Strength and Quality of Character
George W Harris
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Berkeley - Los Angeles - London
1. Strength and Quality of Character 1
2. Personal Love, Loyalty, and Malignant Breakdown 12
3. Personal Love, Loyalty, and Benign Breakdown 23
4. Respect and Integral Breakdown 34
5. Dignity, Kant, and Pure Practical Reason 53
6. Dignity and the Pathology of Respect 67
7. The Possibilities of Therapy: Epicurean Strategies 85
8. The Possibilities of Therapy: Stoic Strategies I00
9. Troubledness and Strength of Character 124
Selected Bibliography 143
I began this project with a few thoughts on one topic, and they grew into many on a larger one. I wanted to say something about vulnerability and discovered that there was much to say about human dignity. Once a rather die-hard Kantian, I have made over the last decade or so a fairly radical transition to a basically Aristotelian way of thinking. Persistent thoughts over the status of personal ties in the moral life first led me away from Kant and toward Aristotle. Though I think some of the criticisms of Kant regarding friendship, for example, are misguided, in the end I do not think Kant gives us a very satisfactory way of thinking about what is most important to us in personal relationships. What Kant is supposed to give us, however, is an insightful way of thinking about human dignity and the worth of persons. I do not believe he does. In fact, I think that Kant and his predecessors, the Christians and the Stoics, deeply mislead us about our dignity. In this sense, this book is an attack on a certain tradition and what is thought to be its greatest strength. I hope, however, that what emerges is more positive than negative, that what I say provides some insight into what we actually do value in ourselves and others.
My debts are many and varied. Most I owe to my wife, Patty, and my daughters, Rachel and jenny, for tolerating the idiosyncrasies of a husband and a father who is also a philosopher, a writer, and a sometimes distant life-form. What I owe them most is not just for their nurturing, though I certainly owe them for this, but for the subject matter of which I write, of life and what is best in it.
For critical response I owe several a deep debt of gratitude. Lawrence Blum, Keith Butler, Paul Davies, James Harris, Margaret Holmgren, Robert Kane, Noah Lemos, Andrew Melnyk-all provided written feedback on the manuscript. I am especially indebted to Paul Davies, not only for almost daily conversations but also for numerous readings of parts of the manuscript, particularly chapter 4. To Larry Becker and the members of his political philosophy discussion group, I am thankful for their discussion of chapters I through 3 and chapter 7. Students in two seminars I have taught here at the College of William and Mary over the last several years also helped me to formulate my thoughts. And, of course, there are the many conversations on these and similar topics that have influenced me greatly but for which I lack specific recall. For such conversations on Aristotle, Nietzsche, and friendship, I owe much, as always, to Douglas Browning, Chuck Krecz, Steven Leighton, and the late Edmund Pincoffs.
For financial support I am grateful to my home institution, the College of William and Mary, for a summer grant in 1995 and a Faculty Research Assignment for the academic year 1994-199 5. I am also thankful for a Summer Research Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the summer of 1994.
Strength and Quality of Character
Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
The peculiar beauty of human excellence Just is its vulnerability.
-Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness
Moralists of various sorts use the terms "human dignity" and "human worth" often, but frequently these words have little more than rhetorical effect, even among professional philosophers. The fact is that we have a fairly vague concept of human worth and dignity, though there is a core that is instructive. What we value so much about ourselves is a question open to only somewhat vague answers, and admitting this is the first step in greater human understanding. Yet on the tradition I will criticize, the idea of human worth and dignity is perfectly clear. If I am right, this is a mistake. We need not only to rethink what our deepest values are in regard to ourselves, we need also to recognize that when rhetoric conceals the lack of understanding or creates the illusion of its presence philosophical inspiration is lost.
There is a view of the dignity and worth of persons that goes back through Kant and Christianity to the Stoics. According to this tradition, when character either weakens or succumbs to life's troubles, it falls because it lacks the kind of strength ideal character should have. To be sure, good people are almost always less than ideal. For this reason we understand that certain failures of strength are compatible with being a good person. Still, we would be better were we to realize fully that which gives us our dignity, and if we did fully realize our dignity we would have unlimited strength to cope with life's troubles whatever they might be. Were we good Kantians and more rational, were we good Christians and more faithful to God, and were we good Stoics and less attached to things external to our character, we would not be vulnerable to failures of strength Being more dignified, we would be stronger.
The purpose of Dignity and Vulnerability is to challenge this view and to argue that on reflection we do not believe it. I will argue that this tradition does not capture our actual values regarding character and human dignity; indeed, it cuts deeply across them. Sometimes character breaks down, not because of some shortcoming in it, but because of what is good about it, because of its quality, because of the features of character that give us our dignity. Being more dignified, then, does not always make us stronger. Our most deeply held judgments about the worth of persons-vague as that concept is-are best accounted for on values indicative of pre-Hellenistic thinkers, particularly Aristotle, rather than on those views within the Stoic-Christian-Kantian tradition. In terms of what we actually value in ourselves and others, I will argue, we are far more Greek than Christian, despite the long tradition of Christianity and its more recent Kantian progeny. Moreover, our deepest values reflect the fact that we value ourselves as natural organisms, as animals, rather than as gods that transcend nature.
According to the Stoic-Christian-Kantian tradition, virtues are admirable character traits that enable us to control our contrary inclinations to living a good life or to doing our duty. On this view, any failure of character is a failure of strength. Nietzsche, who was in most ways unrepresentative of the tradition, once suggested that difficult events do not destroy those with the best character but only serve to make the admirable even stronger. The emphasis is on understanding the virtues in terms of their strength: inadequate virtue is inadequate strength of character, and inadequate strength of character is inadequate virtue.
Few who have this view, however, would argue that strength is the only good-making feature of character.1 Indeed it is questionable that such a view is even coherent. That courage is the strength of character to control one's fear in the face of danger is both clear and coherent enough; but that loyalty in friendship is merely the strength of character to avoid the temptation to betrayal is puzzling at best. For loyalty includes not only a certain strength but also a quality of caring about one's friend. Moreover, the strength involved in loyalty and similar traits finds its virtue in the intrinsic value of this quality of caring. The more general evidence for this is the fact that the strength of character to pursue malevolent ends in the face of contrary benevolent inclination is not a virtue.
Still one might admit that quality and strength of character are distinct features and nonetheless maintain that virtues are traits that enable us to control our contrary inclinations to doing the right thing or to living a good life. On such a view, it is still true that inadequate virtue involves inadequate strength of character: given any good-making quality of character, virtue increases with the strength of the capacity for controlling contrary inclination to acting on that quality. Thus any failure of character is either the lack of a good-making quality or the inadequate strength to act on that quality. Kant's view takes this form. Doing one's duty is not enough; it must be done from the proper motive. Yet any failure to do one's duty is either not one's fault at all or is a lack of strength of one's will. The good will, then, provides at once both the appropriate quality of character and adequate strength to resist whatever contrary inclination stands in the way. 2
How could a view that sounds so plausible be wrong? I will argue that this conceptual model for understanding the virtues is mistaken because it puts too much emphasis on strength of character and too little on its quality. Specifically, I will pursue the possibility that fragility of character is essential to many of the qualities of character we value most. If I can establish this, then it will not be true that inadequate strength of character is always inadequate virtue.
That human character is sometimes fragile in ways that we lament is undeniable. "If only he or she had more courage," we sometimes say, implying the criticism that courage is lacking where it should be found. On other occasions, the same comment might not imply a criticism at all. Rather it might reflect the thought that, despite the understandable inability to control the fear of a truly horrifying danger, more courage would be exceptionally admirable. Prisoners of war facing threats of unbearable torture come to mind. These are two ways, then, in which a character can be fragile: one involves a vice, and the other, the absence of a truly exceptional quality. Yet in neither case is fragility a good thing; for in both cases it is a weakness that could be eliminated without damage to a person's character.
Therefore, if there is another kind of fragility that is good and admirable, it is not a vice and it cannot be eliminated without damage to a person's character. I can confirm that there is this third kind of fragility, I believe, by establishing two points. The first is that there are admirable character traits that can be the source of a person's self-destruction. The second is that the prevention of such self-destruction by the removal of the character trait would be a greater damage to a person's character than the self-destruction. This is because in some contexts self-destruction is the manifestation of what is good in a person's character. An alternative strategy, to which I will also appeal, is to argue that there are admirable character traits that can be the source of making persons less strong than they could be and that the prevention of this kind of weakness by the removal of such traits would be a greater damage to their character than the vulnerability itself.
The kind of self-destruction and vulnerability I have in mind involves a breakdown in a person's integrity. This might occur in several ways: a loss in the will to live, deep clinical depression, insanity, hysteria, debilitating shame, pervasive self-deception. The idea is not that integral breakdown is simply a form of severe discomfort. Rather it is a form of personality disintegration that renders the person dysfunctional as an agent. This is why integral breakdown must be understood in clinical psychological terms rather than hedonically. For instance, nothing about the concept of pain, however intense, itself implies a dysfunctional state of the agent, but the concept of integral breakdown does. Duration might vary from temporary to permanent, but such breakdown is always severe. Fragility, therefore, is the disposition of character to experience such integral breakdown under conditions of stress3.
In some stressful contexts, a person breaks down because he or she possesses admirable character, not for the lack of it. This is especially so regarding the virtues associated with various modes of caring, where the expression of care is prevented. That one cares but can do nothing to help or can only do something that results in harm is the source of tremendous stress. An understanding of the dispositions to break down under various stressful circumstances provides insights into the nature of admirable character traits. Moreover, these insights into virtue cannot be revealed from the perspective of strength of character alone. I want to investigate how this applies to the character of a person who cares in a variety of ways. Of special concern is the personally loving individual who is also respectful and sympathetic regarding others and who has the virtues of fairness, benevolence, and loyalty. What are the forms of fragility, as dispositions to integral breakdown, that are part of the character of this kind of person? This is my central question.
When we admire things, we admire them for what we take them to be, and sometimes we do not admire things for what we take them not to be. Some people, for example, admire diamonds but do not admire rhinestones. These people-at least those I have in mind-do not admire rhinestones because rhinestones look like diamonds (at least from afar) but are not. Looking like a diamond is not enough; it must be a diamond. Yet what is it for a stone to be a diamond rather than just to look like a diamond? The answer is to be found, in part, in the dispositional properties of the stone. 4 If a stone does not have certain dispositional properties, it is not a diamond. This is part of our conception of which stones are rhinestones and which are diamonds. The dispositional properties of diamonds are such that a diamond has a certain measure of hardness on a Rockwell Scale in excess of that of a rhinestone. Diamonds, for example, are hard and strong enough to cut rhinestones, but rhinestones are not hard and strong enough to cut diamonds. In this sense, the hardness of a stone is a function of its strength. People who value diamonds rather than just things that look like them apparently value this fact about their strength. For them, if stones could be synthetically produced that were visually indistinguishable from the highest-quality diamonds but did not have this measure of hardness and strength, then they would not be diamonds and valuable as such.
Other people admire good wine in ways similar to the admiration afforded to diamonds by diamond lovers. That is, they admire wine for what they take it to be rather than simply for how it appears to them through a limited set of the senses. For diamond lovers, a stone must have more than certain visual qualities: looking like a diamond is not enough. For wine lovers-at least those I have in mind-a liquid must not only taste like wine, it must be wine. If a liquid tasting like the finest Bordeaux were found in a natural spring, it could not knowingly be the object of the wine lover's admiration. Why? Because it is not wine. Part of the reason it is not wine is because it is not the product of a wine maker. Wine is an artistic product and is appreciated as such by those who admire it. Again, this is true of the admirers of wine that I have in mind. Therefore, not just anything that tastes like wine is wine.
Another reason the wine-like spring water is not wine is because it is not composed of the appropriate materials. Jesus may have turned water into something that tasted like wine, but he did not turn it into wine unless he slipped in the proper ingredients. Suppose scientists could synthetically produce a liquid with the appearance and taste of an excellent Chateau Margaux but without the vulnerability to decomposition that wine has. We would perhaps come to admire and enjoy the product of their labor, but it would not be the same as the wine lover's admiration of good wine. Wine-good or bad-is both a product of a wine maker and a product composedof materials with certain dispositional properties. It is not just that wine tastes best when stored and served at certain temperatures. It is also that the taste associated with wine is made possible by the achievements of the wine maker as an artist working with materials that are subject to limitations. These limitations are internal to the dispositional properties of the materials as displayed under conditions involving temperature and other variables. If a liquid is not subject to turning into vinegar under certain environmental conditions, it Is not wine. Moreover, it is a part of what wine lovers value in wine that it is vulnerable to such decomposition under these conditions. Otherwise, wine lovers would have the same appreciation for the scientist's synthetic product that they have for wine.
Among the virtues of a stone from the perspective of diamond lovers is its strength. If a stone has dispositional properties such that its character would break down under certain conditions, it is not a diamond and cannot be admired as such. By contrast, among the virtues of wine from the perspective of wine lovers is its fragility. If a liquid has dispositional properties such that its character would not break down under certain conditions, it is not wine and cannot be admired as such. The admiration of human character is both like the admiration of diamonds and like the admiration of good wine. This is to say that we admire human character both for its strength and for its fragility.
There is, however, an important sense in which the value of good character is even more connected to fragility than good wine. At some point in the life of a good wine it is still good but not as good as it was. Thus when a wine begins to break down but is not yet vinegar but wine, even good wine, its value decreases. With good character, perhaps unique inthis regard, this need not be true.5 The loving parent weakened by grief over the tragic death of her child is not less good in her state of disability. The very qualities that made her a good mother and a good person in happier times are the ones, as we shall see, that take their toll in times of misfortune.
Both the strength and the fragility of an entity are features of its integrity, at least when the entity can be thought of meriologically. Only those things we think of as wholes can we think of as having integrity, for integrity involves the integration of parts in a stable whole. The strength of a diamond is one constitutive element of its integrity. A stone is not a diamond unless it has the strength to resist fracture under a certain degree of stress. Diamonds, however, also have a point at which they lose the capacity to retain the status as the wholes they are. Besides a limitation threshold on their capacity to resist the stress that measures the strength associated with hardness, they have a melting point. This is a limitation threshold that measures their incapacity to resist the stress of temperature. A diamond, then, is strong relative to the kinds of stress it has the capacity to resist under certain environmental conditions. It is fragile relative to the kinds of stress it cannot resist and remain a diamond.
The limitation threshold that measures fragility-for diamonds or anything else-is the point of integral breakdown. The qualities a thing has in virtue of which we are willing to attribute integrity to it are Its categorical qualities. By reaching the limits of its capacities to retain Its categorical qualities under stress, integral breakdown occurs along the lines of the limitation threshold, and integrity is lost. Integral stress is the stress put on a thing that threatens its capacity to retain its categorical qualities, and integral strength is the overall capacity of a thing to resist Integral stress. I will argue that whatever a perfectly admirable human character would involve, it would not include unlimited integral strength. If this is true, then some categorical qualities of a perfectly admirable human character are admirable for their fragility.
For some virtues, there is no point of integral breakdown internal to the concept of the virtue itself. Courage, for example, does not have internal to it a necessary point of integral breakdown. This is not to deny that a person loses the status of being courageous if he or she yields to the stress of fear under certain conditions. To be fragile in this way is to lack courage. To say that there is no point of integral breakdown for a particular character trait is to assert something about meaningfully ascribing that character trait to a person. It is that nothing about thoughts of a person's having that character trait requires thoughts of integral breakdown under some conceivable conditions of stress. The point, then, is not about the necessity of ascribing fragility to those who lack courage but about the necessity of ascribing fragility to those who possess it. Lacking courage and having the vice of cowardice can be ascribed to a person only if a disposition to some degree of breakdown under certain stressful conditions can be ascribed to that person. On the other hand, having courage can be ascribed to a person without ascribing any disposition to breakdown under any conceivable stressful conditions. A person is courageous in terms of strength of character alone. There is nothing about fragility that is central to the categorical qualities of the courageous person. Of course, not all control of fear in the face of danger is courage. As Aristotle said, some such control of fear is simply foolhardiness, but when the courageous person does not control fear in foolhardy contexts, his or her fragility in such contexts is not a measure of courage. Being overcome by fear in some dangerous situations is not a sign of cowardice. Nor is not being overcome by fear in some dangerous situations a sign of courage. It is possible, however, that a person can be both courageous and foolhardy. A person, for example, might have the capacity to control fear in the face of danger in both foolhardy and nonfoolhardy contexts, as well as engage in both courageous and foolhardy behavior. The courageous person, then, can be indefinitely strong, although he or she need not be. That is, the kinds of integral stress to which courage is the response is something the perfectly courageous person is completely capable of resisting.
Moreover, the presence of courage never causes integral breakdown. If the control of fear causes integral breakdown, it is foolhardiness rather than courage. For this reason, any breakdown due to lack of courage is open to regret in the sense that these breakdowns are always preventable with more courage. Call virtues that are in principle of unlimited strength in this sense heroic virtues. One can never have "too much" of such virtues, because they deal with stress but do not generate it; and where the incapacity to deal with stress is traceable to the lack of such virtues, "more" of such virtues always aids in dealing with the stress.
Relative to heroic virtues, then, there are two kinds of integral breakdown. The first is where a character breaks down under integral stress that the minimally admirable agent is thought capable of resisting. This is the coward who is vulnerable to the stress of fear in a way that precludes having integrity in the due course of ordinary life with its normal threshold of danger. The thought here is that in the normal course of life agents face certain kinds of challenges they must successfully meet if they are to have and retain their integrity. Some of these challenges require virtues of the heroic sort with the degree of integral strength for success in ordinary circumstances. To have the capacity to control fear in the face of danger to this degree, for example, is to have the heroic virtue of courage. To lack this capacity is to have the vice of cowardice. Since the extent to which a person possesses vices measures a lack of integrity, call an integral breakdown due to vice a malignant breakdown.
To have a heroic virtue, however, is not necessarily to have it at full strength. One has a heroic virtue if one has it to a degree sufficient for integrity in the normal course of life's everyday stress. To have such a virtue at full strength is to have it to a degree to resist any stress, however extreme. To lack a virtue at full strength but to possess it at sufficient strength for normal stress is not to possess a vice. This is why a person can have courage but nonetheless lack it to some degree without being a coward. An integral breakdown due to extreme stress to a heroic virtue is not a malignant breakdown, since it is not due to vice. Call it a nonvicious breakdown.
The view under critical assessment here says that human character is always a matter of strength. It says that all failures of character are either malignant or nonvicious.
In contrast with heroic virtues are virtues of care. These virtues do have a point of integral breakdown internal to them; they cannot be conceived as indefinitely strong; and they can be the source of self-destruction for an agent. Unlike heroic virtues, they do not always deal with stress but sometimes generate it. Moreover, when stress is traceable to such a virtue, "more" of the virtue often only increases the stress. Yet these virtues are among those in terms of which we find persons most admirable. If I am right about this, then virtue is the source of integral breakdown under some kinds of stress, and we can call such a breakdown a benign breakdown. It is benign because it issues from the presence of something good in the agent.
Virtues, in general, I will speak of as the capacities of agency relevant to a person's making commitments and maintaining them under stress. Since a person's deepest commitments are definitive of his or her character and integrity, we may call them categorical commitments. Virtues, then, that enable a person to maintain categorical commitments under stress are integrity-enabling capacities. The virtues of care are the integrity-enabling capacities of persons with categorical commitments founded on their caring about others, themselves, and their activities. In these terms, my thesis is that virtues of care are not of unlimited integral strength.
Since there are different modes of caring, there are different virtues that enable an agent to maintain the various kinds of commitment involved in the diversity of caring. Respecting people worthy of respect is one mode of caring, and fairness is an integrity-enabling capacity of those whose respectfulness is among their categorical qualities. Sympathizing with the plight of others is also a mode of caring, and the virtue of benevolence serves the sympathetic person just as fairness serves the respectful one. The personally loving individual needs the capacity of loyalty. Without it, the special commitments of personal love are meaningless. Caring, then, is diverse, and so are the virtues that serve it.
The diversity of the virtues of care is complicated not only by the fact that there is a diversity of ways of caring. It isalso complicated by the fact that any particular mode of caring can be subject to a diversity of kinds of stress. Both loyalty and patience, for example, are expressions of the caring of personal love, but they are responsive to different kinds of stress. Patience responds to the stress of frustration, and loyalty to the stress of competing interests that threaten to undermine personal trust. It should not be surprising to find this diversity true of other modes of caring as well. In what follows, I will try to illustrate my thesis regarding strength and quality of character in a way that is sensitive to both the diversity of modes of caring and the kinds of stress to which caring is vulnerable. I will also show how my thesis bears on the question of human dignity.
The remainder of the book can be divided into three groups of chapters: chapters 2 and 3, chapters 4 through 6, and chapters 7 through 9. The first group addresses issues involved in loyalty and personal love. Chapter 2 presents a case for a special form of benign breakdown-as a response to one's former bad character. Chapter 3 deals with another kind of breakdown involving personal love where the events leading to breakdown do not involve the agent's having acted wrongfully. The second group of chapters deal exclusively with Kant and the concept of human dignity associated with his thought. Attention will be given not only to Kant himself but to contemporary Kantians as well.6 The main target of my assault will be the concept of pure practical reason as the locus for our intrinsic worth. I will argue that a good will is best understood not as a function of the capacity for pure practical reason but, to a significant degree, of pathological features of our agency. The final chapters go back to the Stoics and Epicureans. The focus will be on recent treatment of these thinkers as a source for our own self- understanding. I will argue, especially against Martha Nussbaum, that post-Aristotelian, Hellenistic thought about the worth of persons is not the source of insight she believes it to be. Indeed, these schools begin the mistake about our worth that culminates in Kant. Specifically, I will argue that this tradition misses central features of our concept of human worth by seeking a therapy that completely eliminates the vulnerability to integral breakdown. Finally, the last chapter suggests an alternative account of strength of character and of how good people can also be strong.