Psychological Science and the Nicomachean Ethics: Virtuous Actors, Agents, and Authors
The paper I will circulate appeared as a chapter in Nancy Snow’s edited volume, Cultivating Virtue: Multiple Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2014). I am using this paper at this time for two reasons. First, I would like to get critical insight from a group with a tremendous amount of expertise in virtue philosophy, given that I am but a lowly empiricist who reads Aristotle as an amateur. Second, I am continually working to articulate further, and to refine, the overall conceptual framework for this paper, a framework that I have extended into many other domains. The organizing idea behind it all is that human selfhood comes in three different varieties – the self from the standpoint of a social actor, a motivated agent, and an autobiographical author (McAdams, 2013a). I have used this tripartite model to re-conceptualize and re-imagine a number of different fields and topics in psychology and the social sciences – including personality structure (McAdams & Pals, 2006), personality development (McAdams, 2015a), the development of identity (McAdams & Zapata-Gietl, 2015), the study of leadership (McAdams, 2015b), the study of life meaning (McAdams, 2013b) the psychology of time (McAdams, in press), moral development (McAdams, 2009), and psychological biography (McAdams, 2011).
The model proposes that human beings begin life as social actors, performing emotion in the presence of a social audience. Over developmental time, the qualities of our performances result in a trait-based social reputation within our self-defining groups. In middle childhood, a second perspective on selfhood begins to emerge, that of the motivated agent who sets forth valued goals and then develops plans in order to achieve those goals. As such, the self thickens in middle childhood to encompass the child’s developing sense of agency, which itself layers over the temperament traits and role demands that comprise the self as actor. Finally, in late adolescence and young adulthood, the self becomes an autobiographical author, involved in constructing an integrative story for life. With this further thickening, the author layers over the agent, who layers over the actor. All three perspectives on selfhood characterize adult life. With respect to Aristotle and virtue, I argue that virtue from the standpoint of the social actor roughly parallels how Aristotle described teaching young children habits of virtue through social practice. By contrast, virtue from the standpoint of a motivated agent implies the kind of purposive choice and deliberation that goes into the construction of moral character, a developmental advance in Aristotle’s view. Roughly speaking, the distinction between the social actor and the motivated agent is that between Aristotelian habit and character. In describing wisdom and the contemplative life of the most fully rational human, Aristotle also hints at a theory of virtue as vocation, suggesting something akin to how virtue may be construed as a quality of an autobiographical author’s overall life narrative.
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