Link of the Day: Flanagan on Virtues and Narratives

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

‘Moral Science? Still Metaphysical after all These Years’ by Owen Flanagan.

Hat tip PhilPapers. This paper on Flanagan’s wesbite at Duke University is a version of chapter he published very recently in Personality, Identity and Character, edited by Darcia Narvaez and Daniel K. Lapsley (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

The idea of virtue theory in moral philosophy, is that morality comes from habits of character rather than from pure principles. Flanagan defends the idea that moral virtues are real, in the way that Aristotle understood, from John Doris and Gilbert Harman who have questioned the idea of stable character traits. Flanagan compares virtues with dispositions in physical nature, to establish their ontological status. He reviews the revival of virtue theory since the mid-20th Century, and comments on the way that non-virtue theorists like Kant and Mill appeal to virtues except in their most theoretically pure moments.

Flanagan then moves onto the role of narrative in morality. He comments both on the distorting framing effects of narrative, and its value in providing simple memorable accounts of the virtues. Some of this is taken up with the competing narratives we have about free will and determinism.

A lot of his discussion of distortions from framing refers to what Flanagan believes is an excessive American tendency to believe that hard work leads to wealth and that property is absolute. I agree with Flanagan, that these are unsatisfactory frames in their most radical form: hard work does not always lead to improved economic fortunes; our property ownership does depend on the existence if a stable community with strong basic institutions which have to be paid for with taxes. However, Flanagan’s argument goes further than this in finding arguments for strong redistributionist tax policies and high rates of taxation, implying that we have very little right to think that our property is largely ours and not common property. The extreme property righys and American Dream narratives are not quite as influential as Flanagan suggest: the USA now has high rates of of corporation taxes and top bracket income tax compared with Europe.

What would be really interesting is if Flanagan extended his exploration of competing narratives from free will to property rights and American Dream narratives, so that he also critically explored the framing narratives of social democracy, welfarism, left-liberalism, communitarianism, and so on. That would be an interesting way of approaching issues of political choice and ideology.

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