by Massimo Pigliucci
[This post is part of an ongoing series on ethics in which Massimo is exploring and trying to clarify his own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why he thinks so. Part I was on meta-ethics; part II on consequentialism; part III on deontology.]
After my meta-ethical introduction to this series we have examined the two leading contender ethical theories of consequentialism and deontology. The third one is, of course, virtue ethics, which originated with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and was recently reintroduced to philosophy beginning with a classic paper by Elisabeth Anscombe in 1958.
The first, and perhaps more fundamental, thing to understand about virtue ethics is that it is concerned with a radically different sort of question from consequentialism and deontology, so much so that perhaps it is misleading to compare the three directly. While much modern moral philosophy regards the question of what is right as defining the field, virtue ethicists are interested in the question of how is one to live. Indeed, the suggestion has been made that Aristotle and most of the ancient Greeks would simply be puzzled by our way of thinking about ethics. Of course what is the best way to live, in the Greek-virtue ethicist sense, is not entirely decoupled from doing what is right and wrong, as the latter stems from the former.
Anscombe and other modern virtue ethicists (principally Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre), point out that one of the major consequences of shifting the question in ethics is that one is no longer forced to seek rigid, universal answers to “what’s the right thing to do?” but can instead appreciate the variety of ethical dilemmas and approach them from a more flexible perspective. Another way to put the difference is that while standard modern ethics is about laws (duties, rights), virtue ethics is about an individual’s character. If the individual has managed to develop a good character she will also tend to do the right thing.
Interestingly, Williams even draws a distinction between morality and ethics (which I have and will continue to use as synonymous, in agreement with most of the literature). For him, morality is about concepts such as duty (for instance in the case of deontology), while ethics is broader and accommodates a role for emotions, such as the special bonds one has with family members or friends. (We have seen that consequentialism in particular has a hard time with this aspect of ethics, and deontology fares only slight better.)
Virtue ethics, of course, derives its name from the prominent role played in it by the idea of virtue. Aristotle actually listed what he thought were the fundamental virtues of an ethical human being, and others have come up with different lists (there is some cross-cultural variation, of course, though less than one might think). The point isn’t really to quibble about which entries should or should not make the list, but to discuss what we might mean by the very concept of a virtuous human being. (Remember, of course, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the very different Christian concept of virtue, which is based on the very un-Greek ideas of humility and meekness.)
A virtue, then, is a moral character trait that we admire in those people who have it. Consider, for instance, courage: according to Aristotle to be courageous is to strike a balance between being rash or foolish and being a coward. Similarly, proper ambition is somewhere in between vanity and meekness (see? Not a Christian concept at all). Or take friendliness: it too manifests itself as being somewhere between obsequiousness and cantankerousness. And so on. The idea, of course, isn’t that there is a calculus of virtue according to which one can arrive at the precise golden mean, but rather that having a virtuous character means to be able to balance common human passions and attitudes in a way that is praiseworthy. If you are not comfortable with fuzzy concepts you will definitely not like virtue ethics.
Character for virtue ethicists is the reflection of an inner state of being, and that state develops and changes throughout one’s lifetime (which is why the Greeks thought that one cannot evaluate the goodness of a person’s life until the very end). Virtue ethics, as mentioned above, makes room for both philosophy and psychology, so there is a recognition that people start out with certain innate tendencies, and that these tendencies may be further shaped in a more or less virtuous direction during early development and then into adulthood. Moreover, there is also recognition for what Thomas Nagel famously called “moral luck”: while we have some control over what we do and the choices we make (especially as adults), much depends on having being born with certain combinations of genes rather than others, on having had particular parents rather than others, one type of education (or any education at all) over others, and so on. Again, if all of this sounds too mushy for you, welcome to what happens when you embrace the real human condition, as opposed to a cartoon version of it.
There are three major streaks of modern virtue ethics: eudaimonism, agent-based accounts, and ethics of care accounts. I focus mostly on the first one (which I find most congenial, and which is more in line with the original Aristotelian insight), but will comment briefly on the other two.
Eudaimonism refers to the Greek term eudaimonia, which loosely translates as happiness, or well being, or flourishing (I prefer the latter). It literally means to possess a good demon. Aristotle began by pointing out that most of what we do is a means to a particular end: we go to college because (among other things) we want a well paying job; we want the latter so that we can make a decent salary; and we want the latter so that we can buy a house, afford a vacation, pay for healthcare and so on. But why do we want all these things to begin with? Because we are pursuing the only thing that is an end in itself, and that thing is eudaimonia, a happy life.
Aristotle, perhaps predictably, thought that the highest form of eudaimonia is achieved through a contemplative life (i.e., ahem, the life of a philosopher...). He arrived at that conclusion not entirely arbitrarily: he asked himself what is the thing that distinguishes human beings from every other species on earth, and he answered: the use of reason. From there the leap to the idea that reasoning — and therefore the contemplative life — is the ultimate state of happiness wasn’t that big after all. (It should be added that plenty of other cultural traditions arrived at similar conclusions starting from very different premises: think of the contemplative life of Buddhist monks, or of Christian hermits. Of course the types of contemplation, its sources and its objectives are different from Aristotle’s.)
Modern virtue ethicists tend to have a more expansive and more pluralist view of eudaimonia, recognizing that there are many paths (though not arbitrarily so) to human flourishing. The crucial point is that none of these goes through bad character: for a virtue ethicist, someone who achieves material gains by acting in an non-virtuous way is literally sick, morally speaking, and cannot possibly achieve eudaimonia, regardless of how many riches he accumulates, or how “happy” he tells you (or himself) he is. (As an analogy, think of a drug addict, his insistence that he is happy when experiencing a high, and your reasonable dismissal of his concept of happiness. He is sick, and part of his sickness is found in his delusion that he is happy.)
Another crucial thing to understand about virtue ethics is that there is no contradiction between seeking virtue for one’s own sake (because it’s the path to eudaimonia) and acting right towards other people: the virtues are other-directed, and the concept embeds the intriguing idea that — contra much philosophical and psychological literature — there is no opposition between seeking one’s own and other people’s good. One way to think of this is that for a utilitarian, for instance, a virtue may be good in that it brings about certain consequences rather than others; for a eudaimonicist virtue is good because it is a constituent of eudaimonia, which is good in itself. (Mull that one over for a minute.)
The second incarnation of modern virtue ethics is known as an agent-based account of virtue (as opposed to the agent-focused account of Aristotle and co.). Michael Slote has developed the most prominent of these accounts, whereby the evaluation of actions depends on the inner life of the agents performing those actions. Think of this as virtue ethics by example: instead of trying to identify virtues and then figure out if someone is a virtuous person, agent-based accounts begin with people whose actions are admirable and try to figure out which virtues make them so.
Lastly, we have the ethics of care approach to virtue ethics, which is rooted in feminist concepts. The basic idea is that concepts like justice and autonomy (the standard concerns of most moral philosophy) are “masculine,” and that it is better to focus on “feminine” concerns such as nurturing, self-sacrifice, etc.
As I said, I’m not particularly sympathetic to either of these last two views. In the first case because I find it rather circular to identify virtues by way of seeking admirable people, and because I find the idea of looking into people’s inner lives somewhat suspicious, even potentially quasi-mystical. In the second case, I simply don’t think that there are inherently masculine or feminine concepts or attitudes, and that both, say, justice and nurturing ought to be part of any discussion of ethics.
There is, naturally, a standard set of objections to virtue ethics, accompanied by a stock of basic replies. Let’s examine them briefly.
To begin with, there is the issue of virtue ethics’ self-centeredness (because it concerns the individual’s eudaimonia), which seems at odds with the very idea of ethics. We have already seen what the virtue ethicist’s response is: the virtues are other-regarding, so that there is no contradiction between the pursuit of self-interest and the requirements of ethics. Indeed, the two are one and the same.
Second, there is the fact that virtue ethics does not provide us with specific guidance for action. While deontologists can invoke, say, Kant’s categorical imperative, and utilitarians appeal to the utility principle, it seems like virtue ethics can accommodate many different ways of acting and being virtuous. Again, however, that is supposed to be one of the major advantages that virtue ethics has according to modern authors like Anscombe. This is sometimes known as the “uncodifiability of ethics” thesis, according to which ethics isn’t the sort of thing where one can apply a simple set of rules and be done with it. Also, virtue ethicists point out that their approach does provide action for guidance: you want to emulate virtuous persons and model your own actions and character after them.
Lastly, we come to the above mentioned problem posed by moral luck. If so many things that lie outside of an agent’s control (genetic lottery, parents, education, socio-economic circumstances, etc.) affect that agent’s character, and hence her chances of pursuing eudaimonia, in what sense can we say the agent is praiseworthy (or not)? The response is that, once again, this is the way things are, and it makes sense for an ethical theory to take into account the actual human condition, not an idealized version of it.
One more note: clearly a potentially problematic aspect of virtue ethics is the very concept of virtue. But this concept shows up in other ethical systems as well, although it plays a different role in different systems. For instance, Kant wrote quite a bit about virtue in works like the Metaphysics of Morals or Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The major difference is that for Kant virtue is a struggle against the emotions, while for virtue ethicists the two are in harmony in the virtuous person. Consequentialists also appeal to virtue, of course not as something valuable in itself, but rather as a means toward achieving good consequences.