Virtue ethics, virtue posting – jerrycat – Jan 11

the purpose of this thread is two-fold: first, there seems to be an interest among some posters in understanding virtue ethics; second, i am interested in virtue ethics myself and hope to learn something by putting this thread together. (i often find that writing on a topic can help me understand where my knowledge is deficient.)

i think it’s worth revealing my sources at the beginning, rather than at the end. this will encourage people to read up on VE themselves, and come back to this thread to fill in the gaps in this post or comment on errors in my reading. most of these readings are partially available online, and some are available in full. if you don’t care much, skip ahead.

“From Morality to Virtue” by Michael Slote. as a writer, slote can be a bit dry, but his approach to VE is broad and is useful for understanding why VE shows so much promise as a project in ethics. to read this, a huge chunk of it is available from amazon as a free sample; download a kindle app for your computer or phone to get ahold of it.
“On Virtue Ethics” by Rosalind Hursthouse. in contrast to slote, hursthouse’s writing is energetic and passionate. the chunk available from amazon is good in that she explains why VE shows promise, AND she approaches one of the more popular objections to VE.
“Modern Moral Philosophy” by G.E.M. Anscombe. this is essential for understanding modern virtue ethics, since it is largely responsible for the resurgence in aristotelian ethics. it is also available in full online. like hursthouse, anscombe is relentless and insightful, and ruthless with her opponents. this is an especially important read for understanding a great deal of the next book
“After Virtue” by Alisdair MacIntyre. the first part of a trilogy on virtue ethics by macintyre is scathing in its criticism of modern moral philosophy, drawing mainly on anscombe’s linguistic and historical analysis. his positive accounts of virtue and moral tradition are a bit lacking, but the criticism of english ethics and partial endorsement of nietzsche’s criticisms more than make up for the rest of the book, and can be read more or less independently of the rest of his work. as far as i know, this is not available in e-book format.
Peter Geach also wrote a lot about the virtues (especially the unity of the virtues), but his meta-ethics might look bad if you follow anscombe and macintyre in their criticism of linguistic approaches to terms like “the good”.
also the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy has a perfectly good article on virtue ethics

now for the actual meat of this post:

let’s start with a negative reason to believe virtue ethics: by ruling out the competing theories. if anscombe and macintyre are to be believed, modern moral theories, by trying to make sense of terms like “ought”, “duty”, and so on, commit themselves to trying to understand meaningless terms. it’s not that people use the words as vacuous rhetorical tools to manipulate behavior (although that is probably often the case): it’s that the terms are devoid of any content whatsoever. so many modern theories doom themselves from the get-go, by trying to analyze terms with no clear meaning.

macintyre’s thought experiment is helpful here. imagine a world where science is erased from the public discourse entirely, maybe by nuclear war or action by a political body. parts of universities dedicated to science are razed and the scientists killed, and any bit of scientific knowledge is destroyed. centuries later, science is revived, but in severely fragmented form, having been culled from the scraps of textbooks (and perhaps incomplete oral traditions) that survived. “science” classes teach newton’s theory of gravity by rote without understanding what gravity is, high-minded intellectuals talk about atoms without knowing what atoms do, and so on for a handful of other scientific theories. the talk about science is devoid of content, and nobody really knows what they are talking about.

this is exactly the state of modern ethics: analyses of deontic terms and theories about “the good” are essentially hot air. a choice between deontology or utilitarianism is totally arbitrary, and the lack of any conclusive arguments for choosing between the two is a result of the theories’ use of terms without meaning. modern ethicists are using a fragmented vocabulary in the same way the latter-day “scientists” are using empty scientific language. and this is why anscombe and macintyre look backwards towards aristotle, who provides a nearly complete theory of ethics without employing any of the messy language that we use today. anscombe and macintyre both provide theories for how ethics got to be in such a sorry state, but the theories are more or less the same: centuries of distorted translations from greek to latin and then filtered through christianity turned the language of ethics inside out.

another reason to reject some of the modern day approaches to ethics: they endorse the hypothesis that ethics could, in principle, be codified. for these approaches, there is nothing at all strange about the notion that we could, with sufficient reflection, create a technical manual for doing the right thing. but this is doubtful. first, in many disciplines where such textbooks are possible, there are prodigies who master such disciplines without need of much instruction, particularly in math and music. where are the child geniuses for ethics? a couple millenia of study ought to have produced at least a few, but here we are with no such kids either living or dead. VE proposes that moral wisdom, coming from years of experience and the exercise of the virtues, is what produces virtuous people, as opposed to the dogmatic following of a textbook on right action.

so all that gives you a good reason (i believe) to look towards VE as a viable candidate for resolving the issues in modern ethics. it is often said that virtue ethics gives us an agent-based ethics, rather than the action-based ethics of kant and consequentialists. (just look at the title of a michael slote paper: “agent-based virtue ethics”. there you have it.) it is this slogan that immediately raises one of the popular objections to VE, that it is not at all helpful for determining our actions, especially in the cases of difficult dilemmas.

here is hursthouse’s formulation of the objection:


If virtue ethics is ‘agent-centered rather than act-centered’, concerned with ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than ‘What sort of actions should I do?’ (with ‘Being rather than Doing’), if it concentrates on the good or virtuous agent rather than on right action and on what anyone, virtuous or not, has an obligation to do; how can it be a genuine rival to utilitarianism and deontology? Surely ethical theories are supposed to tell us about right action, i.e. about what sorts of act we should do. Utilitarianism and deontology certainly do that; if virtue ethics does not, it cannot be a genuine rival to them.

hursthouse goes on to show how VE can provide action guidance, by comparing it to how kantians and utilitarians purport to give guidance. (i think that slote might believe that VE can be action guiding by making deontic terms derivative from basic virtue terms. kantian ethics could then be seen as a derived complement to the more fundamental framework of virtue.)

first, let’s ask: how helpful in action guidance are utilitarianism and deontology, really? let’s look at hursthouse’s first general premises for either theory:
Utilitarianism: (1) An action is right iff it promotes the best consequences.
Deontology: (1) An action is right iff it is in accordance with a correct moral rule or principle.

now let’s look at the first general premise of a virtue theory:
VE: (1) An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.
this draws ‘irritable laughter and scorn’ from kantian/utilitarian critics, who charge that this account is circular. ‘how do you know who the virtuous agents are?’ they might say. hursthouse replies: the first premises of utilitarian or kantian theories are just as vacuous. all three theories require further supplementation by a second premise; without a second premise, none of the theories are helpful in guiding action. the only reason we don’t think of the utilitarian or deontologist premises as circular is because we have two centuries of commentary on deontology and utilitarianism to draw upon. without that history in mind, the premises have as much content as the VE premise. to be action-guiding, the premises above need complementary premises, like “the best consequences are those that maximize happiness”, or “the correct moral principles are based on the categorical imperative”, or in the case of VE, “a virtuous agent acts according to the virtues, which are…[enter your preferred list of virtues here]”

i would have liked to put together a more complete OP (specifically a part that picks out what makes something a virtue, and a bit about slote’s criticism of common sense morality’s “self-regarding/other-regarding” asymmetry) but i think this will do for now to get things going