Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher

The current Philosophy Now has an article on Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher by Thomas Rodham. Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and it's interesting how Rodham's list of the virtues Austen writes about fits with Aristotle's virtues in the Ethics. Rodham writes:
Virtue ethics is the approach to moral philosophy that understands the good life in terms of the development of personal moral character: in terms of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. It is therefore a response to the fundamental ethical question, How should I live my life? Answering that question involves identifying goals – what are the virtues you should develop? – and the path to achieving them. To talk about a bourgeois virtue ethics is to talk about the particular constellation of virtues that are most significant for an ethically-flourishing middle-class life. For example, unlike aristocrats, the middle-classes are not free from material concerns, and are thoroughly dependent on the goodwill of others for success. Unlike peasants, the bourgeoisie are not trapped by a subsistence economy, but have the resources and time – the leisure – to reflect on who they want to be, and to make and carry out plans for their future.

Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class ethics, and this, together with her use of literary narrative (and her femininity?), may explain why her moral philosophy is rarely recognised as such. Yet success for Austen’s characters depends on their developing a moral character. Her central virtues are conspicuously bourgeois: prudence (planning one’s actions with respect to protecting and furthering one’s interests); amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due); propriety (understanding and acting on an acute sense of what virtue requires); and dignity (considering oneself an independent, autonomous person deserving of respect). Austen is unusual among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, but she is right to do so. Developing amiability is central to most people’s lives, since we must work and live (albeit if nowadays less often) in close confinement with others with whom we have to get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks.
Aristotle also rates prudence and amiability (friendliness) among the important virtues. Dignity fits with Aristotle's view of the virtue of personal pride and honor. Using Rodham's definition, propriety has more of an overarching application seemingly including a bit of what Aristotle included under justice and temperance.

Of course, Austen was writing novels and wasn't trying to be exhaustive in the treatment of virtue. But, the correlation is interesting. It gives a little insight into why Jane Austen's novels are still read by a sizable reading public two hundred years* after their publication not only for the pleasure of her wit and writing style, but read again and again because of that additional layer of insight on some of the virtues necessary for a good and happy life (not to mention some important character pitfalls to avoid).
*2011 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and SensibilityBritish Royal Mail has a set of stamps coming out to celebrate this year's bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

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