Friday, November 14, 2008

Virtue Ethics

  • From Encyclopedia Britannica

In the last two decades of the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the Aristotelian idea that ethics should be based on a theory of the virtues rather than on a theory of what one ought to do. This revival was influenced by Elizabeth Anscombe and stimulated by Philippa Foot, who in essays republished in Virtues and Vices (1978) explored how acting ethically could be in the interest of the virtuous person. The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his pessimistic work After Virtue (1980), lent further support to virtue ethics by suggesting that what he called “the Enlightenment Project” of giving a rational justification of morality had failed. In his view, the only way out of the resulting moral confusion was to ground morality in a tradition, such as the tradition represented by Aristotle and Aquinas.

Virtue ethics, in the view of its proponents, promised a reconciliation of morality and self-interest. If, for example, generosity is a virtue, then a virtuous person will desire to be generous; and the same will hold for the other virtues. If acting morally is acting as a virtuous human being would act, then virtuous human beings will act morally because that is what they are like, and that is what they want to do. But this point again raised the question of what human nature is really like. If virtue ethicists hope to develop an objective theory of the virtues, one that is valid for all human beings, then they are forced to argue that the virtues are based on a common human nature; but, as was noted above in the discussion of naturalism in ethics, it is doubtful that human nature can serve as a standard of what one would want to call morally correct or desirable behaviour. If, on the other hand, virtue ethicists wish to base the virtues on a particular ethical tradition, then they are implicitly accepting a form of ethical relativism that would make it impossible to carry on ethical conversations with other traditions or with those who do not accept any tradition at all.

A rather different objection to virtue ethics is that it relies on an idea of the importance of moral character that is unsupported by the available empirical evidence. There is now a large body of psychological research on what leads people to act morally, and it points to the surprising conclusion that often very trivial circumstances have a decisive impact. Whether a person helps a stranger in obvious need, for example, largely depends on whether he is in a hurry and whether he has just found a small piece of change. If character plays less of a role in determining moral behaviour than is commonly supposed, an ethics that emphasizes virtuous character to the exclusion of all else will be on shaky ground.

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