(Chapter 3 In Three Methods of Ethics)
By Michael Slote
In this paper, Slote provides an overview of Virtue Ethics, describes what makes it different from other moral theories, and then provides four types of virtue-ethic theories. Virtue ethics is agent-focused, and based on the virtuous individual and on the inner traits and motives that make her virtuous. Some virtue-ethicists argue that morality is too complex to be covered by any ethical theory, but Slote disagrees, and suggests that theory is useful for ensuring consistency. Commonsense virtue theory is based on intuitive ideas of which traits are admirable. It improves on Kantianism and Consequentialism because it does not require the moral agent to devalue herself with respect to others, allowing her to balance self-regarding and other-regarding virtues. Three agent-based virtue-ethic theories are presented: morality as inner strength, morality as universal benevolence, and morality as caring. In each of these cases admirable traits are derived from the one central virtue. Individuals ought to take actions based on the admirable motives, which often requires the person to incorporate information about the world into her actions to ensure that she adequately acts in accordance with the admirable motive.
1. What is Virtue Ethics
In virtue ethics, the focus is on the virtuous individual and on those inner traits, dispositions, and motive that qualify her as being virtuous. Virtue ethics is agent-focused. This is in contrast to many modern philosophers who think of the moral life as a matter of relating to moral rules. Virtue ethics uses aretaic ethical terms, such as morally good, admirable, and virtuous rather than deontic works such as right or wrong, permissible or obligatory. Agent-based, rather than merely agent-focused, virtue ethics argue that the ethical character of actions is independent on how and why and by whom the actions are done, and only motives and habits are important to the agents who perform the actions.
2. Theory versus Anti-Theory
Anti-theorists are critical of ethical theory’s quest for hierarchically ordered, exceptionless, and universally applicable moral principles. They argue that moral complexities are not reducible in this way. Slote disagrees, arguing that simplicity and unifying power have some weight in deciding what type of ethical view to adopt. Intuitive considerations are also important. He believes that moral intuition, however, sometimes falls into paradoxes. For example, a driver who isn’t paying attention and swerves into another lane is blamed much more for her action if there happens to be a car in that lane, and if she causes damage or injury, even though the existence of the other car at that time and place is just a matter of luck. Given that intuitions are inconsistent, ingenuity is needed to come up with something that avoids paradox.
3. Virtue Theory versus Kantian and Common-sense Morality
Aristotle’s views are the basis for one form of virtue theory, however Aristotle’s views are not directly relevant. He suggested that virtues lay between extremes – e.g. courage is between foolhardiness and cowardice. However, this does not work for some virtues, such as truthfulness. However, the neo-Arstotelian view is structurally similar to Aristotle’s views.
The structure in a number of other theories is asymmetric. In common-sense morality, we seem to have moral obligations in regard to the happiness of others that we lack in regard to ourselves, which leads to paradox. We usually think it’s better to help someone else more rather than less, but it is not considered good to do more rather than less for yourself. This asymmetry also exists in Kantian morality. Promoting the well-being of others is meritorious in a way that benefiting oneself is not. The asymmetry of Kantianism and common sense morality seem to devalue the well-being of moral agents and thus the agents themselves.
Consequentialism is self-other symmetric, as it is considered just as important to advance your own well-being as to advance others. Commonsense virtue is also self-other symmetric. We value resourcefulness and prudence, for example, even though they are virtues primarily valuable to those who possess them, rather than to others. We also value virtues that primarily benefit others, such as kindness and honesty.
4. Common-sense Virtue Ethics versus Consequentialism
Consequentialism doesn’t have inconsistencies of moral luck mentioned earlier- since it defines good and bad in terms of consequences, it is ok with the idea that the consequences might be a matter of luck. However, this is a somewhat unintuitive conclusion. Utilitarianism is self-other symmetric; it requires that one’s obligations to one’s self are no stronger or weaker than one’s obligation to other. It may require self-sacrifice if more people can be helped. This demand of sacrifice seems to devalue the agent’s natural concern for her own well-being. Utilitarianism is self-other neutral.
Commonsense virtue ethics favors a balance between oneself and other people considered as a category. We have a balance between the value of self-regarding virtues (resourcefulness, prudence) and other-regarding virtues (kindness, honesty). Moreover, both types of virtues are compatible with each other, which suggests that balance rather than specialization in these virtues is best. A trait like selfishness, on the other hand, is not compatible with other-regarding virtues, and this may be why it’s not considered an admirable trait of character. A commonsense virtue ethics suggests one should be concerned to promote one’s own well-being and virtues and also concerned to promote the well-being and virtues of other people (taken as a group) . This is in contrast to Kant, who urges concern for one’s own self development, and the happiness of others, but not for one’s own happiness, or for the moral development of others.
To prove that there are cases where it is more admirable to help oneself rather than others, Slote provides the example of a dutiful daughter. Her mother has died and her siblings are in university, so she takes care of her ailing father. A sibling is injured and comes home to be cared for. A sister gets divorced and moves back home with five children. If the daughter decides at some point to move out of the house and pursue her own studies or career, most people would think well of this self-interested decision.
5. Further Aspects of Common-sense Virtue Ethics
Slote argues that the aretaic terminology favored by virtue ethics is not weaker than the deontic terminology. For example, saying something was morally wrong does not seem much stronger than saying something is morally bad. Therefore, when virtue ethics defines something as morally bad, it is easy to see that we shouldn’t act in that way.
It is possible that many virtues that seem to be other-regarding have self-regarding components that have been ignored due to the asymmetry of Kantianism and other moral theories. For example, trustworthiness may apply to an individual. An alcoholic who has vowed to stop drinking, but does not, may berate himself just as bitterly as he would criticize other-regarding untrustworthiness.
6. Making Sense of Agent-based Virtue Ethics
Commonsense virtue ethics is agent-focused, but the next theories presented are of a more radical, agent-based, form. Agent based virtue eithics must derive its evaluations of human actions from independent and fundamental aretaic characterizations of the inner traits or motives of individuals or of the individuals themselves. This means that the agent and her inner life is the basis and measure for all moral activity; this is not based in an independent or action-governing moral standard.
Others have previously suggested an agent-prior form of virtue ethics based on Aristotelian theory. In this case, acts are said to be right if they exercise virtue(s), and a trait is a virtue if people need it to flourish or have good lives. However, Aristotle defines flourishing as acting virtuously, so this seems somewhat circular. The theory allows a moral agent to act virtuously, but be self-sacrificing. This seems impossible if virtue is defined as traits that cause agent happiness.
In contrast, agent-based theories treat the admirability of traits and motives as ethically fundamental and derive moral judgments of actions from evaluations of traits and motives. This may seem to remove the common distinction between doing the right thing and doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. For example, a prosecutor who does his duty by trying to convict a defendant, but who is motivated by malice rather than a sense of public duty creates this paradox. His duty can be understood in agent-based terms by considering what happens if, horrified by his malice, he doesn’t prosecute. In this case, his motivations are still bad, and also make his action wrong. This allows us to say that the prosecutor has a duty to prosecute or allow someone else ot prosecute, because if he doesn’t, he’ll still be acting from the deficient motivation. Yet, if he prosecutes, he acts wrongly, even if another person, with different motivation, would have acted rightly in doing so. This shows that agent-basing is able to make fine-grained distinctions in these cases.
On the other hand, if agent-basing is only concerned with the inner states of agents, it seems that for a person with the right set of inner traits, it doesn’t matter morally what the person actually does. However, even if an individual has the virtue of benevolence, if she fails to express that trait, her actions would not be admirable. This view seems to suggest that agent-based models have a one-way direction of fit – from the moral agent to the world. However, for many virtues, it is necessarily to get information from the world to know how to best use one’s virtues. If one wants to be benevolent, one doesn’t just throw good things around, or give them to the first person one sees, benevolence in the fullest sense involves caring about who is need and to what extent they are needy.
7. Morality as Inner Strength
“Cool” agent-based virtue ethics are based on virtues such as health and strength, which don’t have any clear link to altruism. “Warm” agent-based virtue ethics are based on ideas like compassion and benevolence, which build altruistic human concern explicitly into their foundations. “Cool” theories have their basis in Plato’s theory that good action is based on the strength of the soul. This can also be thought of as ‘morality as inner strength.’ This type of theory must treat strength (in various forms) as an ultimate admirable way of existing and being motivated as a person, and must show us how to frame a plausible morality of human actions on that basis.
Inner strength seems justified by the value we put on the strength to face unpleasant facts, independent of any benefits it occurs. Altruism can also be based on strength. People who are strong enough to see when they have enough, and are able to give to others is more admirable than a person who is too dependent or week on the things he keeps for himself to be willing to give anything away. The primary problem with morality as inner strength is that it treats benevolence, compassion, kindness, and similar traits as only derivatively admirable and morally good, which doesn’t seem to fit well with modern moral consciousness.
8. Morality as Universal Benevolence
An agent-based virtue-theory based on universal benevolence focuses on benevolence as a motive that seeks certain ends, and is not focused on the probable occurrence of those ends. This is different than a utilitarianism based on motives. A utilitarian might judge motives by their consequences. If a person builds a hospital, but is motivated by the desire to see her name on the building, a utilitarian might define this motive as good, since the consequence is good. However, a theory of morality as universal benevolence will treat such a motivation as less than morally good (though not necessarily bad).
Like criticisms of utilitarianism above, morality as universal benevolence might be said to devalue the moral agent. However, this can be countered by supporting a satisficing version of the theory that argues acts are right if they come from a motive that is close enough to universal benevolence, without being over-demanding. Morality as universal benevolence also doesn’t require consensus on the definition of human well-being. Because benevolence involves not only the desire to do what is good or best overall for the people one is concerned about, but also the desire that no one of those people should be hurt, morality as universal benevolence can explain why we might be horrified at killing one to save many, even if in the end that is what we morally ought to do.
9. Morality as Caring
Past theories have suggested a particularistic morality of caring that puts a premium on caring for some rather than others. An agent-based morality as caring should say that it is best to be motivated by concern for others in balance with self-concern. Even a particularistic morality that suggests greater concerned to those near and dear to us could deplore indifference to strangers. The admirability of caring fits well with agent-based morality, since we generally believe it is admirable to care, but not particularly admirable to be cared-for, suggesting that the admirability of caring is not based in its help in realizing certain goods.
10. Agent-basing and Applied Ethics
It may seems like agent-based morality doesn’t have real-world application, since it is based on motives rather than facts about the world. However, admirable motives often require that we find out relevant facts about the world in order to act according to virtuous motives. If it’s impossible to find out more information, it is a strength of the theory that it doesn’t attempt to provide moral answers in cases that outrun our human knowledge or reasoning powers. An example of the practical use of agent-based virtue-ethics is seen in arguments made by proponents of NAFTA. They argued that rejecting NAFTA would show a fearful or despairing attitude to the world about America’s future. This shows that traits rather than just consequences are relevant in policy.
11. Conclusion: Comparisons within Virtue Ethics
Neo-Aristotelian as well as the three agent-based forms seem to be promising directions for the future of virtue ethics. Morality as inner strength is weak in that it treats compassion as derivative, but strong since it doesn’t rely on more traditional ideas of morality, which may appeal to skeptics. On the other hand, some may believe morality as benevolence is inherently forceful and attractive, and not in need of justification by other motives. Morality of caring seems to have aspects of both common-sense virtue ethics and morality as universal benevolence, and is a compromise between the two.