Unifying Moral Philosophy With Virtue Ethics

One of the things that is apparent when you begin reading virtue ethicists is that they seem to find arguments that rely on pointing out consequences alone to be distasteful. You can see why someone like Deirdre McCloskey would take that tone, when she works in economics, that last stronghold of utilitarianism. But such arguments often provoke dismissal—“virtue would be nice in an ideal world, but down here on the ground we have to deal with practical concerns.”

The distaste for argument-by-consequences isn’t held by virtue ethicists alone of course; it is also characteristic of many schools of deontology. The intellectual descendants of Kant believe that you should do your duty just because it is your duty. Virtue ethicists, however, argue that mere rule-following is not all there is to ethics. Aristotle pointed out that the very particularity of circumstances made the possible combination of factors too great to boil down to general rules. Navigating such particularities requires lived experience, and the development of phronesis; practical wisdom, translated into latin as prudentia, which became the English word prudence.

Virtue ethics as I understand it takes the best of consequentialism and deontology and integrates them into a much more human framework. Prudence, in the older sense of broad practical wisdom, includes within it the more modern sense of prudence, which is concerned solely with consequences and interest. As Albert Hirschman argued, even our notion of “interest” used to be much broader than it is now. Broader even than so-called “enlightened” self-interest which takes the long term into account, as opposed to myopic self-interest which is merely opportunistic. Given the unity of the virtues, a virtue ethicist ought to hold that consequences do in fact matter, they are just not all that matters.

Among the original cardinal virtues, and Aquinas’ famous seven, is justice; the virtue of always giving what is due. This seems to me to be the virtue of recognizing and acting on principles that have deontic authority—that is, the virtue of performing our duties. McCloskey’s recent paper on institutions has a good treatment on such deontic principles, which she argues are conjective in nature. Being able to distinguish the deontic from the merely suggested is, I think, also an important part of (the older sense of) prudence.

But why should anyone care about either consequences or duty? At bottom our desires and our reasons, no matter how seemingly rational, are grounded by some sort of faith. Some basic things we take for granted or hold dear to us, some things that cannot be rationally justified because they are themselves the basis of your justifications.

Prudence, justice, faith, courage, temperance, charity, and hope—ingredients for a meaningful life, for being the sort of person you can look in the mirror without shame. While seeing the wisdom in the accomplishments of consequentialist and deontologist thinkers, I believe that virtue ethics provides the best framework for grounding and making the best use of those accomplishments.

4 thoughts on “Unifying Moral Philosophy With Virtue Ethics

  1. Interesting article, Adam. I read your blog to get a better understanding of what type of moral realist you are. Looks like you are influenced by Deidre McCloskey in her work on moral philosophy.

    You once said, “I am in a strange position. I am a moral realist, by faith. Yet I have no faith in the divine. I peruse the writings of, and writings on, Catholic church fathers in the virtue tradition, yet I am not Catholic, Christian, or a theist of any sort. I read Aristotle and read up on the Greek and Roman eudaimonic philosophers, rationalists to a man, yet I am not a rationalist. But I see wisdom in all of them, and from my strange little corner still feel they have a lot to teach me.”

    I am just curious, if there is no God, and you are a moral realist, where do these objective moral facts come from? Do they exist in some platonic, abstract metaphysical realm alongside numbers and shapes? If so, how does such a realm determine the objective “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action? Seems like these entities are non-moral properties.

    In my opinion, I find it more rational that morality originated from an intrinsically valuable, intelligent Creator (commonly known as God) than for morals to have emerged naturalistically through a valueless, non-moral, non-intelligent physical and chemical process. I guess I am just trying to understand how moral objectivity can exist without God. Where do you ground this metaphysical claim? Thanks again for your interesting article and knowledge concerning virtue ethics.

    1. Hello,

      Thanks for taking such an interest!

      I am no metaphysician, so I don’t really have an answer for you. I do intend to some day seriously delve into metaphysics, and perhaps I’ll be able to provide a more satisfactory response at that point. My co-blogger Drew Summit keeps pushing me to do so! 🙂

      I will say that odds are it only seems more rational to ground moral realism in the will of a diety simply because historically that’s what was done for so long. But to me, the processes aren’t just chemical, physical, evolutionary, etc. They also include what Michael Oakeshott calls “the conversation of mankind”, as well as the ongoing stories of every life and every family.

      The bottom line is that I realize my belief isn’t very rational, because it’s the faith I ground everything else on; it’s the un-reasoned foundation for my reasoning, if you will. Again, I realize that isn’t very satisfying…

      1. Adam, I appreciate your response. First, just because moral realism has been historically grounded in a deity doesn’t make it true or false.

        Second, you said, “I realize my belief isn’t very rational, because it’s the faith I ground everything else on.” From a purely naturalistic worldview you are right. It could be the case that all of your reasoning is just a mode for survival. It may not necessarily be “true” or “false”, but simply a defense mechanism to aid in your survival.

        However, if you have a mind, and you know your mind is a thinking thing, then you can at least know that you exist. If you know that you exist, then you must ask the question, “Where does existence come from?” Does it make more sense that existence came a priori from nothing or did it come from God? If it came from a God, who is rational, valuable, and good, then actually you can discover what is “true” and what is “false.”

        Why? Because God has written the computer code of logic into existence: For example you can know for certain that a square circle is logically incoherent. This itself is a belief that can be grounded in truth; it requires no faith at all. Therefore, epistemologically, we know that truth can be found.

        Lastly, here is a quote from Oakseshott: He states, “a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.”

        If there is no truth to be discovered, and you are influenced by “the conversation of mankind” by Oakeshott, why do you still have a moral realist position? It seems to me that he is an anti-realist who denies objective reality or the verification of whether something is true or false.

        Thanks for your comments. I appreciate it. Have a good day.

      2. Hey,

        I’m afraid I don’t much buy into the Cartesian logic you present. What “makes sense” is highly contingent on a background conceptual scheme which is unavoidably assumed rather than holistically defended (though it can be defended piecemeal).

        I like Oakeshott’s metaphor of the conversation of mankind in general but we may deviate on some particulars. The key for me is that conversation, and storytelling, are generative.

        But bringing that into this thread was probably an unnecessary distraction. Let me put it this way: I have faith in moral realism for the same reason that I have faith that when I put my foot on the sidewalk, I am not going to pass through it and fall into the center of the Earth. It’s a perception. I don’t understand all the metaphysics (or heck, just the plain old physics) of why I am able to walk on the sidewalk. But I have faith that I will, and I must have that faith, or else I won’t take any steps at all and I will be stuck in place.

        As the post you are referencing attempted to describe, my experience of moral realism was _an experience_, of a different sort but conceptually the same as my experience of walking on the sidewalk.

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