Virtue Ethics: an ancient solution to a modern problem

69729_aristotle_lgby Peter D.O. Smith

Introduction

This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities [3]. We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens [4] or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying [5], sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace [6].
Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause [7]. One in five women are sexually assaulted at university [8]. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.
The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.

What then is the problem?

The problem quite simply is that, in comparative terms, we do not give moral problems much attention at all and that we give it the wrong kind of attention, by creating a growing thicket of rules and regulations [9].

Modern society rewards material progress while neglecting moral progress. We have huge budgets for science research and we give large rewards to outstanding achievers in science. But society allocates far smaller amounts to advance moral interests or to reward moral achievers. As a simple example, of the six Nobel awards, only one (Peace) has a moral dimension [10]. Of the other 21 high-honour prizes, only seven have a moral component [11]. School education has a strong science bias but gives little attention to moral education [12]. Our criminal justice system spends a great deal on addressing the outcome of moral problems but little on addressing the causes of moral problems, with the result we have a recidivism rate of 66% [2]. We punish moral offenses but we do not prevent them. We have resorted to a form of legislated morality with our criminal justice and human rights systems. This is a framework with large gaps that does not address or give guidance to private morality.

We are becoming a rules based society, but the rules have only a weak hold because they lack intrinsic motivation [13]. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the collapse of the banking system. Banking is one of the most highly regulated parts of the economy, and yet that does not prevent abuse and exploitation [14]. Without intrinsic motivation the rules become a challenge to find means of evasion. We have reacted by adding more rules but it is only a matter of time before more means are found to evade them too. There has been an explosive growth in criminal laws. For the past twenty-five years, a period over which the growth of the federal criminal law has come under increasing scrutiny, Congress has created over 500 new crimes per decade [9]. Adding to this, the Administration is increasingly relying on mandates and directives.

A modern problem

Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion. Indeed religion can be seen, in sociological terms, as society’s way of promoting cohesion through moral consensus [15]. Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold. Modernity introduced a spirit of utilitarianism [16] and this has shaped present day society’s concept of morality. But it was not merely the concept that changed, but also the authority of moral systems. Religious moral systems derived their authority from their concept of God and this helped to provide intrinsic motivation. With the new utilitarian morality a new authority was introduced, the individual. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakened and diffuse moral sensibility that contains many contradictions. This new concept of morality has been accompanied by a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, by its very nature, less effective.

With this new concept of morality came a changed approach to society’s problems. The spirit of utilitarianism has created a tacit assumption that alleviating material need reduces the impetus for moral wrongs. There is a belief that moral wrongs are largely the outcome of material conditions. Thus effort has been directed to solving material problems, which have in any case been shown to have easy solutions, while true moral problems remain intractable and so are neglected. We have been picking the low hanging fruit.

We are divided by differing concepts of morality

With the weakening of religious morality and the widespread adoption of utilitarian approaches a sharp moral divide has opened up in society.

The secular world has adopted a tacit, inchoate form of moral consequentialism. It believes there is no absolute good or bad, only that acts should be judged by their consequences. It rejects the absolute lawgiver and the laws of religious deontology. It makes the individual the final arbiter of his acts.

The religious world, by contrast, believes in absolute good and bad and that acts can themselves be inherently good or bad. It believes there is an absolute lawgiver that has handed down a set of rules for a good life. The religious world rejects moral consequentialism on the grounds that it is a shifting and dangerous moral system that is easily tailored to suit the needs and desires of the moment.

As consequentialism or utilitarianism rose to the fore, reflecting the material and mechanical spirit of the times, challenging long held moral conceptions, Protestant Christianity (and Islam) retreated into a form of hardline deontology. The result is the strong ethical divide we see today.

There is thus a yawning chasm between the moral concepts of the religious and secular worlds. This chasm weakens the ability of society to address common moral problems since it lacks consensus.

Society has reacted to this problem with a growing thicket of laws with no end in sight [17]. This has proven to be a poor solution, since adding rules merely invites further evasion if they are not reinforced or accompanied by some form of intrinsic motivation.

The need for a middle ground

We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept. For example, schools are a place where we should also give our youth moral preparation for adult life, and schools serve both world-views. This is one example of why it is necessary that we find common ground. Deontology and moral consequentialism are not acceptable to both sides of the divide and so cannot fulfill this need.

Which raises the question: is there a middle moral ground where the secular and religious worlds can meet and agree? Today’s society places a strong emphasis on the concepts of justice and rights. These can be seen as instances of what are known as ‘virtues’ and it is in virtue ethics, the third major branch of ethical philosophy, that I see an important opportunity for finding common ground between the secular and the religious worlds. Virtue ethics shows promise as the means of filling in the gaps of legislated morality. One can think of it as being the soft flesh on the hard skeleton of legislated morality, making a healthy, functioning body that is directed to the purpose of flourishing. Virtue ethics can be seen as an important form of intrinsic motivation that makes the regulated rules of society more effective while providing strong guidance to unregulated, private conduct. It is not accidental that here has been a sharp increase in academic interest in virtue ethics lately [18].

The appeal of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is an enduring idea with ancient roots. Aristotle, some 2,300 years ago, clearly articulated the ethical philosophy known today as virtue ethics [19, 20]. Cicero, close to the time of Christ, wrote of it as being one of the three main contending moral systems of the day [21]. Catholicism, early on, incorporated it into its teachings where it continues to this day to be a major influence [22]. The last 50 years have seen a marked revival of academic interest in virtue ethics [18, 23], and Alisdair McIntyre’s publication of After Virtue was a landmark in this revival [24].

Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement. In my mind, the appeal of virtue ethics is fivefold.

First, the generally accepted list of virtues is free of religious terminology or implications. This makes the virtues acceptable to the secular world. At the same time the religious world finds them a natural extension of its beliefs. For example, Catholicism has embraced virtue ethics, and both secularists and theists would readily agree on the list of 52 virtues given by the Virtue Project [25]. Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference. The differences that the many belief systems bring to this are largely ones of terminology and emphasis. It is an ethical system that is neutral about belief systems and can therefore be accepted by all belief systems.

Second, supplying an internal motivation is a better way of obtaining a good outcome, whether of act or consequence. It is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome[13]).

Third, by supplying intrinsic principles, rather than rules, it is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.

Fourth, virtue ethics supplies a means of internalizing and integrating rules into a person’s behavior, making them more effective. It is a powerful way of reinforcing the rules and regulations of society by translating them into intrinsic motivation.

Fifth, virtue ethics can supply a new source of meaning, independent of but complementary to religious belief. It can be an antidote to the angst of modernity. This is a large field that is only touched on here.

In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.

A practical solution

The attraction of virtue ethics is its practicality and simplicity. It can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people. It is independent of belief systems and yet most belief systems can accept it, with only changes in terminology. It can easily be taught at an elementary level while still be challenging at a philosophical level. It is easily incorporated into codes of conduct for organizations.

But it is not just a solution to individual moral concerns. It can also be expanded to any domain of activity as an example discussed by Bruni and Sugden shows in the case of market economics [26]. They describe the market as a practice having a telos of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. They explain: “On the supposition that the telos of the market is mutual benefit, a market virtue in the sense of virtue ethics is an acquired character trait with two properties: possession of the trait makes an individual better able to play a part in the creation of mutual benefit through market transactions; and the trait expresses an intentional orientation towards and a respect for mutual benefit. In this section, we present a catalog of traits with these properties, without claiming that our catalog is exhaustive.” Their catalogue of traits, or virtues, include universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.

Another example is the Character Counts! Coalition for moral education in schools, which uses a virtue ethics framework centered on respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue and citizenship [27].

These examples are intended to show that a virtue ethics framework can readily be adapted to any domain of activity or ‘practice.’ This makes virtue ethics a very flexible approach that can be tailored to all parts of our culture.

The role of secularism

Secularism has defined itself in opposition to theism. Its great achievement was the separation of religion from public life. Going beyond that, some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism [28] and to harden the stance of Christian fundamentalism. Religion is a deep seated sociological phenomenon and is not going away. It has been part of human history for at least 40,000 years and remains an important part of all societies. It is far too durable a phenomenon and there is no realistic prospect that it will be ended [29]. The criticisms directed at religion by secularism have prompted strong reforms in religion and so have been useful for that end. The so-called war between secularism and religion is now becoming counterproductive as it obscures the major issue facing society, that of moral suffering. Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce. This does not mean religion should not be criticized when the occasion demands it, and indeed criticism can be a healthy impetus for reform. But attention should be shifted to the real enemy, moral suffering. To overcome this enemy the secular world should make common cause with the religious world. It can do this by embracing virtue ethics and making it the central plank of a morally committed secularism.

A solution to future problems

Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword. Virtue ethics is our best hope of navigating this challenging new world. As Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue [31], explains, the virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the eudaimonia of the virtues. This is a radical move away from the idea of happiness that depends on circumstances or goods, a necessary move in the resource constrained world that lies in our future.

That this goal is not so elusive can readily be appreciated when we compare the levels of positive emotions of some poor countries with those of some rich countries [32]:

Panama 85%, Singapore 46%;
Lesotho 77%, United Kingdom 77%;
Swaziland 76%, Germany, 74%.
_____
Peter D.O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] US incarceration rate.

[2] Recidivism in the United Sates.

[3] Academic cheating fact sheet.

[4] The Snowden Files.

[5] 44% of children report having been bullied.

[6] Stalking.

[7] Causes of divorce.

[8] Sexual assaults at university.

[9] Revisiting the explosive growth of new crimes.

[10 Nobel prizes, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.

[11] Other high honor prizes.

[12] How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools.

[13] Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.

[14] Why only One Banker Went to Jail.

[15] Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.

[16] Trends in utilitarianism – Google books Ngram.

[17] Business Ethics: The Law of Rules.

[18] Trends in virtue ethics – Google books Ngram.

[19] Nichomacaen Ethics.

[20] Notes on Nichomachean Ethics.

[21] On Moral Ends, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julia Annas.

[22] The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages: A Study in Moral Thought from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century.

[23] Contemporary virtue ethics.

[24] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.

[25] The Virtues Project.

[26] Reclaiming virtue ethics for economics.

[27] The Six Pillars of Character.

[28] Net rating of religious belief systems.

[29] Growth of Religion.

[30] Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption.

[31] Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue.

[32] Gallup poll, Positive emotions worldwide.



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98 replies

  1. Alexander

    1) where do they come from?
    2) why should people observe them?

    Virtue ethics is the answer to both questions.

    Well no, those are precisely the two questions that virtue ethics dodges or loftily supposes to be already answered, and that was just my point.

    I think you misunderstood my statement. Virtuous people tend to conceive of the kinds of laws that Philip listed and virtuous people tend to respect laws.

    Where does the conclusion that fairness is a virtue come from?
    It is the considered judgement of reasonable people over a long period of time.

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  2. Philip,
    I have the suspicion that conservatives will be more attracted to virtue ethics than liberals. But maybe I’m wrong.

    Are you saying that liberals are less ethical? As far as I can tell, ethics is orthogonal to politics. There is nothing inherently political about virtue ethics.

    Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

    Character is what determines how we respond to circumstances.

    Steven,

    I have no idea how anyone can really think schools haven’t taught character
    Then you should read reference 12.

    Virtue ethics is not so much then about what’s right or wrong in dealing with other people, but about how to become the sage

    I would put it the other way around. The sage is a moral exemplar that serves as a guide to virtuous conduct.

    Aristotle’s justification of slavery directly relates to his ethics

    This talk of slavery is a complete and utter red herring by people who should seriously know better. Virtue ethics does not justify slavery – period. To claim otherwise flies in the face of reason and history – period.

    The problem with every moral system is that we construct moral boundaries based on things like kinship, ethnicity, tribe, language, culture, etc. We regard people within our moral boundaries as being morally worthy. We treat people outside our moral boundaries as moral outlaws. The great achievement of modern times is that we have enlarged our moral boundaries making them more inclusive.

    This is the basis of a strong argument against drone killings. That vague image on a screen is no longer seen as a real person, so he falls outside our moral boundary, making it easy for us to kill him.

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  3. Peter Smith,
    Sorry for the late response. I thought quite a bit about your article last night, and my first response ended up as an essay on my blog.

    I am an admirer of virtue ethics, the first ethics I encountered young, in the texts of Plato and Voltaire. Yes, Voltaire, because the notion that good acts derive from a good character was very much alive in the 18th century.

    stevenjohnson remarks that Confucianism has a strong element of conventionalism. I suggest that what we call conventionalism is an ironic virtue ethics. Hume’s practical ethic is clearly a conventionalism, since it accepts the norms of the society in which he lived, and assumes that adoption of the norms makes one a better person, who can then act ethically. A similar strategy can be found, surprisingly, in John Stuart Mill’s revision of Bentham’s utilitarianism. The point is that a positive stance toward some basic understanding that virtue, derived through education, realizes itself primarily in the individual who can then act ethically, can be found in the thought of quite a number of ethical theorists of differing schools, at least until the 20th century.

    But there’s a problem. Virtue ethics, as a theory, has to begin by answering 3 questions: 1, what do people want from social living? (greater happiness); 2, how does one attain this? (ethical behavior); 3, how does one secure one’s ethical behavior? (become the person who enacts it). Once one has developed a virtuous character, then however one acts will be predicated on ethical choices. But, the first question requires analysis of what people consider happiness within the given society of the theorist. This is obvious in Aristotle. If we have a hard time reading the virtue ethics in such as Hume and Mill, and read instead conventionalism, it is because, adopting their contemporary social norms, they assume that most of their readers agree as to what constitutes happiness. But the historic fact is, by the end of the 19th century, the nature of happiness had changed, and social norms were getting fragmented and scattered all over the place.

    The first lesson to learn here is that virtue ethics is best developed in a homogenous culture. Where everybody shares the same values, everyone will agree that realization of these values offer the greatest chance for happiness.

    But America is a smorgasbord of cultures; some synchronous, some competing. The happiness found in East L.A. may be different from that found on Long Island.

    This suggests there may be different virtues found in differing communities here. As a political project, offering a virtue ethic education is going to meet insurmountable resistance, since the basic terms of the offering will be found suspect among some of our cultures; e.g., fundamentalists are committed to a divinely commanded morality, and not inclined to accept any virtue not prescribed in the Bible.

    I think virtue ethics is an admirable personal ethical stance to develop. But it has little chance at political realization.

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  4. @Peter

    Are you saying that liberals are less ethical? As far as I can tell, ethics is orthogonal to politics.

    I think there’s research that shows that conservatives have a greater affinity for simple causation and liberals for systemic causation. So it might not be as orthogonal as you think.

    The real problem is we are living in an age of self pleasuring hedonism where the concept of moral restraint seems foreign.

    If that’s an age, we’ve been living in it pretty much from the beginning.

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  5. With respect, Bill, I read this article and my reaction was a large, “Meh.” What next? A panel of experts on carpentry concluding that high school shop courses on carpentry “cannot be expected to make students” master carpenters?

    I think perhaps the following interview is more in line with what Peter has in mind:

    http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v13n1/interview.html

    On a lighter note, I came across this comment on another blog:

    “There is an (I believe) apocryphal story about a famous philosopher and philanderer who was once asked why, if he was such an expert on ethics, was he not more ethical. To which he replied that he was also an expert on geometry, but sadly was not a triangle.”

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  6. Coel,
    Where big moral defects are exposed, such as the banking crisis, this causes societal angst and soul-searching. Thus I don’t see any big problem that needs fixing, though I still agree as in my first paragraph.

    Let me spell out the big picture(I am going to sound very Marxist). As long as we were hunter/gatherers we could not accumulate wealth. When mankind began to settle down it created opportunities for accumulating wealth. The smarter individuals quickly discovered that monopolising the sources of wealth was the most effective way to accumulate wealth. The landed aristocracy and monopolies on trade followed. The industrial revolution and democracy broke the monopoly of wealth. Today the oligarchy are learning how to manipulate the democratic system to concentrate wealth once more in their hands, creating a new corporate aristocracy. This is the inherent reason for the rapid growth of unequal income and it is a huge problem that can only get worse. It is a moral problem, founded on greed and a lack of compassion for the people they exploit.

    Here is a very good example of how the oligarchy are learning to exploit the system to increase their wealth – drive by doctoring, surprise medical bills (http://nyti.ms/1AY9GL0)

    There is an (understandable) tendency of the religious to view a decrease in the hold of religion as a symptom of moral decline, but (equally understandably) the non-religious don’t see it like that.

    The churches are the only bodies with regular and systematic processes for inculcating moral behaviour.

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  7. I find it odd that people would oppose ethical training, but perhaps there are reasons – just as many have linked science (and evolution especially) with atheism others have linked ethics with theism. Perhaps they are reluctant to teach ethics because they think it will promote religion or a certain religion? Not a good reason and not true, but when we see some of the actions of school leaders in the states it may not be surprising. Some people want to ban all religion and some people cannot help proselytizing.

    Perhaps there is also a gulf in how people think – John Wilkins in his paper The Salem Region” Two Mindsets about Science lays out some differences for those accepting evolution and those not. I would oppose ethics training if it were authoritarian, conservative and essentialistic, but many would love that. I would see a list as a starting point for discussion and that students should understand the reasoning behind the list and be able to amend the list. What we don’t need are ethics from on high with no explanation – or an explanation “because god, the queen, or even Dad says so.” Students need to see why it is good for individuals and good for society and not some arbitrary whim or something that only made sense in a culture 2000 years ago.

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  8. Eudaimonia for the masses through a middle ground virtue ethics program could prove salvific for humanity. Successful implementation would require visionary thought leadership combined with humanity’s willingness and ability to self-govern its impulses. Culture trumps strategy however. Cultural shifts in thought process could move at a glacial speed. Infinite patience would be required. Philosophers could play a strategic role in advising governments and institutions in policy development and on-going support, versus the lead client (citizen) facing role. Perception-wise I have heard rumors Philosophers are challenged enough to justify their own existence within academia. Connecting with diverse modern audiences would require some honest political spin that isn’t perceived as disingenuous. People become cynical through digesting a steady diet of bullshit. Trust must be earned.

    Syncretistic top-down religious and secular national political philosophies of competitive will to power and altruistic cooperation do not co-exist without tension. This creates the finger on the trigger potential for self-inflicted multi-tribal annihilation. Nations must rebrand their tribal coat of arms and disarm (incredibly naïve wishful thought spoken out loud).

    The forces of Novus ordo seclorum, globalization, innovation, social networking, electronic money and state-surveillance are moving toward total integration. If one desires optimism and discounts sinister motives and fatalistic apocalyptic outcomes, a successful new world order could create the infrastructure for reaching and teaching virtue ethics. “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”– Steve Jobs. From the bottom-up, the individual, Homo Necans must undergo a radical psychological transformation. Homo Necans must become a willing participant, evolve, self-actualize and achieve readiness level to receive admonition and experience the benefit. Through this process individuals and nations could become citizens of the world without renouncing their unique cultural or national heritages.

    Kind of sounds like a Happy-Land soda commercial. On South Park.

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  9. Human groups operate optimally according to nature. Goodness is thus not only natural, it’s logical. Thus “Virtue Ethics” is an abstract of facts. Namely asserting aloud what sustainable nature imposes anyway.

    And imposes biologically: experiments on monkeys have shown that they attach enormous importance to justice as fairness. One has to mention this in modern philosophy.

    Modernizing Aristotle (Philippa Foot) can be further by introducing more science.

    Peter Smith: “This talk [“Aristotle’s justification of slavery directly relates to his ethics”] of slavery is a complete and utter red herring by people who should seriously know better. Virtue ethics does not justify slavery – period. To claim otherwise flies in the face of reason and history – period.”

    All tyrants, as all those who want to look respectable, claim “virtue ethics”. All human beings also have, like Marmoset monkeys, “Virtue Ethics”. So it’s not a matter of having it, it’s an experimental fact that we all have it, it’s a matter of flaunting it.

    Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle’s numerous ethical failures can only be attributed to their ethical systems (what else?). Both Socrates and Aristotle came to be viewed as outlaws, no less, by Athenian justice. This arose from their opposition to Athenian democracy. That was grounded in their obsession with their self-flourishing (Socrates entangled with Athens’ gilded youth, soon to be dictators).

    Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were master minds of enormous influence. The obsession with self-flourishing (“happiness”) instead of democracy was lethal, for civilization. Unfortunately, the judges turned out to have been prescient.

    Aristotle’s breach was large enough to incur the death penalty, he himself admitted, as he fled.

    Thus, we are not just talking about an opinion of slavery, when we evoke Aristotle’s ethical failures.

    If Athenian judges, at the time, saw the connection between Socrates, Aristotle, and the (criminal) demolition of democracy, how can one say that they flew “in the face of reason and history”?

    The consequences were momentous. After all, Greece democracy failed, not just from Socrates’ friends and lovers, but also under genocidal assault from Aristotle’s friends and lovers.
    So the accusation is not just that Aristotle’s “Virtue Ethics” approved of slavery. It arguably led to the direct collapse of democracy.

    What was the proper basis of an ethical system at the time? Or now? Survivalism. Civilization would have survived in optimal, that is, democratic form, if the philosophical master minds of the time had an ethics virtuous enough to defend (direct) democracy, and had persuaded the demos to follow them.

    As we all live by “Virtue Ethics”, the problem is all about which factors therein, and how much they ought to be considered. When we speak about “nature” doing its thing, selecting ancestors who came naturally equipped with “Value Ethics”, we also evoke all these who did not, and thus could not reproduce. Those whose evolution given ethics did not survive.

    Some IPCC top scientists now think a temperature rise of 8 degrees Celsius is possible within 35 years. Time to make our ethics more virtuous.

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  10. Patrice, not sure what it means to say that “human groups operate optimally according to nature.” Are you advocating a return to some kind of paleo-state and/or instinctual ethics? And you continue to confuse ethical systems with the imperfect human beings who try to live up by them. They are different things, so that the personal failures of individuals to not (necessarily) impugn the corresponding ethical systems.

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  11. Are you advocating a return to some kind of paleo-state and/or instinctual ethics?

    I think it’s worth burning a comment to note that the “naturalistic fallacy” and the “appeal to nature fallacy” often mask an important point for normative realists: Nature often creates real normative facts by constraining the structure of natural systems. There are things, in other words, that will be “better” and “worse” for humans based wholly on structural constraints imposed by nature. The survival principle is the simplest of such constraints, imposed by the process of natural selection. For any physical system subject to natural selection, it will always be “better” to persist. Other, more complex normative facts, I believe, arise from similar constraints.

    Nature is a huge equilibrium game where the “payoff tables” operate at multiple levels (individual, group, species, ecosphere, etc.). Virtue ethics offers a simple way to approximate good equilibrium strategies in what would otherwise be an impossibly complex set of interdependent normative payoff schemes.

    This is also why I think Coel is wrong about normative judgements ending with “feelings” and “opinions”.

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  12. Ejwinner,
    I suggest that what we call conventionalism is an ironic virtue ethics.

    Yes, it is the virtues strongly coloured by by ruling social norms. An example of this is the honour code in the so-called age of chivalry which led to so many duelling deaths. The loyalty code expressed in the phrase, ‘for God, Queen and Country’, is another such example. We have have to be careful to cull current social norms from our conceptions of virtue.

    The first lesson to learn here is that virtue ethics is best developed in a homogenous culture … But America is a smorgasbord of cultures; some synchronous, some competing

    I want to suggest otherwise. Virtues are the universals that are recognised in disparate groups and give us the best chance of building bridges between the groups. It is in the virtues we recognise our common humanity.

    I think virtue ethics is an admirable personal ethical stance to develop. But it has little chance at political realization.

    I agree it is a difficult project

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  13. Asher,
    Virtue ethics offers a simple way to approximate good equilibrium strategies in what would otherwise be an impossibly complex set of interdependent normative payoff schemes.

    You make an important point.

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  14. Peter,
    On “There is nothing inherently political about virtue ethics”:
    Except perhaps that liberals and conservatives (based on their personality types) weight the (however many) virtues differently.
    (According to Chris Mooney’s columns in Mother Jones.)

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  15. Hi Peter, in moral philosophy I have always felt virtue ethics is the most reasonable framework to understand/discuss our moral judgments. So I agree with your main point that VE can act as a common “moral ground” between different systems, though arguably for different reasons than you give.

    The qualities of justice, knowledge, generosity, responsibility, etc are definable and coherent across nearly all systems. That opens the door to real communication about goals (regardless of initial system). The common “moral ground” is therefore common “moral language”. I think VE can be “sold” on that basis alone.

    I am in fact highly critical of the avenue you took in selling VE. It can facilitate communication and perhaps resolve disputes but it is not in any sense a panacea for what you term “moral suffering”. Please don’t take my criticism personally, I respect you but I have serious reservations about your claims.

    “a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high…”

    The reason our prisons are overflowing and recidivism is high, has arguably little to do with personal moral failings. Except perhaps the bad choice of ceding personal responsibilities to legal bodies that decided to turn a profit by creating a prison industry, and retain power through fear-mongering. This “problem” which is largely an issue for the US, could be solved without any change in moral philosophy.

    “We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept.”

    Humans are diverse and there will not be a problem, or solution, common to all. And in fact we do not need one. That is a large component of the “good delusion” my site aims to criticize.

    In the end couldn’t compromise and even separation be valid answers for different human societies, even if they all use VE?

    “supplying an internal motivation”

    VE may help one identify one’s internal motivations, but it cannot supply them.

    “Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword.”

    Consumerism and especially hedonism are NOT the problems we are facing. Abstract greed (i.e. hoarding wealth outside the market) that prevents most people from consuming or pursuing pleasure is a problem we are facing. Fundamentalist asceticism or common prudery that calls for people to be imprisoned or killed for consumption or hedonism is a problem we are facing.

    If you mean we shouldn’t use fossil fuels and deplete our resources, that is not frugality or restraint, thought it is responsibility.

    Personally I do not see how VE leads necessarily to the embracing of values you claim, nor do I see how those values are necessary for humanity.

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  16. Thomas,

    I think perhaps the following interview is more in line with what Peter has in mind:

    http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v13n1/interview.html

    Yes Thomas, that is a good example. What it illustrates rather well is how virtue ethics lends itself to moral education of children.

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  17. Brandholm,
    The common “moral ground” is therefore common “moral language”. I think VE can be “sold” on that basis alone.

    Yes, a common moral language is an important factor.

    The reason our prisons are overflowing and recidivism is high, has arguably little to do with personal moral failings.

    You would seem to subscribe to some form of an ecological theory of crime. Now it is quite true that there are many circumstances that predispose people to crime. At the same time it is important to remember that the majority of people who are exposed to these circumstances do not resort to crime. Why not? It seems that they do make moral judgements and choices. We need to encourage more people to make moral choices.

    In the end couldn’t compromise and even separation be valid answers for different human societies, even if they all use VE?

    Compromise is a form of virtue. Separation is dangerous because it creates moral boundaries where the out-group is not part of our moral group.

    VE may help one identify one’s internal motivations, but it cannot supply them

    I think we are talking about different things. Let’s take a simple example, a highway speed limit. Why should I observe it? The deontologist will say I should observe it because a greater authority(the state) has decreed that this is a law. The consequentialist will say I should observe it because I will suffer unpleasant consequences otherwise. These are external motivations more honoured in the breach than the observance. The virtue ethicist will say I should observe it because I respect the laws(and the law giving authority of the state) and have a responsibility of care to my fellow drivers, as well as to my family. These are virtues. A virtue is a habituated disposition that becomes a natural reaction through practice and example. A virtue ethicist is therefore internally motivated to observe the law and will naturally observe the speed limit. This internal motivation means that he is predisposed to observe the speed limit irrespective of the threat of punishment.

    If you mean we shouldn’t use fossil fuels and deplete our resources, that is not frugality or restraint, thought it is responsibility.

    As resources become depleted, one of the reactions will be to appeal to us to live frugally and there will be, as you say, an appeal to our sense of responsibility. This is the language of virtue ethics. Such appeals resonate in people who recognise virtue ethics.

    For example. I live in an area of water shortages. We are not allowed to use hose pipes to water our gardens or wash our cars. The consequentialists wait until nightfall and then water their gardens under cover of darkness. The virtue ethicist complies from a sense of responsibility and duty and not from fear of discovery or punishment.

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  18. Patrice Ayme,
    Trying to get any inherited ‘ethical instinct’ out of monkeys is silly. I know it forms a cottage industry in some sectors of the academy, but that goes to show that we like to throw money at the hope that evolution has made us morally better, and not just a little brighter.

    I still remember a documentary I saw some 20 years ago, when it was discovered that female chimps would slaughter the children of their rivals as an act of domination or revenge. Without social repercussion from the group to which both belonged.

    We may indeed have a genetic inheritance to socialize; but socialization includes the manipulation of others, appropriation of others’ wealth, and violence for the sake of self-enhancement. The notion that we are inherently good is bosh; but the good that is found in inherited socialization – companionship, cooperation, etc. – still needs training and focus in the human ape. Successful ethics not only promote the good, but also address curbing our impulse to the use and abuse of others.

    Elseways, the not-so-good socialization gets the upper hand – because, alas, it works. It gets some command of the social, access to wealth and sex, dominance over reproduction. That may be our real evolutionary inheritance – the tendency towards tyranny you rightfully deplore.

    But why do you deplore it? ‘Survivalism’ is an empty answer. Tyrants survive and propogate. And this: “Civilization would have survived in optimal, that is, democratic form, if the philosophical master minds of the time had an ethics virtuous enough to defend (direct) democracy, and had persuaded the demos to follow them” – this is not a form of survivalism, since it assumes the value of civilization which, given it’s short duration on the planet, has not yet proven to be the optimal social group for the survival of the species (certain tribal forms have existed far, far longer, and so have a claim to preference for passing on genes over long stretches of time).

    Also, this is just a misreading of history. Athens was not a democracy as we understand the term. And it collapsed through imperialist over-reaching, as most empires do.

    We have certainly inherited the language of the Greeks, and the theoretical structures they used their language to construct, but understanding them in their own context, trying to see the world through their eyes, is actually quite difficult. What we really have are interpretations of Greek philosophy; the philosophy as they themselves may have understood it is somewhat lost to time. The aporias concerning our inheritance of their literature may have left unbridgeable chasms in our understanding of them.

    The answer to that problem is basically pragmatic; we make use of Greek texts the best we may, in the construction of our own understanding of the world we have today. When we can no longer do this, we stop and move on. But anyone may return to those texts in developing his or her own thought for the present day.

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  19. @Thomas and @EJ: Yes, this gets into the “pragmatic ethics” you will see a Wikipedia link for in my second comment. Also, if it’s not clear by now, I’m not only not a system-builder, I’m somewhat of an anti-systematician. That said, @Thomas, even a homogeneous culture is not necessarily enough for one school of normative ethics to take root, I think. @Asher: Maybe that ties with political liberalism (or, for America, at least, left-liberalism, but a skeptical left-liberalism) which I profess.

    As the Wiki link on my first post noted, per @Massimo, Confucianism is a form of non-Aristotelean virtue ethics, but not the only one. That said, within the western tradition, Stoicism is arguably a form of virtue ethics, with the goal of course being ataxaria rather than eudaemonia.

    Per Asher, yes, that’s my thoughts, per previous posts, on how nature “constrains” or directs ethical development. None of this means, of course, that evolution is aggressive. That’s why, contra @Thomas, per my past mentions of ethology or ev psych, there’s nothing wrong with looking at primates, etc. We just need to make sure we’re not overarching in our claims.

    ==

    Per what @Bill said, here’s a long article on free will and ethics from one of the Stanford profs, Fried. http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/barbara-fried-beyond-blame-moral-responsibility-philosophy-law

    Thus, while I’m not ready to take everything Bill says at face value, I’m certainly not going to dismiss it, either. Let’s unpack his quote again:

    “Approaching the topic from diverse academic backgrounds, the Stanford professors who participated in the discussion agreed that ethics classes cannot be expected to make students more ethical.”

    Noting the word “expected,” I see nothing controversial there. In fact, I would agree. People who think such classes should be “expected” to do anything are probably thinking of Catholic, or Lutheran, catechism/confirmation classes. (Not [entirely] riffing on @Peter; I grew up in the conservative wing of US Lutheranism.) On the other hand, catechism class shouldn’t be “expected” to make catechumens more ethical, either.

    ==

    @Michael asks why would people oppose training in ethics? Perhaps because, especially when ethics is associated with the word “morals,” secularists fear the camel’s nose of religion in the tent, if it’s public schools teaching. And, the more ardently religious are scared as hell (pun intended) of any ethics system not grounded in religion being taught.

    The concerns of @Peter and others about income inequality, etc.? All well and good. But, virtue ethics isn’t the only school of ethics that can address such concerns. That’s why deontology and consequentialism are both also called “normative,” is it not? Depending on my starting points (note my “skyhooks” to Massimo in my second comment), any person can personally adapt one particular moral system to meet certain ends.

    That’s why, IMO, system-building fails. The bigger issue is how, on the nature-via-nurture (counting societies as nurture, of course), individuals develop those starting points and then, to the degree they reflect, try to articulate them (largely) within a certain system.

    ==

    No Junior Wittgenstein for 500 words.

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  20. I think we have a failure to communicate. How do you know that somebody is virtuous – what is your criterion for that conclusion? How do you know that the people who consider fairness to be a virtue are reasonable, and that their judgement was “considered”? What is your criterion for that conclusion?

    Anyway, the objections I raised in my first comment are more to the point of the article: There does not seem to be any evidence that being taught virtue ethics would make the world a better place, or that in ye olden times there were less rules or less reliance on punishment; indeed the opposite seems more likely to be true.

    In general the assumption that telling somebody to be good will make them behave is awfully naive. If you tell somebody not to steal, and then they are destitute while many others around them have a lot, then they will tend to steal to feed themselves and their family. If you tell somebody not to cheat, and then they are in a stratified society, they will cheat if they can get away with it and believe it necessary for their advancement. People want to improve their lot, and they are very good at rationalising bad behaviour: “everybody does it”, “only suckers don’t”, “the people I harmed aren’t real people because they belong to group X, and they got it coming anyway”, etc.

    It seems much more promising to build an egalitarian society where nobody is desperate, the possibilities for advancement are relatively limited (thus shifting the benefit/risk ration of crime down), punishment is meted out equally (no privileges for the rich and powerful), and everybody is kept too busy and respected for what they do. In such a scenario most of the motivation for behaving badly would evaporate.

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  21. Patrice Ayme,

    I think that your presentism regarding Aristotle plus your biased sight of the history of Greece is rather evident. Firstly, Aristotle arrived in Athens in ─367 when he was seventeen. By the time the Athenian democracy had deteriorated, he soon became skeptical about the Athenian democracy, observed that the democratic system was corrupted and also saw that the popular courts controlled and managed the democratic system with arbitrary ways that often slided in totalitarian practices. The popular courts also controlled the politics of the allies of Athens, which means that they also controlled its economies and taxes.

    Is pretty clear that slavery was a natural fact as long as there were 70000 slaves in Athens in ─399. It´s also pretty clear that today´s wars, terrorism and any sort of social and moral injustices are considered natural as far as no individual, group of individuals, nations or group of nations don’t succeed in stopping it immediately. If you don’t want to be presentist lay out a Manifesto claiming that wars, terrorism and injustices are unnatural. I sign up this Manifesto.

    Was Demosthenes a physical hero, really? He was smart in getting lot of money from wealthy young men, he was the lawyer of rich and powerful people and encouraged military expeditions against the cities that didn’t match his political views. He tried to persuade his countrymen against Sparta that, by the way, was a communitarian/socialist country. Was Demosthenes a fascist?

    In ─344 travelled along the Peloponnese´s cities aiming to establish an alliance against the Macedonian but those cities rejected his manoeuvre claiming that it was harmful for its freedom and straightforward sent an embassy to Athens regretting his action.

    Did Demosthenes say anything against slavery? I don’t think so. Why not? Because slavery was a natural fact at the time. Did Demosthenes free his slaves before he died? I really don’t know, but Aristotle freed them few months before he died. In short, is easy to be presentist because nobody is perfect neither in the past nor in the present, so presentism doesn’t seem a reliable way of looking at reality.

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  22. Here lies the rub: we mostly agree that a moral education would be of benefit but, as usual, there is no agreement on content nor process. It would seem impossible for free thinking individuals to come up with anything resembling a coherent program. Submitting an issue to a referendum might resolve potential conflicts and set direction, but voting is not a method of discovering truth, far from it.

    Ideas matter and appear to play a role in how a community is shaped, and in how successful that community is. However, there is no way of predicting which set of ideas will survive (e.g. individualism) and which set will fail (e.g. communism). In fact, many intellectuals were very optimistic about Soviet socialism throughout most of the 20th century. There was even a Fascist Manifesto signed by 250 Italian intellectual luminaries in 1925, again demonstrating that brains and education do not necessarily signify good judgement.

    The present model of social democracy seems to be running out of gas. My prediction is that the successful model of the future will be one of empowerment of the individual and local communities, a fostering of self-reliance and self-improvement, and an investment in ethical education with emphasis on an appreciation of human diversity. The basis of this prediction is simple: information processing occurs only at the level of the individual. A general improvement at the personal level is therefore the only way to improve society overall.

    The winning community will be the one in which each and all are expected to be the best they can be.

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  23. @Socratic: I’m a bit puzzled by your comments directed at me. Like you, despite my disdain for labels, I tend to take a pragmatic approach to many issues and am also skeptical regarding the sufficiency and adequacy of any one ethical system. All have strengths and weaknesses. Like you, I tend to be skeptical of system building. I’m especially puzzled by this comment: “That’s why, contra @Thomas, per my past mentions of ethology or ev psych, there’s nothing wrong with looking at primates, etc.,” especially since I find myself in agreement with your statement “We just need to make sure we’re not overarching in our claims.” Yes, wouldn’t that be nice? I just don’t see that I addressed any of your concerns in my comments, so perhaps some clarification is in order.

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  24. Hi Peter, just to be clear you don’t have to sell VE or explain its basics. My criticism is from the vantage point of a “fellow traveler” as it were.

    The problem is that I think you are overselling its capabilities, and (as I would see it) misunderstanding the nature of certain problems and so how VE would fit into (if at all) their solution.

    “You would seem to subscribe to some form of an ecological theory of crime.”

    I would agree with what you said about circumstantial predisposition and the role of VE in encouraging people to form habits that can counteract (or overcome) default circumstantial responses.

    My criticism was that we are not in some moral crisis, most especially defined by rates of imprisonment and recidivism. That someone is in jail does not mean they have made poor moral judgment unless you believe all laws are valid moral judgments. That someone repeats an offense does not suggest they have failed morally. Laws against drugs, gambling, and sexuality are great examples.

    US prisons are a for profit system, that dovetails with fear-mongering for political gain. That is why US prisons are packed with “perpetrators” of nonviolent, often “victimless” crimes. Also draconian sentencing prevents normal turnover of prison populations.

    “Compromise is a form of virtue. Separation is dangerous…”

    Compromise is a form of virtue, but compromise toward a moral judgment is not reaching “common” moral values on an issue.

    I disagree that separation is dangerous. De-humanization of the other group could be, but that is not required. Moral boundaries defining different moral groups are valid within VE. A world of unified human values is a dangerous fantasy. Expectations we should all be “in-group” regarding morals causes a lot of violence.

    “This internal motivation means that he is predisposed…”

    Yes I understand this. I think our sticking point is your use of the term “supply.” That sounds like VE can generate internal motivation. From a Humean standpoint that is impossible. By recognizing our interests VE can help us select and (to some degree) amplify certain habits. But if there is no internal motivation somewhere already, VE is useless.

    “The consequentialists wait until nightfall and then water their gardens under cover of darkness.”

    As a person who dislikes consequentalism I think that is a bit unfair ☺

    Where there is real (rather then artificial) depletion of resources, some frugality may be demanded by a sense of responsibility. That said, your situation is local and artificial (you don’t have to live where you do). If one wants gardens and shiny cars one should live where water is plentiful, or invest in resources that make it so.

    To me, moral outrage/criticism against materialism and hedonism is a holdover from deontological (primarily religious) beliefs against “earthly desires”. I don’t believe there is much (if any) moral value in ascetic habits, or prudish moralizing. Often the criticisms employed are about the effects of asceticism and prudery, than the results of materialism and hedonism.

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  25. Religion:
    1. Evolved survival system for a group.
    2. Transcendental belief(s).
    3. Surrogate ‘omniscient parent’.
    4. Extended ‘family’ with strong organised hierarchy, traditions, culture and common and cohesive purpose -uniting against other beliefs.
    5. Very powerful controlling influence on (and group support for) its adherents’ behaviour.

    Requires two conditions to succeed:
    6. Its system must provide some margin of survival advantage, -at least for its own group.
    7. Overwhelming conviction in its power if it is to work efficiently or even at all.

    Enduring and flourishing, as it has done for thousands of generations evolving slowly into huge groups, it has been (an essential?) part of humankind’s advance towards acquiring knowledge of ourselves, our environment and towards encouraging our civilised forms of society.

    Religion’s later development has been marked by a steady decline in beliefs in a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena. Darwin’s theory challenges the need for any super-nature for our existence and tacit acceptance of our own natural, and *terminal*, lives: forcing theism into non-theism where all the ‘strengths/crutches’ unique to religious beliefs (i.e. 2-5 above) are much less or non-existent.

    Irrespective of its inherent truth/falsity, loss of faith in supernatural religion means its moral codes are instantly disempowered. However grounded, were they not mostly a rational, successful and extremely strong coercive restraint on personal/group communal behaviour, hence their evolutionary endurance?

    Virtue Ethics, unless enforced by a religious faith in a Personal God and continuing eternal existence whose quality is proportional to behaviour on Earth before temporal death, is not likely to be a sufficiently coercive force for good.

    Be reasonable, how many of us will behave completely virtue-ethically unless we think (a) we will be found out and (b) pay some personal price as a result. Religion’s ‘deadly’ stick/carrot, provided it has a more than a half-right moral code, is effectively much superior to ‘better feelings’, -our fallible private moral ‘consciences’.

    This means for non-theists the strongest coercion on us is the Law which, unlike an all-seeing God, is very often remiss in both finding detrimental behaviour and then controlling it.

    Decline in religion may not automatically mean decline in moral standards but it does seem to mean a possible decline in the application of those standards. This is the problem for non-theism as I see it.

    PS. Is virtue ethics actually objective ethics?

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  26. >>You would seem to subscribe to some form of an ecological theory of crime….There are many circumstances that predispose people to crime. At the same time it is important to remember that the majority of people who are exposed to these circumstances do not resort to crime.

    You missed Brandholm’s point. When he said that the incarceration and recidivism rates had “little to do with personal moral failings”, his point wasn’t that people are committing crimes because they are in bad circumstances. His point was that we have a huge money-making prison industry that lobbies politicians to pass policies that guarantee more and longer incarcerations (such as mandatory minimum sentencing and prison quotas.)

    The reason the US incarceration rate has exploded in the past 30 years, and the reason why the US locks up more people than the rest of the world, isn’t because Americans have suddenly and inexplicably become far less moral than everyone else in the world. It’s due to changes in prison-sentencing policy.

    >> Let’s take a simple example, a highway speed limit. Why should I observe it? The deontologist will say I should observe it because a greater authority (the state) has decreed that this is a law. The consequentialist will say I should observe it because I will suffer unpleasant consequences otherwise.

    No and no. A consequentialist would only say something like that if he’s also an egoist. But a typical consequentialist (like a utilitarian) would say that he should obey the speed limit because doing so increases the *overall* amount of happiness in the world – the happiness and safety of everyone else on the road is just as important as his own. Also, a deontologist is not committed to saying that one ought to observe the authority of the state – it depends on the content of the particular deontological theory. For example, a Kantian would probably say that you ought to observe the speed limit because not doing so would violate the categorical imperative.

    In fact, the converse point could be made for virtue ethics. A virtue ethicist who thinks that respect for state authority is a virtue *could* say that you should obey the speed limit because the state has decreed it as law (much like how some religious people think that submitting to God’s will – whatever it is – is virtuous in itself.) Of course, not all virtue ethicists would say this – my point is that you can’t make these kinds of general statements about any of the three positions, since there is a lot of variety within all of them.

    Lastly, you are again conflating issues of moral motivation with the question of what makes an action right. A utilitarian might be motivated to behave morally by the same exact natural inclinations and virtuous character traits as a virtue ethicist. The difference is simply that the utilitarian doesn’t think that that his virtuous inclinations are what *make* his behavior moral.

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  27. Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement.

    Do you think that there is agreement or would be agreement on what a “good” person or a “good” life is?

    Don’t we need to know that before we can determine virtues?

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  28. Initial “good” definition for possible consideration and build out:

    Conan the Barbarian (1982) – Quote

    Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?

    Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

    Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?

    Conan: Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.

    Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

    Consider above as negative pole. Then consider do no harm to others, Golden Rule as positive pole. Then begin painting gradient in between.

    Can the opposites be reconciled in thought? Maybe. In action? Maybe not.

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  29. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were master thinkers. Their influence was so great, they changed human psychology.

    In 330 CE, the Spartans, led by king Agis, made an all-out effort to destroy Macedonian hegemony. The battle was bloody, long indecisive. Athens sat on her hands. In spite of a blitz by Demosthenes and other philosophers, who saw the terrible danger civilization was in. Once he was rid of Alexander, the senior Macedonian general and dictator Antipater, turned against Athens.

    The fate of democracy was decided on the sea. The Athenian fleet, having suffered losses in two battles, surrendered. The captains of the Athenian ships were not as determined as their ancestors, who, 170 years earlier, had confronted the Persian fleet and its Greek allies, under incomparably greater odds.

    Historians are at a loss to explain that massive change of psychology. Why did Athens not fight for freedom in 330 CE, while it had gone all out for it in 500 CE?

    My explanation is that, thanks to the pernicious influence of the troika Socrates-Plato-Aristotle, Athenians changed their notion of superior wisdom. Freedom that had made their ancestors stand on the pinnacle of civilization, had been displaced by an obsession with self-flourishing (“Eudaimonism”).

    An ethical system where dying for freedom is the highest calling is very different from one where one is pursuing the vague notion of “happiness”. Were the 300 with Leonidas happy at Thermopylae? They were happy to die for freedom.

    The happiness of Themistocles’ sailors at Salamis while their city burned in the background came from fighting for causes bigger than themselves, freedom and justice. If they had been pursuing happiness, they would have fled, as Aristotle, faced with freedom and justice, did. Instead Themistocles’ men confronted a thousand ships.

    The failure of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were not personal. Socrates’ courageous death is a shining example. Plato, and Aristotle exhibited personal courage, close and personal, to some of the worst tyrants in history.

    Socrates, Plato and Aristotle’s failure was systemic, not personal. They replaced freedom, equality, and brotherhood with an obsession with taking care of the oligarchic self. Instead it is the greater primacy that they accorded to some values which devalued.

    Their very failure made their success. The common denominator ethics that they promoted was favorable to tyrants, and that it is precisely why their work survived through the Dark Ages. Whereas those who defended freedom, equality and democracy were extinguished by the Christian censors and their plutocratic sponsors.

    Am I advocating a return to some kind of paleo-state and/or instinctual ethics?

    Well, yes. Except it’s not a return, because we never left. We are what we are. And we are 60 million years of evolution as primates.

    Monkey studies show that “instinctual ethics” is a fact (whatever “instinct” really mean: it could actually be logic masquerading as innate!) To talk about ethics without that fact front and central would be like talking about atoms, while discounting anything that may have been discovered after Lucretius.

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  30. Confucianism is not just a non-Aristotelian virtue ethics but a virtue ethics widely taught, popularly accepted and very long lasting. As such, we can use its success, or lack of it, to judge the plausibility of the OP. The discovery by Europeans of the Enlightenment that Confucian virtue ethics had produced a society more or less as ethical as their, or perhaps even more ethical, was a powerful demonstration that God and religions like Christianity were not the foundations of morals. This is a hugely important empirical discovery that, remarkably, informs remarkably little popular moral philosophy even today. Given this, I’m not sure why the OP thinks many believers are eager to sign on. Many appear quite content to condemn wrong believers as innately evil. Believing in spite of evidence is widely regarded as the essence of faith, as acts of will, instead of
    judgments compelled by facts (or even feelings of confidence based on experience.)

    The OP’s further contention that a modern Western virtue ethics taught to the masses would improve general morality however has no support in the example provided by Confucianism. Barring the covert assumption that Western virtue ethics will still be Christian, i.e., right, Confucianism and all its Rectification of Names was unable to prevent immoralities such as foot binding, concubinage, child selling, peasant usury, bureaucratic corruption, eunuch factionalism at court, imperial intrigue and tyranny. And this is the case even though the notion of the Mandate of Heaven arguably made Confucianism superior to the Aristotelian version. I think the fundamental problem is not unique to Confucianism but to virtue ethics, which is inherently committed to the uncritical acceptance of conventional morality. Its epistemic humility, its skeptical resistance to scientistic overreach, leaves conventional morality untouched. In the light of this history, the OP is not to be taken seriously.

    (By the way, Neo-Confucianism as taught by Chu Hsi et al. would be included in this context, inasmuch as it borrowed primarily metaphysical elements from Buddhism and Daoism. Also, if anything, “Lao Tse” is if anything even more of a virtue ethicist! And Greek “eudaemonia,” good spirit, seems to me to parallel Buddhist right mindfulness remarkably closely.)

    I must protest that it is a profound error to dismiss the inability of a virtue ethics to make the moral discovery that slavery is a wrong, rather than justifying it. Virtue ethics is the enemy of moral progress. It is false to claim that Christian virtue ethics ended slavery when depopulation after the fall of the west Roman Empire meant that laws against slavery were laws against incipient feudal nobles stealing another’s forced labor population. It is not a red herring to cite this point against Aristotle, but a red thread marking failure. The careers of Aristotle’s most famous pupil, Alexander IIi of Macedon and Aristotle’s nephew Callisthenes, suggest to me that the Aristotelian version of virtue ethics remains to be examined. Calling off the pursuit of virtue when it threatens the conventional views just isn’t much of a contribution to morals in my view.

    As for modern versions, they are not widely popularized, save for Philippa Foot’s trolley problems.

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  31. @michaelfugate

    In short, no — we don’t need agreement prior to beginning.

    Here’s Macintyre in After Virtue on what a practise is (Macintyre argues that “good” must be defined relative to specific practises):

    “Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions to the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”

    So if we want to identify “Scientia Salon internet poster” as our practise, we can realise some goods internal to the process while trying to achieve good posting: simple language free from jargon, good grammar, succinct and short responses, not dominating threads by limiting the number of responses, etc.

    We don’t do this prior to beginning; we develop the standards of excellence as we post, cooperatively and with the ends of posting in mind. Obviously there’s occasionally going to be disagreement about what good posting is, but the virtue (so to speak) of the virtue approach is not in its ability to decisively and finally determine what is good and bad posting, but rather in how it provides a useful structure for individuals or groups to reason through the process and come to relevant conclusions. So in the end, it’s not about any given post being judged ultimately good or bad (this is where deontological and consequentialist approaches would focus) so much as it is about developing the moral character within posters to determine what a good or bad post might be, considering the goals of the salon.

    Again, virtue approaches are not primarily about determining acts to be right or wrong with the view that “right” and “wrong” are fundamental characteristics that can be ascribed to any given act. Instead, virtue approaches are more centered in identifying teloi associated with practices, and aligning the standards of excellence with the internal goods associated with those practices. So it’s more about process than outcome, per se.

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  32. Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions to the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

    Don’t these people have editors for their books?

    So if I want to write a “good: post, then I am more likely to do so – whatever a “good” post is?

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  33. Hi Stevenjohnson, your first paragraph makes a good point: “This is a hugely important empirical discovery that, remarkably, informs remarkably little popular moral philosophy even today.” However I think the rest of your argument is (while challenging for sure) not so clear cut.

    In his replies Peter explained that some practices that are considered morally objectionable today required a change in worldview, in the case of slavery enlarging the “in-group”. That would equally hold for most of the “failings” you list for Confucianism.

    All moral systems can fall prey to that issue, and certainly they did. How you define other living beings as moral subjects may be a part of one’s moral system, but not always and then it is forced to use default views of the society in which it is being practiced.

    I think you are right that VE does not inherently challenge the status quo. However, a VE that includes virtues that both allows for and promotes such challenges would. I would hope that modern VE incorporates the lessons of the past (so it is a system that does not remain static) and as such requires challenges to traditional beliefs.

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  34. Hi Peter,

    I haven’t had the time to keep up to date on the conversation, so I may be echoing comments made by others, but here are my thoughts.

    I don’t think anyone doubts that children benefit from a moral education which instills in them certain virtues. This has been done since time immemorial and continues to this day as children are taught to be kind, to share, and to forgive each other (and not only by parents and teachers, by the way, watch almost any children’s television program and you’ll see these values being promoted). Unlike you, I do not think that modern times are any worse than earlier ones, indeed I think they are likely better, perhaps in large part due to this caring/sharing popular culture (as opposed to, say, the murder and rape of the Grimm fairy tales). If your solution to completely eliminating these social ills is virtue ethics, then I think it’s not really sufficient because it is already in effect and it’s not doing the job. I’m not sure there is a solution. Some amount of suffering and misery would seem to be inevitable.

    In particular, I don’t know why you want to lay the blame for all the evils of the world at the door of consequentialism, especially as, ironically enough, your argument for virtue ethics is saturated with consequentialist thinking as you list all the positive consequences that would ensue from teaching virtues to our children. That’s consequentialism in action, and if you don’t see that then you have an impoverished idea of what consequentialism actually is.

    Without some sort of consequentialist justification, there’s no criteria for judging which attributes to call virtue and which to call vice. There’s no way to judge what is moderate and what is extreme. Some cultures hold pride and honour to be virtues to the point that it is “virtuous” even to murder to preserve this honour. Some cultures think it is virtuous to murder apostates or to believe incoherent nonsense without question.

    In order to identify what virtues we should promote, and what counts as moderation, we need to choose virtues that will lead to a reduction of suffering and to greater happiness and safety for all of us. As such, virtue ethics can be seen as a practical application of consequentialism, a truly useful heuristic for a world where consequences are never certain.

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  35. brandholm@tipofmymind To the best of my knowledge early European antislavery ideas are associated with resistance to slave raids on European populations, which continued into modern times. If I recall correctly, freeing European slaves was part of the Barbary War. It’s being part of the out-group that mattered, not expanding the in-group. By contrast, European slaving took place first, supplementing indentured European labor in the English colonies. Interracial marriages between slaves and indentures naturally took place. Laws against this were part of the process of creating the racial identification of the out-group. It is not the existence of an out-group that led to racism. The elaboration of racist ideology grew with the wealth created by slavery in the US. The main force of the abolitionist movement was always the out-group, the African Americans, not the white people who expanded their in-group with a worldview change. The elites who deemed themselve “gentlement” or “patroons” or possibly “squires” also rather tended to think themselves as following virtue ethics, placing great emphasis on character rather than philosophical systems (much less science.)

    I see that you are uncertain whether the evils Confucianism accepted could rightlly be called evils (I suppose you are using some sort of historical moral relativism by which children, i.e., the past, can’t be held truly responsible for immaturity?) But consider this, the OP offered a new virtue ethics as a reconciliation of believers with others. Yet historically Confucianism was entirely compatible, even instrumental, in the mass persecuation of Buddhists! There is no reason to think the OP’s modern version of virtue ethics can accomplish any more. Even by its own standard then, history refutes the OP’s vision.

    The empirical discoveries of a basic human equality and the ways in which previous moral codes functioned as protectors of the status quo should have changed everything about philosophizing on morals. It did not. As to whether any version of virtue ethics can incorporate such critical principles? So far as I can tell, the whole point is to uphold some people as more virtuous, better, than others, in defiance of their fundamental equality. It is entirely true, to put it another way, that virtue ethics can provide a robust moral code, but it is one meant to serve as a firing platform, so that some can aim at the others. A robust moral critique, not so much.

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  36. Hi labnut,

    The churches are the only bodies with regular and systematic processes for inculcating moral behaviour.

    It seems to have little effect. E.g. study in Science mag this week: “Religious and nonreligious participants did not differ in the likelihood or quality of committed moral and immoral acts”.

    There is little actual evidence that religions make people more moral, which is part of why I claim that people do not get morals from religion, rather, religions get morals from people.

    … drive by doctoring, surprise medical bills …

    Health care (along with incarceration rates, gun control and a few other things) is one of those areas where the USA is weird and dysfunctional compared to the rest of the West. I don’t think that in an overall broad view that is evidence that of a moral crisis in the West (not that I’m against trying to improve things even more).

    Hi mogguy,

    … loss of faith in supernatural religion means its moral codes are instantly disempowered.

    Though if they didn’t actually come from religion in the first place then the loss of faith makes little difference.

    Hi Asher,

    Nature often creates real normative facts … For any physical system subject to natural selection, it will always be “better” to persist.

    You can indeed define a Darwinian fitness function, which natural selection acts to maximise, and then note that some animals are “better” or “worse” against that fitness function.

    You can also define a gravitational potential-energy function, which gravity acts to minimise, and then note that some shapes of rocks are “better” or “worse” at rolling downhill than others.

    But you cannot get from either of those to normativity without making a value judgement. Even survival is only “better” in that sense if someone judges it so.

    Hi ejwinner,

    Trying to get any inherited “ethical instinct” out of monkeys is silly.

    Other social animals will of course have evolved their own moral systems (feelings about the ways that species interacts), just as we have. Of course it would be misconceived to judge one of these moral systems by the standards of another (that would only make sense if there were an absolute standard against which to hold both).

    Hi Patrice Ayme,

    Human groups operate optimally according to nature. Goodness is thus not only natural, it’s logical.

    Badness is just as natural as goodness. Evolution does not optimise *groups*, since evolution is more about competition *within* a species. That means that social species will evolve to have an inevitable mixture of both cooperative/social “good” attitudes and behaviours and anti-social/selfish “bad” ones. But we can (and do) try to arrange society to accentuate the good aspects of human nature and minimise the bad aspects.

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  37. Hi Stevenjohnson, I’m nearing my max comments and wish to reserve my last for Peter if he replies, so this is the last I can give. So no offense if I don’t respond later 🙂

    Obviously if you are part of an “out-group” and are currently being made slaves of, you will likely resist this. Either military or by getting the other group to recognize you should be treated the same as them (their “in-group”). So the Barbary Wars and the fact that African Americans were a force in abolitionism is totally beyond the point I was making.

    That there were mixed marriages, and then laws against it would only reinforce what I am saying. Some could see “them” as “us” which resulted in the majorities pushing back to replace social sanctions (which were not working) with legal sanctions to reinforce the ingroup-outgroup distinction. Eventually this was dismantled.

    “as following virtue ethics, placing great emphasis on character rather than philosophical systems (much less science.)”

    VE is a philosophical system, which can promote science. It is not (or does not need to be) mere social snobbery. And are you suggesting that science could have rejected (particularly as evil) slavery or any of the other things that Confucianism failed to reject? If so, how?

    “Yet historically Confucianism was entirely compatible, even instrumental, in the mass persecuation of Buddhists! There is no reason to think the OP’s modern version of virtue ethics can accomplish any more.”

    I stated to Peter that he was overselling VE’s capabilities. Yes, VE can be employed by different people with very different results. That it has been used to support what is unacceptable in western societies today I am not disputing. However, that it must do so because it has in the past is not logical at all. You have delivered a cautionary point worth keeping in mind, not a knock down blow to a system.

    “The empirical discoveries of a basic human equality”

    What empirical discovery was that? Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by equality.

    “the whole point is to uphold some people as more virtuous, better, than others, in defiance of their fundamental equality.”

    Well that doesn’t seem true at all. You can talk about habits leading to goals, without reference to people. And those practicing such habits more likely to reach goals, not that they are better than others, or the others less “equal”. I understand it can be used the way you said, but it is neither necessary nor the “whole point” of VE.

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  38. You can also define a gravitational potential-energy function, which gravity acts to minimise, and then note that some shapes of rocks are “better” or “worse” at rolling downhill than others.

    But it’s not better or worse *for* the rocks. Normativity arises when teleology arises in complex, self-organized systems.

    But you cannot get from either of those to normativity without making a value judgement. Even survival is only “better” in that sense if someone judges it so.

    That’s incorrect, Coel. Survival is “better” in terms of our basic ontological structure. No judgement can change or affect it. It may be contingent on physics in some way that we could barely imagine, but it’s not contingent on how we feel about it. One can decide/judge that one does not value survival – as many do when they decide to commit suicide – but the better and worse of it remains the same.

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  39. The teloi goal of VE process design is saving human civilization from self-inflicted human destruction. If nature wants to destroy us with volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, famine, that’s beyond project scope. Civilization is humanity’s protective barrier against nature. Survival is the goal of the game nature brought us forth for (for fun). To win, to defeat nature at her own game, the uncivilized cannot have a seat at the futurist VE process design table. The next step is global mandatory multi-cultural history and self-awareness training. Science and religion get to debate VE inputs forever, as long as they sign nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Moral policy development ground rule: Religion is allowed to make truth claims based on the political representation of any invisible spirit of their choice with hope. Science is allowed to make truth claims based on the political representation of any human philosopher of their choice with hopelessness. Both sides must mock each other mercilessly, understand each other’s jokes, and laugh with sincerity.

    Goal: Discover the historical, biological/non-biological root causes and motivating forces of violence within selves. If biological, provide scientific cure, if non-biological, provide self-control. Humanity cannot understand itself without its earliest history contained in myth and ritual (religion). Ancient myths are not metaphors anthropologically speaking, and reflect humanity’s self-awareness of its pre-civilized predatory, carnivorous, cannibalistic animal nature before mastery of fire and tools. The impulse to kill in order to eat was a winner take all survivor game played as solitary lone wolves and in teams. The winners wrote history and the vanquished wrote lore.

    Memory of pre-civilized animal nature may be repressed and require reactivation. Tragedy is song of the goat man. Romulus/Remus children of the wolf. God forms animal to human to celestial reflect awe at the monstrosity of life’s survival, death and hope in afterlife mystery requirement. Dionysus bull (totemism), man (euhemerism), constellation (astrotheology), pulled apart/eaten raw (sparagmos/omophagia). Christian transubstantiation is living fossil evidence of this evolution rationalized with guilt/scapegoating/atoning human sacrifice, imperialism, emperor/sacral king worship, and neo-platonic mysticism. The paradox is that monotheisms as evolutionary winners were and are a force for “good”, building civilization, scholasticism and self-control rules against animal instincts, from which secular enlightenment emerged. Science should expand study of the religious impulse in humanity as a real phenomenon, even if the gods may not be real (non-falsifiable).

    Humanity must become predictive/preventive of violence in order to chagrin Mother Earth. What superpowers will take the lead? Will superpower metamorphosis from hawk to dove convert opponents? Athenian’s losing their will to fight for freedom and liberty was an important point made earlier by another commenter. Secular democratic cultures enabling freedom of and freedom from religion are superior to other cultures in only one way that matters, superior firepower. Is secular democratic culture superior? Yes. Why? Because I would not be free to publish this commentary in a theocracy without risk of violence. Can violence be prevented through the power of a just state, using the threat of just war? Maybe.

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  40. I am sympathetic to virtue ethics, but there are a couple of points that you make that I find problematic.

    Firstly, at an abstract level it may seem that the catalogue of virtues would be agreeable to all, but if we examine more concrete conceptions of virtues than it seems that one tradition’s conception of a virtue will greatly differ from another. For example, justice and courage are typically taken to be virtues, but there are several conceptions of each of these virtues that are not only distinct, but to some degree incompatible. So, I don’t see virtue ethics as something that is necessarily able to provide common ground.

    Also, I think you associate morality and virtue ethics too closely The virtues are not merely characteristics of moral excellence, but of human excellence more generally. Being virtuous is not about being a goody two shoes, but being an admirable fully developed human being, and this can require the development of nonmoral capabilities and qualities. For example, someone who was too consumed by the moral virtues (compassion, justice) might lack other virtues like those associated with aesthetic creativity. This example reveals not only that the virtues are wider than morality, but that the virtues may conflict such that it is nearly impossible to possess all of the virtues.

    I think it is a little bit too simplistic to suggest that the modern secular world embraces consequentialism while the modern religious world embraces deontology. The secular world is better described as being tied up with various, incompatible conceptions of deontology and consequentialism. For example, deontological principles are affirmed in the secular world when people say that freedom of speech cannot be restricted because this would diminish respect for individuals.

    The last point I would like to make is that while intrinsic motivation is hugely important there is no reason to think that intrinsic motivation cannot be provided by consequentialist or deontological considerations. I am a vegetarian for consequentialist reasons, but my motivation is intrinsic in that it a concern for reducing the evil of suffering that motivates me. So, the reason for the decline of intrinsic motivation within society has less to do with the advent of consequentialism and deontology than the idea that society should be built on the stable foundation of enlightened self-interest. While the advance of consequentialism and deontology coincided with the rise of this view of the foundations of society, deontology and consequentialism are separate from it. So while I think you are right to be critical of the attempt to build on society on the foundation of enlightened self-interest, the criticism you level against this notion of foundations does not give reason to be critical of consequentialism and deontology.

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  41. Asher: “Nature often creates real normative facts … For any physical system subject to natural selection, it will always be “better” to persist.”

    Coel: “You can indeed define a Darwinian fitness function, which natural selection acts to maximise, and then note that some animals are “better” or “worse” against that fitness function… But you cannot get .. to normativity without making a value judgement. Even survival is only “better” in that sense if someone judges it so.”

    Asher: “That’s incorrect, Coel. Survival is “better” in terms of our basic ontological structure. No judgement can change or affect it.”

    Above is a noteworthy example of the disagreements that occur regularly in the salon when both sides have a point, i.e, there is some truth on either side, but the commonality in the positions is often not recognized.

    Yes, the instinct for survival is universal amongst living organisms, perhaps due to an élan vital that we cannot yet explain. Struggle for survival is a norm in nature, it doesn’t need me to declare it so, only to recognize it. Bacteria ‘behave’ in ways that appear to optimize their chances of survival and flourishing, they even have ‘intimate social behavior’ due to quorum sensing. Certainly, the palpable fear expressed by many animals when confronted by a deadly predator is plain for everyone to see, and empathize with. This struggle for survival apparently is real since it is probably in our genes. With time these genes should be identified and we will have a better idea of what the basis of this ‘normative reality’ is, and how it operates.

    Yes, in order for us to discuss the normativity of survival, we have to define it and make value judgements about it. In the process, the value of ‘survival’ enters each unique individual consciousness, i.e. it comes into existence.

    Therefore, the existence in our heads of the normativity of survival has a very unclear relationship to the underlying reality of our physiology and its genetic basis. It is easy to see how mysterious realities make our discussions more challenging. Another example is our recent vigorous discussion on the reality of morals. There are almost certainly genes, and alleles of genes, that influence our attitudes – the so-called warrior gene would be an example. So, yes, the moral realists have a legitimate claim but it is a weak one. Ethics realism and virtue realism could also be considered on the above basis but, again, would not be expected to definitely resolve any of the disputes.

    It seems that we must find a way to solve our problems even as each and everyone has their own opinion on how to proceed.

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  42. First, the several other objections to specific issues with virtue ethics are all, at least in part, mine as well.

    Second, and somewhat related to that, I have noted before that I’m not a system-builder. That applies to systems of ethics. In an informal way, at least, I think Goedel’s incompleteness theorems apply to philosophical system building. Human nature is sufficiently complex, and those systems are self-referential enough, that they cannot be complete.

    Even to the degree they are semi-complete, our relative lack of knowledge about ourself as a *conscious* species means that they can’t be that complete in terms of an empirical basis. As others have noted, even with the knowledge we have, we can see how far short of overarching they fall.

    And a couple of specific notes:

    @Thomas: Perhaps I should have been clear that my first sentence was just a “reference,” not a negative comment, as an example of “what’s already out there” in this area. Second sentence was merely explanatory. The third sentence? You may agree, yes, that a homogenous culture is not necessarily enough for one ethical school to take over, but, it seemed your first comment at least allowed for that possibility.

    Apologies for the third “@” which should have actually been @EZ, for his response to @Patrice:

    Trying to get any inherited ‘ethical instinct’ out of monkeys is silly.

    Especially if we change “monkey” to “primate,” EZ’s wrong here.

    ==

    @Mogguy: No. Per my comment about “skyhooks” and starting points, virtue ethics is not nccessarily any more objective than other normative schools. That said, it’s not necessarily religion dependent.

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  43. @michaelfugate

    So if I want to write a “good: post, then I am more likely to do so – whatever a “good” post is?

    For sure, no?

    People who want to succeed in any given practise and are deliberate about what they do are more likely to improve and succeed in that practise than those that don’t care and just do whatever.

    Macintyre’s prose obviously isn’t his strong point, but I would encourage you (as an exercise to better understand the concept) to come up with a practise or two that you partake in, and flesh out how the standards of excellence and internal goods emerge from the practise of that practise. I tried briefly outlining Scientia Salon Internet Poster as I thought it to be a practical shared context (and because Massimo’s recent post on the change of direction fits in perfectly with a virtue approach!), but I’m sure you could plunk in Citizen, or Father, or Husband, or Employee, or whatever, and do much the same.

    To come at it from a slightly different angle, the language game of “good” always emerges from a particular context in a particular form of life. In order for that language game to be partially comprehensible, any given individual must (at least in some way) share that form of life. And the standards of excellence relevant to that form of life — whether it is being a father, or a firefighter, or a SS internet poster, or whatever — only emerge from the practise of those practises. More particularly, the understanding of “good” evolves in each of those contexts as it is subject to the evolution of the experience of the people practising the practises. Again, virtue approaches are more centered in the character of the people living the practises than in any act proper; the moral judgment in a virtue approach transcends the act proper (which is neither good nor bad in and of itself) to necessarily include the context of the person performing the act.

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  44. Socratic Gadfly,
    “That’s why, contra @Thomas, per my past mentions of ethology or ev psych, there’s nothing wrong with looking at primates, etc. We just need to make sure we’re not overarching in our claims.” (I hope you mean EJ in your correction, not “EZ,” I may look easy, But I’m rather hard to win over!) “Especially if we change “monkey” to “primate,” EZ’s wrong here.”

    I agree that we can get some of what grounds ethics out of primate history (sympathy, cooperation, etc.), but that’s not what Patrice Ayme’s saying. Check a later comment; Patrice Ayme really is saying we can (do) get ethics out of monkey behavior.

    To quote Voltaire’s response to a somewhat similar claim by Rousseau:
    “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.”

    To quote myself (from my blog): “(Such a maneuver) imposes human values on the behavior of non-human animals in the first instance, in order to derive those values from those behaviors. The circularity of this enterprise should be obvious. There may be somethings to learn from it – but ethical necessities are not among these.”

    ‘Ethics’ is a word we humans have developed for behavioral concepts we have. Who knows how the monkeys see the matter?

    And the problem remains: “Any animal does what it must according to instinct, and higher order animals then do what they can in order to attain increased pleasure. (…) (Ethologically), behavior that we would find appalling among humans, must be granted survival value if it reappears generation after generation – e.g, domination behavior and intra-group violence, abandonment of the old and weak, males killing the young in order to get the female back into estrous, etc. Inherited socialization, especially as a survival mechanism, comes as a package deal.* If we were to depend only on our evolutionary inheritance to guide us socially, I fear we would prove the most appalling of species, to ourselves. But fortunately humans are, as animals, the least instinct driven, and most capable of learning. Also, we get to decide for ourselves which behaviors are ethical and which appalling.”

    Finally: (Even if we have some inborn ‘moral feeling), “it would still leave us exactly where we are, reflecting on our own behavior and the social world we live in, in order to find the best responses to the questions concerning who we might be, and what world we might wish to live in.”

    (*For once, Coel and I actually agree here – “Badness is just as natural as goodness.” You get the bad with the good, through evolutionary inheritance; so ethics – as humans use the word – come after our evolutionary arrival.)

    (Sorry for quoting myself so much here, but as David Byrne sang, “Say something once/ why say it again?”)

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  45. I understand VE, yar, but I don’t see how you get there without rules and consequences. There are a gazillion goals for a good post on SS and the underlying virtues will differ with the goal. Don’t get me wrong, self-reflection is a good thing and necessary for an ethical life – it is just not the only thing and can’t work in isolation. If we look at Catholic ethics from which Peter/labnut is working, we find all three schools at work – probably as it should be.

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  46. ” And are you suggesting that science could have rejected (particularly as evil) slavery or any of the other things that Confucianism failed to reject? If so, how?” Science in its most basic sense means conclusions based upon evidence derived from experience instead of other ways of knowing like religion and philosophy which serve as premises for futher investigation (instead of merely “informing” religion and philosophy.). Individuals of course have tried to claim some peoples are natural slaves, but science is not an individual project like religion and philosophy. Justification in science is inherently collective, and it also must be across cultures and eras. Science has never established that some people are inherently suited to slavery, and all purported evidences to the contrary are either effects of enslavement or entirely imaginary. And, although not so obvious, there has never been a sound case made that kind of inequality is somehow a tragic necessity either.

    “What empirical discovery was that? Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by equality.” That if any member of a supposedly inferior group was exchanged at birth with another, the parties would then function appropriately to their situation in life, rather than their behavior being an expression of their innate powers/virtues. (Power and virtue are partial synonyms. This is not just an archaic usage. Knowledge is power and knowledge is essential to the exercise of virtue.) I should also have noted that science has discovered an irreducible variation in humanity which does not bear on their ability to treat others justly, yet is ignored by codes of behavior imposed upon society at large by ruling minorities.

    “Well that doesn’t seem true at all. You can talk about habits leading to goals, without reference to people. And those practicing such habits more likely to reach goals, not that they are better than others, or the others less ‘equal’. I understand it can be used the way you said, but it is neither necessary nor the ‘whole point’ of VE.” Historically, I don’t believe that there is any example of virtue ethics which does not serve an apologetic function for religion or philosophy that holds some are inferior to others. Meritocracy formally eschews bigotry but still upholds this fundamental division of the human kind. Great man historiography may locate the superior people to the past and pretend “we” are all equal, but it still upholds the division. Obviously you disagree, but in my eyes, virtue ethics, as the least critical form of conventionalism, is the default in popular culture. As in the cult of sportsmanship, it may be desirable to deny that particular excess is not part of the good version of Virtue Ethics. But I think we should look at existent forms rather than ideal imaginings.

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  47. I’m sympathetic towards virtue ethics but I still have many of the reservations that people have brought up here plus additional ones. On the one hand, virtue ethics always stood as a different, non-competing project from other moral systems. Virtue ethics doesn’t tell you what is right or wrong necessarily but gives you a general process and direction to move towards if your trying to live the moral life. When asking more normative ethical questions, I think we have to shift to other systems, with my favorite being Rawls. Perhaps the virtuous thing to do in a situation where your trying to set up moral code is to engage in a Rawlsian thought experiment? I don’t know if that is accurate enough description for virtue ethics.

    My main concern with virtue ethics is that it largely just seems like psychology to me. In other words, it talks about how to be more moral, processes that will get you there and how you will be living the good life. If that is true, than I agree that virtue ethics are important but really should just be folded in with psychological projects that are already addressing these questions. For example, while only a small group of “moral/character/virtue based education programs” exist, there are numerous other programs that promote the exact same thing but under the name of “pro sociality”. The best of these would be programs like Positive Behavior Supports or Positive Action. There is no reason why these should not be considered “virtue” based programs. Moreover, some psychological programs like modern cognitive behavior therapies (acceptance and commitment therapy) even include selecting values/virtues that the person will live by to achieve a eudaimonic life.

    If my description is true, than I think we have completely shifted virtue ethics out of the moral philosophy domain and into moral psychology, which ultimately I think would be better done as an empirical task. What is the best way to resolve conflicts? What is the best way to live according to your values? These are questions that, IMHO, can be better addressed by psychology rather than philosophy. I look to moral philosophy to ask the question, is this right? Should we be doing this in the first place?

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