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  • Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility

There is no single virtue more important to Aristotle's ethical theory than the intellectual virtue of phronesis, or practical wisdom. Yet for all its importance, it is not easy to make sense of this virtue, either in Aristotle's own writings or in virtue ethics more generally. Insofar as Aristotle defines it, he does so opaquely, saying it is "a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being." 1

Practical wisdom is a form of knowledge aimed fundamentally at acting well. It requires both a general understanding of what is worthwhile in human life and the ability to act in ways that reflect that understanding. 2 My goal in this paper is to explore the latter aspect of practical wisdom in its application to ordinary social behavior. The circumstances that will interest me here are often thought to be the domain of manners or decorum, rather than morals proper. Although no one who takes Hume seriously can deny the moral significance of manners, the relationship between one's inner state of character and how that character is expressed in seemingly mundane behavior has received insufficient attention from moral philosophers. 3 In such a task, there can be few better places to begin than with Jane Austen, whose novels reveal the intricacies of ordinary moral behavior with extraordinary acumen.

I shall use Austen's Sense and Sensibility to examine the skill associated with knowing how to behave rightly in the sense we associate with propriety or decorum. This skill is essential to pleasant social life, and hence, on the Aristotelian view, to human flourishing. Yet it is often lacking, even among those who have sound moral principles and good hearts. Well-meaning people frequently say or do what is inappropriate. [End Page 378] Consider, for instance, how common it is for kindly disposed people to say to bereaved friends things like, "it's all for the best" or "be thankful for your other healthy children" or "you're young, you'll marry again." The intricacies of offering sympathy are hard to get right, and otherwise good people can unwittingly leave behind disasters in their wakes.

The skill of acting well in complex social situations has interesting links to the capacity for moral imagination. Engaging in imaginative identification with others is essential to empathy. 4 Without suggesting that empathy is at the root of all fluid social interactions, I shall argue that certain characteristic failures to act well in that sphere are imaginative failures. In other words, insofar as the exercise of practical wisdom is present in the realm of manners, it requires moral imagination.

Failures of moral imagination, however, can take different forms and have different social effects. I shall use two of Austen's characters in Sense and Sensibility—Marianne Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings—to illustrate different ways in which inadequate imaginative capacity can impede the exercise of practical wisdom. The contrast I shall draw is with Elinor Dashwood, to whom I ascribe practical wisdom in full. 5 This contrast is especially interesting because it is not always very sharp: all three characters have fundamentally good moral principles and warm hearts. Yet unlike Elinor, Mrs. Jennings and Marianne routinely fail to act well, and in characteristic ways. Despite the differences in their characters, they have in common an inability to use moral imagination appropriately. The moral errors of Marianne and Mrs. Jennings occur in relatively insignificant circumstances, but the errors themselves point to something deeper about how the virtue of practical wisdom functions in ordinary moral practice.

In exploring the link between moral imagination and moral practice, it will help to remember Aristotle's emphasis on the reciprocity between practical wisdom and the moral virtues. Aristotle held that that practical wisdom is necessary for the exercise of the moral virtues and that conversely, the moral virtues are necessary for the exercise of practical wisdom. 6 The justification for the first of these two claims is clearest in the context of Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. Since what counts as a virtuous action depends on features...


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pp. 378-394
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