Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics

In 1930 C. D. Broad first proposed to divide ethical theories into two classes, teleological and deontological, thereby introducing a dichotomy that quickly became standard in ethics. Teleological theories were defined as ones that hold that the moral rightness of an action is always determined by its tendency to promote certain consequences deemed intrinsically good; deontological theories, as ones that deny this claim.

Broad’s dichotomy was widely accepted as being exhaustive, but in fact there are two fundamental classes of normative moral judgments that do not fit easily into it. First, it focuses on rightness or obligation, excluding moral judgments concerning what is admirable, good, excellent, or ideal. Second, it concerns only actions and their consequences, saying nothing about moral judgments concerning persons, character, and character traits.

The contemporary movement known as virtue ethics is usually said to have begun in 1958 with Elizabeth Anscombe’s advice to do ethics without the notion of a “moral ought.” Although her own critique of moral-obligation concepts (viz., that they have meaning only within religious frameworks that include the notion of a divine lawgiver) did not gain widespread acceptance among secular ethicists, her constructive proposal to look for moral norms not in duty concepts but within the virtues or traits of character that one needs to flourish as a human being quickly caught on.

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre

Soon thereafter philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, Edmund Pincoffs, and many others began to articulate and defend a third option in normative ethics: one whose chief concern was not a theory of morally right action but rather those traits of character that define the morally good or admirable person.

Phrases such as “revival of ” or “return to” often precede mention of virtue ethics in contemporary discussions, and it is generally true that questions about the virtues occupy a much more prominent place in ancient and medieval moral philosophy than in moral theories developed since the Enlightenment.

But it is important to note that the conscious awareness of virtue ethics as a distinct way of theorizing about ethics arose from within contemporary Anglo American ethical theory. Virtue ethics took root as a reaction against the underlying common assumptions of both teleological and deontological ethical theories and has achieved its greatest critical success as a protest against these accepted ways of doing normative ethics.

normative teleological
normative teleological

Accordingly, one can view virtue ethics as having two complementary aspects: a critical program that presents a critique of the prevailing assumptions, methods, and aspirations of normative teleological and deontological moral theories; and a constructive program, in which an alternative virtue-oriented normative moral conception is developed and defended.

The Critical Program

At this first level virtue theorists are not necessarily committed to defending a full-scale alternative to existing ethical theory programs but rather to showing why such approaches are systematically unable to account satisfactorily for moral experience. Major criticisms made by virtue theorists against their opponents include the following.

OVERRELIANCE ON RULE MODELS OF MORAL CHOICE. Utilitarians and Kantians, it is held, both mistakenly view universal and invariable principles and laws as being exhaustive of ethics. But real-life moral exemplars do not simply deduce what to do from a hierarchy of timeless, universal principles and rules. They possess sound judgment skills that enable them to respond appropriately to the nuances of each particular situation in ways that go beyond mere mechanical application of rules.

Critical Program
Critical Program

OVERLY RATIONALISTIC ACCOUNTS OF MORAL AGENCY. Traditional moral theorists, it is held, too often assign a merely negative role in the moral life for desires and emotions. However, morally admirable people are not simply people who do their duty, but people who do so with the right kinds of emotions.

Additionally, though many teleologists and deontologists do acknowledge the importance of motives in ethics, they typically mislocate them in abstractions such as “the greatest happiness principle” or “the moral law” rather than in particular persons and our relationships to them.

FORMALISM. Mainstream teleological and deontological theorists tend to focus exclusively on conceptual analyses of their favored duty-concepts and then on logical arguments based on such analyses. Additionally, they tend to view moral questions as arising only when an individual agent is trying to decide what to do in certain problematic situations.

deontological theorists
deontological theorists

These methodological commitments result in a view of morality that is impoverished and overly restrictive. Virtue theorists, on the other hand, are much more open to drawing connections between morality and other areas of life such as psychology, anthropology, history, art, and culture. Their long-term agent-perspective also enables them to correctly view moral deliberation and choice as involving much more than snapshot decisions.

The Constructive Program

In offering their alternative, virtue theorists face the fundamental task of showing how and why a virtue-oriented conception of ethics is superior to its act- and duty-based competitors. In what ways is moral experience better understood once virtue-concepts become the primary tools of analysis?

Here one may distinguish two general tendencies: Radical virtue ethics attempts to interpret moral experience and judgment without employing duty-concepts at all (or at least by claiming that such concepts are always derivable from more fundamental ones concerning good people—for example, “morally right” acts might be defined simply as those acts performed by moral exemplars);moderate virtue ethics seeks to supplement standard act approaches with an account of the virtues.

ethical theories
ethical theories

The former approach tends to view teleological and deontological ethical theories as totally misguided; the latter sees them merely as incomplete. Major issues confronting constructive virtue ethics programs include the following.

DEFINING MORAL VIRTUE. What counts as a moral virtue and why? Is there any plausible way to distinguish between moral and nonmoral virtues? How exactly do virtues relate to actions, reasons, principles, rules, desires, emotions? Are virtues beneficial to their possessors, and, if so, are they too self-centered to count as moral traits?

JUSTIFYING THE VIRTUES. How can we establish the validity of those character traits defined as moral virtues, once the option of appealing to the value of the acts that the virtues tend to encourage is ruled out? Traditionally, moral virtues have been defined as traits that human beings need in order to live well or flourish.

moral virtues
moral virtues

But does the idea of flourishing provide solid enough ground on which to base the moral virtues? Is it still possible to speak accurately of a single human function, or is human life more variously textured than the classical picture allows? How and why is evidence of flourishing necessarily evidence of moral virtuousness?

On the other hand, if one declines to issue pronouncements about “the human telos” and instead opts for a softer, more pluralistic functionalism that seeks to define virtues in terms of different kinds of human purposes or practices, can one still arrive at a substantive notion of the virtues that holds that they are more than local cultural products?

APPLYING THE VIRTUES. How do the virtues relate to one another in real life? Is there anything to the ancient “unity of virtues” thesis (which, on the Aristotelian model, views phronesis or practical wisdom as generating and uniting all of the moral virtues), or does it make sense to hold that a person might possess one moral virtue such as courage and nevertheless lack others?

practical guidance
practical guidance

How many different moral virtues are there? Are some more fundamental than others? Can they be ranked in order of importance? Do virtues ever conflict with one another? What kinds of specific practical guidance do we get from the virtues, especially in cases where they appear to conflict with one another (e.g., honesty vs. kindness, love vs. fidelity)?

It should come as no surprise that radical virtue-ethics approaches have attracted far fewer followers than more moderate versions and that the critical program has had a much stronger influence on contemporary ethical theory than has the constructive program.

Those who turn to late-twentieth-century work in virtue ethics in hopes of finding greater consensus on either theoretical or normative issues than exists among ethical theorists elsewhere are bound to be disappointed.

questions of character
questions of character

Still, it is no small sign of virtue ethics’s success that contemporary ethical theorists of all persuasions are addressing questions of character, agency, and motivation as never before—and that there now exist greater realism and humility among contemporary philosophers concerning how ethical theory should proceed and what it might reasonably accomplish.
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