Is it that only individuals who are able to spontaneously act virtuously be deemed to be considered virtuous?

"Spontaneous" meaning here without premeditation or external stimulus.

This is maybe indirectly linked to the romantic emphasis on "spontaneity" (i.e. Rousseau's romantic child, the spontaneity of the feelings, the spontaneity of creativity via improvisation and automatic writing).

And also maybe to the "Kantian argument that people who do what morality requires but out of self interest (like being charitable because they feel good about it) are not acting morally". (credits to Armand in the comments for this line).

[It belongs to a series of questions which tackle the relation of idealism-romanticism (1/ naturality, 2/ the noble soul, 3/ spontaneity) with ethics. Naturality, the noble soul and spontaneity are very different things, so each issue must be investigated separately.]

  • i met a ch'an master who talked about happiness without support. it might well be that he meant spontaenous virtue rather than blissful non-attachment
    – user67675
    Oct 18, 2023 at 5:01
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    @prof_post To be honest, I don't really know exactly where these ideas come from (to be virtuous is to be virtous with external assistance: naturally, spontaneously and "ideally"); maybe it is transmitted in very heterogeneous sources, although some philosophical schools (that I cite since you made the suggestion) may have stress this idea more than others. For instance I recall a line in a rap battle which said "expose somebody to stress and you will know his true nature"
    – Starckman
    Oct 18, 2023 at 5:34
  • But certainly I grasp something when I link this idea with the idealistic/spiritual vs. utilitarian/material debate. Which is a centuries-long universal debate, not at all limited to the Western 18th and 19th artistic and philosophical world, explaining the very heterogeneous sources for this idea concerning morality
    – Starckman
    Oct 18, 2023 at 5:37
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    What if you have a form of decision paralysis where you can only act with premeditation? The need for deliberation doesn't seem to preclude virtue, although a lack of spontaneous virtue may be an indication of a lack of virtue. "like being charitable because they feel good about it" - spoiler alert, but everyone does that (well, it's either that, or you just mindlessly act without any reflection on the consequences of your actions, which certainly doesn't sound very virtuous, even if those actions are "good").
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 18, 2023 at 8:18
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    No, IMHO someone who makes a conscious decision to act virtuously despite their human nature is more virtuous than someone who does so unthinkingly according to their nature. They are making an active choice to be virtuous. Note this isn't necessarily out of self-interest, you can chose to make yourself a "good" person simply because that is what you feel to be "the right thing". Oct 18, 2023 at 15:50

2 Answers 2


Whether someone is considered virtuous is a judgement, and the judgement may vary from individual to individual and from society to to society, so it's not possible to answer your question in an absolute sense (IMHO). However, I would make the following points:

The idea of making virtue dependent on spontaneity seems to ignore the fact that many of the decisions we take in life are complex, requiring different options and impacts to be anticipated and weighed through lengthy deliberation, which would put them outside the realm of virtue if spontaneity were a prerequisite for it.

While spontaneity might be considered an important attribute by certain philosophical groups, you need to reflect on what it means for a child, say, to have spontaneous impulses. The old nature nurture question arises here- is a spontaneous tendency to act virtuously an innate attribute, or does it reflect some degree of social conditioning? Do children refrain from doing certain things because they have in mind, consciously or subconsciously, the strictures of their parents? If so, how does that differ from any other sort of self-reflection in the case of moral decision making?

For both the reasons I have mention, my personal view is that spontaneity is not an essential pre-requisite for acting virtuously.

  • "virtue" means simply "behaviour showing high moral standards." I think the idea of virtue is universal. Anyway, my question would not concern societies where this idea does not exist. And it does not presuppose which (non-universal) traits make someone be judged virtuous.
    – Starckman
    Oct 18, 2023 at 7:08
  • "The idea of making virtue dependent on spontaneity seems to ignore the fact that many of the decisions we take in life are complex", well, romantics contend that spontaneity and authenticity are traits important for virtue, for instance!
    – Starckman
    Oct 18, 2023 at 7:09
  • @Starckman I agree. That's exactly my point. Romantics can deem spontaneity to be essential. Non-romantics might think otherwise. Oct 18, 2023 at 7:24
  • Yes other people might think otherwise, that's why there is a question here. I appreciate your clarifications here (upvoted), but I don't really see what is the issue you would like to point to
    – Starckman
    Oct 18, 2023 at 7:27
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    @Starckman I can imagine. My infant school was like one the programmes on TV about the world's most brutal prisons. and it wasn't just the kids- the nuns were as bad! Oct 18, 2023 at 9:47

No. Acting "virtuously" presupposes you know what you do and you have decided to act.

Whether the person is capable of spontaneous reactions is irrelevant from an ethical point of view.

  • I'm not sure why this answer was down-voted, it seems reasonable to me. The reasons given in the OP seem to be a matter of aesthetics rather than ethics. From an ethical perspective I don't see what difference it makes whether it is spontaneous or not. The ethics depend on the intention and the action AFAICS. Oct 18, 2023 at 16:08

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