Moral philosophy has been recently shifting its attention to a classical view on ethics – virtue ethics. Kant, Hume, Mill and others – each on his own way; contributed to the modern ethical concern: what is the right thing to do? On the other hand, Aristotle and his contemporaries were concerned about something else: what makes a man a “good” man?
In the re-emergence of virtue ethics, how to categorize the character trace of curiosity? Stanley Fish raises the debate in this recent post in The New York Times.
The categorization of curiosity as a moral vice or moral virtue seems to lie in the threshold of the ongoing divergences between science and religion. Through religious lenses, curiosity has been always seen as a moral vice: it was out of curiosity that the original sin was committed. And throughout religious writings curiosity is condemned, accused of removing man’s attention away from the teachings of the sacred book. Nonetheless, through scientific lenses, curiosity is the ultimate virtue: it was due to the encouragement of our natural human curiosity that scientists throughout generations made all the revolutionary discoveries and inventions of our time. As the new American Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities James A. Leach said we may even have an inalienable right to curiosity.
Yet it is understandable why the religious conflicts with the scientific when it comes to morally classifying curiosity. When humans have scientific knowledge about the world, they are consequently able to – at least to some extent – control it. This possibility of control over nature poses a threat to the religious view that nature is under the control of God.
Stanley Fish tries a non-religious argument for why curiosity should be considered a vice. He asserts that while being curious, in the era of information, we stop paying attention to fundamental ethical issues involved in our activities. Scientists moved solely by curiosity run the risk of becoming Dr. Frankenstein. In this sense, curiosity would be shifting out attention away not from religious teachings, but from the morality of our actions.
Well, this may be partially true. But to go as far as to say that curiosity is a vice seems like stretching too far the force of the argument…
Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University
(Vol. 1, February 2006)