfurt's second order volitions because second intention volitions are not necessarily desires about desires.  Nonetheless, they are similar because they are constitutive of personhood as expressions of our capacity for reflective self-evaluation and they are supposed to be regulative of first order desires.


4 In Summa Theoloigiae (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) I.II 59 a 1, Aquinas states that "passions are not in themselves good or evil."


5 In I.II 66 a 3, Aquinas describes moral virtue as perfecting the appetite.


6 Aquinas states that man is suitably directed to his proper end by virtue in I.II 5f7 a 5.


7 The nature of the rule of reason over appetite is described by Aristotle in Politics,  i 2 1254b4 and confirmed by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica I.II 56 a 4 ad 3 as a "'political command' such as that by which free men are ruled".  This model of the relation between the intelect and the appetite is devoid of any entailment of the sorts of alienation I ascribed to Hobbes and Kant.  For a contemporary development of the role of the virtues in self-enjoyment so Jonathan Jacobs Virtue and Self-Knowledge.


8In the Nicomachean Ethics 4 1105a28-31, Aristotle states that it is not enough that acts be done in accordance with the virtues, they must be done from a "firm and unchangeable character."