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.

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Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

Does god make his commandments base on what is right, or is what is right based on his commandments? This is the Euthyphro dilemma, and it has boggled theologians and moral philosophers alike for literally millenia

The dilemma is supposed to challenge believers in divine command theory, but it has relevance for modern secular moral theory as well. This is because the original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.

rawls

Take 20th century Kantian philosopher John Rawls, for example. His concept of the “original position” asks us to imagine ourselves standing outside of society bereft of any knowledge of our personal identity, including our conception of a good life. Behind this veil of ignorance, he argued, we’d all rationally agree to an egalitarian society in which there was the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

With this idealized social contract, Rawls’ goal is to establish a formal derivation of political authority in order to justify a particular macro-distributive end. But what appears to be an innocuous thought experiment is on closer inspection a series of arbitrary and inconceivable stipulations. After all, what is left of a self after its identity has been stripped away? How can a purely instrumental rationality even motivate a choice, much less reveal risk preferences? Why does the nation state set the boundary of social justice? Even taking the exercise at face value, the construct fails to establish a meta-ethical bridge to true normativity because it merely pushes the prescriptive element onto an unfounded imperative to act according to one definition of rationality.

To do Rawls justice, I should add that he was aware of all this and so in addendum wrote hundreds of pages of tedious conceptual scaffolding. This guarantees the incompleteness of my rough sketch, however the flaw with constructing a Kantian normative architecture lies not in the design specifics or even the level of detail, but in the very idea that normative authority can be grounded via ethical autoCAD. With sufficient prodding all Kantian constructions invariably implode under their unnatural abstract formalism. Indeed, examples span the political spectrum to include Kant inspired libertarians, whose invocations of the non-aggression principal are similarly void of content, and become contradictory fast once any substance is added.

Thus when contemporary Kantians debate it winds up being a symmetric game of mutually assured deconstruction. Distributive justice types are able to accurately reveal the inconsistencies of their opponents, while procedural justice types make a science of egalitarian absurdities. In the end, beneath the twin rubble piles that result, there remains only the meek voices of special pleading.

If what is right is not based on abstract moral theory, then normative authority must be antecedent to our modern moral philosophy. In later posts I will try to explain how normativity arises from the bottom up, from the particular to the general, rather than the other way around. As Nietzsche famously argued, relinquishing god as the locus of normative authority was essential to opening new possibilities of human development. Today, the same should be said of all secular moral frameworks which give normative authority the same god-like unity of voice, contra the polycentrism we actually observe. So say it with me:

Kant is dead. Kant remains dead. And we have killed him.