In this section, I will argue that each of the foregoing claims forming the bedrock of Zagzebski’s exemplarism face serious problems, which, I will subsequently suggest, a traditional aesthetically-inflected theory can either eschew or address. Specifically, I submit that the sharp distinction between the desirable and the admirable, and the move away from the desirable as the fundamental attitude towards virtue, coupled with the way in which the account of admiration is developed, make the theory untenable in its current form, preventing it from yielding the promised payoffs.
The Priority of Admiration over Desire
Zagzebski’s first key claim concerns the priority to admiration. She points out that there are two sorts of objects properly called good, which in turn suggest different ways of responding to goodness: the admirable (admiration) and the desirable (desire). Zagzebski chooses to ground her theory on the former, rather than the latter, essentially reversing the picture offered by Aristotle and philosophers of a similar persuasion,Footnote 5 whereby we begin by identifying what is most desirable and then proceed to identify its constituents and inquire into how best to realise it.Footnote 6
This move already creates problems for exemplarism. Suppose that Zagzebski is right about the basicness of both admiration and desire, as well as the priority of admiration. It is now the task of a comprehensive ethical theory to explain both of these concepts. Importantly, we need an account of the ethically good life in the sense of the desirable life. Predictably, Zagzebski defines the desirable in the same way as all other central moral concepts: what is desirable is what is desired by persons like that. Similarly, “a desirable life is a life desired by … persons like that”.Footnote 7
Yet, as Zagzebski herself allows, even her own examples of exemplars are only exemplary in some, though not all, respects. Leopold Socha might not have been an exemplar of aesthetic taste; Gandhi not one of parenting. What reason do we have to think, then, that they are good judges of the desirable, even if we only think of such desirability in terms of that in virtue of which they are admirable? Zagzebski makes an interesting observation here, which ties to some of my later points (see §3.4 below), namely that exemplars show us what desirable lives are by “showing us what they desire”.Footnote 8 I take this to mean that exemplars like these point towards worthwhile ends. But that is distinct from the claim that the life that they desire is desirable. After all, there are different ways of realising a given end, and some are more hospitable to the realisability of multiple ends than others. In light of this, the fact that sometimes admirable lives seem bereft of what most normal people would consider desirable, not least because of how they pursue one area of activity, or a single end, at the cost of all or nearly all others, should give us pause. To say in effect that, after all, it turns out that this is what is desirable for human beings seems highly counter-intuitive, insofar as it implies that a desirable life turns out to be somewhat arbitrary. But Zagzebski acknowledges such cases, and says that “[i]f an admirable life is not sufficient for a desirable life, that is because the life an admirable person lives is not the same as the one she desires.”Footnote 9 However, such a move seems question-begging, as it appears to presuppose, rather than show, that admirability provides a compass for desirability. It also seems to make strong assumptions about what exemplars desire without much evidence.
At the same time, as Zagzebski quite rightly points out, there are some lives that “are desirable but not wholly admirable”.Footnote 10 Her example is of an old woman who lived a full and healthy life, displaying kindness, generosity, and gaining satisfaction. Yet she was also a racist. According to Zagzebski, she had a desirable but less than admirable life. But Zagzebski also goes one step further in claiming that “the fact that her life is less admirable than it would be without her racist attitudes does not make it less desirable”,Footnote 11 except on her definition of a desirable life, since “the admirable is desirable”.Footnote 12 But this downplays the possibility that one might already think of that person’s life as less desirable in virtue of its racism. Such a move once again appears to presuppose the priority of admiration rather than support it.
Ultimately, then, it looks like the plausibility of both prioritising the admirable over the desirable and defining the desirable in terms of the admirable, depends on the strength of the link between admiration and morality, or virtue, which I presently turn to examine.
Admiration and Its Objects
Following a plausible approach to the emotions, on which they comprise an intentional object (e.g., a wolf), an affective or physiological response (e.g., feeling of being scared, certain changes in heart rate, etc.), and, linked to that response, a motivational dimension (e.g., tendency to flee), Zagzebski construes admiration as “a state consisting of a characteristic feeling of admiring someone or something that appears admirable”.Footnote 13 More specifically, the intentional objects of admiration are certain people and their traits, and what holds the sort of people that we admire together, and is relevant to admiration, is that they all possess “a human power in a high degree of excellence”.Footnote 14 Moreover, appearing admirable, according to Zagzebski, involves appearing “imitably attractive”, which in turn is a matter of the object’s appearing “attractive, not repulsive or evaluatively neutral [and in such a way that it] typically gives rise to the urge to imitate or emulate the object, assuming certain practical conditions are satisfied.”Footnote 15 The object of admiration, and the characteristic feeling of being imitably attractive provide the key features of admiration and, importantly, are those features that enable it to “determine the scope of the moral for the purposes of the theory”.Footnote 16
Before proceeding, it is useful to distinguish between particular and formal objects of emotions like admiration.Footnote 17 Particular objects are things at which an emotion can be directed, for instance a person, or an artwork, while the formal object of an emotion is the property that the emotion is responsive to (or that one ascribes to a particular object in having a given emotion). So, for instance, in a given instance of fear, the particular object may be a spider, and the formal object is dangerousness. As stated above, Zagzebski thinks that the objects of admiration are people possessing “a human power in a high degree of excellence”.Footnote 18 This seems to indicate that people and their traits are particular objects of admiration, and a high degree of excellence the formal object. This is supported by Zagzebski’s claim that “there is something in us that detects the excellent, and that is the emotion of admiration”.Footnote 19 This distinction becomes important when assessing how closely admiration tracks morality, which in turn partly depends on Zagzebski’s distinction between admiration for natural versus acquired traits. This is because emotions are arguably individuated and partly defined by reference to their formal objects. Furthermore, it is with reference to emotions’ formal objects that particular instances of an emotion are evaluated as fitting or unfitting. Hence if Zagzebski is right both about the genuineness of the distinction between natural and acquired excellences, and its correspondence to the distinction between moral and non-moral excellences, then she can plausibly distinguish between corresponding kinds of admiration.
From the above sketch, it should already be obvious that admiration is an appropriate response to much more than can reasonably be admitted within the domain of the moral; a work of art can be admirable, as can a feat of architecture, or gymnastics. But a couple of qualifications should dispel such initial concerns. First, exemplarism is concerned only with admirable traits of people and behaviours (other things can then fall under the category indirectly). Moreover, it does not concern the domain of morality narrowly construed, but, more broadly, that of human excellence. While this is an important qualification, which goes a considerable way towards alleviating worries about the scope of admiration, it still seems to me that admiration, and even excellence, understood without qualification, cover a broader scope than we would want a theory of virtue to cover.
Consider the Oxford English Dictionary entries for the most common current uses of the term admiration. These include “[r]egard for someone or something considered praiseworthy or excellent; esteem, approbation; appreciation”; “a cause of wonder, high regard, or esteem”.Footnote 20 Likewise, it seems to me, common parlance and intuitions point to at least three categories of formal objects of admiration: (a) psychological or physical excellences or abilities, whether natural (i.e., talents) or acquired, which tend to evoke a feeling of excitement and energisation; (b) impressive, difficult, or extraordinary achievements, which are often met with a feeling of surprise or awe;Footnote 21 and (c) the beautiful,Footnote 22 which evokes a pleasurable kind of admiration, ranging from warm affection and attraction to a feeling of being moved, which feelings other kinds of admiration need not share.Footnote 23 In (a) and (b), admiration is characteristically directed at what makes a great impression or is evaluated as being outstanding, or excellent. Not so—or not just so—in (c).
The upshot, particularly from (a) and (b) above, seems to be that admiration and excellence, as opposed to virtue in its traditional sense, are appropriate ways for appraising or responding to instances that are far from virtuous—including the Gauguins, Churchills, and Miltonic Satans of this world, for instance.Footnote 24 This is because these characters are rare, behave in ways that are difficult to sustain, possess impressive qualities of skill, intelligence, and the like, and are exciting to behold and contemplate, even if they are also disturbing or immoral. In other words, they possess human powers in high degrees of excellence yet seem far from being imitably attractive, at least not uncontroversially so. Thus, they cannot count as exemplary—certainly not as morally exemplary. Likewise, it is plausible that certain character traits like unbending conviction, faith, or great dedication for some activity or cause, are highly admirable; but it is far from clear that these would attract us, or inspire in us any inclination to imitate them.
Zagzebski has a number of responses available to her. First, to the cases of admirable immoral people, Zagzebski might respond by agreeing that these people do possess human powers to a high degree of excellence and so are rightly admired for these, since admiration can respond to particular qualities and need not take a whole person as its object.Footnote 25 Be that as it may, one might expect an exemplarist theory to pick out exemplary instances of such qualities, particularly if we plausibly think that many qualities such as courage, intelligence, and skill, are valuable (and count as virtues) only when put to good use. In other words, while the courage of a terrorist may be admirable, it does not constitute an exemplary instance of courage, which would much more plausibly be traced to, say, the retired firefighter who risks her life in order to save a family trapped in a burning building. Second, Zagzebski could maintain that a common feature of admirable things is their excellence, but deny that the courage of the terrorist, or the creativity of the evil person are excellences of the appropriate sort. But if she opted for what looks like an ad hoc move, she would have to specify what the appropriate sort is and would most likely still encounter the problem that unless admiration were only responsive to that kind of excellence (stipulating which claim would beg the question by presupposing that admiration delineates the moral domain, viz., the claim she is seeking to establish), it would fail to accurately track the sort of qualities she has in mind.
However, Zagzebski does make a move that seems intended to avoid these and similar difficulties. To narrow the scope of the relevant emotion, and also because she wants the relevant sort of admiration to ground motivation to emulate its object (something that, as we just saw, is not inspired by all admirable things), she distinguishes between two core kinds of admiration (and formal objects of admiration): natural and acquired excellences. Of these, it is only the latter that are pertinent to moral theory, and only acquired excellences that are “imitably attractive”.Footnote 26
But the distinction between natural and acquired excellences brings with it more problems. For not only is the variety of acquired excellence far greater than that of virtues, but the distinction between natural and acquired excellences is at best one that fails to track that between admiration for moral and for non-moral excellences and, at worst, a false distinction. I suspect that neither of these points can be adequately developed without empirical evidence to support them, but the following considerations should suffice to indicate that it is ill-advised to distinguish moral from non-moral admiration by appeal to a distinction between natural and acquired excellences. In the next subsection, I will look at empirically-informed considerations for how moral and non-moral admiration might be distinguished.
Firstly, pace Zagzebski, there simply is no reason to think that it is any more within the reach of ordinary humans to aim to live like Mother Teresa, Jesus, Confucius, or to act like Leopold Socha in similar circumstances, than it is to paint like Caravaggio, sing like Maria Callas, or run a sub-two-hour marathon. All of these are examples of individuals with exceptional psychological, creative, or physical profiles, and there is no reason to think that some of these are wholly natural but others acquired, besides a simplistic, if not dualistic view, whereby the mind and the body are separate, and the latter (under which I include skills like painting) is somehow more natural than the former.
Secondly, and related to the first point, it is increasingly clear that much of our character depends quite considerably on personality traits, which, though subject to change, are natural, and it is thought that a considerable part of our character is a matter of how we channel and train such natural dispositions.Footnote 27
Thirdly, in the absence of good evidence, we should be extra cautious in drawing distinctions between the purportedly natural talents of athletes or artists from other traits or talents that are acquired, including the virtues. At least this seems to me to be an important lesson to draw from some feminist thinkers who observed that such distinctions between natural and acquired excellences in the realm of art—implicit in prominent conceptions of talent or genius—have distracted us from real problems or differences between men who developed certain artistic skills and reached artistic greatness, and women who did not. Although women rarely had opportunities or resources to access the relevant training and acquire the skills and talents necessary to produce great art, or thrive in athletic or scientific endeavours, widespread appeals to genius with reference to the (male) artists who did produce such great art may have operated as a red herring, partly contributing to women’s exclusion from the means necessary to develop artistic skills. At the same time, notions like artistic genius or athletic talent may arguably also have fostered an illusion of female natural inferiority in such domains, thereby perpetuating women’s exclusion.Footnote 28
In light of these considerations, I think that we should acknowledge that extraordinary achievements in any domain, including charity or heroism, most likely result from a combination of natural talents and inclinations, and education, enculturation, training, and practice. If so, then the distinction between natural and acquired excellences cannot help us to distinguish between non-moral and moral admiration.
Admiration and Elevation
Nonetheless, evidence from positive psychology does suggest that we respond differently to extraordinary achievements and to persons who display moral virtues. In fact, such evidence has led positive psychologists to introduce a distinction between admiration for non-moral excellence and “elevation”, understood specifically as the emotion that takes “moral beauty” as its formal object (a term which I think is important and telling, on which more below).Footnote 29 Among other differences, and in line with my more speculative remarks in section 3.2, while admiration produces a feeling of being energised and is associated with chills, elevation is associated with feelings of warmth, and appears to have a calming effect,Footnote 30 presumably as a result of different physiological and biochemical processes. Likewise, admiration and elevation, though both motivational, seem to be associated with different kinds of motivation. Whereas admiration is associated with a motivation to improve oneself generally, elevation is associated with a motivation to emulate the object itself, and to become specifically a morally better person.Footnote 31 Moreover, studies have shown that witnessing non-moral excellence does not predict subsequent morally relevant behaviours, whereas stimuli containing moral content—including videos depicting acts of kindness or gratitude—do have a positive effect on subsequent willingness to help.Footnote 32
Now, Zagzebski “[agrees] that we need to distinguish the kind of admiration directed towards inborn excellences like talent or [physical] beauty from the admiration of moral excellences, but [claims] that ‘admiration’ is a perfectly good word to apply to the latter.”Footnote 33 Thus, she proposes to understand by admiration what Haidt and others mean by elevation. But in treating this as simply a terminological issue, Zagzebski misses the point that positive psychologists want to make, which is that a distinction is needed between our emotional response to excellence in general, and virtue in particular. And given that, as we saw earlier, the distinction between natural and acquired excellences breaks down, Zagzebski’s conception of admiration fails to track the difference between virtues like kindness and other kinds of excellences. In other words, if admiration-understood-as-elevation is to be distinguished from admiration tout court, which according to the psychological literature on elevation seems to be different in terms of its phenomenology, motivational profile, and formal object, then simply collapsing the two and identifying admiration with the characteristics that psychologists have attributed to elevation is problematic and liable to misguide the entire enterprise. For while ‘admiration’ may not in fact be a bad word (after all, we use it liberally, though few of us use the term elevation), if we are talking about a qualitatively different feeling in response to a different formal object, we should either specify the kind of admiration at stake, or, like Haidt, find a name for the relevant response that differentiates it from similar but distinct ones.
In summary, the differences between admiration and elevation need to be accounted for and since the distinction between acquired and natural is misleading, we need to say something more about how these differ not just phenomenologically, but also in terms of their formal objects. The psychologists do so by talking of admiration’s object being non-moral excellence and elevation’s object being moral virtue, though just as often they speak of moral beauty, as do their sources of inspiration, notably Thomas Jefferson.Footnote 34 While they do not make too much of this term, below I suggest that the difference between mere excellence and beauty does seem to go some way towards alleviating the problems Zagzebski’s admiration faces. For now, though, I register that Zagzebski’s account of admiration fails to delineate the scope of virtue.
The foregoing discussion shows that admiration is at best incomplete, and at worst misleading as an anchor for moral theory. If my critique is cogent, then the problems with Zagzebski’s theory spill over to its motivational, educational, and other non-conceptual ambitions. Whether the admirable is not always an object of emulation or motivation; or admiration does in fact ground motivation and emulation of its objects, but is so broad as to include many objects that should not be emulated or motivate us, including examples of moral vice or undesirable behaviours; it would seem that one of two things follow. Either, in the former case, admiration does not even begin to do the work that Zagzebski wants it to do because it does not, at least not under this generic specification, lay sufficient grounds for emulation, motivation, and the like. Or, in the latter case, admiration fails to do the work Zagzebski thinks it can do because it does not reliably track moral excellence.
Here is a quick diagnosis of what has gone wrong in Zagzebski’s account. Traditionally understood, the virtues, at least those that are central and paradigmatic, or, in Gaut’s terminology “fully-fledged”,Footnote 35 are not only examples of excellence, but dispositions to think, feel, and act for the sake of certain ends that are worthwhile or good.Footnote 36 Hence also the important internal component of virtues, namely that they must be motivated intrinsically. The virtuous acts for the sake of virtue or for that of relevant ends.Footnote 37 Thus, kindness, honesty, etc. are standardly considered fully-fledged virtues but some cases of courage, prudence, etc. might not be.Footnote 38
Now, we desire ends, not, or not just, means towards or constitutive of these ends; at least not independently of the ends themselves. In other words, ends are the objects of desire. We admire many things that we do not desire, because admiration takes primarily means as its object—hence it is commonly directed at feats of skill, endurance, intellectual prowess, etc. These, of course, could be invested in both desirable ends, or undesirable ones. In making admiration primary, and explicitly construing it as targeting excellence, Zagzebski construes the core, if not the entirety, of her account squarely in the domain of means or components of the good, rather than the good itself, which unifies the desirable and the admirable, the worthwhile and the excellent.Footnote 39 The end is what makes an admirable object appear imitably attractive,Footnote 40 and when that happens the imitably attractive object does not simply appear admirable, but beautiful—beauty, at least on a plausible account, being a unity of excellent means and pleasing or desirable ends, that is, of the admirable and the desirable. This insight, which I think is also captured in positive psychologists’ distinction between admiration and elevation, has a precedent in what I shall call ‘aesthetic moral theories’ to highlight the fact that they recognised a category of moral beauty.
Let me briefly elaborate on this, by way of introducing the ideas that will preoccupy us in the remainder of this paper. Under aesthetic moral theories I include Plato’s and Aristotle’s ethics and many theories that have been influenced by Aristotle, including Hume’s and Smith’s virtue theories. This is because, as already noted, these theories all incorporated the notion of moral beauty, captured in Greek by the term ‘kalon’ and in English by the eponymous phrase. Importantly, on these theories virtue and goodness were intrinsically linked to beauty, most straightforwardly by being beautiful. The magnetism of a virtuous person or action was then explained by such beauty. Key in such theories is a backdrop of interests or values, which are desirable. In Aristotle, this is clear in the role that eudaimonia plays in his account. And, although less clear, a similar role is played by the notion of ends in Hume who points out that “were [an] end totally indifferent to us, we should feel the same indifference towards the means”.Footnote 41 In other words, where there is not an end that is desirable, excellence alone in one’s possession of a human power (assuming that power does not itself specify an end, like, say, honesty or kindness) does not arouse the “sentiment of approbation”,Footnote 42 which on Hume’s account is the mark of virtue and beauty. This intrinsic link or unity between means and ends (or, if you prefer, form and content) is characteristic of the beautiful on many traditional accounts.Footnote 43 By contrast to such accounts—albeit, ironically, inspired by them—in separating desirability from admirability when it comes to virtue and according priority to the latter, Zagzebski, like many modern philosophers, severs the aesthetic component from moral theory, focusing on what may be called merely structural aspects of virtue, viz., the possession of “a human power in a high degree of excellence”.Footnote 44 But this leaves out what use that power is put to, which concerns desirability rather than (mere) admirability. It is this feature of the account, I think, that creates the problems identified above.