Understanding Virtue Ethics
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Understanding Virtue Ethics

Stan van Hooft

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Understanding Virtue Ethics

Stan van Hooft

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More and more philosophers have advocated varieties of virtue-based ethics that challenge moral theory traditionally founded on moral obligation and the delineation of what is right or wrong in given situations. Virtue ethics, which focuses upon the character of moral agents more than on the moral status of their actions or the consequences of those actions, has become one of the most important and stimulating areas of contemporary ethical theory. "Understanding Virtue Ethics" is an accessible and lively introduction to the subject. It provides a broad overview of the history of virtue ethics from Aristotle to Nietzsche as well as examining the ideas of such contemporary writers as Ricoeur and Levinas. Major themes dealt with by moral theory are examined and how a virtue ethics approach to them differs from those of other traditions is explored. Practical problems of moral complexity such as abortion, euthanasia, and integrity in politics, and how they might be approached from a virtue perspective are considered. The charges of relativism and egoism that are often mounted against virtue ethics are rebutted and virtues that are especially relevant to contemporary life, namely, courage, taking responsibility, and reverence are examined in depth. Finally, the author argues that virtue ethics is highly relevant to our understanding of the moral dimensions of professional roles.

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Éditeur
Routledge
Année
2014
ISBN
9781317494027

1 Distinguishing virtue ethics from the ethics of duty

DOI: 10.4324/9781315712130-1
Most philosophical discussions of ethics and morality in the past several hundred years have focused on duty. As a result, the current renewal of interest in virtue ethics has been articulated by way of drawing contrasts between the ethics of duty and virtue ethics. Indeed, much of the contemporary understanding of virtue ethics has been developed by criticizing the ethics of duty. I shall follow this pattern by building my discussion in this chapter around the table of distinctions in Table 1. (And I shall explicate the technical terms in Table 1 in the text that follows.)
Table 1 Some distinctions between the ethics of duty and virtue ethics
Theme The ethics of duty Virtue ethics
What morality is about
  1. Defines the moral sphere
  2. Assumes the centrality of altruism
  3. Asks “What should I do?”
Extends beyond the moral sphereAccepts that the self is ethically importantAsks “What should I be?” or “How should I live?”
Moral terminology
  1. Deontic
  2. Focus on action
  3. “Thin” concepts
  4. Goodness defined in term s of Tightness
AretaicFocus on character“Thick” conceptsGoodness defined as human excellence
The nature of norms
  1. “Practical necessity”seen as obligation and obedience
  2. Absolute, leading to moral dilemmas
  3. Based on general principles
  4. Justified by reason
  5. Justice perspective
  6. Impartial
  7. Reasons externalism
  8. Moral realism
“Practical necessity” seen as expression of character and response to valuesVarying in stringency, reguiring judgementResponsive to particular considerationsInfluenced by emotionCaring perspectivePartialReasons internalismSocial construction of ethics
The basis of norms
  1. Based on metaphysics or a priori reason
  2. Foundationalism
  3. Universal
Intuitions grounded in community traditionsHermeneuticsCulture-relative
Moral psychology
  1. Dualism_ goodness inheres in the will or the soul
  2. Assumes the lucidity of consciousness to ground voluntariness.
  3. Persons are “social atoms”
Holism_ virtue inheres in the whole personAccepts the opacity of consciousness. Decisions are often obscure to the agent.Human beings are interdependent and social
The nature of moral Judgements about others
  1. Agent-neutra
  2. Supererogatory actions are difficult to understand
Agent-relativeSupererogatory actions seen as virtuous
As I elucidate Table 1 it needs to be remembered that I am not in a position to fully explicate the points in the column headed “The ethics of duty”. This phrase covers a number of different moral theories and each of them has been widely discussed and elaborated in a variety of ways. I cannot hope to do justice to all the complexities and nuances that moral theorists have developed over hundreds of years. I shall need to assume that the reader has a sufficiently broad familiarity with these traditions to allow me not to explicate them more fully. Moreover, there are many proponents of the ethics of duty who argue that the criticisms that virtue ethicists have made can be answered and that the characterizations of duty ethics that I list below do not apply to their particular enunciations of that tradition. They could well accuse me of offering a caricature of their position. It would be beyond the scope of this book to detail all of these discussions. Another book in this series, Understanding Ethical Theory, would be a good place to begin to explore these many issues. As for the column headed “Virtue ethics”, what I say in this chapter will be of a preliminary nature and much of it will be explained further, and argued for, in the chapters that follow. In this sense, the present exposition sets the agenda for the rest of the book.

What morality is about

I

Whereas duty ethics defines the scope of morality, virtue ethics extends beyond the sphere of the moral. Morality urges us to avoid such wrongful activities as cheating, lying, theft, adultery and murder. More positively, moral injunctions deal with such issues as respecting others (rather than exploiting them by cheating or misleading them), respecting property rights, honouring sexual relations and acknowledging the sanctity of life. These are the core issues with which morality universally concerns itself. The principles on these matters that reasonable people place before themselves or inherit from their moral and religious traditions will be definitive of what morality is. Although it may not always be easy to distinguish a moral issue from a non-moral one, the core concepts of morality will be clear enough and will be covered by norms with which most people will be familiar. They are mostly concerned with how we relate to other people and to their property, life and liberties. These moral issues define the range of concerns of an ethics of duty.
In contrast, the discourse of virtue ethics ranges much more widely than this relatively delimited moral sphere. Using the language of virtue ethics, a person might be praised for being honest, courageous, generous, punctual, amiable or courteous. But the last three of these are not moral qualities in themselves. They are certainly qualities that we admire in people, they may even be useful qualities, but we do not usually condemn someone as immoral who does not display them. Unless there is great harm caused by it, we do not usually think of someone’s being late for an appointment as a moral failure. In this way, virtue ethics extends beyond the sphere of the moral – the sphere of those other-regarding actions that are either obligatory, forbidden or morally permitted – to include admirable qualities that do not have specifically moral significance and that are not commanded by the moral law.

II

Much of duty ethics focuses on our obligations towards others. The assumption that most duty ethicists make is that the point of morality is to order our relationships with others and with society. They would argue that morality has to do with our obligations to other people rather than with our concern for ourselves or our own interests. For such theorists the latter concerns come under the heading of “prudence”, whereas morality is the normative structure that we give to our altruism. It is wrong to lie, steal and murder because of the harms that this does to others, and it is obligatory to help others and to adhere to the norms of justice because of the benefit that this will bring to others. Although some moral theorists do speak of duties that we have to ourselves – for example, the duty to develop our talents – this is seen by many theorists to be a problematic category of duties unless they can be shown to have value for people other than the individual in question.
In contrast, virtue ethics embraces the self of the agent among its concerns. A virtue ethicist does not need to explain why it is virtuous to develop our talents by showing that doing so would be of benefit to others, for example. We admire people who strive for excellence for its own sake whether or not their doing so benefits others. The achievements of great artists and sports heroes are admired and described with such virtue terms as “perseverance”, “tenacity” and “courage” even though they are not of direct moral significance by being of readily identifiable benefit to other people. Indeed, it has been suggested that the point of being virtuous is not so much that it helps us fulfil our moral obligations towards others – although they may indeed have this benefit – but to ensure that we ourselves flourish in a variety of ways. To flourish in this context means more than just to succeed in our projects and to fulfil our aspirations. It also means to live up to the standards of excellence that we set ourselves and that our communities or societies hold out to us. It is to be at peace with ourselves and to be in harmony with our communities. It is to be integrated in the sense of avoiding inner conflict between our feelings, desires and ways of being. It is to have a grasp on what our lives are about and what is important to us and to those for whom we care. I shall elaborate on these ideals of human excellence in later chapters. For the moment the point to note is that the flourishing of the self is among the goals of virtue ethics in a way that the ethics of duty, with its focus upon others, would find uncomfortable. Accordingly, for a virtue ethicist, it will be among the goals of moral theory to describe what human flourishing consists in and how the virtues help us achieve it.

III

The central question for an ethics of duty is: what should I do? When a moral agent, as conceived by an ethics of duty, finds himself in a morally complex situation he will ask himself what it is his duty to do. He will consider what moral norms or principles apply to the situation and seek to apply them. Virtue ethics, in contrast, will consider what sort of person the agent should be and what sort of life they should lead. Although this question is still “practical” in the sense that it addresses what the agent is to do in a given situation, it will not answer this question primarily by consulting principles, norms or policies that apply to such situations in general. Rather, it will seek to answer it by considering the agent’s own character along with other morally salient features of the situation. Virtuous agents will seek to express who they are and to develop themselves as who they are in what they do. If it is a matter of telling the truth when it is difficult to do so, the agent will not consider the action objectively under the general principle that anyone in any situation should tell the truth, but will rather consider what an honest person would do, and she will be motivated to do that to the extent that she wants to be an honest person.
I need to put this point carefully. I would not want to suggest that an honest person tells the truth for the sake of being an honest person. This would be an inappropriately self-centred motivation. We do not act virtuously for the sake of being virtuous. Rather, an honest person tells the truth because she loves the truth. She acknowledges the value of truth. She tells the truth for the sake of the truth. It is her love of the truth – or her respect for the truth if “love” is too emotional a term – that moves her to do the more difficult and virtuous thing, rather than her desire to be honest. She does express her desire to be honest in telling the truth and she does develop herself as an honest person in doing so, but her reason or motivation for doing so is that she considers that the truth is important in itself. So the distinction that some virtue ethicists make between the ethics of duty and virtue ethics by saying that the former asks “What should I do?” and the latter asks “What should I be?” can be somewhat misleading. In a difficult practical situation one is always led to ask what one should do. It is just that the virtuous person expresses who they are when they act and, in acting, they develop who they are. An honest person expresses and develops herself as honest when she acts for the sake of the truth. One might imagine that a person who is not fully formed in virtue and who is trying to become virtuous might decide to tell the truth so that they will become honest, but a relatively mature virtuous person simply loves the truth and acts for the sake of it.

Moral terminology

I

An ethics of duty uses “deontic” terms (from the ancient Greek term meaning “necessity”) such as “right”, “wrong”, “obligatory” or “forbidden”. These terms refer to what it is “necessary” to do, what we “must” do, or what we “have to” do. They describe our obligations and duties. Moreover, they are used to render a summary judgement, all things considered, on the moral status of an action or a type of action. Accordingly, the ethics of duty is most concerned with the rightness or wrongness of actions, both in the individual case where it asks whether an action that an agent is considering performing or has performed in the past is right or wrong, and in the case of general norms where it asks whether such actions as procuring abortions or such practices as the factory farming of animals are right or wrong. In contrast, virtue ethics uses “aretaic” terms (from the Greek term meaning “virtue” or “excellence”) such as “virtuous”, “good”, “admirable” and, more specifically, “honest”, “courageous” or “modest”. These terms also render a judgement on actions but, as well, they make reference to the internal state of the agent.

II

Duty ethics is pre-eminently concerned with action whereas virtue ethics focuses somewhat more on the agent. Although it does use aretaic terms to describe actions, virtue ethics is more interested in the moral condition of the agent than in whether her action is right or wrong. It focuses on the agent’s character and on the virtues that make up that character. The agent’s actions are seen as expressions of that character and are therefore not the primary object of attention. Even when a virtue ethicist says that a particular action was courageous, for example, this judgement is primarily about the agent’s state of virtue. Such a judgement does not just say that the action appeared to be courageous, but that the agent was courageous in performing it. Accordingly, the notion of “character” is central to virtue ethics.
This raises the question of what we mean by the term “character”. Compare the psychologist’s term “personality” or the way in which dog-breeders talk of the friendly “nature” that some breeds have. These terms sum up the behaviour of the persons or dogs being referred to. There is nothing to observe other than that behaviour. If the behaviour falls into a consistent pattern it is described as evincing a certain sort of character, personality or nature: a person who smiles a lot and gets on easily with people is said to have an outgoing personality; a dog that is good with small children is said to have a sweet nature; and a person who consistently tells the truth is described as being of honest character. What is being described here would seem to be the behaviour.
However, there does seem to be more here than just a summary description of behaviour taken by itself. As is clear from the dog-breeding case, personalities can be shaped by causes and can have causal effects on behaviour. That a sweet nature can be bred shows that it is genetic. Although we may only know what such a nature is from seeing the behaviour it gives rise to, it does seem to be something definite in the genetic makeup of the dog: something that has behavioural effects. Perhaps what psychologists refer to as “personality” is also like this. Although there will be some aspects of it that are acquired through experience, there may also be a genetic element. You may be naturally disposed to being cheerful, and if you have many positive experiences during your life this will reinforce your cheery personality, whereas if you have many disappointments you might lose that natural disposition. So there does seem to be something real within you, whether it is genetic or the result of experience, which comes to expression in your behaviour. It may not be possible to identify it apart from the behaviour that expresses it, but it will be something that structures your behavioural repertoire and provides a motivational basis for your actions. I would suggest that the concept of “character” operates in much the same way. Although it is not an entity or aspect of us that we can identify in its own right, it makes sense to think of it as more than just a summary of what we characteristically do. It is created by our upbringing and by our own efforts at self-formation, perhaps on the basis of natural predispositions that we acquire genetically, and it comes to expression in much of what we do. It takes a greater effort to act in a way that is contrary to our character than to act in a way that is consistent with it. And this shows that it is something real with causal influences on our lives. Perhaps we should consider it to be somewhat like a skill at playing a musical instrument: a genetically enabled disposition that we acquire by habit or training and by a commitment to its values.

III

Duty ethics is said to make use of “thin” concepts, whereas virtue ethics uses “thick” concepts. This is an implication of saying that duty ethics uses deontic terms and is primarily concerned with whether an action is right or wrong. These are “thin” concepts because they do not offer us much in the way of a description of the action. We do not learn anything about an action when we describe it as “wrong” except that it is morally forbidden. To say of murder that it is wrong is to give no clue as to what it is about an act of murder that makes it wrong or what it is about the agent that attracts our moral condemnation. Indeed, it might even be a tautology that tells us nothing. After all a “murder” is defined as a wrongful killing of a human being. So to say that murder is wrong is to say something that is true by definition. It gives us no substantive information at all. To describe an action as “courageous” or “generous”, on the other hand, is to convey considerably more information. In the first case it suggests that the situation in which the action was performed was one of danger to the agent. It suggests that the agent acted with fortitude and commitment in the face of that danger. It suggests that such fortitude and commitment are excellent ways of being a human being. In this way, because a lot of meaning is conveyed in it, the word “courageous” is deemed to be a “thick” concept. Virtue terms are generally thick in this way.

IV

For the ethics of duty, moral goodness is defined in relation to what is demanded by the moral law or by moral principles and rules. For human beings to be good is simply for them to act rightly for the right reasons. But this is a thin conception of goodness. It defines goodness as little more than avoiding wrongdoing. What virtue ethics places before us, on the other hand, are ideals of goodness for human beings. It does not ask what would be morally r...

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