Thursday, July 19, 2012

Virtue, Seeing, and Disagreement

I've been interested for some time in Virtue Ethics on this blog. I think universalized, neutral rules - our depersonalized, process-oriented broad liberal tradition - block any substantive discussion of what kind of good life or society we want, and prevent us making the evolution of the economy follow a path which we find attractive. We get a lot of process but no direction.

There has been increasing interest in virtue ethics in philosophical circles in recent years. I read a book coming back on the plane from the southwest: Virtue Ethics (Oxford Readings in Philosophy). There is one quote, from a John McDowell of Oxford/Pittsburgh, which I particularly like because it links ethics to perception, another long-standing interest of mine:

If the question "How should one live?" could be given a direct answer in universal terms, the concept of virtue would have only a secondary place in moral philosophy. But thesis of uncodifiability excludes a head-on approach to the question whose urgency gives ethics its interest. Occasion by occasion, one knows what to do, if one does, not by applying universal rules but by being a certain kind of person: one who sees situations in a certain distinctive way.(p161)

It's not a matter of codified universal rules: it's a matter of seeing things. Another (critical) article of virtue ethics, by J.D Schneewind, says 

The first point about a virtue-centered view is that the primary or central moral judgements are judgements about the character of agents....Second, on the epistemological side, the virtue theorist holds that the perceptions of the virtuous person are the original and central source of knowledge about how much good to pursue, for whom, in what circumstances, and how vigorously.

I am highly attracted to this strong link between perception and virtue/ethics. Improvement in policy and society is most often a matter of educating and improving perception.

Co-existence as the prime aim of ethics

Some of the criticism is very interesting. Schneewind argues moderns, including Kant, did not neglect or ignore virtue in pursuit of other ideas, so much as built on the natural law tradition which saw coexistence as the primary problem in society. Grotius is the key figure.

If we ask why the project of the Grotians was to establish a law-like code of morals, the answer must be that they took the central difficulties of life to be those arising from disagreement - disagreement involving nations, religious sects, parties to legal disputes, and ordinary people trying to make a living in busy commercial societies.

...In tackling these problems, classical virtue theory is of little or no use. Aristotle does not tell us what a virtuous agent is to do to convince someone who is not virtuous to agree with him, other than to educate him all over again. He does not suggest criteria which anyone and everyone can use to determine who is a virtuous agent and who is not. He does not discuss the situation in which two virtuous agents disagree seriously with one another. And consequently he does not notice what seems to be an implication of his view: that if two allegedly virtuous agents strongly disagree , one of them (at least) must be morally defective.

The Aristotelian theory may have been suited to a society in which there was a recognized class of superior citizens , whose judgement on moral issues would be accepted without question (p200)

This is very stimulating. It is a different and less ambitious aim for ethics, and indeed society: it is the Rodney King question, "Can't we all get along?", rather than the "what is the good life" question. It is a matter of minimal coexistence, and it certainly seems to be a key to classical liberalism. I've said before that liberalism as the broad tradition which encompasses most of our politics today had its origin in the reaction to the blood spilt in the wars of religion. And this view has a natural attraction in fractured, multi-cultural societies, where many politicans will see not rocking the boat as the principal aim of policy.

I don't think it follows that it is impossible to resolve disagreement with virtue ethics. Quite the opposite, in fact, because it would have implications for how you discuss problems and look for solutions - moderation, open-mindedness, honesty, courage. Conpare how legalistic procedures can inflame disagreement - infamously in divorce cases, for example, where involving lawyers and rules seems often to make disagreement much more entrenched.

Nor is it a fair criticism to say that somehow Aristotle's views were suited to a more homogenous, hierarchical society, but not to today's diverse and complicated states. We've seen fifth and even fourth-century Athens were riven with disagreement and conflict between the aristocratic classes and the people. Indeed, much of the motivation for that original ethical philosophy may have been to find a better way to live in a violent, conflicted society.

Schneewind also thinks Kant did not ignore virtue, although much of it is relegated to Kant's more obscure books. However,

..The virtuous agent, for Kant, has no epistemological privilege: when she exercises her virtue she is simply choosing at her discretion among alternative ways of helping others, she is not displaying insight into the morally best thing to do. Moreover, Kant sees virtue in a most un-Aristotelian way, as always a struggle, never a settled principle. Kant's vision of the divided self is the villain here, with morality springing from an impossibly pure reason in conflict with reprobate passions forever calling for discipline. Virtue is not so much the expression of our nature at its most developed as it is the triumph of one part of it over another.

And so from this follows the idea that rationality is the main ground of moraity, of course, rather than experience (or religion.)

Rules versus Discretion

Much of the criticism of virtue ethics is that it does not give a definitive black-and-white rule of what to do in particular circumstances. Schneewind draws attention to how Hume developed a modified virtue ethics, of natural versus artificial virtues. And he notes Adam Smith's view in the Theory of Moral Sentiments:

.. he shared the Grotian belief that society could not function properly without clear and precise rules for the guidance of action. .. These points stand out sharply in Smith's criticusm of the views of virtue he attributes to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, clarke, Wollaston and Shaftesbury. All of them, he says, place cirtue in the propriety of affections, but 'none of them give, or pretend to give, any precise or distinct measure by which this fitness or propriety can be ascertained or judged of.' Yet to direct such judgements is 'the great purpose of all systems of morality.'

..If the natural lawyers' stress on actions and on perfect duties is thus apparent in Smith, so too is their preference for the clear and definite over against that which must be left to the discretion of the agent. (p191)

It is similar, in a way, to the contemporary long-standing debate in economic policy about rules versus discretion. It also perhas reflects the difference between traditional Anglo-American common law and Napoleonic style codification of the law.

In this case, at least, it seems to be a matter of fundamental taste or personality.

Co-existence is very important, of course. And radical reform schemes have a terrible record of producing discord and bloodshed in practicce. But a legalistic procedure to arbitrate disputes does not exhaust what we want out of life. Indeed, the approach is based on a fatalstic idea that there can be no real agreement on ends or aims in society, perhaps aside from a few abstract notions about equality or rights.

And the whole point of judgement is it leaves room for balance, for realizing (like Berlin) that there is a golden mean, not a crystalline purity of moral rules.

The idea that ethics or social life is a rational, depersonalized means for arbitrating disputes, a kind of machine, actually often undermines itself, as people get entrenched in irreconcilable rights and aggressive self-assertion.

1 comment:

  1. "We get a lot of process but no direction." If it is direction you want, direction you get! A perfect virtue ethic conception conceived as spiritual ideal.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called 'the first Resurrection' in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods' willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence and ultimate proof!

    Thus 'faith' becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our moral compass with the Divine, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at,