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Descartes's Virtue Theory

27 July 2013


What is the function of Cartesian virtue within the motivational and cognitive economy of the soul? In this paper I show that Cartesian virtue is a higher-order motivational disposition. Central to the interpretation I defend is Descartes’s view that the will can govern an individual’s attention. An exercise of this capacity, I argue, is a higher-order operation. Because Cartesian virtue is a resolution to focus attention on what reason deems worthy of consideration, it should therefore be understood as a higher-order disposition. To lay the groundwork for this interpretation, I examine Descartes’s theory of motivation. An examination of the sources of Cartesian motivation yields two important points for my reading: (1) that the will is not completely unconstrained in its operations and (2) that there are three sources of motivation: intellectual clarity, the will, and the passions. I show that virtue strengthens the will’s natural disposition toward intellectual clarity, thereby enabling the will to withstand the occasionally harmful sway of the passions. By strengthening the will’s disposition toward clarity, virtue at the same time safeguards the will’s freedom, enables an individual to will what seems best, and, as a result, ensures the individual’s happiness. It carries this out, I contend, insofar as it is a higher-order motivational disposition, a disposition exercised by the person of generosity.


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