Foucault, Virtue, Second Nature, Scepticism

John McDowell suggests that Aristotle’s ethics are a forerunner of second nature in German Idealism, the nature that comes from social existence( Mind and World, Lecture IV, which should be compared with Part I of Mind, Value, and Reality). There is some parallel with what Foucault argues in relation to a style which is not defined by nature, which is not in conformity with every other aspect of the subject’s life. Foucault goes a step further than McDowell in suggesting that the second nature fragments between different styles, and a step further again in arguing the individual second nature self fragments between different parts of existence. There is no unified style for humans and not even a unified style for the individual. There are differences in virtues between individuals and differences between different aspects of the life of an individual. If we think about the famous discussions about the unity of the virtues in Plato, Meno, Euthrypo and so on, we should not take Foucault as a simply reversing Plato’s elevation of the one over the many. In Plato’s account, that would still mean a distinct virtue for every type of individual. There is no such stable list of virtues for individuals or even situations in Foucault; there is always self-invention and choice.

Foucault’s arguments should not be taken as just the affirmation of indeterminacy of choice. There is a point of reference for choice, and that is the truth of the inner agon. The truth is not a pre-given virtue, or character, it is a more living changeable thing. That does not deny any naturalistic, or psychological, discussion of the origins of character, we could put all of this in the strongest neo-Humean naturalistic-psychological deterministic terms. If we do that, we still need to describe what is happening in the style of the self, we would still need to respect the difference between internal causation and external physical compulsion, as Hobbes and Hume did. Not that an argument is being offered here for such strong determinism (the author is inclined towards indeterminist argument for free will), but the question of whether we prefer strong determinism over all the positions allowing some role for freedom of will is not what is at stake here. In naturalistic terms, the styles of the self are the outcome of different natures in different selves, including natures which are changeable. The real issue here is that even if second nature is the deterministic outcome of first nature, that nature still divides between different possibilities in different agents and different possibilities within those agents. There is something exemplary about the agent who contains possibilities and moves between them. That would be the highest virtue, the nearest thing to a cardinal or unifying virtue. That highest virtue would also contain self-mastery in the existence of a sovereign self which creates its own styles of existence. A self which speaks freely from its inner agonistic truth. There are some traces of the right to make promises and the creation of a sovereign agent that Nietzsche deals with in Genealogy of Morality II; as with Nietzsche there is the ambivalence about whether we are offered an ethical ideal or the over socialised product of historical-cultural violence. In Foucault’s case, we should not forget that care of the self ends with Augustinian asceticism.

What Foucault offers is an ethic of inner struggle and social contestation, which tends to come up in the political context explaining why it has not been dealt with here. An ethic of the plurality of life styles, between and within individuals. An ethic of natural humanity opening up every possible way of life in the nature of the social. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘classical age’ (the early modern era) suggests that every possibility has to be realised, as can be seen in Leibniz’ concern with compossibility or de Sade’s wish to enact every desire (The Order of Things). Some of that spirit can be found in Foucault’s ethics, though not in sense of the absolute mastery possessed by God or nature, in the time of the Classical Age.

One thing that Foucault may have omitted from his account of ancient care of the self is the sceptical tradition in the New Academy and the Pyrrhonists through Aenesidemus to Sextus Empiricus. This has its own concern with the care of the self, in seeking a balance between conflicting beliefs. The conflicting sides should both be treated with scepticism, releasing the self from their conflict and from one sided ways of thinking and living. Foucault has often been awarded the label of sceptic or relativist, but does not pick up on the Ancient arguments, in the Sophists, the New Academy, or the Pyrrhonists. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both gave respect to Ancient scepticism above Cartesian scepticism on the grounds that the ancient sceptics lived out their scepticism, it was a philosophy of life. There could be a productive approach to Foucault in working through the relevance of the antique sceptics, together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Agonism and Virtue in Foucault’s Ethics

I’m looking at Foucault’s work on antique ethics in History of Sexuality, as an agonistic virtue ethics. It is virtue ethics, because it is an ethics of flourishing, in which human excellence is taken as the source of value. It is agonistic, because Foucault himself uses that word to refer to the role of struggle within the self, to command oneself. That struggle is also a struggle with others to have the right to command in a state, but that kind of agonism is only considered in passing, as a political struggle. There is an ethics of egalitarianism in Foucault, which emerges from his consideration of erotic pleasure and the ways that antique thought places erotic pleasure within a care of the self. That care of the self emerges in Plato and is deeply ambivalent. In one part it leads to Christian asceticism, in another part it leads to a sense that pleasure is good but must be regulated from the point of view of reason and health. The kind of virtue ethics in Foucault is also agonistic because it is pluralistic. It is more pluralistic than Swanton’ pluralistic view of virtue ethics. Foucault does does not root virtue in a single human nature, he regards care for self as best expressed in an aesthetics of life, a style of existence which is invented by the individual and is more than what universal categories suggest.

Foucault’s turn to overtly ethical writing in his last years offers a distinct form of virtue ethics. This does not emerge abruptly in his later writings, it is rooted in the earlier fascination with the plurality of forms of knowledge and power. Christine Swanton wrote on a pluralistic view of virtue ethics (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 2005), and brought in Nietzsche. However, that approach cannot properly capture what is in Nietzsche or Foucault. It is just Foucault who is considered her, the discussion of Nietzsche will take place elsewhere, but it is appropriate to acknowledge here that Nietzsche is both part of the background to Foucault and a different case to Foucault. What Foucault offers is something very distinct for virtue ethics, and the discussion of this contribution has hardly begun yet.

The idea of agon, of struggle, is fundamental to Foucault’s ethics and to his politics. His two most obvious predecessors on this issue are Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Unfortunately he is inclined to take Machiavelli as ‘Machiavellian’ in the familiar sense. He does not seem to notice Machiavelli the Republican idealist behind the cynical rhetoric of The Prince; and Machiavelli the admirer of conflict within a political community, as a strengthening of republican self-government. Foucault does not say a great deal directly about Nietzsche, and does not need to since the connection is well known. His account of ethics and politics in his texts on the Ancient world (History of Sexuality Volumes II & III, Hermeneutics of the Subject, The Government of Self and Others, Fearless Speech), can be taken as formed partly through an implicit transformation of Nietzsche’s view of the master-slave relation in antiquity, as established in the Genealogy of Morality.

The political aspects of Foucault’s writings on antiquity, including his ways of understanding of republican thought is a matter for another place. What is developed here is an approach to the explicit discussion of ethics in Foucault’s thought about antiquity, and the ethical implications of his discussion. In Foucault’s account we can see traces of Nietzsche’s evaluation of master morality as more affirmative than slave morality, but what Foucault is looking at is not Homeric heroes versus Christian saints. It is the ambiguous development of ethical, political, medical and erotic thought from the Athens of Socrates and Aeschylus to the Rome of Augustine. The ambiguity can be found within Plato, which is something that Nietzsche had already implied. Foucault does not use the language of mastery and slave, but amongst other things he refers to self-government and the government of other. The external relation of master and slave is thought of as entwined with an internal relation of self-mastery, again something that can already be found in Nietzsche. The self-mastery is entwined both with government of others and a refusal of government. The Nietzschean elements are certainly not to be taken as a revelation of what Nietzsche really meant, or as a revelation of what he should have said, though Foucault’s implicit use of Nietzsche can certainly be taken as relevant to those questions about Nietzsche.

Here the focus is on ethics in the narrowest possible sense. Foucault does not approach ethics in an isolated way, that is not the way he writes. He is always concerned with a historical phenomenology, or history of discourses, in which political and ethical ideas, along with methodological and epistemological positions emerge rather than appear in fully articulated form; though there are times when he is relatively explicit. Even in the latter cases, the approach is to show rather than say, where discourse has a phenomenological aspect.

That’s a summary of some of what is distinctive in Foucault’s approach. In a less Foucauldian style, there is the question of where Foucault belongs in broad categories of ethical theorising. It’s not the kind of question Foucault asked, but it is the kind of question that needs to be asked about Foucault. As has been noted by Neil Levy
(Levy 2004), but by remarkably few commentators as a whole, Foucault belongs in virtue theory. That is he is concerned with the cultivation of the kind of self which is ethically desirable, rather than with consequences of actions and rules, or the following of rules, or the grasp of moral intuitions. Virtue theory is something largely defined with regard to the antique authors Foucault is discussing: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics. His approach has some distance, but accepts essential aspects of virtue theory. In a general definition, Foucault belongs to virtue ethics in the same way that Nietzsche does, as noted by Christine Swanton for example. There are ways in which Nietzsche deviates from antique virtue ethics, and so does Foucault. Nietzsche’s deviation can be explored elsewhere, though it does provide a precedent for the agonism in Foucault’s virtue theory.

Virtue, Economy and the Self: 5 Links

My thoughts for this post came about in the most immediate sense from Will Wilkinson: a post at his blog Will Wilkinson, entitled Now Let us Praise Results-Facilitating Virtue, dated 20th November 2009. Wilkinson is an economics and public policy commentator, with a background in philosophy.  He is responding to an blog post where the George Mason economist Tyler Cowen praises one of his colleagues, Robin Hanson, who responds in his own blog by arguing for the importance of praising consequences of individual actions, rather than the individual concerned.  Links to all of that in Wilkinson’s post.  What Wilkinson gives in reaction to all that is a beautiful little essay on character, virtue, and advantages to the economy.  As he explains, ‘virtue’ as an idea in ethical though refers to the character traits which the good individual forms and which benefit society.  What Wilkinson emphasises is the collective economic benefits of individuals in the society with virtue.


Since for non-philosophers ‘virtue’ amy seem like something to do with abstract moralising, it is worth explaining that ‘virtue ethics’ refer mores to a cultivation of individual excellence which serves the ‘virtuous’ individuals and society as a whole.  Virtue on this account is really more to do with strength and constancy of character, rather than giving priority to the demands of external moral obligations.  The Antique tradition of virtue was taken up in Medieval Christian philosophy, most notably in the thought of Thomas Aquinas; and at that point it maybe acquires a sense of moral imposition, though that is something of a brutal generalisation.   That antique sense of virtue has been increasingly discussed in philosophy since the 1950s, along with an increasing recognition that it was still very present in  18th and 19th Century philosophy.


For a very handy summary of Aristotle’s ethics by a leading commentator, Roger Crisp, go this podcast posted at the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University.  For an equally admirable summary of some later developments in Antique ethics, around Seneca and Stoicism, click here for a link to a recent podcast of am interview of Rick Benitez conducted by Alan Saunders for his PhilosophyZone radio show.


The virtue ethics tradition, as mediated by the Antique Stoics, was a major influence on Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as well as in his ethical treatise, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.  For a great discussion of this click here for a pdf of Deirdre McCloskey’s paper ‘Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists’.  McCloskey is a professor of economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which gives an idea of the way that she integrates different areas of the humanities and social sciences.  McCloskey points out that Smith’s philosophy and economic thought are shaped by Stoicism and theories of the virtues, and not just the virtue of prudence.  She also has a very good sketch of how economists, and the culture in general, lost sight of this kind of integration until philosophers revived Antique virtue theory.


One possible fault with McCloskey’s analysis is in the title, in its suggestion that Smith was the last of the virtue theorists.  This has some justification if we think of how Smith’s thought is distinguished from what was then the emergent moral school of Utilitarianism which very definitely looks at ethics from the point of view of the consequences of actions, and not quality of character.  However, there is at least one major candidate amongst late 19th Century philosophers for the label of virtue ethicist, Friedrich Nietzsche.  We can see his philosophy as a return from theories of external moral excellence to a theories of individual excellence.  That’s a rather large question I can’t deal with here, but an excellent brief summary of why Nietzsche might be considered a virtue theorist can be found in Lester Hunt’s paper ‘The Eternal Recurrence and Nietzsche’s Theory of Virtue’, click for the pdf.

I expect to return to these issues very soon in relation to Benedict de Spinoza and Michel Foucault.

Some Good Links: Persons, Ethics, Politics, Economy


1.  Persons (and ethical agency)

‘The I in Me’..  Thomas Nagel reviews Galen Strawson’s  book Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics.  London Review of Books.  5th November 2009.

Nage; a distinguished figure in metaphysics and ethics discusses Strawson’s view that there is no deep ‘I’ or ‘self’ that endures over time.  Nagel does not add much of his own views, but an excellent account of Strawson.  One thing Nagel does not mention is that the title of the book is a riposte to Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959), well known book by his father Peter Strawson.  P.F. Strawson though metaphysics should be descriptive, that is should be close to our common sense and everyday language, and was a strong defender of the view that the ‘self’ or ‘person’ is a basic substance of metaphysics.  G. Strawson is a critic of common sense and everyday language, claiming that these are responsible for misleading notions like the substantive ‘I’, leading him towards what his father called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, that is a metaphysics which looks for structures concealed by common sense and everyday language.  There are questions of moral responsibility that arise in discussion of personal identity, that Nagel only refers to briefly.  G. Strawson’s view poses a challenge to ideas of moral responsibility, by questioning the existence of a person who can be held responsible.  The next link refers to the issue of personhood and ethics from another direction.

Ethics (personhood and virtues)

‘Integrity and Fragmentation’ by John Cottingham. Clicking on the link starts automatic download of .doc file from Cottingham’s website. The paper will be published as an article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2010.

Hat tip philpapers

Cottingham looks at the role of integrity in ethics, drawing on the virtue theory tradition, which is concerned with the kind of character and habits conducive to human flourishing and ethical actions.  Drawing on ‘Athens and Jerusalem’ (Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian religious texts), Cottinghman finds an implicit role for ‘integrity’, partly captured by Aristotle as ‘the unity of the virtues’.  From these sources, and their coming together in Aquinas, we understand that the unity of live over time, and the unity of our character traits, is necessary to the good life, if not all that is necessary.  Cottingham brings the more recent ethical philosophy of Bernard Williams and Harry Frankfurt into the discussion, particularly with reference to the inadequacy of integrity on its own, to fill us with a sense of obligation.  As Cottingham points out, this is a central insight of Nietzsche’s.  G. Strawson takes Nietzsche as the source of arguments against the idea of a deep self over time, so we see here how metaphysics and ethics connect.

Politics (ethics and economy in republican political theory)

‘Freedom in the Market’ by Philip Pettit, a freely available pdf of a 2006 article in Politics, Philosophyy & Economics.

Hat tip philpapers

Pettit’s best know book Republicanism produces a theory of freedom in which the ethical value of individual freedom is not just freedom from constraint , but freedom from ‘domination’, where domination means being bound by laws or commands to which we have not consented, directly, or indirectly through representative political procedures.  That leads into ‘republicanism’, the tradition in political thought, which refers to freedom, and human flourishing, as including political rights and participation, at their centre.  Pettit approached this tradition in Republicanism in a perspective which seems indifferent to the freedom of individuals in the market, and very concerned with rectifying apparent threats to freedom in capitalist society.  I sometimes get the impression in that book that the republican critique of a minimal liberal commitment only to freedom from direct coercion, is embedded in a negative attitude to the liberal market economy.  However, in this paper Pettit does pay tribute to the importance to freedom in the market place, he notes the importance of property rights and free exchange in the economy as ways of escaping the coercive subordination to a master that is the fate of many in a economy lacking in markets.  Markets create choice including a choice of employer/master.   Pettit distances himself from ‘libertarian’ notions that all regulatory constraints on exchange and property are wrong, but he puts himself in the same territory as moderate libertarians (in recent political theory Jerry Gaus, going back a bit further early Hayek,and going back even further most of the Classical Liberals) by referring to trade offs between property rights and the more collective public kinds of goods.  That is we have to choose which combination maximises liberty.

Politics (Political and Economic Liberalism)

‘From Liberalism to Social Democracy’.  Geoffrey Kurtz reviews Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson.  Dissent.  26th August 2009. A bit late with this link, but the story is still on Dissent’s homepage. so I can just about include it.

`Kurtz, following Kalyvas and Katznelson, refers to the way that Classical Liberalism of the late Eighteenth and very early Nineteenth century, was constituted through a move from Antique Republicanism to a consciousness of a more modern individualistic kind of liberty.  Thomas Paine, James Madison, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant are considered,  That is an advocate of the American and French Revolutions, one of the main figures in the early American Republic as a President and political writer, a Scottish Enlightenment historian and political thinker, a Scottish Enlightenment professor of moral philosophy who wrote a great work of economics, two French writers of literature and political thought.  These were all people concerned with the kind of freedom pertaining to the ancient republics, based in civic duty and participation, the death of those republics, and the kinds of liberty possible in a modern individualistic commercial society.  Completely the right context for discussing the origins of liberalism.  The argument goes onto the suggest the inevitable evolution of classical liberalism into social democracy, which to my mind is not as necessary an evolution as claimed, but it is certainly an outcome of that republican-liberal moment, rooted as it was in appreciation of the liberty of commercial society.

Economics (a return to Political Economy)

Econ Journal Watch

It’s free to download, economists of reputation write in it, and it contains no equations.  It can certainly be read by anyone with a basis understanding of political and social issues.  Any reader of Adam Smith would have gone beyond it in dealing with economic complexity.  The basis of the journal is that contributors criticise articles in established economics journals, and the author(s) of the piece under criticism are offered the chance to reply and have the final word, which they often take up, if not always.  I haven’t had to go through it systematically yet, but so far I’ve read some very interesting debates about interpretingAdam Smith and the success of Swedish welfarism.  Something else that caught my eye, but have’t read yet is a debate with Bill Easterly, one of the world’s leading development economists.  and a major contributor to debates about ending Third World poverty.

The journal has a methodological bias and a political bias.  The methodological bias is towards non-mathematical economics, the belief that economics is a broad discussion of individual and social rationality and action, in which maths may be useful but which is distinct from mathematics.  The political bias is towards free market classical liberal and libertarian thinking.  The methodological and political orientation come together as ‘Austrian Economics’, most famously represented by F.A. Hayek, who was preceded by Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Ludwig von Mises (the latter is the most important figure for many ‘Austrians’).  The beauty of the journal is that in some ways it gives the advantage to those who are most against the journal’s approach, so in some ways it’s the Keysians and non-free marketeers who should read the journal to see sympathetic views, rather than ‘Austrian’ liberals and libertarians.

The editor, and founder, Daniel Klein, is someone who is very interested in, and aware of, bias in economics and takes very seriously the idea of exposing bias in the most serious and consistent way, of admitting to his own biases, and finding ways of formulating discussion between those with differing biases.

This journal deserves to be read by a broad audience.  Please have a look.

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.