Phronesis: The New Synthesis?

Psychologists have acquired newfound interest in examining moral development since Kohlberg’s famous studies in the 80s. Likewise, there has, in the last few decades, been a resurgence of interest in character education. We know a lot about how moral understanding and moral emotions develop. Yet the crucial question of what motivates moral behaviour, especially in situations of complex moral conflicts, is still being hotly debated.

Within the psychology literature, three main theories of moral behaviour have developed; in line with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, research has shown some connections between moral reasoning and moral behaviour, while at the same time, Neo-Kolbergians or perhaps even ‘anti-Kolbergians’ have shown moral identity (how much one sees moral values as integral to one’s sense of self), and moral emotions (centrally involving empathy and sympathy) to play a crucial role in predicting moral behaviour.  Similarly, character education programs,  especially those focusing on moral educational interventions in the classroom, have had success in developing pupils who are virtue literate, that is, able to comfortably handle terms like ‘courage’, ‘justice’, etc., as well as  perhaps better able to identify moral salience in situations. However, within both literatures it is still unclear to what extent such literacy translates into behaviour or indeed what best predicts moral action or how these different factors relate to each other.

Indeed, in the moral psychology literature, this missing link has been described and labelled as the ‘gappiness problem’: addressing what bridges the gap between virtue literacy and virtuous behaviour.  What motivates someone acting in a moral way?

If we go back to Aristotle, we will note a curious tension: Aristotle suggests that virtue is a matter of habituation, and of responding appropriately to situations; he also suggests, however, that in order to be virtuous in the full sense of the term, one needs to be wise or a phronimos (more often translated as a ‘practically wise’ person). Phronesis is an intellectual virtue, but is one that both requires that its possessor have morally good habits and emotional dispositions in place, and ensures that its possessor is robustly possessed of the full gamut of the virtues, and will reliable respond, behaviourally or otherwise, appropriately to situations, no matter how different from previous ones she has experienced, how difficult, or how unclear it may appear.

The contrast Aristotle is identifying here, may, perhaps, be illustrated with a different example. Many people are brought up to, and are habituated to be polite: they hold the door for others, apologise when they inconvenience others, and thank others for their favours or services. However, in many cases, this politeness seems almost robotic: sometimes people apologise for no reason, thank without thinking, and, what is worse, may fail to do so when they don’t like the person, when the person is not good looking, etc., even where it would be appropriate to do so. We would say that these people are not really or truly polite, but merely perform polite behaviours out of habit. By contrast, someone who behaved politely in all the cases where it would be appropriate to do so, and even when it might seem difficult or where others might fail, due to some frailty or other, would be truly polite. This, albeit caricatured, is what Aristotle has in mind when he speaks of virtues being habituated but only (truly) possessed by those who also have phronesis. Many people may be kind or honest some of the time because they are used to it; but will fail to do so under pressure, or may do it for the wrong reasons, etc.

While construed in largely ideal terms, seen in light of the aforementioned debates, Aristotle’s account seems to hold promise: perhaps what stands between being virtue literate and behaving morally is a more encompassing notion, namely phronesis: the excellence that allows one to act or respond in the humanly best way. This comprises not just virtue literacy, but also the knowledge of, and internalisation of certain values, the reasoning that allows one to see what alternatives will best realise those values, the capacity to identify the salient features of a situation from moral point of view, and, in situations where values are in conflict in a given scenario, the ability to decide which would be most appropriate, or best, to pursue in a given situation. At the same time, the person with phronesis will be motivated to behave in accordance with the foregoing considerations and will do so (all else being equal) reliably and for the right reasons. Thus, in many ways, the concept of phronesis promises to combine existing insights, but add to them certain nuances to the reasoning involved in virtuous behaviour, thereby offering a more promising suggestion for how to address the ‘gappiness problem’, at least as seen from a virtue ethical perspective.

We have just started a project that will be premised on a philosophically-informed, but empirically measurable definition of phronesis, and will be aiming to design an instrument to measure this construct, as well as its development from adolescence through to early adulthood. This is an exciting and ambitious project as a measurement of phronesis has not been attempted before, either in the JCCV or the existing moral psychology literature.  It is therefore a much-needed addition to the work of a Centre that prides itself on operating in the area of Aristotelian character education.

Dr Panos Paris and Dr Catherine Darnell, Research Fellows at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue

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