Virtues, interests and institutions, or: ordinary and heroic virtues

Abstract

This paper discusses the relation between virtues, interests and institutions. Drawing on the history of philosophy (especially Adam Smith and GWF Hegel) it shows that not only justice, but also other virtues can be “institutionalised” in institutions that connect virtuous behaviour to self-interest. This means that virtue becomes “ordinary,” in a double sense: it is widespread, and it is nothing special, to the point where it becomes questionable whether it is still virtue at all. For Smith, this is achieved through a well-ordered market that provides incentives for practicing certain virtues. For Hegel, social roles make it easy for individuals to do what is morally right, because the epistemic problem of knowing what to do is solved, and because doing these things becomes habitual. Although there is still a difference between refined self-interest and virtue, these reflections imply that what counts as being virtuous, either in the ordinary or in the heroic sense, cannot be determined in the abstract, but needs to be discussed in relation to different social contexts. Complex modern societies need institutions that make virtue ordinary, but this does not mean that there is no space any more for heroic virtue.

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