Glass Half Empty: Is there such a thing as “Virtuous Agency”?
Besser-Jones, L. (2012). The motivational state of the virtuous agent. Philosophical Psychology, 25(1), 93-108.
In “The Motivational State of the Virtuous Agent” Lorraine Besser-Jones (2012) examines the extent to which “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of… ‘flow’ (1990)” aligns with Aristotle’s conception of what motivates people do good things. Besser-Jones addresses her exploration in response to philosopher Julia Annas (2008), who argues that such a “correspondence” exists. Besser-Jones counters that no such relationship can be drawn because the motivation for doing good things can never exist “independently” from the fact of their virtuous ends, which is externally or socially determined (p. 94).
Besser-Jones first addresses Annas’ notion of “mastery” and aligns it with the common psychological conception of “intrinsic motivation”; if one reacts instinctively in virtuous ways one can be said to have “mastered” virtuosity, and one is “intrinsically motivated” towards virtuosity (p. 94). She summarizes Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” as an immersive state wherein thought—about process, about product—disappear, just as in Annas’ conception of “instinctive virtue;” one is “truly” virtuous if she doesn’t think about what she’s doing when she’s doing something good; she is simply feeling the goodness of doing it; the “product” (or goodness) itself doesn’t matter.
Ultimately Besser-Jones finds fault in Annas’ interpretation of Aristotle that one can separate motivation based on the pleasure of doing something virtuous from the fact that it is an end deemed virtuous. She claims that one must prove first that “virtuous activity is enjoyable,” in and of itself, before one can make the jump to “intrinsically motivated” (p. 96). Furthermore, Besser-Jones claims that psychological research supports notions contrary to Annas’; humans, so the research says, simply cannot act virtuously only because it feels good to do so.
The author attacks Annas’ conclusions via a two-fold definition argument. She reasons that virtuosity is not an activity—not like rock climbing or painting—and that “intrinsic motivation” can be an attribute only of an activity. Thus, she concludes, Annas’ alignment of virtuosity and “flow” is mistaken (p. 97). If someone is virtuous, it is because the outcome of what they do is something deemed “good”; she is externally motivated. And external motivation has nothing to do with “flow.”
Besser-Jones claims this debate is an important one as it corrects a misconception that people who enjoy doing good things are somehow better than people who don’t enjoy doing them, but do them anyway. She recognizes peoples’ need to distinguish good character from good deeds, which might be accidental. And so she brings to bear on the situation another definition argument. She identifies two types of external motivation: “controlled” and “autonomous” (p. 102).
In this argument, to counter the notion that virtuosity can be intrinsically motivated, Besser-Jones claims that it is more accurate to value the character trait of being autonomously virtuous. People who do things because they want to, not because they have to, fall into this category. These types of people understand the social consequences of their actions and “own” them. They act in order to achieve personal “goals,” and when they do this regularly they can be said to be virtuous people, not just people who commit virtuous acts (103). What distinguishes this person is the reasoning behind her action, not the feeling she has while committing the action. Besser-Jones delineates intrinsic motivation as having to do with “interests” and extrinsic motivation involves “values.” One is quite personal/subjective and the other socially informed. This delineation enables her to propose a different kind of connection between Aristotle and Csikszentmihalyi.
Ultimately both Aristotle and Csikszentmihalyi claim that virtuosity and flow respectively can contribute to a person’s overall happiness, what Besser-Jones calls “well-being” (p. 105), and she agrees, meaning that merely committing a good deed or immersing in interesting activities can contribute to well-being, whether or not the deed or activity makes one happy in the doing of it. She aligns herself with “positive psychologists” by advocating this notion, and contrasts herself with psychologists who hold to a more essentialist understanding of human nature (p. 105). There are certain things we need in order to be happy, or so their thinking goes, like a sense of control.
Besser-Jones argues that committing virtuous acts autonomously can lead to a greater sense of well-being via the sense of control and satisfaction that tends to result from such acting, not from a sense of happiness one feels while doing them. And this contributes to our general understanding of virtuosity in ways that enable us to avoid imposing unrealistic expectations on human character and promote the cultivation of a psychology more inclined to practice good acts no matter how it makes one feel while doing it.
Besser-Jones establishes a convincing argument against the notion that Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” informs Aristotle’s ideas of what motivates virtuous people, and the exigency she establishes for the delineation cannot be overstated. Though the notion that good people do good things because they feel good while doing them—regardless of whether or not they remain conscious of an outcome through the doing—isn’t one that alters understanding of the nature of virtuosity so much as it informs the notion of intrinsic motivation.
From a social perspective, the reason why people do good things seems less important than the fact that they do them, though if we had a greater understanding of what motivates people to do good things then we could encourage such acts. If virtuosity is exclusively externally motivated, as Besser-Jones argues, then society has more influence over the number of good acts it encourages. This seems advantageous to the scenario of natural satisfaction occurring in some people who do good deeds. In that case, society would have few resources for cultivating goodness among its people. This turns on its head the romantic idea that some people are by nature “good” people; if that’s the case, then we, as a society, have no agency in the influencing of good acts.
Most interesting in this discussion, the value we place on why people do things versus that they do them resonates in fields such as law and education. In law, we tend to view as progressive or compassionate adjudications that take into account the motivations of criminals; we highly value motive and consider it a largely communal experience, particularly when it comes to children or juveniles. In education, too, entire philosophical schools have been established around the notion of external vs. internal rewards. The Montessori method of education, for instance, is predicated on the design of an environment intended to encourage, to cultivate, intrinsic motivation. This is in direct contrast to mainstream educational approaches that employ external motivation regularly, particularly in the form of grades. For most mainstream education administrators, why students complete work is less important than that they do the work. For many alternative educational approaches, a distinguishing characteristic is the reverse.
Contemplating and understanding the relationship between virtuosity and motivation proves important in the consideration of many fields, particularly in a capitalistic, democratic society that places so much emphasis on individual responsibility, and in an American society that tends to treat notions of social responsibility and social good as pariah notions. If virtuosity is exclusively a social experience, American society, and capitalist societies in general, need to rethink the way they institutionalize the cultivation of virtuosity among its citizenry.