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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.