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Theoretical Ethics

Virtue Ethics (Not Too) Simplified

Philip Cafaro
Southwest State University

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ABSTRACT: There are two basic types of ethical judgments: deontological judgements that focus on focus on duty and obligation and eudaimonist judgements that focus on human excellence and the nature of the good life. I contend that we must carefully distinguish these two types of judgement and not try to understand one as a special case of the other. Ethical theories may be usefully divided into two main kinds, deontological or eudaimonist, on the basis of whether they take one of the other of these types of judgement as primary. A second important contention, which this paper supports but does not attempt to justify fully, is that neither type of theory trumps the other, nor should we subsume them under some more encompassing ethical synthesis.

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Introduction: Virtue Ethics

There are two basic kinds of ethical judgments. The first have to do with duty and obligation. For example: "Thou shalt not kill, lie, or steal." "You just keep your promises." These judgments often uphold minimal standards of onduct and (partly for that reason) assert or imply a moral ‘ought.’ The second kind of judgment focuses on human excellence and the nature of the good life. These judgments employ as their most general terms "happiness," "excellence," and perhaps "flourishing" (in addition to "the good life"). For example: "Happiness requires activity and not mere passive consumption." "The good life includes pleasure, friendship, intellectual development and physical health." I take these to be the two general types of ethical judgment, and all particular ethical judgments to be examples of these. The main contention of this paper is that we must carefully distinguish these two types of judgments, and not try to understand the one as a special case of the other.

Ethical theories may be usefully divided into two main types, deontological or eudaimonist, on the basis of whether they take one or the other of these kinds of judgments as primary. (1) In the main, ancient ethical theories were eudaimonist in both form and content (in the kinds of judgments and terms they took as primary, and in the questions they spent the most time investigating). Most modern ethical theories have been deontological, again in both form and content. (2) Aristotle’s central question is: What is the good life for a human being? Kant and Mill’s central question is: What are our duties to our fellow human beings? My second main contention, which I cannot fully argue for here, is that neither type of theory trumps the other, nor should we attempt to subsume both types under some higher ethical synthesis.

The resurgence of "virtue ethics" in the past fifteen years has been tied in to a number of disparate projects and positions. (3) These have included rejecting the primacy of meta-ethics and the possibility of a moral calculus, and returning to the careful description of concrete moral experience (as in the work of Martha Nussbaum); developing a communitarian ethics, which limits individual rights where these conflict with the common good (Charles Taylor); questioning the scope and importance of deontological moral claims (Bernard Williams); and turning to an historicist, as opposed to an universalist, moral theorizing (Alasdair MacIntyre). (4) Regardless of their ultimate success, these efforts have reinvigorated debate within ethical philosophy and will ultimately strengthen it. Yet important as this has been, the most important consequence of the turn towards virtue ethics has been to reopen Aristotle’s question — What is the good life, and how can I go about living it? — as a major question in philosophical ethics. In reasserting the importance of the realm of judgments concerning our flourishing, excellence and happiness, virtue ethics reclaims for us this neglected half of our ethical lives for intelligent, philosophical consideration.

If we keep this in mind, it will help us avoid some mistakes. For example, for many writers, the most important difference between a virtue ethics and its Kantian and utilitarian counterparts is that virtue ethics is "agent-centered" rather than "act-centered"; (5) this emphasis has led some to develop virtue ethics primarily as a "character ethics." (6) However, a true eudaimonist ethics does not focus narrowly on character, particularly on character understood as something mental or internal, and separable from its various external manifestations. An eudaimonist ethics judges the people we are and the lives we lead. It critically evaluates lifestyles, careers, roles and achievements (as well as individual actions and character). In the end, a comprehensive account of the good life must consider both character and personal achievement, our selves and our creations. (7)

Again, the term "virtue ethics" can mislead if it is taken to mean an exclusive focus on "the virtues": those enduring character traits such as courage and moderation which foster successful achievement and help make a person a good person. Eudaimonist ethics is concerned with such character traits, and also with their opposing vices or deficiencies. But the virtues are properly defined by reference to a conception of the good, successful, or happy life. This is the more basic consideration (and thus this general approach to ethics is aptly labeled "eudaimonist"). (8) Eudaimonist judgments often refer to other aspects of our lives besides virtues and vices.

Again, many contemporary ethicists specify "the virtues" as stable dispositions to act according to duty. (9) This is in line with modern English usage, as the term ‘virtue’ has taken on a moralistic and internal sense. (10) It is helpful here to remember that the Greek term arete, usually translated by our ‘virtue’ is also often aptly translated by ‘excellence.’ In Greek ethical theory, arete embraced both intellectual and moral excellence; in common Greek usage, it embraced intellectual, moral and physical excellence, the excellence of human beings and their creations and achievements, human and non-human excellence. We may use the word ‘virtue’ as we wish, of course. The important point to remember is that a "virtue ethics" which defines virtues as stable dispositions to act according to duty is essentially deontological in content, if not in form. Such theories are not primarily concerned with human excellence, but with human dutifulness. A true eudaimonist ethical theory, contrarily, is concerned with human excellence and the good life. It does not define the good life as the dutiful life, even if it (falsely) equates the two, or (more plausibly) sees dutifulness as a necessary component of the good life. (11)

The phrase "enlightened self-interest" best defines the scope of a properly conceived eudaimonist ethics. (12)While the specification of such enlightened self-interest has until recently been neglected within academic philosophy, it has continued to occupy the thoughts of intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. In a recent study of the ancient virtue ethics tradition, Julia Annas writes that in our society, we have to turn to popular self-help manuals to find extensive discussion of questions of the best life, self-fulfillment, the proper role of the emotions, personal friendships and commitments, topics which in the ancient world were always treated in a more intellectual way as part of ethics. (13) Along with self-help writers, Annas might have included religious leaders promoting spiritual growth, psychotherapists holding out the hope that we can uncover secrets from our early development that block the way towards happier, more fully integrated adult lives, and many other writers and "service providers." All have more or less explicit understandings of fulfilled or excellent human lives, and conversely of failed, immature, or substandard human lives. All have beliefs about what foils the achievement of a good life, and what sort of knowledge and techniques will help an individual achieve happiness. (So too do medical doctors, whether they treat sick bodies or psyches, and athletic trainers, who seek to improve physical performance.)

A revived virtue ethics may point the way towards a better philosophical ethics; one which includes a "more intellectual" yet still broadly useful consideration of the good life. Like our ancient predecessors, modern ethical philosophers may give good advice to those aspiring to live well. But we are more likely to do so, if we work to clarify and improve our and their eudaimonist judgments, rather than treating virtue ethics as primarily a new way of dealing with the meta-ethical issues which have bedeviled twentieth-century ethics or a new way to speak about moral goodness and other essentially deontological concerns.

Deontological and Eudaimonist Judgments

I began by stating that deontological and eudaimonist judgments should be carefully distinguished. Of course, ethical decisions involve both kinds of judgments, so at some point they must be related, in thought and in action. But these judgments articulate very different aspects of our ethical situation, and previous attempts at comprehensive ethical theories have often mischaracterized one type of judgment in an effort to legitimize the other. For these reasons we should first carefully characterize the two kinds of judgments, keeping an open mind as to how far they may be harmonized and a healthy skepticism regarding all comprehensive theories.

Consider an environmental example. Jim owns a 40-acre stand of second growth forest on his Wisconsin farm. It is a beautiful area, with a brook running through it which Jim, his father and his own sons have often fished. It has been the scene of family walks, birdwatching expeditions, and courtships. It also has been the source for the family’s firewood, and of extra income when sections have been sold and cut from time to time. Now Jim has had an offer from a regional timber buyer for the trees. The money, of course, would come in handy. He has a decision to make.

What might he believe to be his duties in this case? Certainly the duty to provide for his family’s well-being; perhaps also to protect the forest; perhaps to keep the farmstead in the family. He might feel as if he "ought" to do all of these things. These "oughts" limit his choices. Such duties mean that he might not get to do what he wants to do — whether he wants to sell the trees or preserve them.

What is in his "enlightened self interest"? Here he might consider what he could buy with the money from the sale; and also the various activities and enjoyments made possible by living next to a beautiful forest, as compared to living next to cut-over land. He will also consider the happiness of his family as it would be affected by one course of action or the other; and perhaps also the effects on the farmstead itself, both on the forest and on the adjoining lands (perhaps the forest serves to buffer neighboring farmlands from floods and erosion). For these other entities, too, may flourish or fail, excel or decline. (14) All of these considerations might play a part in his judgments on the advisability of one course of action or another.

Clearly there is one decision to be made here (not to say that there are only two choices: perhaps the 40-acres could be harvested in part; harvested in different ways, etc.). Also one family, one farm, and one forest. Jim’s deontological and eudaimonist judgments must both be grounded in the nature of the entities concerned and his relationships to them. But the key point is this: he cannot define his duties in terms of his enlightened self-interest, or vice versa.

Duties cannot be defined in terms of enlightened self-interest. For our duties are not merely to ourselves but to other beings, and their good sometimes conflicts with our own. Jim may come to the conclusion that the course of action which will lead to his own happiness or self-development is to sell the trees and use the money to go to college or buy a new business. Nevertheless he may have a duty to protect them, based on their intrinsic value; on their goodness, which is different than his own. He may, contrarily, decide that his enlightened self-interest dictates protecting the trees and enjoying them in his old accustomed ways. Nevertheless, he may have a duty to sell them in order to support his family. We cannot assume that our self-interest will harmonize with our duties towards others, any more than we can assume they will conflict.

To deny this is to fail to understand the nature of duty. In "Resistance to Civil Government." Henry Thoreau writes that we must consider those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself . . . he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. (15)

The key point here is that duty overrides expediency and self-interest, by definition. This is true, whether or not duty ever calls for the absolute sacrifice of one’s life. It holds regardless of how often duty and expediency do, in fact, conflict. (It also holds, of course, whether or not Thoreau is right in this case, as to the existence of a duty to resist a government which protects slavery and promotes foreign aggression.)

On the other hand, enlightened self-interest cannot be defined by our duties. Even if we exhaustively specified Jim’s duties to himself, his family, his neighbors and his forest, we would not have specified his enlightened self-interest. For assuming that he is in the enviable position of having enough money to support his family without selling the trees, and leaving open the question of whether he has a duty to protect the trees for their own sakes, the question remains: what would be in his best interest? And if we assume that he decides not to sell the trees and instead to protect them, the question remains: how may he best enjoy the forest and get the most out of its presence? (16) Whether the answer involves hunting, fishing and skylarking, or ecological study, or painting and composing poetry, it is clear that none of these activities are duties. Still less can their proper pursuit be explicated in terms of duty. To assume that the best human life is the most dutiful one is to forget that we have freedom as well as constraint in our ethical decisions, legitimate self-interest as well as duties to others, and possibilities for excellence as well as basic injunctions to help and not harm. (17)

However, this leaves Jim with the problem of acting on the basis of these two different sorts of judgments, and the problem can become acute if they push him in opposite directions. For instance, he might come to believe that duty calls for him to preserve the trees, while his own best interest involves selling them. Conversely, he might come to believe that he has a duty to his family to sell the trees (let us say his two children need the money in order to go to college), while his own happiness and the good of the land dictate that he preserve them. How might he resolve such dilemmas?

I believe that we must leave open the possibility that these will be genuine dilemmas, resolvable in action but not in reason. There may be no best choice here, but rather a number of equally choiceworthy possibilities. Certainly choice often involves trade-offs between scarce goods, whether or not we recognize genuine ethical dilemmas. Jim might bow to paternal duty and cut the trees for the sake of his children’s education — but with the understanding that his own happiness will suffer. Or he may believe his own happiness and the preservation of the farm dictate preserving the trees, and do so — but recognize that he is failing to perform a legitimate duty, which his children have a right to demand that he perform.

But it is important to realize that even if this is true in Jim’s case, that is not the equivalent of saying "anything goes" or asserting that all choices are equally good. For we must distinguish cases where duty overrides enlightened self-interest, or vice versa, from cases where one or both are overridden by thoughtlessness or mere swinishness. It is simply not the same case if Jim sells his trees without a thought as to what they have meant to him and his family, or their role in preventing disastrous floods on his farm. Nor is it the same case if he sells them in order to buy a new Lexus, or to pay off his gambling debts, or "to cover each one of his dollars with another." (18) In none of these cases can we dignify his actions with the name of acting from duty or enlightened self-interest.

Furthermore, duty and enlightened self-interest often coincide. It may be that the money Jim would get from selling his trees would not compensate him for the pleasure, health benefits, scientific knowledge, poetic inspiration and cherished associations that he would forego if the forest disappeared; and that the intrinsic value of the forest and its many inhabitants places a duty on him not to harm them unnecessarily. Still, we may fail to do right in such cases, "through mere ignorance and mistake"; through acting complacently in "the ruts of tradition and conformity"; or through "gross feeding": the "betrayal" of our health, ideals and better selves by our "vast abdomens." (19) Here both deontological and eudaimonist considerations will condemn us.

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(1) These terms come from the Greek words for necessity and obligation, and happiness, respectively. David Heyd describes this as a difference between deontological and axiological theories: "Generally speaking classical ethics . . . is axiological rather than deontological. It takes as its basic conceptual framework the notions of goodness, virtue, and perfection rather than those of duty, right, and justice. It aims at a definition of the good man and the good for man, rather than at a formulation of a system of interpersonal principles of just and obligatory action." (Supererogation: Its status in ethical theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 36) Charles Larmore makes a similar distinction, following Sidgwick: "The nature of moral value assumes two fundamentally different forms . . . depending on whether the notion of right or the notion of good is thought to be more basic." ("The Right and the Good," Philosophia 20 (1990): 15)

(2) Many philosophers will prefer to divide ethical theories into three basic types: eudaimonist, deontological and utilitarian (Aristotle, Kant, Mill). And in another legitimate usage, deontological theories are merely one among several types of theory in modern philosophical ethics: one likely typology divides ethical theories into deontological, utilitarian, contractarian, eudaimonist (back under consideration after a long hiatus) and skeptical (this last less a "theory" than a point of view). However, it is fair to say that twentieth-century moral theory has been preoccupied with the nature and possibility of "the moral ought," and to a lesser extent with a detailed specification of particular duties. It is also fair to say that it has neglected questions concerning human excellence and flourishing. In that sense, modern moral theory has been essentially deontological.

(3) Good summaries are Roger Crisp, "Modern Moral Philosophy and the Virtues," in Crisp (ed.), How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1-18; and Gregory Trianosky, "What is Virtue Ethics All About?," American Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1990): 335-344.

(4) Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 299-306; Taylor, "Atomism," in Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 187-210; Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 23-26, 38-39; MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 265-72.

(5) J.B. Schneewind, "The Misfortunes of Virtue," Ethics 101 (1991): 43-44.

(6) Among many examples see Harold Alderman, "By Virtue of a Virtue," Review of Metaphysics 36 (1982): 127-153; Larry Blum Moral Perception and Particularity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 148-149; Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1-2; David Norton, "Moral Minimalism and the Development of Moral Character," in Peter French et al. (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy Volume XIII: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 180; and Guy Axtell, "Recent Work in Virtue Epistemology," American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997): 2.

An emphasis on "the whole person" is perhaps a natural consequence of focusing on eudaimonist rather than deontological judgments; certainly "the good life" cannot be discussed if the sense of that life is lost in its atomization into a series of unrelated acts. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 204-19) It is less clear that this marks an important and essential difference between eudaimonist and deontological ethical theories, because it seems that a full consideration of my duties and rights must also take an encompassing view of my life as a whole.

(7) As Amartya Sen notes, it is not clear that reason demands that we privilege either of these aspects in judging human excellence. "Three different notions may be distinguished: (1) agency achievement, (2) personal well-being, and (3) the standard of living [defined materialistically]. The distinction between agency achievement and personal well-being arises from the fact that a person may have objectives other than personal well-being." (Sen, The Standard of Living (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 27-28)

(8) Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 46.

(9) Annas, Morality, 49-52, and the following, all in French et al., Midwest Studies: R.B. Brandt, "The Structure of Virtue," 64; Martha Nussbaum, "Non-Relative Virtues," 35; Amelie Rorty, "Virtues and Their Vicissitudes," 137-38. For a critique of this view see Walter Schaller, "Are Virtues No More Than Dispositions to Obey Moral Rules?" Philosophia 20 (1990): 195-207.

(10) Kant specifies such a moralistic and inward, intentionalist understanding of ‘virtue’ in a very pure form: "virtue is . . . the moral strength of a man’s will in fulfilling his duty." (Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of The Metaphysic of Morals (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), 66. For a defense of the Kantian conception of virtue see Onora O’Neill, "Kant’s Virtues," in Crisp, How?,77-97.

(11) Of course, we must leave open the possibility of ethical positions which are formally eudaimonist but with a strong deontological content. One may argue that human excellence consists essentially or even exclusively in acting morally, and that the best human life is one of rigorous attention to duty (even that all other considerations have no bearing on the goodness of a human life). However, it is difficult to sustain such a position.

Within an eudaimonist theory, the virtues should not be defined narrowly in terms of dispositions to act morally. For we reckon physical, intellectual and psychological qualities as virtues if they typically help people to live well and achieve great things; to create great works of art or scholarship, for example. Such achievements as these are not typically considered moral (in our restricted modern sense) or a matter of duty. Yet they are examples of human goodness and excellence.

(12) Perhaps only a minority of writers on "virtue ethics" support an eudaimonist ethics in this sense. Among them see Charles Taylor, "The Diversity of Goods" and Sabina Lovibond, "Realism and Imagination in Ethics," both in Stanley Clarke and Evan Simpson (eds.), Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); and Richard Taylor, "Ancient Wisdom and Modern Folly," in French et al., Midwest Studies. However, the majority of the authors in these two representative collections are either critics of eudaimonist ethics or "formal" virtue ethicists who are in substance deontologists. Such for example is Iris Murdoch, the author of The Sovereignty of Good, who writes that "in the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego." (quoted by Lovibond, 270). Too many modern philosophers and ethical thinkers take enlightened self-interest and the desire for fulfillment as a form of "narcissism" (Christopher Lasch), hedonism (Daniel Bell) or lack of intellectual discipline (Allen Bloom). Modern philosophy has "an extraordinary inarticulacy" about these issues (Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 13-18).

(13) Annas, Morality, 10.

(14) Such judgments concerning the best interests of the soil or the health and biodiversity of the forest are only in Jim’s enlightened self-interest on an expansive definition of both ‘enlightened’ and ‘self-interest.’ See Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 8-9.

(15) Thoreau, Reform Papers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 68. "He that would save his life . . . shall lose it" refers to Luke 9:24. While the word ‘duty’ does not occur in the passage quoted, the previous paragraph mentions "this duty" "for honest men to rebel and revolutionize."

(16) Similarly, if Jim accepts a duty to protect the forest, the question of how best to protect it remains. This, once again, involves him in the effort to understand the excellence of the forest.

(17) Just as we cannot define duty in terms of enlightened self-interest or vice versa, so we cannot "reduce," define or explain deontological ethical concepts in terms of eudaimonist concepts or vice versa. Many philosophers have made such attempts; for example, Jorge Garcia holds that "certain virtue concepts are more basic than major deontic concepts" and that "understanding right and wrong action in terms of certain virtue concepts helps us toward understanding and defending traditional Western morality." (Garcia, "The Primacy of the Virtuous," Philosophia 20 (1990): 69) I see little value in such reductive attempts. Our concepts of duty, law and responsibility, on the one hand, and happiness, excellence and goodness, on the other, are of disparate provenience and often serve different purposes. Their conflation, far from providing guidance or clarifying ethical issues, is more likely to cover up genuine ethical dilemmas and allow for their arbitrary resolution.

The concept of ‘duty’ may be understood by analogy with man-made laws. We must follow these, or we will be compelled to do so and punished if we do not. From this we move to the idea of a moral law, which holds even in the absence of an obvious law-giver, even in the absence of coercion, even if we are not worried about being found out and punished for breaking it. The moral law holds, regardless of . . .. The concept of ‘goodness,’ on the other hand, is used to describe the physical worlds of biological organisms and human artifacts. Organisms flourish or succeed in particular environments; artifacts further their makers’ purposes more or less well. From this we move to the idea of ethical goodness, the goodness of human beings. We are another kind of thing in the world (albeit a kind of thing in which we are unusually interested, which is unusually variable in its activities and purposes, and which transforms the context in which it understands itself). Ethical goodness is the goodness of human beings in their proper context, properly described, but just what that proper context and description is . . .. There is nothing to be gained by reconceptualizing duty in terms of goodness or vice versa. Nor are we likely, by mere wordplay, to reconcile those situations where duty and happiness, or duty and the pursuit of excellence, conflict.

(18) Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 294.

(19) Ibid., 6; 323; 215.

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