I’ve been trying to understand some of the responses to my review of After Virtue. Tell me whether this is about right:
The problem of “doing the right thing” consists of two subproblems.
First, knowing what the right thing is. Do we legalize or ban abortion? Do we press the switch in the trolley problem or not?
Second, behaving correctly in situations where we do know what the right thing is. For example, going to visit a friend in the hospital even though the hospital is far away. Not cheating on your taxes even though you could use the money. Working hard even though no one is checking up on you.
The proposal was that virtue ethics doesn’t claim to be a solution to the first problem, but is a uniquely excellent solution to the second, and in fact the solution people actually use. Am I understanding this correctly?
Because if that’s true, I still disagree.
Virtue Ethics Is What People Do
I am not really good at thinking in terms of good or bad people. I can do so in very edge cases, like Kim Jong-il or St. Holden. But I tend to process all the people I know and have remotely okay interactions with as “good people”, leading to conversations like:
Me: Oh, cool, Bob is coming over soon! Bob is great!
Friend: But didn’t Bob [do X, Y, and Z]?
Me: Well, yes, but other than that he’s great.
Friend: And didn’t he [do A, B, and C]?
Me: You can’t just keep taking all these things Bob does out of context!
Friend: Okay, what has Bob done that was good?
Me: He…well…he…you know! Bob! He’s great!
When I deviate from this, it almost always tends to be in terms of actions, not qualities. Like “Bob is great, except that he posts really annoying things on Facebook all the time”. Or “Bob is great, except that he has some really horrible politics.”
When I think about my own morality, it’s almost never in terms of whether I am or am not a virtuous person (I have at least one subagent that’s always convinced I’m a virtuous person, and at least one subagent that’s always convinced I’m terrible and deserve to die, and doing good things paradoxically strengthens the latter subagent for some reason).
It’s usually in terms of – I guess it feels like a missile must feel locking on to a target. If my mind is sufficiently calm and predisposed to goodness, I think “Wait a second, that’s the morally correct thing to do”, lock on to one option, and then feel really good about it – a serene feeling.
I can’t always do this. If I’m sufficiently angry, part of me thinks “I bet I could lock on to what’s good and do it…but that would probably involve turning the other cheek, or compromising, AND THEN THESE JERKS WOULD GET AWAY WITH IT.” And then my mind makes up all sorts of game theoretic justifications for why it’s more important to punish defectors than to do what feels like the right thing at this precise moment. Or if I’m sufficiently exhausted, I think “If I started worrying about what’s good now, then I’d probably have to do it, and that would be really arduous.”
On the one hand, this is no doubt a very idiosyncratic report; I don’t expect my experience of morality to be similar to anyone else’s. On the other hand, this is an idiosyncratic report and I don’t expect my experience of morality to be similar to anyone else’s. So if you say “Virtue ethics is the way people naturally think about morality!”, that’s either a typical mind fallacy or you’re going to have to do a much better job explaining virtue ethics.
My experience of morality is contray to traditional virtue ethics in almost every way. It doesn’t feel like it depends on my social roles. It doesn’t strike me as divisible – that is, it feels like solid goodness and words like “continence” or “prudence” don’t do anything to me. It doesn’t strike me as the same feeling that occurs when I consider important but non-ethical questions like procrastination. It doesn’t strike me as performed in a community or according to a narrative. It’s just not virtue ethics.
The Practice of Making People More Moral
The other claim is that virtue ethics is the science of making people better – a process for helping people refine their existing moral intuitions and overcome temptation more effectively.
If that’s true, it’s a science much like medieval medicine was a science – totally untested and not especially likely to bear any resemblance to reality. If people are actually looking for ways to become more moral, I bet an hour’s search would find about thirty of them that are more likely to work than adopting virtue ethics.
These could be broadly divided into beliefs and practices. In terms of beliefs, I think the most useful would be a belief in the Devil, moral realism, humility, and various kinds of magical thinking.
In terms of practices, there would be willpower training (pretty much anything that requires willpower counts as willpower training, but let’s say exercise as the stereotypical example), rationality training, keeping a journal, talking about morality, making friends, joining a group with some sort of interest in morality, cutting yourself off from bad influences, making yourself happier (happy people are more moral), learning relaxation/stress-busting techniques, and reading fiction.
All of these things would make people more moral in different directions and in different ways. For example, I bet reading works of fiction about poor people in the Third World would make you more likely to donate to charity, and contemplating virtue ethics and the just polis would make you more likely to make you get involved in local politics. Which of these you recommend is very closely linked to whether you think giving to charity to the Third World is more or less important than getting involved in local politics (hint: there is only one answer to this question which is not really stupid).
In terms of the best all-around practice for increasing morality I would nominate meditation, especially lovingkindness meditation. David Chapman, who knows ten zillion times more about Buddhism and meditation than I do, suggests metta bhavana, tonglen, and chöd. Even very generic meditation ticks several of the boxes above – relaxation, willpower training, and happiness – but these are said to (and have some evidence of) specifically increasing your ability to love and care about other people.
This seems like probably the best thing you can do for morality short of ground it objectively. If people love and care about others, they end up automatically ticking the two boxes I claim are required to end up more-or-less utilitarian – grounding morality in the world and caring about other people. If you’ve got that, it kind of lowers the degree to which morality even needs to be grounded objectively; it would still be nice, but we can trust people to do the right thing even if it isn’t.
Virtue ethics doesn’t satisfy either of these criteria, and in fact, we find that throughout history a lot of really terrible people have been very good virtue ethicists (the Spartans come to mind). So although many of the commenters here want to virtue ethics from its failure to ground morality by saying it removes the need to ground morality, I think virtue ethics can’t even do that right and there are a lot of things that are much better.
Edit: Something I said in the comments that might clarify my position. I think even this is giving virtue ethics too much credit, since it’s not just “use our inborn moral sense” but a host of claims about making lists of virtues and studying teleology – but on the principle of steelmanning an opponent’s argument:
Imagine that instead of virtue ethics we’re talking about grammar. In most cases, we have a natural grammar sense – that is, the real reason I don’t say “Me is Scott” is because it just sounds wrong.
In most cases this is good enough. In some cases it isn’t – for example, sometimes we have to teach grammar to foreigners who lack this intuitive grammar sense. Or sometimes there are edge cases where we’re really not sure what word to use. Or we want to program a computer to write with proper grammar. Or we want to set editorial policy for a newspaper. Or sometimes we’re just genuinely curious how grammar works.
There is a point to having a science of grammar where smart people say “Oh, it looks like the predicate nominative form is used in this way.”
And inventing a “virtue grammar”, where people say “But you’re ignoring all normal grammar usage in favor of a few silly edge cases! Real people don’t talk about predicate nominatives! Just use your natural grammar sense!” is a total waste of everyone’s time. Yes, natural grammar sense usually works well, but shouting “Hey, natural grammar sense often works well!” contributes nothing to the field and is just distracting people from actually figuring out how grammar works.
In pretty much all fields except ethics, everyone has agreed that the proper thing to do is to be happy when our natural senses are good enough, but also create a formal study of the field in order to go beyond what our natural senses can tell us. I don’t understand why we can’t also do this for ethics.