since when have i become obsessed with virtue ethics?

There is a faculty which is called cleverness; and this is such as to be able to do the things that tend towards the mark we have set before ourselves, and to hit it. Now if the mark be noble, the cleverness is laudable, but if the mark be bad, the cleverness is mere smartness; hence we call even men of practical wisdom clever or smart. Practical wisdom is not the faculty, but it does not exist without this faculty. And this eye of the soul acquires its formed state not without the aid of virtue, as has been said and is plain; for the syllogisms which deal with acts to be done are things which involve a starting-point, viz. ‘since the end, i.e. what is best, is of such and such a nature’, whatever it may be (let it for the sake of argument be what we please); and this is not evident except to the good man; for wickedness perverts us and causes us to be deceived about the starting-points of action. Therefore it is evident that it is impossible to be practically wise without being good. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6)

Aristotle’s distinction between cleverness and wisdom has been circulating throughout my head for the last day, ever since I read this BBC News, Do you need to read books to be clever?, though interestingly, the word clever never once appears throughout the article. The title has been irking me because, though I do want a clever populace and clever students, I want a wise populace and wise students.

I don’t normally align myself with virtue ethics, and instead think of ethics in terms of restorative justice and dignity, but, as Lani Roberts explained to us in our Classical Moral Theories course last year, individuals rarely make all their ethical decisions based on one paradigm of ethics (virtue, justice, utilitarianism, rights, or care), and instead choose one paradigm that they find more useful and sensical at the moment.

I think that Traci Gardner has a good response to the article from a multiliteracies standpoint, but the issue of cleverness and wisdom is continuing to haunt me.

The article does weigh the potential answers to the question in the title of an article (as much as this brief of an article might). One one side, despite the fact that fewer people are reading books, “books are hyped as life changing and a way out of crime, poverty and deprivation by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who launched the National Year of Reading on Wednesday. Quite simply, they have the potential to open up new worlds for the reader.”

On the other hand:

Books are important, but it’s reading itself is an essential skill, says Honor Wilson-Fletcher, project director for the National Year of Reading. […]

“But because the cultural landscape is changing so much we need to recognise every variety of reading and acknowledge being able to read has never been so important.

“No medium is less important than any other, be it a classic novel, Scott’s last message from the North Pole, one of Morrissey’s lyrics or graffiti on a wall – they can all educate and change lives. This is not a year of worthiness, it’s a year of reading.”

Or, as Traci Gardner paraphrases Wilson-Fletcher, “In other words, it’s not what you read, but how you read and that you read that matters.”

The article (by virtue of giving more weight in its content to claims that reading other media besides books is still useful), as well as Gardner, seem to come down on the side of no, you don’t need books to be clever, and I agree.

But why clever? If, following Aristotle, cleverness is the faculty of being able to find the means to a desired end (ethical or not) and reach that end, and wisdom is the virtue of knowing which ends to strive for, shouldn’t be more interested in a wise literate populace than a clever one?

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2 Responses to since when have i become obsessed with virtue ethics?

  1. lanner says:

    I agree with you, that wisdom is more desirable. Philosophy, in fact, means “love of wisdom.” And, when a professor wrote “clever argument” on a paper of mine in grad school, it was not a compliment.

  2. k8 says:

    You quoted my favorite Aristotle text!!!

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