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  • Skill, Practice, and Virtue:Some Questions and Objections for Aaron Stalnaker
  • Richard Kim (bio)
Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority. By Aaron Stalnaker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

It is a pleasure to be a part of such great intellectual company in discussing Professor Stalnaker's very rich and insightful book. It is practically impossible not to be impressed (and a bit intimated) by Stalnaker's breadth of knowledge, deep understanding of early Chinese texts, and keen observations about how the early Chinese philosophers offer intellectual resources still very much relevant to us today. My comments will focus on the relationship between skill and virtue. I'll ask one clarificatory question and offer two potential objections to Stalnaker's account.

I. The Connection between Skill and Virtue

Let me begin with my clarificatory question: Stalnaker presents the early Confucian thinkers as drawing a tight connection between skill and virtue. I found this discussion both fascinating and important, but I was hoping to get a bit clearer on just what the connection was meant to be. To ask this question more crisply, I think it might be helpful to draw on Matt Stichter's recent discussion of three different ways of thinking about the relation between skill and virtue. He categorizes the three kinds of connections as weak, moderate, and strong. In the weak view virtues are connected to skills but should not be understood along the lines of skills. The moderate view, which Stichter claims is Aristotle's view, "claims that there are structural similarities between virtue and skill, such that we can gain insight into how virtues are developed by looking at how skills are acquired."1 Finally, the strong view claims that virtues are a kind of skill, a view held by Julia Annas.2 It seems to me that Stalnaker would endorse the strong connection, but this is not entirely clear from the text. [End Page 520]

II. Alasdair MacIntyre and Early Confucian Accounts of Virtue

In his discussion of virtue, Stalnaker argues that the way that Alasdair MacIntyre separates virtue from skill is problematic and that the early Confucians would have accepted virtue and skill as more interconnected. One question I have is whether Stalnaker offers a correct account of MacIntyre's view about virtue. To be sure, Stalnaker does portray MacIntyre's account in a sympathetic light, but re-reading MacIntyre's account of virtue in After Virtue made me think that there was quite a bit of overlap between MacIntyre's account and the early Confucian account. For in developing his account of virtue, MacIntyre explicitly argues that practices such as chess, painting, or playing a musical instrument (the sorts of activities that Stalnaker would acknowledge as paradigmatically skillful activities) are internally connected to virtues.

Here is the definition of virtue MacIntyre offers in the context of his discussion of practices (note that he refines this definition later in his book):

A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.3

So it seems like the very concept of virtue involves goods internal to practices. As MacIntyre notes, the practices provide the virtues with their point and purpose. A virtue, in this picture, is not some kind of moral value hanging out there, but is closely connected to those all-too-familiar practices that human beings engage in: "arts, sciences, games, politics in the Aristotelian sense, the making and sustaining of family life. …"4

In fact, one of the most illuminating discussions by MacIntyre is that of the chess-playing child who begins to play chess for purely extrinsic rewards (money), but then gradually comes to appreciate the goods internal to chess that MacIntyre suggests will require the cultivation of certain virtues such as fairness, patience, and truthfulness. I think this example captures the way that ordinary practices provide us with the proper occasions for developing a variety of virtues that are necessary to realize these internal goods. We can identify in our own lives the achievement of certain internal goods and...