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Robert John Fitterer

Bernard Lonergan's cognitive theory and Aristotelian phronesis: Toward a conception of performative objectivity in virtue ethics


University of British Columbia
Degree: PhD
Date: 2004 ; 187 pages
ISBN: 0-612-90183-1
Advisor: Dybikowski, Jim


Abstract: Virtue ethics bases moral decision-making, in part, in a skills-like ability to spot morally salient features in the phenomenal world. Aristotle, an exemplar of such ethics, developed a theory of practical wisdom ( phronesis) wherein the person of moral expertise makes sound ethical judgments and decisions via direct insight into concrete circumstances. Phronesis involves emotive discernment and agent-relative construal of the world. But emotions and perspectives can also be linked with bias and poor judgment. How are we to think about objectivity if virtue ethics relies upon such apparently subjective factors as emotively influenced dispositions? Bernard Lonergan developed a theory of insight-based human understanding and explores its operation in the concrete circumstances of practical living. His theory offers a process of human learning and knowing that does not avoid emotions and agent-perspectives but seeks to so operate within these factors as to produce a state we could validly call ‘being objective.’ Agreeing with Aristotle on a key role for emotions, Lonergan goes much further in claiming that some mode of the emotion of love should play a critical role in attaining the insights required for virtue ethics. His treatment of love, however, remains vague. Martha Nussbaum, on the other hand, provides very rich treatment of how love, understood as compassion, can act as a control for perspectival discernment and moral insight. Her theory fills out Lonergan's, allowing us more clearly to see how love (and other emotions) could be conducive to fostering objective viewpoints within morally charged circumstances. Objectivity in virtue ethics can be understood, then, to be what we are more or less attaining to the degree that we self-consciously apprehend and deploy our innate modes of insight-induction and aim these cognitive processes toward a world construed by a background concern of care and compassion.

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