Monday, 2 May 2011

Virtue Ethics: Substitute or Complement for your preferred moral theory?

Virtue ethics has often seemed to me to be at cross purposes with other ethical theories. While most moral systems look to set out the rightness of different actions, virtue ethics investigates the moral status of different characters and dispositions. Virtue ethics is usually set out as an alternative to doctrines such as consequentialism or Kantianism. Yet while these rivals to virtue ethics are quite clearly geared towards guiding our action, its proponents find it difficult to participate in the usual philosophical activities of resolving moral dilemmas and thought experiments. The response has usually been either to manipulate virtue ethics so that it can give determinate guidance to action, or to reject the conventional paradigm and to deny that a moral theory should seek to influence actions. However, it seems to me that virtue ethics may not in fact be inconsistent with other moral theories, but complementary to them.

The trouble with virtue ethics is not just its difficulty in influencing our actions, but the fact that it is not clear how it should influence us at all. The reason for this is that the subject matter of virtue ethics consists of things that we do not have much control over. The virtue theorist suggests that we should not agonise too much about individual actions, but seek to reform our character so as to exhibit virtues. The real question of ethics, on this view, is not ‘What should I do?’, but rather ‘What sort of person should I be?’. So, for example, if courage is a virtue, then I should seek to be courageous. The problem is that the sort of person we are is something we cannot do much to change. Courage is mostly something you are born with. The same goes for many other typical virtues, like wisdom and even temper. Indeed, Aristotle describes virtuous acts as springing from “a fixed and permanent disposition of character”, which definitely doesn’t sound like the sort of thing we can control.

To be fair to Aristotle, he does specify that nature only determines our capacity for virtue, and that we have choice over the extent to which we develop these capacities. However, this is the bit of virtue ethics that I have always found a bit unconvincing – the limits set by our capacity for virtue seems far more significant than our conscious efforts at self-improvement.

If we ignore what many take to be the crucial element of virtue ethics – the demand that we maximise our potential for virtue – and take it as a descriptive rather than a normative theory, it seems more plausible to me. The reason that virtue ethics has such difficulty accounting for thought experiments and dilemmas, on my version, is that it is not concerned with informing conscious decisions, but with understanding our unreflective actions.

My spin on virtue ethics suggests that conventional moral theories account for only a fraction of morally significant acts – those that we consciously decide to perform. Virtue theories complement these by observing and evaluating the myriad things that we do without thinking. For example, the tone of voice we use or our body language may not be deliberate, but could still raise someone’s spirits or darken their mood. These are not the sort of things that normative ethics can legislate for, and yet they seem closely related to it.

The interesting question is how these two domains of ethics interact. One plausible virtue[1] is something we might call sensitivity – an ability to pick up on other peoples’ moods and feelings and respond to them. When my father tells me that a good host can always anticipate their guests’ needs so that they do not need to ask for anything, it seems like its sensitivity that he is on about. When my 14-year old brother says everything with an off-putting layer of sarcasm and condescension, it is because he, like many adolescents, lacks sensitivity.

Sensitivity seems to be intimately related to our moral capacity. A sensitive person will simply see more opportunities for good; an insensitive person is likely to harm people without realising it. Both the sensitive and the insensitive person might agree in the abstract that it is good to hold doors open for people or to help them with heavy bags. But in the actual event, it will only occur to the sensitive person to do those things.

Perhaps developing and maintaining virtues is not the object of morality. Maybe virtues are more like the framework that normative moral theory must work around.

[1] A problem with virtue ethics is that there is no clear determinate list of virtues, and whether a given disposition is virtuous or not is always up for debate.

1 comment:

  1. If you don't have integrity, you have nothing. You can't buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.