To begin a study of how phronesis develops and the ways in which that development can be facilitated, the natural starting point is Aristotle himself, upon whom almost all contemporary explorations of phronesis draw. However, Aristotle obviously wrote his texts long before the advent of developmental psychology, and ideas such as the Kohlbergian one about distinct stages of moral development through which everyone needs to pass in a certain order were foreign to him. Aristotle does describe people at different levels of moral maturity and some scholars have tried to adapt those into an ‘Aristotelian stage theory’ (Curzer 2012; Sanderse 2015). I have come to believe, however, that Aristotle did not think everyone needed to pass through all the levels he describes and that he is, rather, presenting two possible but distinct routes to a fully virtuous life, as depicted in Fig. 1.
This model includes two trajectories towards moral development. The upper trajectory in the model, which we could name Plan A, is for those fortunate enough to have been brought up by good people (as moral exemplars), exemplifying moral habits and endowed with sufficient material resources. Those fortunate children are the ones most amenable to moral development. They internalise moral habits by copying what they see being done by their role models, and gain virtue knowledge and understanding through both ‘caught’ and ‘taught’ methods, adapted to their temperamental dispositions.Footnote 4 Guided by emulated mentors, they become, step-by-step, ‘just by doing just actions,’ ‘brave by doing brave actions,’ etc. (Aristotle 1985: 34 [1103b1–2]). What is more, to draw on an analogy from the field of nutrition, they eat their ‘greens’ because they enjoy their taste; they do not need to force themselves to ‘eat’ the right things, and their emotions harmonise with their action choices. At some stage, then (Aristotle is mostly silent about when this happens, though one would presume in late adolescence and early adulthood), the young gradually begin to develop critical thinking and reflection and revisit critically the traits with which they were originally inculcated: subjecting their merely habituated virtues to revision. They now learn the value of moral goods ‘sought,’ in addition to simply being ‘caught’ and ‘taught,’ and advance towards the stage of full autonomous virtue, which Aristotle calls ‘phronetic’ (i.e., guided by the metacognitive capacity of phronesis). While some of their actions will be guided by externalist reasons (e.g., prudential motivations towards peace and sociality), most of their actions will be internally motivated by the conception they have developed of virtuous traits of character being constitutive of their identity: their second nature, so to speak. Some people – endowed with extraordinary personal strengths and/or spurred by unusual social circumstances – will progress even further than simply being phronimoi (persons with phronesis-infused virtues), towards the level of heroic virtue. Those are the Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings of this world – but Aristotle does consider heroic deeds supererogatory and not necessary for counting as fully virtuous.
The lower trajectory in the model, which we could name Plan B, is for those slightly less fortunate, brought up under more mixed moral conditions and hence less amenable, originally, to character-virtue development. Given that they will still have some moral exemplars in their environment to emulate – even if those happen to be outside of their immediate family – they will develop a conception of the morally good. However, because of the patchy ways in which this conception is strengthened via ‘caught’ methods, these children will arguably lack self-regulation. To return to the nutritional analogy, they may understand the value of eating their ‘greens,’ but they lack the self-control to do so as they do not really love the taste. This is the stage that Aristotle calls ‘incontinence’ (akrasia). Unfortunately, the majority of people, according to Aristotle’s fairly dim view of his contemporaries, stagnate at this stage, or between incontinence and the next stage of ‘continence’ (enkrateia) (1985: 190 [1150a15]). Through practical habituation – either motivated by friends/mentors or their own powers of insight – a significant group of people progress towards being well self-regulated morally; and that is a considerable moral achievement. However, it still falls short of full virtue because even if the continent now actually ‘eat their greens,’ they still do not particularly enjoy the experience. In other words, they have to force themselves to be good. What they end up doing may be behaviourally indistinguishable from the actions of the truly virtuous, but it is not phronetically motivated in the same way, but rather mostly instrumentally or extrinsically driven. Yet, some of the continent agents may succeed in climbing up to the level of full virtue (the upper Plan A-trajectory), especially if they are fortunate enough to be in the company of close friends occupying that level.
This ancient model of development towards virtue tallies surprisingly well with contemporary understandings of moral development (see e.g. Fowers et al. 2021), especially if one adds to it Aristotle’s more general remarks about the social context required for either of the above developmental trajectories to be open to moral leaners in the first place: remarks that undermine some current individualistic and politically conservative accounts of character development.Footnote 5 Nevertheless, as could be expected, many aspects of this model are subject to ongoing criticism, both from contemporary neo-Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian educators. Since many of those criticisms and concerns are relevant to the specific topic of this article – the development and education of phronesis – it is instructive to offer a brief list of them here.
First, Aristotle assumes that children are born morally neutral (i.e., without any budding dispositions to be either moral or immoral), meaning that moral development is fundamentally a result of upbringing and education. In contrast, quite a lot of current empirical evidence indicates that new-born children are endowed with empathy and even more advanced moral capacities, perhaps as an evolutionary adaptation (Hoffman 2000). Aristotle makes the much more modest claim that children are born with the potential to become moral, in the sense of possessing capacities to internalise moral traits, but that ‘none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally’ (1985: 33 [1103a17–19]).
Second, another controversial assumption is Aristotle’s ‘early-years determinism’ about moral development, suggesting that children brought up under terrible conditions and not receiving any significant moral stimulation in their early years will never progress towards virtue at all (1985: 292 [1179b11–31]; cf. Kristjánsson 2015: chap. 5). Notice that there is no ‘Plan C’ in the above model for those children. Again, there is considerable evidence indicating that Aristotle may have been wrong about this and that radical moral conversions, if rare, are possible later in life, even for those not brought up in a minimal sense as moral agents (Kristjánsson 2020: chap. 6).
Third, and related to the second worry, Aristotle does not consider ‘moral elevation’ – understood as attraction to abstract moral ideals – as a feasible source of moral motivation. Intent on killing off the idealism of his mentor Plato, and only wanting to acknowledge emulation of the moral characteristics of persons (role models, mentors, close friends) rather than high-minded ideals, Aristotle’s developmental theory runs the danger of appearing disenchanted and deflated (or at least too cheaply practical) regarding possible sources of moral awe and inspiration (Kristjánsson 2020: chaps 5 and 7).
Fourth, the ‘paradox of moral education’ that Peters (1981) famously identified looms large here: how one can be trained heteronomously to become autonomous. This paradox arises because the ‘caught’ early-habituation stage in Aristotle’s Plan A mainly seems to involve arational imitation and repetition only. How does one get from there to autonomously (i.e., phronetically) ‘sought’ moral goodness?
Fifth, a related worry is more about a gap than an explicit weakness in the model. Why does Aristotle say so little about the proper timing of, and best methods for, phronesis education – apart from the previously mentioned platitudes about learning it through teaching and experience? Most neo-Aristotelians take it for granted that he is talking about late adolescence–early adulthood and that the ‘teaching’ relates to critical discussions with mentors and peers (as ‘character friends’). But those assumptions must largely be read into Aristotle’s texts.
Sixth, Aristotle seems to be overly demanding about the intellectual nature of moral decision-making post-habituation. Doing the right thing does not have any moral value anymore unless it is done for the right (phronetic) reasons and from the right motives (1985: 40 [1105a30–34]). Mere prosociality (good social outcome) does not seem to matter at all. So Aristotle appears to move here between two extremes: from a habituation period that is all about socialisation and correct habit-formation towards a period of complete autonomy where habituation and socialisation play no role anymore (yet contrast Sanderse 2020).Footnote 6
Seventh, Aristotle – despite his aversion to idealism – seems to have an overly idealised view of the psychological unity of the fully virtuous person, and to lack a sense of the residues of pain that may remain even after a fully phronetic decision has been reached: say, the pain that Sophie (in Sophie’s Choice) continued to experience after choosing her son (for good reasons) over her daughter in the Nazi concentration camp (Kristjánsson 2022).
Eighth, Aristotle does not explain what intellectual virtue the merely continent draw upon to solve conflicts and remain functionally self-controlled morally. It is not phronesis (which is only for the virtuous), and it is not mere calculation (deinotes), which is completely instrumental and amoral.
Ninth, Aristotle paints a rather disconcerting picture of moral heroes: those who go beyond full virtue in devoting their lives to philanthropy or public benefaction. People seem to be able to do this only at the expense of both the exhibition of mundane, everyday virtues and any deep engagement with aesthetic activities – being consigned to a life of self-sacrificial philistinism (Kristjánsson 2020: chap. 4).
Tenth, after extolling all the advantages of the phronetic life, Aristotle suddenly changes gear in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, now telling us that actually an even better life is one of mere contemplation, away from the cut and thrust of everyday activities (Kristjánsson 2015: chap. 5). Although it is possible to interpret him as saying that this sort of life is only possible once the phronetic life has already been achieved, most morally committed readers will find this message deflating and potentially counter-productive from the point of view of moral development and education. Does such development and education then only have value for the sake of something else that transcends it? For someone as practically minded as Aristotle, one would also presumably need to factor in opportunity costs and the law of diminishing returns for those aiming at this highest supra-moral level.