Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ethics and Virtue



Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer

For many of us, the fundamental question of ethics is, "What should I do?" or "How should I act?" Ethics is supposed to provide us with "moral principles" or universal rules that tell us what to do. Many people, for example, read passionate adherents of the moral principle of utilitarianism: "Everyone is obligated to do whatever will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number." Others are just as devoted to the basic principle of Immanuel Kant: "Everyone is obligated to act only in ways that respect the human dignity and moral rights of all persons."

Moral principles like these focus primarily on people's actions and doings. We "apply" them by asking what these principles require of us in particular circumstances, e.g., when considering whether to lie or to commit suicide. We also apply them when we ask what they require of us as professionals, e.g., lawyers, doctors, or business people, or what they require of our social policies and institutions. In the last decade, dozens of ethics centers and programs devoted to "business ethics", "legal ethics", "medical ethics", and "ethics in public policy" have sprung up. These centers are designed to examine the implications moral principles have for our lives.

But are moral principles all that ethics consists of? Critics have rightly claimed that this emphasis on moral principles smacks of a thoughtless and slavish worship of rules, as if the moral life was a matter of scrupulously checking our every action against a table of do's and don'ts. Fortunately, this obsession with principles and rules has been recently challenged by several ethicists who argue that the emphasis on principles ignores a fundamental component of ethics--virtue. These ethicists point out that by focusing on what people should do or how people should act, the "moral principles approach" neglects the more important issue--what people should be. In other words, the fundamental question of ethics is not "What should I do?" but "What kind of person should I be?"

According to "virtue ethics", there are certain ideals, such as excellence or dedication to the common good, toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become.

"Virtues" are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.

How does a person develop virtues? Virtues are developed through learning and through practice. As the ancient philosopher Aristotle suggested, a person can improve his or her character by practicing self-discipline, while a good character can be corrupted by repeated self-indulgence. Just as the ability to run a marathon develops through much training and practice, so too does our capacity to be fair, to be courageous, or to be compassionate.

Virtues are habits. That is, once they are acquired, they become characteristic of a person. For example, a person who has developed the virtue of generosity is often referred to as a generous person because he or she tends to be generous in all circumstances. Moreover, a person who has developed virtues will be naturally disposed to act in ways that are consistent with moral principles. The virtuous person is the ethical person.

At the heart of the virtue approach to ethics is the idea of "community". A person's character traits are not developed in isolation, but within and by the communities to which he or she belongs, including family, church, school, and other private and public associations. As people grow and mature, their personalities are deeply affected by the values that their communities prize, by the personality traits that their communities encourage, and by the role models that their communities put forth for imitation through traditional stories, fiction, movies, television, and so on. The virtue approach urges us to pay attention to the contours of our communities and the habits of character they encourage and instill.

The moral life, then, is not simply a matter of following moral rules and of learning to apply them to specific situations. The moral life is also a matter of trying to determine the kind of people we should be and of attending to the development of character within our communities and ourselves.


This article originally appeared in Issues in Ethics V1 N3 (Spring 1988)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

On Virtue Ethics


By: R. Hursthouse

Chapter 6
The Virtuous Agent’s Reasons for Action

Acting Virtuously

What is it to act virtuously, or well, on a particular occasion?

(1) For a start, it is to do a certain sort of action. What sort? ‘A virtuous, good, action’, we might say – and truly, but this is hardly an illuminating way to begin laying down what it is to act virtuously, or well. So we’ll give examples – it is to do something such as helping someone, facing danger, telling the truth, repaying a debt, denying oneself some physical pleasure, etc.

This is clearly insufficient, for suppose someone does such an action by accident, unintentionally – helping when she meant to harm, in greater danger without knowing it, telling the truth when she thought she was saying what was false, etc. Or suppose the agent acts, as a small child might, in uncomprehending obedience to someone’s instruction. Hence we add:

(2) The agent must know what she is doing – that she is helping, facing danger, telling the truth, etc.

It is standard to add a further condition, namely: The agent acts for a reason. I do not want to get bogged down in many disputes about what, in detail, is involved in acting ‘for a reason’ so, following Williams(1), I shall gloss this, I hope neutrally enough, by saying that if we ask them why they helped or told the truth of whatever, they would, if articulate, be able to give us an honest answer which enables us to understand what it is about the situation and the action that made this action in this situation something that would seem to them an appropriate thing to do.



What is this condition doing? It is, in fact, doing a lot of work. Part of what it is doing is ruling out someone’s doing such an action knowingly but ‘for no particular reason’ – on impulse, or a whim, or just because she feels like it at the time, or akratically; acting ‘for a reason’ contrasts with ‘acting from inclination’. It is also ruling out acting in comprehending, but blind, knee-jerk obedience to an order. As Anscombe rightly remarks, ‘Because he told me to’ can give one’s reason for doing something, when the agent is thinking of obeying him as something that is good about what she has done. But it can also give no more than ‘mental cause’. (2)

It is also a condition that needs further elaboration. Stated in full it is something like:

(3) The agent acts for a reason and, moreover, for ‘the right reason(s)’.

This rules out helping, or facing danger, or telling the truth, or whatever, for ulterior reasons or under compulsion. (It is common, but a little misleading, to describe such cases as ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reason(s)’. What is misleading about this phrase is that it obscures the fact that, in one way, the agent is not ‘doing the right thing’. What she is doing is, say, trying to impress the onlookers, or hurting someone’s feelings, or avoiding punishment. (3)

Is any further condition necessary? One might maintain, plausibly, that we have got enough, in outline, for ‘acting morally’. But here we should note an interesting difference between ‘acting morally’ on the one hand and ‘acting well’ on the other. The former is not hospitable to such qualifications as ‘quite’, ‘fairly’, ‘very’, or ‘perfectly’; the latter is. Hence we can, comprehensibly, ask ‘Have we all the conditions for acting very well, perfectly (“excellently”), or only for acting fairly well? And this leads us to think of a forth condition.

Suppose an agent fulfills the first three conditions, but helps someone or repays the debt with difficulty, reluctantly, and another agent does the same easily and gladly; suppose one agent fulfills the first three but tells the hurtful truth with zest and enjoyment while another does the same, regretting the necessity, and so on. True, there will be occasions where the inappropriateness of the feelings of the first agent in each pair is such as to cast doubt on whether the agent really is acting for the right reason(s). But take the cases where this is not so. Then we may have to admit that the agent with the inappropriate feelings ‘acts morally’ and acts (fairly) well, but we can insist that the agent with appropriate feelings acts better. And, according to virtue ethics, the agent with the inappropriate feelings does not act virtuously, in the very way or manner that the virtuous agent acts. To capture acting (really) well, excellently, or virtuously, we need the further condition:

(4) The agent has the appropriate feeling(s) or attitude(s) when she acts.

The first three conditions are related to, though not identical to, the first two conditions Aristotle gives, in Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, ch.4, for a virtuous act’s being done ‘in the way’ a virtuous man does it. Suppose a just or temperate act to be done (cf. Condition 1 above), then Aristotle says, the agent acts ‘in the way’ someone with the virtue of justice and temperance acts only if (i) he knows what he is doing (cf. Condition 2), and (ii) he chooses it (cf. acts for a reason) and chooses it ‘for its own sake’ or ‘because of itself’ (cf. Condition 3).

Aristotle’s third condition is that the agent acts from a firm and unchanging state, i.e. (in this context) from (a) virtue. Given the emotional aspect of the virtues, this certainly relates to the forth condition above; whether it imports more, and if so what, will be considered later.

(This excerpt is from R. Hursthouse's On Virtue Ethics)


(1) B. Williams, ‘Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts’ (1995).
(2) G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (1963), 23.
(3)This was the complication in relation to ‘right action’ that I put to one side in Chapter 1-3.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Mystery of Consumer Demand, or Personality as Inventory




By: Rob Horning / July 2004

The study of consumerism revolves around what seems a simple question: Why do people buy things? For years, economists were content with a rather straightforward answer: because they want them. This answer has an Ockham's razor-like clarity to it, which almost successfully disguises the fact that it's entirely tautologous. It solves the mystery of consumer demand by simply making it a postulated truth and then ignoring it as a given, thus removing it from economics' academic bailiwick. Wants are just there, and they are all essentially the same.

As eminent economist Alfred Marshall put it in 1890, "the economist studies mental states rather through their manifestations than in themselves; and if he finds that they afford evenly balanced incentives to action, he treats them prima facie as for his purposes equal . . . . He does not attempt to weigh the real value of the higher affections of our nature against those of our lower: he does not balance the love for virtue against the desire for agreeable food." (Principles of Economics Macmillan and Co., Ltd, 1920).

Libertarians might be tempted to pat economists on the back for this non-judgmental and altogether amoral position: Who are we to judge the wants and needs of others? Economists should worry about only how an economy functions to fulfill those needs, no matter whether they are for bread and shelter or for styling mousse and Celine Dion records. Perhaps the position is one of expediency, because the simple demand question is, in fact, enormously complicated, prone to all sorts of conjecture, speculation, and rampant stereotyping, such that academics can hardly wander into that minefield without exploding themselves on some unexamined assumption about human nature. Of course, that hasn't stopped folks from numerous disciplines — not just economics but psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, most insidiously, marketing — from trying.

Classic economics' lack of interest in consumer demand can be chalked up to the "productivist bias", which glorifies the role of production while assuming that whatever is produced will, for all analytical intents and purposes, be consumed; truckloads of remaindered junk at Big Lots notwithstanding. In centuries when scarcity was commonplace, starvation a concern of all societies, and obesity nearly unthinkable, it made sense that economists would worry exclusively about production. That an economy would waste its energies on anything but what was necessary and ardently clamored for was probably pretty hard to conceive. In some ways, the productivist bias reflects the dignity our species often suspects of itself: humankind, in its eminent rationality, is assumed to not only make and want just what's necessary, but is also seen first and foremost as makers of things, as creators and not consumers. In this pretty picture, humans are not subject to manufactured needs — the very phrase appears ludicrously oxymoronic from this perspective.

But as economies shifted from producing primarily such intrinsically necessary and obviously useful things like vegetables and furniture to mainly making such arguably unnecessary things like cosmetics and ornamental tableware and epistolary novels, the rote assumption of consumer demand took on a different implication: it became unqualifiedly elastic. Demand for any product, no matter how frivolous, would have to be assumed to be generated almost at will, which implies that regardless of whatever specific commodities happened to be manufactured, the most important thing producers make are the modern consumers themselves, suddenly full of weird desires for machine-embroidered towels and temporary cures for halitosis. How could this be? How did people learn to consume what's unnecessary, and how did such unnecessary consumption become so prominent?

Shouldn't we conclude that producers are responsible for manufacturing the vulgarized tastes of contemporary consumers, training them to eat garbage and to love eating it, if garbage was all they had to sell? The elaboration in the early twentieth century of an extensive and extremely resourceful advertising industry would seem to certify that conclusion incontrovertibly. (John Kenneth Galbraith dryly notes that "man has become the object of science for man only since automobiles have become harder to sell than to manufacture.") But many people resist such an explanation because it would appear to circumscribe individual freedom and sovereignty. I want to believe that I wear Gap shirts and carry an iPod because I've logically concluded that they best suit my lifestyle, not because I've had that lifestyle sold to me by dynamic, colorful ads.

People like to believe they have rational reasons for their consumer choices (even though a glance into any one of the adman's motivational research manuals should suffice to prove otherwise — I recommend Pierre Martineau's Motivation in Advertising, McGraw Hill, 1957). And more importantly, the productivist bias — taking the form of a pervasive pro-business attitude, touting unlimited growth and the profit-making it enables — demands that more ingenious explanations that don't impugn producers be devised.

Thus, social scientists duly began to theorize the consumer, attenuating the difference between his necessities, physiological and more or less self-explanatory, and his desires, which had to come from something other than bodily need. Perhaps the most commonsensical way of explaining the latter is the human's allegedly innate desire for novelty. According to this theory, once we are no longer starving, we become afflicted with a new torment we hadn't previously had time to notice: boredom. To assuage this new affliction, we want ever new things provided to us, be it a new stew pot or the new fall TV schedule.

But there's a great deal of arbitrariness in this: "Choices are not made randomly," explains Gervasi. "They are socially controlled, and reflect the cultural model from which they are produced. We neither produce nor consume just any product: the product must have some meaning in relation to a system of values" (cited in Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures Sage, 1998). So when we buy a Volvo, it's not just because we need it to get to Whole Foods Market and it's not just because we've grown bored of our Saab. Consumption's not strictly about utility and novelty. We expect that what we consume will have some social meaning. And sociologists have generally agreed that consumption especially suits one specific kind of meaning: the expression of one's place in the social hierarchy.

Drawing on the long-entrenched discourse of luxury, they see consumer desire as a product of social emulation: people naturally want to imitate their betters, buying what the upper classes have in efforts to prove their own classiness. As the rich have their signifiers co-opted by those beneath them, they are forced to find ever newer ones, and so the wheel of fashion turns. In America, which pretends to be a classless society and which obstinately refuses to dole out honorifics like "duke" or "marquis" to dignify its luminaries, the need for such conspicuous consumption was more acute, which is likely why it took an American, Thorstein Veblen, to coin the notion in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

But if commodities serve as signifiers, they would be able to express so much more than simply class. They would be a means of articulating an identity to ourselves; to express ourselves to ourselves, to speak ourselves into being. This would seem the case today, where we have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as the sum total of the things we possess, as opposed to the sum total of things we have experienced. Indeed, we need to turn our experiences and our memories into things by taking scads of photographs and buying souvenirs. That we would amount to the objects we own is inevitable under capitalism, which respects property more than experience. Its conception of rights turn our thoughts into intellectual property and reifies our family heritage and our education into social capital — things that belong to us primarily as useful tools. We learn without having to be taught that this is so, that our inner sense of self is only as authentic as the outward forms of expression we find for it. This is why I become more myself the minute I get some "tribal" design tattooed on my arm, and why my book and record collection can serve as a pretty accurate index to my soul.


This attitude is hegemonic in American society; it's im
plied wherever it's not explicitly promoted. It's the lingua franca of social communication; it's established itself as the only accepted currency of identity. So even if you thought to understand yourself in terms of what you've done rather than what you have, no one else would give you the recognition that would make such a self-concept stick. Rather you would likely be regarded as an asocial freak, and you would inevitably begin to question your own sanity. So while it feels like freedom when we get to choose the objects through which we define ourselves, it's really an expression of how deeply we're trapped in its discourse. And a dismal corollary of this predicament is that we can't even enjoy the things we consume on the level of personal pleasure. We're always already using them as signs and are thus set at one remove from the sensual experience of them. When I listen to a Clash record, I am always already consuming myself as a Clash fan and thinking how cool this makes me rather than hearing the music itself.



This is Debord's point in The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994). Today, modern man can only consume images of himself consuming; he is a perpetual spectator. "The more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. . . . The individual's own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere." There is no place we can go outside of consumption; we are always trapped in the world as store, buying back our own lives, one purchase at a time.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Compassion for the poor or expansion of the market?


A couple of days ago I read in the news that Tata Motors has unveiled a new automobile, Tata Nano, in the New Delhi Auto Expo in India. This ultra cheap new car costs around $2,500 and can ‘comfortably’ seat four persons. Because of its cheap price and small size, Nano is soon expected to invade India’s already over-crowded streets. Tata Motors declares that this tiny car “brings the comfort and safety of a car within the reach of thousands of families.” The People’s Car, a name given to it because of its expected success among poor families, will be launched in India later in 2008.

Mr. Ratan N. Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group and Tata Motors, said: “I observed families riding on two-wheelers – the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.” Despite Mr. Ratan’s alleged benevolence, Tata Group is faced with some serious ethico-environmental issues which must be addressed if the Group’s claims of compassion and generosity towards poor families in India are to be considered genuine.

First, why the same poor people who are the target of Mr. Ratan's compassion and generosity are protesting against this tiny-cheap-new car?

According to The Economic Time, "West Bengal's main opposition Trinamool Congress on Thursday threatened to stall its [Nano’s] manufacture at Singur plant.” The same source reports that "Leader of the Opposition" in the assembly, Partha Chatterjee, says:

“until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur, we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there. Mr. Chatterjee also said: “if pressure is put, there will be trouble.” Leader of the Opposition claims that some 347 acres were forcibly acquired by the Left Front government to enable Tata Motors to set up the plant.

In addition to the above serious claims, there was another group of the same poor people who protested in New Delhi against Mr. Ratan’s alleged compassion and generosity. According to The Times of India, the protestors’ T-shirt slogan was bold: “The ($2,500) car has Singur people's blood on it.”


Second, it is common knowledge that India, the second most populous country in the world, is one of the most polluted places on this planet. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), New Delhi, the capital of India, is one of the top ten most polluted cities in the world. According to (WHO), “Over 1 million people [in India] die annually from malaria while another million die from urban air pollution, again mainly from amongst the poor.” The same organization declares that "in terms of air pollution exposures, in a survey carried out by UNICEF, 19.3% of under five children in India were found to be suffering from acute respiratory infections, and only 64% of them were taken to a health provider." Other studies show that “while India's gross domestic product has increased 2.5 times over the past two decades, vehicular pollution has increased eight times, while pollution from industries has quadrupled. Sources of air pollution, India's most severe environmental problem, come in several forms, including vehicular emissions and untreated industrial smoke. Apart from rapid industrialization, urbanization has resulted in the emergence of industrial centers without a corresponding growth in civic amenities and pollution control.” All these data suggest that the same poor people who are the target of Mr. Ratan’s compassion and generosity are already faced with an enormous indoor and outdoor air pollution in their country and do not really need another tiny-cheap-new car to further complicate their lives.

Third, there is another way to describe the real motivation of Mr. Ratan’s compassion and generosity. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote what I quote here in their Manifesto in the mid-nineteenth century:

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

It seems to me that Mr. Ratan’s real intentions are far from being genuine compassion and generosity for the great people of India.

Forth, considering the environmental issues that India
is faced with nowadays, it is only natural to assume that a great amount of money and energy is already being spent on cleaning up the mess. Assuming that the money that the government is spending on the amelioration of the environment comes partly from the tax payers’ pockets, is really a new-tiny-$2,500 car, economically speaking, worth buying? Does really a tiny-cheap car improve that much the quality of people’s lives in India? It is just hard to believe that the children of Buddha and Gandhi equate their well-being and happiness with a tiny-$2,500 car. My hope is that the great people of India answer Mr. Ratan’s cheap definition of ‘comfort’ with a bold 'no'.