Does Human Nature Conflict with Itself?: Human Form and the Harmony of the Virtues

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Does possessing some human virtues make it impossible for a person to possess other human virtues? Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams both answered “yes” to this question, and they argued that to hold otherwise—to accept the harmony of the virtues—required a blinkered and unrealistic view of “what it is to be human.” In this essay, I have two goals: (1) to show how the harmony of the virtues is best interpreted, and what is at stake in affirming or denying it; and (2) to provide a partial defense of the harmony of the virtues. More specifically, I show how the harmony of the virtues can be interpreted and defended within the kind of Aristotelian naturalism developed by philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Michael Thompson. I argue that far from being an embarrassing liability for Aristotelianism—based in an “archaic metaphysical biology”—the harmony thesis is an interesting and plausible claim about human excellences, supported by a sophisticated account of the representation of life, and fully compatible with a realistic view of our human situation.
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