Monday, February 27, 2012

Learning virtue from Jane Austen

An anonymous philosopher — he assures us he is one [a philosopher] — believes Jane Austen is worth reading as a moral philosopher quite apart from any literary quality the books possess:
...Austen was a brilliant moral philosopher from whom we still have much to learn today. Austen's books are deeply serious morality plays underneath the veneer of romantic comedy that helped them sell. They are a moral education masquerading as entertainment. ....

Virtue ethics understands the good life in terms of personal moral character, of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. It is therefore about 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. ....

Success for Austen's women depends on developing a moral character whose central virtues are 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 a sense of what virtue requires), and dignity (considering oneself as an independent autonomous person deserving of respect). .... 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. So Elizabeth Bennet rejects Darcy's haughty condescension out of hand; the happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond her lowly connections and unaristocratic manners and fully recognise her true (bourgeois) virtue.... That is a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one. ....

Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen proceeds by giving illustrative examples. ....

We should read Austen today because she is wise as well as clever, and because she teaches us how to live well not just how to love well. We should read beyond the delicious rituals of her romantic comedy plots to her deeper interests and purposes in creating her morally complex characters and setting them on display for us. We should read beyond her undisputed literary genius, and her place in the history of literary innovations and influences, to her unrecognised philosophical genius in elaborating and advancing a moral philosophy for our bourgeois times. [more]
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The Philosopher's Beard: Reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher
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