Can virtue be reduced

Preliminary remark

Today it seems superfluous to try to revive virtues“I wrote in 2007 in my unpublished reaction to the virtue pamphlet of the then Brandenburg Interior Minister Jörg Schönbohm. At that time, his demand for Prussian virtues was seamlessly linked to his efforts to create a leading German culture.

Schönbohm appears today as a forerunner of the unspeakable of our days. In the election manifesto of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt we read again about Prussian virtues. Who would have guessed nine years ago what would have become (again) possible in Germany's political climate? A lack of this idea was perhaps also a reason why the text did not want to be published in a magazine in 2007.

The events of the last few years show that trying to invigorate virtues is dangerous.
Alexander Graeff

"But it was only said of the master builder, and with a slight shudder and cross-hatching, as before the godsake, that he was an inhuman, ghostly bony machine of duty in the service of the state."

Wolfgang Koeppen: The wall sways (1935)

Max Scheler called it one at the time "Embarrassing effort"that is always present when the word “virtue” is used. That was in 1913. In his essay To rehabilitate virtue Scheler asked himself whether virtue could not play some role after all, or whether it was just a "pathetic and maudlin“Anachronism of the "Citizens of the 18th Century"1 act.

Let's take a look at the year 2007: The Minister of the Interior of Brandenburg, Jörg Schönbohm, must have thought of similar times to those in his essay, which was published on the Internet Are Prussian virtues still appropriate? asked the same question about the timeliness of virtues. Schönbohm is even trying to revive the Prussian virtues, which he describes as a sense of duty, thrift, honor, sense of order, loyalty, honesty, courage and willingness to perform - this is what he has been vehemently advocating for ten years!

The Minister of the Interior calls out fixed, positive values; and it just seems that in times of social recession the call gets louder. Once this suspicion has been accepted, the question arises whether it is virtues that lead to the desire for fixed values can meet at all. And if we believe Schönbohm, we are also well advised "If we orientate ourselves on the question of virtues to the Greek philosopher Aristotle"2.

Indeed, Aristotle’s achievements in practical philosophy are unparalleled; he is known for his meticulous description of virtues. It seems to me that a look at Aristotelian ethics is appropriate.

Incidentally, Wolfgang Kersting is critical of a revival of the virtues. In his essay on the influence of the Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of virtue on postmodern thinking, he describes the economic trend of virtues as a lack of reflexive and dialectical self-healing will.

“Instead of relying on dialectical self-healing, one seeks refuge in external healing, in premodern therapies. That is why attempts to cure the ailments of modernity by reappropriating what has been overcome, discarded and discarded are not ending. And the current efforts to reanimate virtue are only the last chapter in this story for the time being. "3

In order to be able to determine any practical and philosophical relevance of a concept of virtue, I would like in the following to refer to the Aristotelian concept of virtue, as it is in the Nicomachean Ethics4 - not least to show how little depth there is in Schönbohm's words. The central question is whether a concept of virtue according to Aristotle can even do justice to the attribution as a “fixed value”.

The concept of virtue in Aristotle

The concept of virtue (aretê) possesses besides the concept of happiness (eudaimonia) a high priority in the Socratic-Platonic philosophy of antiquity. After Plato, Aristotle developed the concept of virtue further by attempting to legitimize popular notions of virtue by means of his philosophical ethics. He was primarily concerned with a sketchy description of the common virtues of ancient society.5 He was thinking of qualities such as bravery, justice, and wisdom.

In a philosophical sense, Aristotle defines the virtues quite generally as the praiseworthy and excellent qualities of the soul. The successful life, the happiness in life, can only take place under consideration of the virtues, and in the eudaimonia to come to perfection as the best possible state of the soul. Due to the close connection between ethical actions and happiness in life, Aristotle's ethics is presented as virtue ethics, because virtuous actions are based on the normative standard of eudaimonia 6 Both the concept of eudaimonia and that of virtue are based on instrumentality and functionality. Since the concept of virtue can also be translated as best, it refers not only to ethical questions, but also to a substantial purposefulness of objects.7 The instrumental and functionalist dimension, for example, makes a knife excellent when it cuts perfectly of virtue clearly. The concept of virtue therefore relates not only to ethical-moral objects, but also to non-moral ones. Whether a person acts according to the virtues now shows the specific function of the thing, you ergon.8 am ergon inanimate objects, living beings and people can be measured because it describes their specific performance (including the telos, the purpose). Wolfgang Kersting summarizes:

"So everything that can be assessed in teleological contexts is inscribed with an inner normativity due to its purposefulness and goal-directedness, against the background of which the actually existing aptitudes and usefulnesses can be differentiated and scaled, brought into an ordinal order."9

Since two parts are assumed in the Aristotelian soul model, it is only logical to differentiate the excellent qualities of a soul according to two types of virtue. Aristotle distinguishes in dianoetic virtues, the virtues of understanding, and in ethical virtues, the virtues of character. The former relate to the rational part of the soul, the latter to the unreasonable part of the soul, which, however, is capable of the rational part of the soul to listensays Aristotle. But how does a soul become virtuous? Aristotle thinks by acting virtuously (as a human being). And by acting virtuously, it also acts for virtue's sake, and it acts according to a measured medium.

The human soul does not possess the virtues by nature; they have to be acquired.10 According to Aristotle, character virtues are acquired through habituation and upbringing (today we would call it socialization), intellectual virtues through instruction. The virtuous himself says what is virtuous and how virtuous should be done.

Virtue is not a vile means of achieving happiness in life, but an already constitutive part of the eudaimonia.11 That is plausible, for if the virtues are the fine qualities of the soul, then it makes little sense that a person should be happy if his soul does not represent excellent qualities. Virtues are always to be understood normatively, they are "Modes of Action" and "Action programs"12.

In summary, one might describe virtue as a certain kind of attitude and action. According to Aristotle, attitudes are rational relations to affects; they imply a measured, reasonable assessment of the affects. Virtues are feeling-forming and even feeling-formed attitudes.13 In the normative form of virtue there are certainly indications of the question of whether virtues are considered fixed values can be described.

In order to understand how virtues can be relevant in everyday coexistence, a distinction must be made between a substantive concept of virtue and a philosophical one. Even if Aristotle tries to underpin popular conceptions of virtue with his ethics, it is necessary to differentiate between the concept of virtue, which is open in content, as an excellent quality of the soul, and an attribution in terms of content such as bravery or wisdom.

The philosophical concept of virtue can be measured against a normative standard, but it remains open with regard to its content. This may make it appear abstract for virtuous action, but its practical dimension only opens up when the said virtuous person acts in a concrete case in the sense of virtue. Then the content-related ascription would be normative, but not the philosophical, only formal consideration.

An example: when it comes to the virtue of generosity, the virtuous lays down for themselves determine how much money he would like to donate to enable this act in the light of the excellent qualities his soul can appear. Every practical act in the sense of virtue therefore not only has a normative core, because the standard is also determined socially and provides information about which sum is generally considered to be generous and which as wasteful applies. The virtuous act also has an abstract core: that of the philosophical concept of virtue, which says that it is excellently (aretê) is to be generous (but not Which Sum is exactly generous, etc.).

Aristotle's practical philosophy shows that every concept of a virtue in terms of content includes the philosophical theory of virtue. He wants to show that the popular conception of virtue is not something completely different from the philosophical conception.14 And yet: both concepts of virtue must be distinguished, especially when we ask about their relevance for today's society.

The popular concept of virtue

As we have heard, Wolfgang Kersting describes the virtues as programs of action; Above all, they are to be understood normatively in their practical dimension. They become normative through a content-related, moral ascription. If now Jörg Schönbohm education Described as a Prussian virtue, it not only provides a space for action that strengthens boundaries, because it defines the open concept of education as a genuine Prussian value, but above all it shortens "education" by its reflective, creative and border-crossing dimensions. It is the same with the alleged virtue of attitude15 or the honesty (Schönbohm also describes these terms as Prussian virtues).

In its philosophical conception, the Aristotelian virtue focuses on the agent, directing the gaze from the product to the producer.16 Schönbohm's attempts, on the other hand, reflect the ideas of an affirmative concept of virtue that can only be used in practical application. After all, the Minister of the Interior does not call for a return to the excellent qualities of a human soul, but states:

"'Virtue' is the noun here, 'Prussian' is the quality."17

The filling of the content of the philosophical term referring to Aristotle sets virtue firmly. The search for the firm Values ​​seems to have ended. Schönbohm's desire for this, and also for normative action templates, becomes clear. He writes:

"Therefore, in the united Germany - the Berlin Republic - which has not only become more eastern than the people of Bonn, but also more Protestant and unfortunately also more atheistic, in future it will be important to cultivate the positive values ​​of Prussia."18

Christof Rapp presents himself in his essay Is There a Science of the Good Life? the question of whether virtues are not merely in the popular view "Role-specific skills"19 represent. In the modern understanding, they can only serve as an obsolete expression of conventional role behavior, because they do not allow any individual-reflexive disposition to act in the field of possibility of the corresponding virtue. Rapp lets it shine through that virtues do not exactly strengthen the individual's willingness to take responsibility, because the virtuous relies without reflection on the idea of ​​correct behavior given to him, he may this in the sense of the norm, he should this even in the sense of the norm. He does not need to question his own actions because what he is doing - a dutiful service - has already been defined as virtuous by the highest level, so to speak.

A popular concept of virtue therefore seems to be nothing more than a presumed one "Indispensable component of a durable social cement"20, as Kersting calls it. Precisely because, according to Aristotle, virtue and happiness are so closely linked, from today's perspective, which in comparison to antiquity would have to be described as non-teleological, one cannot demand a normative setting of virtues. The supposedly objective yardstick loses its validity, since happiness has more to do with the development of personal goals

The demand for the application of a substantive concept of virtue (assuming an objective telos) is an obsolete undertaking. The philosophical considerations on virtue are misused to legitimize affirmative, traditional and role-specific behavioral dispositions. In this function popular virtue concepts have a selection function. They favor this by the fact that the function of virtue in itself is pre-reflexive.22 Before individual reflection on the content of virtue, a decision is made as to whether actions are virtuous, i.e. valuable, recommendable, etc., or not. Virtues are prejudices.

The central property of the popular concept of virtue, in contrast to the philosophical concept, is the filling of content to concretise the abstract core of the philosophical concept. However, the demand for certain virtues filled with content must be reflected, because the decisive question is whether there can be a universal happiness program at all, and then who is able to take on the role of the herald of this only true happiness program. Jörg Schönbohm thinks he is in this role.

The philosophical concept of virtue

Philosophical questions and considerations about practical ethics are basically determined by a certain fuzziness. This was already emphasized by Aristotle. The philosophical concept of virtue, which deals more with the abstract core, as I called it, cannot guarantee a direct, substantive assignment of a virtue. Aristotle's practical philosophy, which is based on concepts such as luck and virtue, is just a sketch. Practical content cannot be causally traced back to this sketch. Jörg Schönbohm's note to the readership of his Virtue pamphlets, to look up Aristotle was not provided with the necessary note that the demand for a substantive concept of virtue in popular usage can only find insufficient legitimation in philosophy. Precisely what Schönbohm demands cannot be fulfilled by Aristotelian ethics: universal validity.

The philosophical idea of ​​virtue is also only sketchy, because although we encounter an objective yardstick here, in the Aristotelian understanding everyone must find their own center, that is, individually. Virtue as a doctrine of the middle is therefore not a universal guide to action, but an individual philosophical discussion. 23

The content of a virtue is far-reaching and leaves the philosophical conception objective and generally valid appear. Proponents of a philosophical virtue ethics justify their concepts of norms only by means of philosophical sketches, which are not sufficient to be able to designate popular virtues as universally valid.

In this explicit understanding, virtues can never be linked to something concrete in terms of content. In the philosophical dimension, they ultimately only remain individual evaluations.

Today it seems superfluous to want to revive virtues or to reflect on them. They are not part of our living environment. But since, according to Aristotle, they can only come into us through socialization, there can be no content-related predetermined property in retrospect popular education be brought to us as a normative standard. The not unproblematic historical dimension of such an approach also makes it questionable.

Virtues are not part of our socialization because, in the sense of modern education, they negate the open plasticity of people and their self-activity. It is not just about recipes for action.
However, normatively demanding virtues, in the hope that we could recollect them, loosens the reflective competence of people in pluralistic societies.And even Aristotle would do this, in the sense of the unconditional homage to the Logosto ascribe to man, since in his understanding the virtuous voluntary must act virtuously so that what he does, according to the definition, becomes virtuous at all. 24

Virtues can be used as fixed values can be described considering their popular dimension. They are supposed to provide structure and orientation, but reduce any individual reflective ability in the process. That is precisely why they are questionable for today's society.

● Kersting, W. Conjunctures of Virtue: From Plato and Aristotle to Postmodernism, in: Prisching, M. (Ed.) PEastern modern virtues? Their location in contemporary cultural life, Vienna 2001.
● Nickel, R. (Ed.) Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, Düsseldorf / Zurich 2005.
● Rapp, Ch. Aristotle's ethics, in: Düwell, M. / Hübenthal, Ch. / Werner, M. H. (Eds.) Handbook of Ethics, Stuttgart 2002. Quoted here from the online version at (as of January 2006).
● Rapp, Ch. GIs there a science of the good life? Aristotle on virtue, happiness and the good life in the polis, in: Ethics and Teaching 2 (2004). Quoted here from the online version at phil / lehre.htm (as of January 2006).
● Schönbohm, J. Are Prussian virtues still appropriate? (1997). Originally published on the website of the Prussian Society Berlin-Brandenburg e.V. at tugenden.html (as of January 2006), but has since been removed from the server. The article can also be found at (as of February 2007). Today the text is at https: // // / ... (as of April 2016).

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