Virtue Ethics Research Paper

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1. Definition

It has often been said that the development of virtue ethics (in modern dress) is in its infancy. For this reason, though virtue ethics is a type of substantive normative ethical theory opposed to consequentialism and Kantian ethics, it resists definition. The problem of definition is compounded by the fact that though much contemporary virtue ethics is neo-Aristotelian, it need not be, and has not always been. Increasingly, David Hume is being read in a way more sympathetic to virtue ethics, Nietzschean virtue ethics is developing, and Plato and Martineau have inspired ‘agent-based’ virtue ethics. Virtue ethicists, then, need not, and do not agree on such central questions as the definition of right action, and what makes a trait of character a virtue. Common to virtue ethicists, however, is the view that character rather than the motive of duty, rules, or consequences is central to ethics. This is not to say that rules, consequences, and the motive of duty are not important, but a character-based ethics will produce virtue-centered conceptions of moral rightness, objectivity in ethics, impartiality, demandingness or stringency of ethics, and practice, which reconfigure the moral universe.

The major source of inspiration for the development of modern virtue ethics is Aristotle (1955), particularly his Nicomachean Ethics. Two central features of his view have influenced definitions of modern virtue ethics. The first is his idea that the judgment of a virtuous agent is the rule and the measure of the right. This feature has spawned the view that virtue ethics is opposed to moral rules and principles, and that these must be entirely replaced by the judgment of a qualified judge (a virtuous agent). However there are ‘virtue-rules’ such as requirements to be kind, considerate, fair, courageous, and so on: rules which we use to educate our children into the moral life, and which we may use in morally charged situations where we might ask for example ‘What would be the kind or tactful thing to do here?’ Virtue ethicists, however, follow Anscombe (1958) in believing that moral rules should be couched in the ‘thick’ virtue concepts.

The second feature sometimes thought to be defining of virtue ethics is Aristotle’s view that virtues are essentially connected with the flourishing of their possessor. David Hume, however, thought that there are four potential grounds for status as a virtue: agreeableness and usefulness to self and agreeableness and usefulness to others. What constitutes right action and what gives status as a virtue are points of disagreement among virtue ethicists, so particular conceptions of right action and virtue status should not be employed to define virtue ethics as such.

2. Intellectual Content Of Virtue Ethics

Discussion of the intellectual content of virtue ethics can center usefully on three issues: (a) virtue ethical conceptions of moral rightness of action, (b) the nature of virtue in virtue ethics, and (c) different conceptions of what makes a trait of character a virtue, within virtue ethics.

2.1 Virtue Ethical Conceptions Of The Right

It is often thought that the virtue ethical conception of rightness, indeed one that is defining of virtue ethics is the following. (a) An act is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e., acting in character) do in the circumstances (Hursthouse 1996). However, other possibilities within virtue ethics exist, and have been canvassed. According to ‘agent-based’ virtue ethics rightness is understood thus. (b) An act is right if and only if it exhibits good motivation (Slote 1996). Statman (1997) alludes to another possibility. (c) An act is right if and only if it is expressive of virtuous character.

Finally, we might say (d) an act is right if and only if it is overall virtuous, and (d) differs from (a) in that it is possible for a virtuous agent acting in character to do in the circumstances something which is wrong according to (d). For example, according to (d), an act expressive of a benevolent disposition, and benevolently motivated, may fail to be a benevolent act. For a virtuous agent, though endowed with practical wisdom, is not omniscient, and the act may turn out to be extremely harmful. For the same reason (d) differs from (b) and (c). Furthermore, virtuous acts, as opposed to actions from or expressive of a state of virtue, need not possess all the features required for action from a virtuous state (as Aristotle recognized). In certain contexts, they may not express fine character or even good motives. In short a virtue ethicist may share the common conception of right action as one that is successful in hitting its target. Where virtue ethicists who share this view differ from, for example, consequentialists, is in their conception of ‘hitting the target.’ The target is set not by consequentialist criteria of promoting the most good, but by the ends of the various virtues. These ends will of course differ from virtue to virtue, so unless one subscribes to a strong doctrine of the unity of the virtues, virtue ethicists will possess a pluralistic view of rightness of action.

Where a virtue ethicist does not require fine inner states for rightness (as opposed to goodness) of actions, they may distinguish between rightness and excellence of acts, where the criteria for the latter are more stringent than those for the former.

2.2 The Nature Of Virtue In Virtue Ethics

A virtue is an excellence of character. It is a disposition of acknowledging or responding to items in the field of the virtue in an excellent way. According to virtue ethical conceptions of virtue, the standards of excellence point to states inside the agent, as well as to the world outside the agent. In short, for a virtue ethicist, the realization of the end of a virtue must express fine inner states, if that realization is to display virtue.

Virtues have a specialized focus, that is, they have a field. The field of a virtue may be human beings in general, one’s children, property, friends, honors, pleasure, the natural world, cultural and artistic objects, money, abstract objects such as knowledge, and states of affairs such as dangerous situations, interpersonal conflict, and so on. There is a wide variety of virtues which focus on different fields or domains—virtues such as friendship, courage, justice, environmental virtues, appropriate assertiveness, honesty, politeness and tact, liberality, generosity, thrift. Some virtues are universal such as courage, temperance, and justice, while others are relative to roles, such as professional virtues and virtues of parenthood. Yet others are relative to situation, for example, according to Aristotle, virtues whose field concerns (the expenditure of) money vary according to how much money one has, and range from thrift to ‘magnificence.’

Insofar as ‘virtue’ is a success word, the form of acknowledgment of items in the field of a virtue required by a virtue must be appropriate or successful. What constitutes success or appropriateness will vary according to two types of things: first, according to the different kinds of morally significant feature in those items which it is the end of the virtue to recognize, sustain, further, or bring about (such as their value or status), and second according to the differing forms or modes of moral acknowledgment of items required by the various virtues (such as promoting (value or good) or respecting individuals in ways befitting their status). Virtue ethicists will differ on what are the basic morally significant features in the items acknowledged, and what are the basic forms of moral acknowledgment inherent in virtue. The former may include value, status, bonds, and good; the latter promotion, honoring (Pettit 1997), respect, love, appreciation, and creativity. The important point is that the criteria of success in meeting the various ends of the different virtues will vary, depending on which forms of moral acknowledgment are involved in their exercise. We may ask, for example, whether such virtues as justice, benevolence and friendship are centrally concerned with all, or some of, the following: the promotion of good, the promotion of value, the honoring of value, respect for individuals in ways befitting their status, or love for individuals in virtue of bonds between those individuals and the agent.

According to virtue ethicists, an exercise or manifestation of virtue requires the successful expression of fine inner states, that is, in displaying virtue, the agent must both have fine inner states and successfully express them in her behavior. For example, virtuous creativity does not merely involve meeting the standards for success in the external manifestation of creativity that confers artistic merit in the created product. The creative response must also be expressive of fine inner states, such as the expression of artistic passion, a desire to create something of value to society or of high artistic quality, practical wisdom in the production of value, originality, a desire to create something novel, interesting, or original. Similarly, love as a virtuous response or form of moral acknowledgment is not merely the promotion of the good of an individual, or the inculcation of a belief in the beloved that she is loved. Virtuous love is expressive of genuinely caring motivation: motivation that is not pathological, such as passively or morbidly dependent. Again, respect for status as a virtuous response is not merely the formal trappings of respect according to societal convention.

Though virtue ethicists share the view that virtue requires excellence of inner states, what kinds of inner states need to be excellent for virtue to be displayed is a matter of some controversy. Neo-Aristotelians emphasize the necessity of practical wisdom, but this view has been challenged by work on so-called ‘virtues of ignorance’ (Driver 1989), by those who emphasize the sufficiency of admirable motivation for virtue (Slote 1996), and by those who emphasize the pivotal role of passion in the life of virtue (Solomon 1998). Say, for example, that benevolence as a virtue is concerned centrally with promoting the good of individuals, we still need to know answers to the following questions. Is it enough for benevolence to be displayed that the agents display good motives in her attempt to promote good? Is it necessary that she display practical wisdom? Is it sufficient that she display practical wisdom or is she also required to display knowledge in cases where there is large-scale ignorance concerning good? To what extent does virtue require rising above the general ignorance of a population or culture?

Some progress on the issue of what constitutes excellence in inner states appropriate to human beings may be secured if Nietzsche’s emphasis on excellence in depth psychological states is followed up. For Nietzsche, virtuous action is action expressive of fine depth states, and this view enables him to draw a distinction between virtuous and nonvirtuous altruism, virtuous and nonvirtuous asceticism, and so on. Forms of beneficence, sublimation, and self-discipline, which are expressive of self-contempt and resentment lack virtue, for Nietzsche. Post-Nietzschean analyticoriented psychologists also distinguish virtue and vice on the basis of depth states expressed in habitual behavior. For example, genuine and passive dependent or ‘morbid’ dependent love is distinguished on that basis by, for example, Horney (1951). Fromm (1977) too, distinguishes between healthy (benign) and unhealthy (malignant) forms of aggression. Rather than aggressiveness being simply characterized as a vice, Fromm’s account distinguishes between malignant and benign forms based on the human’s characterological orientation to the satisfaction of basic needs such as the needs for excitation or stimulation, and relatedness.

2.3 What Makes A Trait Of Character A Virtue

On the issue of what makes a trait of character a virtue, virtue ethics can be divided into eudaimonistic and noneudaimonistic forms.

2.3.1 Eudaimonism. According to eudaimonistic virtue ethics, which characterizes Greek and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics in its modern form, virtue is at least partially constitutive of the flourishing of the possessor of the virtues. Common to all versions of eudaimonistic virtue ethics is the view that what constitutes the flourishing of the agent cannot be understood entirely independently from the idea of virtue itself. That is, in determining what the virtues are, we cannot simply ask, first, what is good for a person, and then define the virtues in terms of traits that promote that good. For example, according to Aristotle, fineness of character is the greatest good for a person. Pleasure without temperance, wealth without justice, the possession of friends without the virtue of friendship is not good for an individual, that is, does not benefit an individual. However, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle did not believe that virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia or flourishing: a modicum of good fortune and money, and children that do not disgrace one, are also necessary.

Due to the fact that eudaimonistic virtue ethics has been the dominant form of virtue ethics, it has been the main target of opponents of virtue ethics. The most important of their criticisms are the following. Because eudaimonism does not understand flourishing to be characterizable wholly independently of virtue, it has been accused of circularity. However, a coherentist epistemology, which is indeed adopted by Aristotle and many neo-Aristotelians, may remove the sting from this criticism. It does so provided the network of concepts and background theories of human nature in which conceptions of virtue and flourishing are embedded, is sufficiently rich, informed by the social sciences, and broad-ranging, and does not rely on a problematically narrow, prejudiced, and uninformed set of intuitions. A second important criticism is the charge of egoism occasioned by the belief that, according to eudaimonism, the rationale for the virtues is their benefiting the possessor of the virtues. This criticism is met by the claim that virtuous action need not be, and is not standardly, motivated by the self-interest of the possessor of the virtue. This reply in turn begets the criticism of indirection, namely the criticism that a paradoxical and unmotivated dissonance opens up between the rationale for status of a trait as a virtue and the motivation and rationale of virtuous action.

2.3.2 Noneudaimonistic Virtue Ethics. Criticisms such as these have motivated, at least in part, the development of noneudaimonistic vrtue ethics, which does not require that status of a trait as a virtue is grounded in the flourishing of the possessor of the virtues. Two noneudaimonistic forms are currently being explored.

(a) Agent-based virtue ethics. According to ‘agentbased’ views, developed by Slote (1996, 1998a) and inspired by Plato and Martineau (1891), a virtue is a trait that is admirable, and its admirability need not be based on its contribution to further value, such as the welfare of human agents or the environment generally. Nor need a virtue be even partially constitutive of the flourishing of a human agent. Such a view relies for its development on aretaic intuitions about admirability, rather than the more standardly appealed to axiological intuitions about what is valuable.

(b) Response views. Although all virtues are dispositions of appropriate responsiveness to or acknowledgment of items within their fields, according to response views this feature is what makes a trait of character a virtue. It is not also necessary that a virtue characteristically constitute (in part) the flourishing of the agent. Response views may be more or less pluralistic about both the bases of moral acknowledgment (such as bond, value, status, and good) and the forms of moral acknowledgment (such as promotion, honoring, love, respect, appreciation, and creativity). Response views may allow that some goods and states (such as pleasure, money, friends) cannot be understood as goods entirely independently of virtue, but some theorists, such as Hurka (1992) require that there be base-level valuable states to which virtues are responses and which must be defined wholly independently of virtue.

3. Intellectual Context Of Modern Virtue Ethics

Two main concerns have motivated the rise of virtue ethics in recent times:

(a) increasing emphasis on the importance of good character and character education for a healthy society, and

(b) dissatisfaction with rival moral theories— particularly consequentialism and Kantianism.

The emphasis on character, and the character training of children is increasingly thought to be important, indeed central, for an ethically sound society. Moral rules, where important, need to be made, interpreted, and applied in complex situations, and in ways that are not distorted by such vices as greed, impatience, cowardice, lack of perseverance, racism and other forms of hostility, callousness, oversensitivity, lack of concern for or over-concern with, fairness, and so on. A difficulty for a reorientation of ethical thought towards virtue ethics, in line with the above concern, is the apparent linkage of virtue ethics with social conservatism. This view, how- ever, is based on several misunderstandings. First, virtue ethics as such is open as to how we delineate the virtues. Specific versions of virtue ethics will differ on this question. Second, though it would be agreed by all that it is imperative to bring up children to possess character traits which are not personally and socially destructive, virtue ethics as such is open as to whether a correct version of virtue ethics provides a monistic or pluralistic answer to the question ‘What is a good life for a human being?’ Third, it is sometimes thought that virtue ethics is too ‘individualistic’ and fails to appreciate the limitations of a virtuous agent, and her embeddedness in society. However, a virtue ethicist could agree that even a virtuous human agent necessarily has limited experience, possesses limited perspectives, and has limited expertise and knowledge. Accordingly, it is open to a virtue ethicist to adopt a dialogical view of virtues of practice, and moral epistemology generally.

The philosophical/theoretic push to virtue ethics has been driven by several factors, including the following. One factor is dissatisfaction with the lack of emphasis on, or a denigration of, the ‘inner’—feelings, emotions, passions, and practical wisdom—in the life of the moral agent. Virtue ethicists emphasize the importance of outer action as expressive of inner states: benevolence, for example, is not just a matter of promoting value or good. Fine emotions, for example, are important for the situational appreciation required by practical wisdom. Emphasis on the emotions also brings into view forms of moral acknowledgment not sufficiently emphasized in analytic philosophical ethics, such as (virtuous) caring and love. It also highlights the centrality in ethics of certain partialistic virtues such as parental love and friendship.

A second factor in the intellectual context of modern virtue ethics is its objection to decontextualized under- standings of moral theory. For example, for a virtue ethicist, ethics is neither essentially impartial nor essentially partial. Rather there are both virtues and vices of impartiality, and virtues and vices of partiality relative to different fields. An understanding of partialistic vices, such as nepotism and favoritism (towards one of one’s children, for example), and impartialistic vices (such as dispositions to seriously neglect near and dear in the interests of ‘the common good’), requires a highly nuanced and contextualized understanding of the boundaries between these vices and allied virtues.

Related to the above feature of virtue ethics is a third and much-emphasized factor: skepticism about the codifiability of ethics. Virtue ethicists favor a conception of ethical expertise that emphasizes experience and practical wisdom. Because of their emphasis on detail, particularity, and complexity, they recognize that moral expertise, which relies on knowledge of, for example, medicine, business, educational, and other practices, does not generalize to all contexts.

A fourth factor is a desire to make the concept of living well central to moral evaluation. Commonly for virtue ethicists, the supposed gap between the good life and the moral life is reduced via the desideratum of living a virtuous life. Living a virtuous life reduces this gap primarily through a reconfiguration of the contrast between altruism and self-interest. A virtuous agent, characteristically and in normal circumstances, enjoys the moral life as Aristotle points out, because her capacities for strength, love, concern, respect, and lack of resentment, enable her to see her own concerns as not sharply in contrast with the interests of others.

4. Virtue Ethics And Applied Ethics

The application of virtue ethics to social practice raises the question of an epistemology suitable for virtue ethics. Such an epistemology may be monological or dialogical. Commonly it is thought that virtue ethics is inherently monological because the arbiter of rightness of action is thought to be the (or a) virtuous agent, that is, an agent of good moral character, practical wisdom, fine sensibilities, and the ability to appreciate a situation and context in fine detail. Nonvirtuous agents simply emulate virtuous ones. However, even virtuous agents are necessarily limited because of their human condition (e.g., a virtuous man cannot have the experiences of women who are contemplating an abortion). Arguably, a suitable virtue ethical epistemology for the world of practice, for example, education, medicine, business, aid work, family relations, must be properly socially grounded. Participants in a practice, recognizing their epistemic and other limitations, exercise the moral epistemic virtues of practice, which include the dialogical virtues. These of course are legion, including imaginative deliberation, insight, perseverance, respect in various forms, open-mindedness, facilitativeness, and an absence of those vices which distort practical wisdom and communication, for example, cowardice, rigidity, hostility, callousness, excessive love of power, squeamishness, and lack of concern for or excessive concern for fairness. For a virtue ethicist, determining whether a participant is, for example, excessively concerned with fairness or insufficiently concerned with fairness is often a matter of fine judgment applied in contexts where many values are at stake, and knowledge and appreciation of relevant facts, including the feelings, preferences and so forth of affected parties, commonly is gleaned only through well-conducted dialogue.

5. Skepticism About Character

One of the most interesting recent criticisms of virtue ethics derives from the social sciences, specifically ’situationist’ psychology (Ross and Nisbett 1991). According to some philosophers who make use of this psychology, virtue ethics is inadequate because it is based on a characterological psychology that is empirically inadequate. According to situationist psychology:

Behavioral variation across a population owes more to situational differences than dispositional differences among persons. Individual dispositional differences are not as strongly behaviorally individuating as we might have supposed … (Doris 1998, p. 507)

The claim that experiments such as Milgram’s (1963) demonstrate the empirical inadequacy of virtue ethics because there is a lack of cross-situational consistency in behavior, betrays a lack of understanding of the virtue ethicist’s concept of virtue. For a virtue ethicist, a virtue is not simply a disposition to perform acts of a certain type (e.g., beneficent acts). The possession of virtue requires also the possession of fine inner states. Admittedly, Milgram’s experiments show that a remarkable number of subjects administer electric shocks of considerable severity, in experimental situations of a certain type. The tendency to perform beneficent acts is arguably not as robust as one might hope. However, there was considerable variation in the mental states of those prepared to administer such shocks, and these differences may point to character traits of, for example, compassion, benevolence, respect for authority and commitments, which manifest themselves in various ways in dilemmatic situations. According to Milgram, the subjects differed markedly in their emotional reactions to increasingly pressuring requests to administer shocks. Milgram claims that an unanticipated effect ‘was the extraordinary tension generated by the procedures.’ He says: ‘One might suppose that a subject would simply break off or continue as his conscience dictated. Yet this is far from what happened. There were striking reactions of tension and emotional strain.’ While some subjects reported and manifested intense strain and anguish, however, ‘some subjects (who had administered maximum shocks) had remained calm throughout the experiment, and displayed only minimal signs of tension from beginning to end’ (Milgram 1963, p. 376).

For the virtue ethicist, emotional reactions are crucial for the attribution of virtue and vice, and the mark of the virtuous is the propensity to violate a ‘virtue-rule’ such as ‘Be benevolent’ only with reluctance, anguish, distress. The degree to which these emotions are present will vary according to the circumstances. Furthermore, it is clear from Milgram’s account that the anguished saw themselves as operating under a rather severe virtue-dilemma. A benevolent agent may also possess the virtues of respect for authority, trust, honoring commitments, and appreciation of (the value of) knowledge. All of these virtues were in play during the experiment (1963). Subjects rightfully assessed the experimental situation as warranting trust, the honoring of a commitment, and as promoting a worthy objective. Now where virtues of, for example, trust and fidelity appeared in acute dilemmatic relation to another—nonmaleficence—most subjects arguably gave insufficient weight to the latter. But virtue ethicists are not committed to the view that many actual agents are capable of resolving such dilemmas correctly when under severe stress. The degree of virtue in agents is however able to be determined by their emotional reactions to their admittedly faulty resolutions of dilemma (e.g., reactions of anguish or indifference). And those differences were evident. It is open to the virtue ethicist to argue that while trust was not misplaced, and though obedience to authority is a virtue, in this case most subjects displayed this virtue to excess. Arguably, this failure hindered the exercise of the virtue of nonmaleficence present in those who suffered anguish.

According to virtue ethicists, good character is a centrally important component of the good life for an individual in society, and virtue ethics is a philosophically rich and fruitful approach to moral theory. The further development of this theory requires co- operation with the social sciences, if a richer under-standing of virtue, as an excellence of character in human beings, is to be obtained.


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