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Last Thoughts On Virtue Ethics

The discussion on the other posts has sort of degenerated into people pointing out that our intuitive moral sense is a whole lot more useful most of the time than the speculations of moral philosophers, therefore virtue ethics.

I have two complaints here, the first of which is that virtue ethics is not just the claim that we should use our intuitive moral sense. It makes highly counterintuitive or controversial claims like the following:

1. Ethics involves teleology, eg considering the objectively proper ends of beings
2. Ethics has to be grounded in a community to make sense; individual ethics are only a pale shadow
3. Ethics is role-dependent; your role as a mother or child or employee or citizen produces your ethical obligations
4. Ethics is better thought of as about people’s character than about the acts they perform
5. It is useful and important to subdivide good behavior into certain virtues like justice, wisdom, and fortitude

1 is almost universally disagreed with by everyone not a practicing virtue ethicist in a philosophy department or a very theologically-minded Catholic. 2 and 3 seem like things most people have no strong opinion about and would leave it for philosophers to debate. You could cherry-pick examples of people’s behavior where it looks like they believe 4 and 5 (we have phrases like “bad things happen to good people” which implies we thing in terms of good people) but you could equally well cherry-pick examples of people’s behavior where it seems they believe the opposite (the phrase “doing a good deed” implies that we think in terms of good actions).

So none of the five major claims of virtue ethics make it “just our intuitive morality”. This is an attempt to load the scales by privileging your own position, like the Muslims who claim that everyone is born a Muslim and it’s only when children are brainwashed by their societies that they become anything else.

So if we stop calling it “virtue ethics” and call it a better name like “intuitive ethics”, is there any value to the claim “just use your intuitive morality”? Sooooort of, but not the type of value that is actually, well, valuable.

We can use our intuitive morality to determine we should not go around murdering little kids for no reason. This is good. But as a consequence, no one is remotely interested in the question of whether we should go around murdering little kids for no reason. No one goes to moral philosophers to ask that question. The very fact that it is solvable by intuitive ethics means that it is a solved problem.

The only reason anyone is interested in moral philosophy is because sometimes this doesn’t work. Maybe we have sociopaths who are mysteriously born without intuitive morality. Or we have controversial moral problems like abortion where people intuitive moralities give very different answers. Or we have difficult moral problems like the Trolley Problem where many people’s intuitive moralities just go “Hmmm, that’s a really tough question”. Or we notice that in olden times, people’s intuitive moralities told them slavery was a-ok, including people like Aristotle who had put a lot of work into cultivating their facility of judgment, and we want to make sure we’re not doing something equally awful ourselves.

To answer “Use your intuitive morality” in any of these cases ignores the fact that the set of problems where we need moral advice is the exact complement of the set of problems where using your intuitive morality is good enough.

And the set of senses in which “well, just apply as much intuitive morality as you can and hope it works” solves these kinds of problems is the exact complement of the set of senses in which people still feel like the problem needs to be solved.

If the only claim of “virtue” ethicists is “in the subset of problems where our intuitive morality gives clear and uncontroversial results, great, let’s go with those” then I agree with this claim.

If they claim any of statements 1-5 above, or that this generalizes to the case of difficult moral problems or problems anyone actually wants answered, they are going to need to present the evidence that I still maintain After Virtue lacked.

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14 Responses to Last Thoughts On Virtue Ethics

  1. aretae says:

    I agree solidly with 4 above.

    As to #1: Objectively proper ends and teleology are not necessarily related. I am violently anti-teleological, and nonetheless support objectively proper ends. I prefer David Schmidtz’s approach of: For any end X, a human requires Y. Therefore human beings should value Y.

    #5 is also nearly obvious if you take 1,4 seriously. Reductionism helps nearly universally.

    #2 also appears to be pretty solidly grounded, if not exactly phrased the way you have, especially if one takes Haidt seriously.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Isn’t this strictly inferior to consequentialism? Consequentialism says value the things I need to achieve my actual goals. This says value only the things common to goals every human would share.

      If I’m consequentialist, it’s very obvious to me how much money I need – exactly as much as maximizes whatever consequence I’m maximizing. Here I could make an argument for not valuing money at all (there’s some ascetic in India who just wants to sit in one place until he dies, and he doesn’t need money, so money isn’t common to all human ends) – or for infinite money (money is useful for most stuff, and more money is more useful, so just accumulate as much as possible).

  2. aretae says:

    Oh, and I’m thoroughly unimpressed by “intuitive moral sense”. As a virtue ethicist, I don’t think that’s much of a good guide.

  3. Patrick says:

    “To answer “Use your intuitive morality” in any of these cases ignores the fact that the set of problems where we need moral advice is the exact complement of the set of problems where using your intuitive morality is good enough.”

    Virtue ethics tends to focus on individual behavior.

    But most major ethical problems these days tend to be solvable only through collective action.

    And succeeding at collective action through virtue ethics rarely works. Meanwhile, succeeding at collective action through the creation of enforcement mechanisms that punish defectors works quite well. Every time you go outside and don’t have to wade through human sewage like in the medieval age, chalk up another point to government.

    The thing is, virtue ethics tends to run counter to collective action through defector punishing. Because even if the task at hand gets done, if the only reason people engaged in it is because they feared being punished for defecting, people will claim that no one has behaved virtuously. And this is remarked upon fairly often- “How can helping the poor be about charity? Its not charity if the government MAKES me do it!” Well, no, not in a virtue ethical sense, but impoverished children eat food, not virtue ethical emanations, and we can certainly tax you and spend the money on subsidized school lunches. Just watch.

    So as collective action becomes more and more possible and as our problems become larger and larger and therefore more in need of collective solutions, virtue ethics tends to fade into obsolescence. Virtue ethicists tend to sound more and more like the man complaining that he should freely give the poor a tiny pittance instead of being compelled to give a meager pittance, because his chance to act virtuously is more important to him than whether the kid in question gets to eat.

    No doubt there’s some Catholic theologian somewhere minting new virtues in hopes of adjusting the language of virtue ethics until it can address the modern world. Who knows, maybe people are so attached to virtue ethics that it will actually help.

  4. Joe says:

    I agree with you. Virtue Ethics is not enough, it’s great at training moral intuitions and can prepare a person to accept a more thorough and rational moral philosophy like natural law theory as discribed in Feser’s “The Last Superstition”.

  5. Fnord says:

    Basically everybody, in practice, acts as though morality is position-dependent, even if strict consequentialism would say that it isn’t. Despite consequentialist thought experiments in that direction, very few people actually intuitively feel that or act as if “letting someone die at your feet despite being able to save them” and “failing to give money to optimal charity” are morally equivalent. Roles are a (possible) formalized way of looking at this. Also, I’m not sure they must be as prominent in all fomulations of virtue ethics as they seem to be in MacIntyre’s formulation.

    Speaking of which, I’m not sure 1 and 2 are required for all formulations of virtue ethics, either. For number 1 in particular, I’m not sure if its prominence in MacIntyre’s theory does come more from MacIntyre being a (theologically-minded?) Catholic rather than the inherent properties of the concept of virtue ethics.

  6. Jack says:

    Until recently I only saw the ways utilitarianism was better than virtue ethics, but now I’m starting to think that you need both utilitarianism and something else which to me sounds like virtue ethics, but might not be what’s “properly” meant by it.

    I imagined using the same language to describe different ways of getting something right that’s somewhat less subjective and emotional than morality, say, writing reliable computer programs.

    Some people would say “here is a list of rules, follow them”. But this approach sucks when the technology and understanding get better, because you keep writing code that saves two bytes if it’s compiled on a 1990’s 8-bit home computer, because that was a good idea at the time.

    Other people would say, “choose whichever outcome will make the code more reliable in the long run”. That’s better than “follow these outdated rules”, but doesn’t really tell you what to do hour-by-hour.

    In fact, the people who do best seem to be those who have general principles they stick to, like “fix the security holes first”, even if it’s impossible to truly estimate the relative plusses and minusses of avoiding an eventual security breach versus adding a necessary new feature now. But theyy don’t stick to them blindly, and are willing to update or bypass those principles when there’s an actual benefit in doing so.

    My thought, which I’m not yet very sure of, is the same applies to morality.

  7. Verchoo says:

    “2 and 3 seem like things most people have no strong opinion about and would leave it for philosophers to debate.”

    This reads like a fish not noticing water. Do you call your mother on Mother’s Day? Do you call other peoples’ mothers on Mother’s Day?

    “You could cherry-pick examples of people’s behavior where it looks like they believe 4 and 5”

    You didn’t give a good response to 5. Some people think of exercise in terms of muscle groups; other people have a less sophisticated view. Not only are the first group more likely to be fit, the increased sophistication of their view probably contributes to that fitness.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that roles do have ethical obligations, but not that these are the origin of those ethical obligations. Like if you’re a fireman, you had better put out fires, but the reason fires need to be put out is unrelated to you being a fireman. Your being a fireman just means you’re the designated person who has to fulfill this objectively-good-for-other-reasons thing.

      If I understand virtue ethics right, a fireman is acting virtuously in fulfilling his role as a fireman, and a professional arsonist (if such things be) is acting virtuously in fulfilling his role as an arsonist, and in neither case does the fact that fire destroys property and burns people come into the equation (although on a higher level one can certainly debate the ethics of taking on either role)

  8. Benquo says:

    Scott, one of the most important differences between virtue ethics and modern ethics is that in virtue ethics, when you’ve defined exactly what the good is, you’re not done. You also have to figure out what kinds of living are consistent with which parts of the good, and what different behaviors do to your soul.

    The Platonic/Socratic argument seems to be:
    If you know the good, you will do it.
    To prove a thing is to come to know it.
    Therefore, the way to become good is to prove things to yourself about the good.

    The problem with this argument is that it equivocates on the senses of “know the good.” An example: you might think that reading the Sequences on Less Wrong is helpful in becoming rational. But only reading the sequences is not sufficient for most people – you have to actually practice overcoming your bad habits, sometimes even overcorrecting with the opposite bias to break yourself from your bad habits.

    It’s much the same with any other virtue. There is the kind of knowledge of the good that allows you to figure out what the obviously right answer is when sitting calmly in a safe place after the fact, and then there is the kind of knowledge of the good that allows you to do the obviously right thing when you are hungry or tired or stressed out or scared or distracted.

    This is why to virtue ethicists, modern ethics seems bizarrely nitpicky, focused on edge cases that are unlikely to occur while completely neglecting the art of successfully applying the things that we do know about right action.

  9. Doug S. says:

    Do you have any opinion on Alonzo Fyfe’s “desirism”?

  10. Leon says:

    To my mind, 1. virtue ethics seems much more intuitive (and more
    importantly, concrete) than utilitarianism in many ways, and 2. virtue
    ethics seems to help with common moral problems (especially the
    vague-but-universal “how should I live?”) better than utilitarianism —
    except for trolley problem-type situations/thought experiments, in
    which it may be “virtuous” to perform a utilitarian calculation
    anyhow.

    1. Ethics involves teleology, eg considering the
    objectively proper ends of beings

    Utilitarian ethics involves abstractions like “rational agent”,
    “utility function”, “[revealed] preference”, etc. It’s not clear that
    these abstractions don’t smuggle in teleology somewhere (“an agent
    should follow its preferences”, or “people should try to be rational
    agents”), or that they map clearly or nontrivially onto reality at
    all.

    2. Ethics has to be grounded in a community to make sense; individual
    ethics are only a pale shadow

    Is it possible for someone not to follow their goals? If not
    (“revealed preference”) then utilitarianism says nothing to the
    individual except for “achieve your goals” — i.e., “do what you
    want, which you’re already doing anyway”. If so, then it presumably either

    1. asks people to search for their “deepest” goals, to
    coherently/rationally order them, etc. — which sounds awfully like
    “seeking the proper end of a rational animal” to me (if these deep goals come
    from what people, in general, are like), or

    2. asks people to somehow “submit” their preferences to the aggregated
    preferences of the community — or even of all “agents”, broadly
    construed. This makes individuals slaves to the desires of the
    community, including any utility monsters that happen to be floating around.

    3. Ethics is role-dependent; your role as a mother or child or
    employee or citizen produces your ethical obligations

    This fits pretty well with whatever intuition leads people to say,
    “she’s a good citizen”, “he’s a good father”, etc. Moreover, virtue
    ethics as I understand it treats one’s roles in a hierarchical way:
    you’re a person before you’re male or female, before you’re an
    employee, before you’re an employee at so-and-so institution. So
    saying “she’s a good person” trumps “she’s a good employee of US
    Mail”.

    4. Ethics is better thought of as about people’s character than about
    the acts they perform

    This makes perfect sense if the key ethical question is “how should I
    live?”, rather than “how should I act in this dilemma (multilemma?)
    with a discretized or manageable set of alternatives?”. Virtue ethics
    is about good habits, rather than good individual actions; it is
    surely virtuous (e.g. prudent) to reason in a consequentialist way in
    many situations. Utilitarianism is about framing dilemmas as mathematical optimization problems (crude caricature).

    5. It is useful and important to subdivide good behavior into certain
    virtues like justice, wisdom, and fortitude

    … so that one can say, “she’s wise” or “he’s brave”, rather than
    “she’s good at maximizing good consequences”, “he’s good at maximizing
    good consequences”.

  11. MugaSofer says:

    I have two complaints here, the first of which is that virtue ethics is not just the claim that we should use our intuitive moral sense.

    I recently came across a great example of the sort of thing I think they have in mind:

    http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/07/apologists_amon.html

    Complete rubbish, of course, but it has a very virtue=ethicist vibe. It doesn’t seem to fit with those claims you list, though, so …

  12. I can sort of see a consequentialist angle on teleology, insofar as identifying people’s individual strengths and weaknesses and pairing them with workplace needs holds some promise for improved satisficing with respect to certain personalities and roles. (It will be interesting to see how the 20-year hiring program that SAP has embarked on with the consultancy mentioned in that link shakes out.)

    Obviously, too far down that road lies We (or Anthem, if you prefer), but “try to offer people opportunities that are particularly well-suited to their talents” seems like a reasonably prosocial thing to do if that sort of matching can be made reliably.