Virtue ethics, which can be traced back in western thought to the works of Plato and Aristotle, can be defined as an ethical approach that emphasises the character of the agent. Whereas consequentialism emphasises the consequences of the action (for example J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism), and deontological ethics the rules that one may follow (for example Kant’s categorical imperative, or the Ten Commandments), virtue ethics define a virtuous act by a certain virtue in the agent, such as benevolence or generosity.
Virtue ethics is not in conflict with deontological or consequentialist approaches, and can even be reconciled with them. The action driven by virtue ethics actually precedes the other two approaches: while deontological ethics or consequentialism addresses what is to be done in any given situation, virtue ethics focuses on the ways to develop certain virtues, or character patterns, in order to act well when needed. The main problem for virtue ethics, then, is 1) to define which virtues are desirable, and 2) how to develop them.
The object of virtue ethics is thus human life itself—that is, its goal and its perfection. Once that goal is determined, the most difficult point seemingly is knowing how to reach it, in other words identifying the most efficient means to make oneself virtuous.
The question of how to become virtuous is formulated on new grounds by French physicians and philosophers in the middle of the 18 century, who define, through the notion of sensibility, how the body can be either a means or an obstacle to virtue, and how physical sensations in particular influence our disposition to virtue.
The notion of sensibility offers a point of view that links bodily phenomena, i.e., physical sensation, with moral phenomena, i.e. the domain of feelings. Sensibility allows a global perception of human phenomena, physical and moral, and provides a means to understand how they’re interconnected to each other. The notion of sensibility opens up a new prospect on virtue ethics.
The problem can be described as follows: each time a human being comes into contact with a material thing, this thing gives birth to sensations which, alone or together with other sensations, gives birth to an idea. But there’s more to it than that. At the same time, the encounter of the material thing with the body produces a change in the body that not only entails the physical transmission of information through the nerves, but also a transformation of the medium in which this information is produced, transmitted, perceived and evaluated. Air, food, movement, and temperature alter the body of a reasonable being, and thus his ability to reason.
To sum things up, the influence of external things changes the way in which we perceive and appreciate them, and eventually the manner in which we act or react to them. Material influences on the body tend to transform it, thereby making it easier or more difficult to be virtuous.
The problem at stake here is human versatility, the rapid changes in states of mind, or moral dispositions, which make the same person react differently to the same stimulus at two different times. The aim of medical ethics as defined by 18th century authors is to balance moral dispositions by physical means, using the influence of physical sensibilities to create a moral disposition. For these scientists, virtue takes physical stability as its first necessary condition.
I shall now present the main work of Antoine Le Camus, La Médecine de l’esprit (1753) [literally: Medicine of the Spirit]. While his primary aim is to improve human understanding and insight, Le Camus considers moral abilities among the things that a proper management of one’s sensations can improve.
The body as a ground for ethical behaviour
For Le Camus, virtue depends on the exercise of reason. A strong and easy process of physical sensibility furnishes the mind with a greater number of ideas and thus reinforces the different components of understanding. But of even greater import is the variation of moral dispositions under the influence of passions that are also related to physical causes. The relationship of man to his environment is the main source of his internal moral dispositions:
“Nothing is isolated. Everything in Nature is related to everything else; and Man, whose pride would separate him from other beings, is so much related to air, water, fire or earth that he would cease to be if he were severed from those elements which keep him alive and contribute to his health, and which, modifying his body in different ways, modify his mind accordingly.
Everything that produces, surrounds or maintains our body can greatly modify our souls.” (La Médecine de l’esprit, t. 1 p. 179)
Material surroundings do not only generate sensations, pleasure and pain, but also changes in moral dispositions as they are related to the body. Le Camus’s thesis can be linked to the galenic medical tradition, in which the state of the body is primarily related to the balance of natural elements, each of which is powerfully related to the others. The cure aiming at a stable state of mind—so that one can judge soundly of ethical matters—will thus deal with the constitution of men as well as the influence of material things on them.
According to Le Camus, the best moral disposition is temperance as it relates to the tradition of the golden mean, that is, in every respect, a midpoint between two excesses. This midpoint is the state of mind in which virtue is the easiest to apply, but it also constitutes a physical means for maintaining this state of mind. Thus one should not first put the emphasis on being moderate in a moral sense, but on the physical influences that can hinder or help temperance, starting with food, which is the means on which Le Camus dwells most, as he describes the regimen to follow in order to become or remain virtuous:
“The physical means to be virtuous are to maintain the sensations in such a state, that reason doesn’t lose its authority, or can withdraw victoriously from the struggle if it meets obstacles. Thus, thick, spirituous or irritating liquors are to be avoided, as well as salty, peppered or spicy food; to sum it up, everything that would create, either by quantity or quality, a certain blood acrimony that would result at once in the flood of semen and a loss of animal spirits.” (La Médecine de l’esprit, t.2 p. 252-253)
The scientific use of passions
But the golden mean alone is not sufficient to create a healthy state of mind. As traditional galenic medicine defines health as a moderate heat and dampness and thus seeks to avoid cold and dry body conditions as well as excessive heat and dampness, the medicine of the mind considers a healthy state of mind as one that implies a certain degree of joy. Le Camus thus examines how to physically manage passions to maintain a moderately joyful character and avoid both sad passions and delirium. Passions are defined as a physical condition influencing the spirit. Each passion has its physical characteristics; to create the bodily condition that defines a passion is to bring the passion itself. By studying the physical features of passions, one can find the means to create or favour them artificially. For example, in considering the relationship between passions and perspiration, Le Camus observes that sad, hateful passions tend to arrest or stop perspiration, while joyful ones tend to increase it. Once this point is established, he advises the intentional use of foods known to act on perspiration; parsley and garlic are said to increase it, heavy vegetables and meat slow down the blood and decrease perspiration. By stopping or favouring perspiration, food creates the physical disposition of the passion, which is the passion itself.
Every state of mind is related to a bodily condition that can be physically created: that is the main thesis of Le Camus’s medicine of the mind. Climates, food, rhythm of sleep and movement, all tend to change one’s mental condition. By observing physical features of the different passions, Le Camus proposes a regimen of life that favours sweet and joyful passions and shuns violent or sad ones. Aiming to better the human condition, he even refuses to divulge the recipe for sadness, though it should exist :
“Sadness, being mechanical and nearing melancholia, could be produced by art; but who would be willing to resort to the physical means we could suggest to create it? We shall always find enough saddening subjects, without having to ask for them.” (La Médecine de l’esprit, t. 2 p. 306-307)
The physical means to produce a virtuous state of mind are mainly the same as those that favour good physical condition, the main pattern throughout being temperance—a sweet and joyful temperance.
The virtuous circle
One criticism that could arise from this prescription is that temperance appears both as a desired virtue and as the cause of this virtue. The medicine of the mind could thus appear as a circle: being moderate about food helps being moderate in feelings. This is therefore not a real petitio principii, but a virtuous circle where a tempered regimen of life helps one to follow this regimen. Temperance becomes a tendency as soon as it is grounded in physical causes. But temperance as applied in the choice of meals and temperance as a moral virtue cannot be equated with one another, for regulating the interaction of the body to its physical environment is far easier than regulating one’s moral dispositions through bare willpower.
That’s what makes this medical point of view on ethics both related to virtue ethics and slightly different from it. My hypothesis is that medicine of the mind is to virtue ethics as virtue ethics is to deontological ethics or consequentialism. The two latter ethical families emphasise the moment of the choice, teaching one the criteria to choose ethically. Virtue ethics works long before that, teaching one how to become wise or virtuous so that the ethical choice is made easier, but mainly by moral means: daily moral exercises turn one into a virtuous man who will, when the time comes, will act virtuously. Virtue ethics thus overcomes an imperfection of deontological and consequential ethics—namely, that one may not be able to find the right choice at the right moment—by turning virtue into a habit that is not necessarily dependent on one’s state of mind or the perfect knowledge of the situation, thus making ethical behaviour more reliable. Accordingly, the medicine of the mind overcomes an imperfection of virtue ethics, insofar as one may find it difficult to exercise oneself to virtue due to one’s physical character or constitution, proposing instead the creation of a physical condition that favours the efficiency of virtuous practice before even beginning moral exercises. Thus, while virtue ethics strives to acquire a moral disposition to virtue, medicine of the mind seeks to acquire a physical disposition to favour this learning. This moral medicine assumes that influencing one’s physical condition is easier and more definitive than influencing one’s state of mind; that one’s physical condition is strongly related to one’s state of mind; and that one’s physical condition can’t be dispensed with as far as ethics are concerned. One can say that medicine of the mind deepens virtue ethics, working further into the chain of causes leading to virtuous acts.
This is what ultimately makes Le Camus’s Médecine de l’esprit and the works of his contemporaries more than a historical curiosity based on obsolete medical theories. They assumed the failure of a dry and severe conception of ethics one based on strength of mind that naively blames human weakness for its inefficiency. Instead, they proposed reconsidering man as a whole, contemplating the body as something other than an obstacle to virtue. Seeking out the physical bases of ethical choices results in embodying ethics and prescribing life choices favouring ethical behaviour, more so than even the behaviour itself, for this stems naturally from an appropriate state of mind and body. Such a medical viewpoint on ethics neither defines the criteria of an ethical act nor the virtues one should develop, but it does draw attention to the fact that ethics begins with a global balance of human life in which mind and body smoothly interact.
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