Phronesis as Ethical Expertise:

Naturalism of Second Nature and the Unity of Virtue



Whether human nature can (or should) orient action by providing the objective standard by which one measures morality, and by setting the constraints on what counts as virtuous, is a much-debated issue within virtue ethics, thanks to the seminal works of Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams, John McDowell, Julia Annas, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Michael Thompson. This discussion, however, is all but settled, since the advocates of a strict naturalism keep proposing reductive or eliminative views of moral phenomena, while the defenders of reason as the ultimate source of normativity deny that facts about human nature can pose any relevant constraint on it.

This paper has a twofold aim. On the one hand, we will discuss the much debated question of the source of normativity (which traditionally has nature and practical reason as the two main contenders to this role) and propose a new answer to it. Second, in answering this question, we will present a new account of practical wisdom, which conceives of the ethical virtues as ultimately unified in the chief virtue of phronesis, understood as ethical expertise. To do so, we will first criticize the main current view of phronesis and its bearer (the phronimos), then offer another view of the nature of phronesis and of its relation to the other ethical virtues. Our proposal should not be intended as an interpretation of Aristotle’s own view; rather, it should be seen as a broadly Aristotelian theoretical proposal, which we believe can satisfyingly address most of the problems that afflict the more traditional accounts of practical wisdom.

In section 2 of this paper, after criticizing first-nature naturalistic views of moral virtue, we take practical reason to be the cornerstone of second-nature naturalistic views; in section 3, we will outline criticisms to which, in our view, the traditional views of phronesis are ill-suited to respond, and, in section 4, we will outline our view of phronesis as ethical expertise – a view which in our view is immune to the above-mentioned criticisms – by spelling out the three main tenets of phronesis as ethical expertise: a conceptual thesis, an epistemic thesis, and the educational implications of the two. Finally, we will support our proposal with some empirical evidence taken from cognitive science.

Click on the citation to read the article:

De Caro, M., Vaccarezza, M. S., & Niccoli, A. (2018). Phronesis as ethical expertise: Naturalism of second nature and the unity of virtue. The Journal of Value Inquiry52(3), 287-305.