Morality and the Human Condition, #12–Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, & Contemporary Virtue Ethics.
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2 Millian Utilitarianism
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains sections V.1.2 and V.1.3.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
Here are four critical worries about Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
First, there’s a worry about the crucial role of luck in the constitution of happiness that amounts to challenging the very idea that happiness is the highest good: how could the highest good be so open to contingency?
Second, there’s a worry about the real possibility of very shallow or even extremely wicked happiness: can’t there be happy slave-owners, happy murderers, and happy Nazis?
If this is true, then happiness can come apart from moral goodness and rightness.
Third, there’s a worry about the rational-choice-based dimension of moral virtue, as opposed to its character-based dimension: as the Stoics pointed out, and as Kant later points out, it seems easily and really possible to choose and/or do the good and right thing, even if either you’re generally unhappy or that particular choice or act makes you unhappy.
Moreover, considering the extent to which choosing and/or doing the good and right thing typically involves resisting temptation and overcoming egoism or self-interest, it’s also arguable that choosing and/or doing the right thing typically makes you unhappy.
And fourth, there’s a worry about Aristotle’s analysis of moral responsibility: there are really possible cases in which someone literally cannot do otherwise — hence they’re involuntary actions — and yet they’re still morally responsible.
E.g., suppose that, unbeknownst to you, in a slight variant on the case of The Really Fat Man that we looked at section II.3 above, even though you’ve already decided to push the really fat man off the bridge, there’s also a fanatical Utilitarian behind you who really, really wants the really fat man pushed off the bridge in order to kill one and save five, so that if he sees the slightest hesitation on your part, then he’s going to push you so that you do push the really fat man off the bridge, no matter what.
Then in that case — let’s call it The Fanatical Utilitarian — you literally cannot do otherwise than push the really fat man off the bridge, hence you lack the ability to do otherwise here, and yet you’re still morally responsible.[i]
So, as against Aristotle, the voluntary is not a necessary condition of moral responsibility.
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
According to contemporary virtue ethics, a virtue is a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that it’s good for a person to have.
This is, on the whole, the same as Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
But there are two non-trivial differences between Aristotle’s virtue ethics and contemporary virtue ethics that are worth pointing up.
First, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is explicitly a version of eudaimonism, i.e., the morality of happiness, but contemporary virtue ethics is not necessarily a morality of happiness.
Contemporary virtue ethics focuses primarily on morally good character or morally good personality, not on happiness.
Happiness may quite commonly or even naturally flow from a morally good character or personality, but it need not necessarily do so.
Second, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is somewhat unclear about the role of rational principles in choice, whereas contemporary virtue ethics is explicitly committed to what is sometimes called moral particularism, which is the rejection of both the need for and also the intelligibility of general moral principles, a view that is sometimes called moral generalism.[ii]
More specifically, according to moral particularism, there are only good or bad moral judgments in particular historical contexts and particular social communities, not good or bad general moral principles abstracted from contexts or communities.
So if contemporary virtue ethics is true, then moral generalism is false.
It’s important to note in this connection that contemporary virtue ethics, via its moral particularism, heavily relies on the idea that moral communities, and their commonly-held or standing moral beliefs, are the ultimate sources of the justification of the good and bad moral judgments we make in particular historical contexts.
So contemporary virtue ethics is also a version of moral communitarianism.
It’s also important to note that any version of moral generalism that also asserts the existence of absolutely universal objective moral principles — so that it’s, as it were, moral generalism with an attitude — is an absolutist moral generalism.
Kant’s ethics and contemporary Kantian ethics, e.g., are both committed to absolutist moral generalism.
So if contemporary virtue ethics is true, then Kant’s ethics and Kantian ethics are both false.
Contemporary virtue ethics thus provides a moral framework or moral theory based on these three basic ideas:
(i) that the highest human good is a morally good character or personality,
(ii) that therefore we ought to be morally virtuous, and
(iii) that moral virtue is expressed or shown by a person’s making good moral judgments against the necessary backdrop of a particular social community in a particular historical context.
Here are three prima facie philosophical advantages of contemporary virtue ethics, in comparison with other contemporary ethical frameworks or theories.
First, contemporary virtue ethics provides a prima facie plausible account of moral motivation, by appealing to historically context-sensitive, social community-grounded moral reasons.
Second, contemporary virtue ethics captures commonplace prima facie doubts about the very idea of ahistorical, impartial, impersonal, and unsocialized moral frameworks or theories, and (absolutely) general moral principles.
Third, contemporary virtue ethics is prima facie fully compatible with, and indeed supports, feminist ethics, especially if it is formulated as an ethics of care.[iii]
But here are four critical worries about contemporary virtue ethics.
First, there’s what James Rachels aptly calls “the problem of incompleteness.”[iv]
This problem emerges when we ask: why are virtuous choices and actions morally good and right?
If you answer, “because that’s just what virtuous people do,” then you’ve begged the question.
So there must be a theory of good/bad and right/wrong that’s rationally justified independently of the fact of moral virtue itself.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any non-question-begging answer to the question of why virtuous choices and actions are morally good and right, that’s not ultimately an appeal to either (e.g., Utilitarian) consequentialism and its benefits-based reasoning or (e.g., Kantian) non-consequentialism and its intrinsic-value based reasoning.
Therefore, moral virtue is at best a derivative and secondary moral fact, not a primitive and primary moral fact.
Second, there’s what I’ll call the too few virtues problem.
This problem emerges when we notice that there are many more particular historical contexts in which the morality of choices or intentions and acts is a burning issue, than there are specific moral virtues to deal with them.
Aristotle and some contemporary virtue ethicists finesse this problem by appealing to practical wisdom, which can project beyond moral virtues somewhat.
But if practical wisdom is doing all the basic moral work, then virtue ethics is primarily a rationality-based moral theory, not primarily a virtue-based theory.
Third, there’s what I’ll call the unity of the virtues problem.
This problem emerges when we ask: “is it possible to have one moral virtue without having all of them?”
Virtue ethics is committed to a holistic thesis of the unity of the virtues: to have one moral virtue is to have all of them, that is, it is to have the entire package of moral virtues.
But on the contrary, it seems really possible for someone to be morally virtuous in some respects, but not in others, and thus not be all-around morally virtuous.
So, e.g., it seems really possible that a generous or tolerant person might also be a coward.
If this is so, then even having lots of moral virtues doesn’t entail that you’re an all-around morally virtuous person, and something other than merely possessing some virtues — e.g., practical wisdom — must account for the unity of the virtues.
But again, if practical wisdom is doing all the basic moral work, then again virtue ethics is primarily a rationality-based moral theory, not primarily a virtue-based theory.
Fourth, finally, and most problematically of all, there’s what I’ll call the problem of bad and immoral virtues.
This problem emerges when we notice that virtues are supposed to be shared across humanity.
But according to contemporary virtue ethics, every moral virtue must include an essential reference to a particular social community in a particular historical context.
But because this is true, it seems really possible that a particular social community can be generally wicked — e.g., a slave-owning culture, like Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens, or 17th century America — and yet individual people in that particular social community in that particular historical context would still count as morally virtuous internally and relatively to that community and that context.
Consider, e.g., Plato and Aristotle; or Washington and Jefferson.
More specifically, is it really possible to be a morally virtuous slave owner, internally and relatively to that person’s particular social community in that particular historical context?
Or even more forcefully put, is there any rational doubt whatsoever that Washington and Jefferson were indeed both morally virtuous slave-owners in 17th century America?
If so, then moral virtue doesn’t entail moral goodness or rightness, and therefore the fact of moral virtue cannot be the foundation of morality.
[i] In the massive professional-academic-philosophy literature on moral responsibility, such cases are known as “Frankfurt-style counterexamples,” named after Harry Frankfurt’s highly influential essay, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” in H. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 1–10. Actually, Frankfurt’s own example is more science-fictional than The Fanatical Utilitarian, and involves a mad scientist who can manipulate your brain so that you end up doing his bidding, no matter what you’ve already chosen — but the basic point is the same.
[ii] See also R. Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics (3rd edn., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 16.
[iii] See, e.g., J. Rachels and S. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (7th edn., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), ch. 11; and Shafer-Landau, The Fundamental of Ethics, ch. 18.
[iv] Rachels and Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 170–171.
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