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  • Training Virtue without Losing Autonomy:A Response to Aaron Stalnaker
  • Patricia Marechal (bio)
Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority. By Aaron Stalnaker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.


In Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority, Aaron Stalnaker argues that reading Confucian ethics will persuade us that dependence on the right authorities is essential to living a good, virtuous life. Relinquishing autonomy to experts early in life can allow us, in time, to become fully autonomous [End Page 512] and exercise our autonomy in appropriate ways. Indeed, these forms of non-oppressive dependence "make possible a much richer and better shared life" (p. 209).1

For the , a good life requires virtues such as ritual and wisdom. These virtues, Stalnaker argues, are a mix of "trained abilities, i.e. skills, and cultivated tendencies to think, feel, and desire in certain ways" (p. 79). A virtuous character is "in fact partially constituted by the mastery of certain skills" (p. 81). Insofar as the virtues involve skill, they are partly acquired in the same way as other skills, such as carpentry or archery, are acquired. That is, they are trained by experts. Understanding virtue as a form of skilled behavior or practical mastery, Stalnaker argues, allows us to see why it is so important to subject oneself to, and obey, the (right) authorities: we become virtuous only if we are trained by the right people, follow these experts' guidance and example, and (at least in the beginning) obey their commands. Eventually, this results in an internalized sense of what is correct and incorrect, and so we become ready to act virtuously on our own and apply what we have learned to novel situations. Furthermore, we become able to articulate why this is the right action in these circumstances, and challenge our leaders if we think they have deviated from the virtuous path. As Stalnaker claims, "human beings are not automatically, spontaneously, autonomous; our capacity for autonomy needs to be cultivated, over time, through deliberate practices of training, [for] which we depend on the guidance of virtuous and skilled teachers" (p. 269). Appropriate dependence is, then, essential to living well.

Some of this, Stalnaker tells us, is familiar to those of us embedded in a Western tradition. The idea that living a good life involves cultivating virtues of character, and that developing the virtues requires shaping our natural dispositions by repeatedly acting in a virtuous way under the guidance of elders and teachers until these actions become "second nature," is central to ancient Greek virtue ethics—in particular to an Aristotelian conception of virtue. According to Aristotle, we acquire a firm and steady disposition to act and feel at the right time, toward the right people, and in the right way by a process of habituation that involves repeatedly performing good actions, just as we become good piano players by playing the piano (Nicomachean Ethics II.1 1103a33–b1; II.4 1105a30–34; II. 1106b21–23). Moreover, Aristotle insists that this process of habituation requires the guidance of virtuous people who will steer us in the right way (II.3 1104b8–12; X.1 1172a20–21). But can ethical virtue be trained in the same way that skills like carpentry or archery can? Can this sort of training result in autonomous, responsible agents? Furthermore, if our sense of what is good and bad is deeply molded by others, how can we come to realize that the practices in which we were trained are actually not good, so as to exercise appropriate remonstration? [End Page 513]

I. Virtue as Skill

Virtue versus Mere Self-Control

In chapter 3 of his book, Stalnaker addresses a controversy in virtue ethics. In a nutshell, we may wonder whether the virtues of character involve skill. Aristotle himself makes a distinction between virtue and skill, even though he often finds similarities between the two. Stalnaker argues that making a distinction between virtue and skill is "importantly misleading" (p. 81), and that thinking of the virtues as involving skill helps us understand their nature and how we acquire them, namely thanks to the rigorous training received from those who are already experts. But do the virtues involve...


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pp. 512-520
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