Virtues of Minds and Morals
Robert C. Roberts, Jason Baehr, and Janelle Aijian, discuss the difference between intellectual and moral virtues, the love of truth, the complicated nature of curiosity, and the place of knowledge and truth in the context of a good life.
What is the difference between an intellectual virtue and a moral virtue? When we talk about the intellectual virtues, what are we talking about?
Yeah. That’s a little bit of a controversial question, among the philosophers, but I would say, some of the intellectual virtues have very clearly intellectual names. Like, open-mindedness. That seems like a virtue that’s clearly intellectual, and pretty clearly not merely moral virtue. Although, there will be moral elements involved in open-mindedness, a kind of willingness to be, maybe a kind of humility that would be necessary for the really open-minded person. Let’s see, now. Where did I, um. Oh, the difference between. [chuckles] Yes. So, there are some of the virtues are clearly named in a way that makes them sound very intellectual. Other intellectual virtues are named by the names of moral virtues. So, for example, I was speaking a moment ago about our interaction with one another in intellectual matters, and there, a kind of generosity is important. One of the ways that we learn from others is to learn to admire their accomplishments. And that’s a kind of generosity, a kind of generosity of spirit. Similarly, humility is a virtue that’s both moral and intellectual. And so, the question might arise, well, what makes intellectual generosity intellectual and what makes intellectual humility intellectual? And I think that the answer to that is, just a matter of context. So, if the context is an intellectual context in which goods, intellectual goods are at issue, or are being promoted, then the virtue becomes an intellectual virtue. Perhaps, you can say that it becomes intellectual in virtue of the community caring about intellectual goods. So, there’s a kind of a basic virtue, a basic intellectual virtue of loving understanding and truth and knowledge. That’s behind all of the other intellectual virtues, like generosity or humility.
So, it turns out that Schopenhauer is wrong on another count, because moral virtues and intellectual virtues are gonna turn out to be actually the same kinds of virtues, just in two different contexts.
In large part.
Robert: I think so.
I agree, in large part. And one of the virtues that you didn’t mention, that complicates this, just a little bit, at least, is something like curiosity or inquisitiveness. On the one hand, that seems really fundamental to the search for knowledge and understanding. It provides that basic motivation. But you rarely see curiosity on any list of moral virtues. Indeed, depending on how you understand it, it could be considered even a moral vice.
Yes, exactly. That’s exactly how it’s treated, by Augustine and others. So, that’s right. I tend to think that there’s a lot of overlap, but then that there are, sort of, outlying cases on both the moral side and the intellectual side that allow for some kind of a distinction. And I think, as well, a very, kind of, simple way to draw a distinction there, and it’s a superficial distinction, is to think in terms of, what are the personal qualities that you need in order to be a good thinker, or a good learner? Right? And there, what comes to mind are things like curiosity and open-mindedness and intellectual humility, and intellectual carefulness, and thoroughness, and attentiveness, right? And then, if you think alternatively, what are the qualities that I need in order to be a good neighbor, right? And there you might think more in terms of kindness and compassion and respect and generosity. And I completely agree that there are versions of those traits that also apply to the life of the mind, and that’s why you can’t draw too sharp of a distinction. But if you think of intellectual virtues as the character traits of a good thinker or a good inquirer, a good learner, moral virtues as the character traits of a good neighbor, maybe civic virtues as the character traits of a good citizen. I think that allows for a helpful first pass way of making some distinctions.
But if you look at the reasons that the classic Christian thinkers had for rejecting curiosity as a virtue, you see that they are actually moral, kind of moral criteria. So, for example, Augustine thought of curiosity as just a kind of indiscriminate desire for sensory stimulation and sensational knowledge. Maybe gossip and kinds of knowledge that we think actually degrade us, or, at best, are unimportant. Trivial, or something.
And so, one of the virtues that an intellectually competent person needs is an ability to discriminate the important matters to know and understand from the unimportant or even corrupting matters, yeah.
And I’d say that’s necessary, that kind of further elaboration and characterization is necessary, even for thinking of it as a genuine virtue. So, unbridled curiosity, or curiosity about subject matters that are either just completely trivial or maybe morally problematic. I’d say that’s not a genuine intellectual virtue. That intellectual virtues are motivated by a desire to know and understand important truths, however you wanna understand that, right? Not the trivial or otherwise problematic truths. So, all of that to say, curiosity as criticized by Augustine and others from a moral standpoint wouldn’t, in my view, count even as an intellectual virtue. It would need to be retooled, in ways, for it to count as a genuine intellectual excellence.
Yeah. But the point to see about that is that it’s the moral quality of proper love of truth and love of understanding that makes it into a virtue. [laughing]
Partially moral, right? So, I agree that moral considerations constrain what counts as worthy subject matters. But I do, I think it’s an interesting question, whether there are sort of intellectually, intrinsically intellectually interesting or fascinating subjects, or issues, or questions.
It’s also interesting to think about the way that being a moral person is gonna impact the way you go about any intellectual search. I’m thinking about, so, I’m thinking about Pascal, and one thing that he says is that the way that you search is gonna be deeply dependent on how moral you are, as a person. So, if we were rivals, and you had just published a great paper. If I were the wrong kind of person, I would be motivated, intellectually, to find reasons why your great discovery was false, right? Because it actually turns out that being intellectually generous is gonna require me not to be envious. My intellectual virtues are gonna get hampered by a lack of moral virtue, in that moment.
Yeah, that’s helpful. And it’s funny, even in the conversation so far, I think we’ve kind of gone back and forth a little bit between a very broad conception of moral and a narrow conception, so, if moral is just being a good person or living a good life, then I think intellectual virtues just are moral virtues. Because I think that part of what it is to be a good person is to love things and pursue things that are good. And I think knowledge and understanding are goods. And so, part of what it is to be a good person is to love those things and to wonder about them and to pursue them in ways that are open-minded and tenacious, but humble and attentive, and so forth.
And there’s always gonna be the sense that being virtuous requires balance between all of the virtues, right? The virtues can’t just exist. Oh, I’m an extremely rational person, and I have that virtue, but, you know, I lack self-discipline. You just, you can’t do that, it turns out. They have to be united.
Yes, if you ask why we even have a separate category for intellectual virtues, it seems that the answer is intellectual matters, understanding and knowing, and pursuing truth, are extremely important in human life. They’re an absolutely crucial aspect of human flourishing. And so, they warrant, you might say, a special treatment. Whereas, you know, maybe, if somebody tried to come up with a bunch of football virtues, we’d probably laugh. [all laughing] About it, right? As opposed to the intellectual virtues.