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.

Instrumental or Inherent

I want you guys to help me out with something, which I’ve been struggling with lately. Is there such a thing as something being good in itself? Is all value in some way derived from either evolution or some version of felt satisfaction and pleasure, or both? Does this question even matter?

Of course, at the end of the day there has to be some final good or goods in order for anything to have instrumental value. By definition, something being instrumental means its value is derived from its ability to serve as a means to some valued end. In other words, the value is from the end.

But a lot of people feel that pleasure and its more healthy cousin satisfaction are not good enough (not satisfying?) as ends. And a lot of people recoil at the idea that it’s all just derived from what enables effective reproduction across generations (which is what any evolutionary account boils down to).

This was on my mind again today as I read Rupert Read and Nassim Taleb’s paper on religion as intergenerational risk management. Taleb’s whole worldview, the thing that has made him famous, is entirely consequences-oriented: if you don’t think in terms of bounds rather than attempting to master probability distributions you can’t actually know, a black swan will come and kick your ass and your loved ones’ asses and your civilization’s ass and probably the ass of the whole human race. His arguments are given their bite, in short, by the threat of catastrophic consequences.

Yet Taleb says left and right that we should only do things because it is our duty to. He is clearly some kind of deontologist with a fondness for virtue ethics, especially the Stoics. But should we do our duty because of the categorical imperative, which is indifferent to consequences, or because it is the right thing to do, in itself?

It seems to me that there is no getting around the fact that human morality emerged through the evolutionary process, and any morality that results in the destruction of the peoples who adopt it is unlikely to last for long. It also seems to me that you should do the right thing even when it might mean very bad consequences, at least in the short term. I’m not comfortable making the logical leap from there and saying that the right thing inherently means doing what has the best consequences in the longest term and the largest scale.

I have more thoughts on this, but I’d rather leave it as a question now than attempt to answer it any further. All thoughts are welcome.