Virtue’s supremacy and its directiveness: Reflections on Vlastos’s Socrates

In Socrates’s moral philosophy, what is the right relationship between virtue and human flourishing? In Gregory Vlastos’s view, wherein he defends the Sufficiency Thesis, there are four components:

1. Human flourishing is the final end, that for the sake of which all else is done. All action aims ultimately at human flourishing.

2. Virtue reigns supreme and is both an end in itself and a constituent of human flourishing. If someone is virtuous, then it immediately follows that he is happy. Hence, virtue alone is sufficient for flourishing.

3. Other goods are ‘subordinate, non-final and conditional’ (Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher 231). These include health, wealth, honor, and others. They are goods, and having them does make a ‘mini-difference’ to our flourishing. Yet they are neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness. What is more, they must be directed by virtue. If (say) wealth were not governed by virtue, then we might be more miserable than if we were poor and vicious.

4. The intermediates, which are neither good nor bad, only carry instrumental value. Walking, on this account, is valuable only if it is done for the sake of (say) pleasure. Intermediates do not make a difference to our being happy.

One of the reasons that Vlastos opts for the Sufficiency Thesis is that he believes the Identity Thesis (the view according to which virtue = happiness) is mistaken. What makes it mistaken? Vlastos:

[I]f Identity were the true relation of virtue to happiness, we would have no rational ground for preference between alternatives which are equally consistent with virtue–hence no rational ground for preference between states of affairs differentiated only by their non-moral values. And if this were true, it would knock out the bottom from eudaemonism as a theory of rational choice. For many of the choices we make in our day-to-day life have to be made between just such states of affairs, where moral considerations are not in the picture at all. Shall I walk to my destination or ride the bus? Shall I have my hair cut today or next week? Shall I have Burgundy or Rose for dinner, or no wine at all? We do make such choices all the time, and we want to make them: we would resent it freely if they were taken out of our hands. And the grounds on which we have to make them are clearly non-moral: hedonic, economic, hygienic, aesthetic, sentimental, or whatever. (225)

Vlastos is clueing us into the commodious nature of his view: that it can accommodate the non-moral goods (point 4 above) that are nonetheless a part of our everyday lives. He wants to say that, pace the Identity Thesis, having these choices clearly makes some difference to our lives and clearly we want to have them.

The more old-fashioned argument, bordering on the maudlin, is that the subordinate, non-final, conditional goods (point 3) makes a marked difference to human flourishing: Job lived virtuously yet was, we would think, worse off in virtue of the loss of his health, wealth, and family. What will the Stoics, with their distinction between good and ‘preferred indifferents,’ be able to say to this? Prima facie, the Stoics seem either inconsistent or else espousing implausibilities.

So, the Identity Thesis has a number of things speaking against it. But what might speak even more in favor of a view which makes virtue supreme plus more directive?  I would like to expand upon points 3 and 4 by analyzing it from a different direction.

Now, there were for Socrates, as was true for his contemporaries, only five virtues: piety, courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. And Socrates makes plain, in Euthydemus, that wisdom is that which puts wealth to good use. But suppose there were more virtues than these: attentiveness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, truthfulness, openness, and so forth.  If we were to argue, against Vlastos on this particular point, that some salient virtues were exercised in any rational choice, then it would be a question of which virtues were operative and how operative and this would make a difference to our flourishing. If it weren’t simply about walking or taking the bus but about which virtues may be exercised and how (self-reliance, say, within reason), then the virtues would have an even greater role to play in our flourishing. I reckon I’m making an even stronger (if too truncated) case for the claim that the virtues are those which put whatever we have–be it a minor good such as health or an intermediary such as walking–to good use, effectively making us happier.

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