Rationally Speaking: What virtues, and why?

An example of a tree of virtues.
An example of a tree of virtues. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At any rate, what I’d like to do here is to explore a bit more of my own preferred framework for ethics, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics (the “neo” prefix should alert the reader that I’m not about to defend everything Aristotle said, but rather discuss an updated version of the idea, based of course on his original insights). Specifically, I want to focus on the concept of virtue and the work that it can do in moral philosophy.

via Rationally Speaking: What virtues, and why?.

Massimo Pigluicci addresses a common criticism of virtue ethics: how does one identify what is a virtue and what is a vice?

Virtue ethics is one of the three major philosophical ethical frameworks.  The other two are consequentialism and deontology.  I considered myself a consequentialist for a long time, although as time has passed, I’ve drifted more and more toward virtue ethics.

I like virtue ethics because, unlike the other ethical frameworks, it is honest about its goal being to help you live the good life, and about its foundations (virtues and vices) not being objective.  It gets a lot of criticism for that from advocates of utilitarianism, the most popular form of consequentialism.

But, as I covered in a previous post, none of the normative philosophical frameworks can ultimately claim objectivity.  None of them can make the decisions for you.  If you think they can, then think about how you judge what maximizes utility in utilitarianism (or more broadly, how you evaluate consequences in consequentialism), or how you judge which rules are good in deontology.

Ultimately, you judge these systems by your pre-existing values, which arise from a combination of your evolved instincts for cooperation (which vary by person), and from social learning (which vary by culture).  We have no choice but to do the hard work of finding rules of conduct that most of us can live with.

That said, I do think moral philosophy can clarify our thinking.  It just can’t make the decisions for us.  In that light, I find it productive sometimes to run a moral dilemma through all three systems, doing a virtue check, a utilitarian check, and a deontological one.

If a proposition promotes the good life (virtue ethics), maximizes utility, and it is a rule I’d feel confident turned against me (deontology), then I can usually feel good about it being moral.  At least unless it gets vetoed by my revulsion reflex, in other words, by my evolved instincts.

26 thoughts on “Rationally Speaking: What virtues, and why?

  1. I think you are truly on to someone when you note that if an action passes the gauntlet of the three main normative theories then it is likely that the action is morally right. But I think this points us to a whole other normative theory, one that is complete when taken as itself, and that is moral pluralism, the notion that there are multiple intrinsic values in the world and we must weigh each of these against each other when they conflict to find the action that is morally right for the situation. In this sense, the pluralist could explain that the act that passes the three basic theories is morally right because it upholds different values — it promotes eudemonia (virtue ethics), it maximizes the goodness in the world (consequentialism), and it treats persons involved as autonomous ends-in-themselves (deontology). These are certainly all things to be valued, and our duty to promote them, I think, is best explained by pluralism.

    Also, recent scholarship has contended that Aristotle never intended to provide a decision procedure in the way that consequentialism and deontology prescribe that an action is right if and only if x, thus revealing that the common objection to virtue ethics as being insufficient in telling us what to do in a situation is not a good objection because Aristotle never intended to claim this. This emerging view, known as ‘particularism’, posits that there is no property that an action has that always makes it good or bad, but actions truly are good or bad, it is just that we cannot know in advance of the situation, through a generalize principle of what is right to do, what is right to do in a situation. These commentators hypothesize that Aristotle’s thought that a morally right action is one that a virtuous person would do has been misunderstood; it is not a normative claim, but just a descriptive claim — that claim being that a virtuous person just knows what to do in a situation and this cannot be put into a principle because there are no moral principles. I think there is merit to reading Aristotle in this way, but a supporter of virtue ethics need not embrace it; after all, the idea that the moral goodness of an action is not of such a supervenience relation that it can be generalized to certain natural properties has been derided as committed to non-naturalism moral realism.

    But it might turn out that one can embrace particularism without being committed to non-naturalism, in which case, I think your sentiment that normative theories cannot really tell us how to act could suggest an underlying sympathy for particularism. I’d suggest you look into it, Sap, you might like what you see. I, for one, don’t think particularism is true because there really are generalizations about what properties are normally good-making for an act. But if this is so then, and I accept this, normative ethics can tell us which actions are right, at least occasionally. So, while I think there is room for you to reject particularism and reject the idea that normative ethics can provide us answers of how to act, the compatibility between this latter notion and particularism might turn out to be due to a logical connection between the views rather than an accidental association.


  2. Interesting reading, as always; you advance unusual claims for your positions, such as your claim that morality must provide an answer of what to do if it is to be objective. After all, most opponents of moral realism charge that the fact that morality tells us what to do is precisely what makes it a non-objective affair. The argument has been that objective facts are just beliefs and do not motivate us in any one way or another such that they don’t tell us, by themselves – that is, without other evaluative beliefs — what to do, (i.e. mathematics), and since moral ideals do necessarily motivate us and thus tell us what to do in their action-guidingness, they must not be beliefs, such that morality is not about objective facts but subjective preferences and expressions of emotion. A.J. Ayer, Simon Blackburn and Bernard Williams, highly respected anti-realists have proposed versions of this argument, and all of these ideas took inspiration from Hume. All of this goes to say that the common emotivist argument against realism is: if morality tells us what to do then it is not objective. Your comment implies the argument: if morality doesn’t tell us what to do then it is not objective. So your position is somewhat unique among emotivists, assuming that it is still fair to consider you that after our discussion of your metaethical sentiments.

    The thing is, in order for the conditional to be sound, it must be the case that if we find the antecedent to be true, then the consequent must logically follow. But I don’t think that the consequent does follow for the way you intend the antecedent, as seen in the examples you give. Just because our current moral theories don’t give completely determinate answers for decision procedures doesn’t mean that there is a not an objective realm of facts about what to do, all that logically follows is that our current theories are inadequate and thus, at most completely wrong, but at best just in need of further specification. Thus, I think another argument is needed to prove that morality does not tell us what to do in an objective way.


    1. Thanks ausomeawestin,
      As always, you see philosophical implications to my positions that are enlightening.

      I did very much appreciate our meta-ethical discussion the other day, but I still struggle where to put myself on the meta-ethics tree. I believe morals arise from deeply motivated instincts, from emotions, which makes me sound like an emotivist, but the idea of moral propositions meaning “boo X” or “yay Y” in emotive fashion is repulsive to me. It implies that moral positions are whimsical fancies. But I see them as being deeply held, earnest positions.

      Most of us have similar instincts, meaning that we can study what the lion share of us see as moral. In that sense, moral rules are objective. But a psychopath has different instincts and won’t see things as most of us do.

      Also, many our instinctive impulses conflict with each other, and the way we resolve those conflicts varies by culture, and this is where I think moral philosophy can be exceedingly useful.

      So, some might consider me to be a naturalist, since I can see moral precepts being discoverable by studying our instincts, but since I don’t that as being consistent, a case could be made that I’m an emotivist. I suspect that I’m some sort of blend.


  3. Moral pluralism (also known as ethical pluralism or value pluralism) seems to be a much more reasonable position than either utilitarian, deontological or virtue ethics. Although it might sound wishy-washy (can’t you make up your mind?), it seems to best capture how we actually make ethical decisions and in addition how we should make ethical decisions. I believe the idea is primarily associated with Isaiah Berlin. He argued that different values must be weighed against each other since they often conflict, but furthermore there is sometimes no right answer to be found.

    At any rate, I first encountered the idea in his writings and it’s appealed to me ever since. So many philosophers insist on trying to find the simplest possible answer in cases where complexity applies (it’s reminiscent of those less filling/tastes great beer commercials, except that philosophers do less yelling and more reasoning).

    As I understand Berlin’s moral pluralism, it also helps answer the question whether there are ethical facts. Unfortunately, the answer is No. It isn’t the case that we just can’t figure out what the correct answer is when values conflict. There sometimes isn’t any correct answer to be discovered. Some ethical questions are easy and some are hard, but they all involve how people should behave, which is different from how they do behave, what their feelings are or what the results of their behavior will be. I’m with Hume on this one.


    1. I’d like to amend that last reference to “what people’s feelings are”. The point I was trying to make was that questions about ultimate values aren’t questions about how the world is. They involve ideals, i.e. which possible worlds are better than others. Such questions do involve feelings (or emotions or sentiments). I have a lot of trouble viewing statements about ideals as factual or objective in the same way that empirical, scientific or mathematical statements are, but maybe if I think about it for another 40 years, I will see the error of my ways and it will all become clear.


      1. Thanks and very well articulated. I agree with you that moral propositions aren’t facts in the same way as natural scientific ones. E=mc2 is true throughout the observable universe. The wrongness of torturing innocents, unfortunately, isn’t.

        I fear that, at best, we can understand what motivates humans to adopt certain moral rules, and use that understanding in our own moral reasoning. Unfortunately, we can never prove moral positions, only advocate for them.


      1. I tend to agree with Hume on the view on reason an morality. Here are a couple quotes from Hume (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm).

        “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

        Even insane and maniacs, if asked, would give you some reason for their actions. From this follows

        “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”

        This seems to also correlate with Abraham Lincoln’s saying

        “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.”

        The answer to your questions is “passions”. Motivations are irrational.


        1. I agree. The very desire to be rational is a passion, an emotion, an instinctual urge. This is true for morals as well.

          That said, I do think reason can help us figure out which morals we prefer. Ultimately, an instinctual urge will determine which moral rule you prefer, but reason can help in figuring out which moral urge, which instinct, to listen to.


          1. Re: “but reason can help in figuring out which moral urge, which instinct, to listen to.”
            With this I disagree. Read the first quote I provided. Also, read Section VII in the link to the Hume’s “Treatise”:

            “So that as belief does nothing but vary the manner, in which we conceive any object, it can only bestow on our ideas an additional force and vivacity. An opinion, therefore, or belief may be most accurately defined, a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression.”

            E.g., people believe in God because this idea has an emotional appeal to them, not because of any reason or evidence. People don’t believe in Thor because their emotions are “cold” to this idea. I like how William James divides ideas into “living” and “dead” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26659/26659-h/26659-h.htm):

            “A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: “Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan,” it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian,” it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.”

            Ironically, according to this theory itself, I cannot prove anything that I said here. 🙂 But it seems to “make sense” to me (whatever it may mean).


          2. I’ve used that Hume quote in at least one of my posts and in multiple comments over the years. I agree with it. However, I would disagree with your interpretation of it. (Although I’ll grant that it’s a common interpretation.) To me, Hume meant that reason is a tool of emotion, a “slave of the passions” in his words. I don’t think he meant that reason doesn’t exist or is useless. If that were true, then what was Hume engaging in when he wrote that entry?

            That doesn’t mean that reason is always used to get at truth. Often it is used to justify pre-existing intuitions, i.e. rationalizing. But that doesn’t mean it’s always used that way.

            I do agree that belief in God is driven by emotion, often a complex combination of tribal loyalty, existential anxiety, and agency detection. Those who don’t believe usually have life circumstances or an innate nature that makes them less susceptible to those emotions.


          3. I am not using Hume’s quote to say that reason is useless. Of course, reason is useful. But it only helps to reach true conclusions when the truth of propositions is established by other means – by definition, experiment, or “vivacity of impression” using Hume’s language.


          4. Sorry, didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

            Though I would wonder what the difference is between it being useless and only being used to reach intuitive conclusions. (I’m assuming that’s what’s meant by “vivacity of impression”).

            I know one of the things I like about logical reasoning is that sometimes it drives me to counter intuitive conclusions. I do think accepting those counter intuitive conclusions is a skill though. It takes practice. For me, that practice came through computer programming.


          5. I think, reason is useful to reach rational conclusions which follow from relation between ideas. But many ideas are not reached this way. Many ideas come from direct observation.

            “Vivacity of impression” is what Hume claims to be the difference between ideas we believe and ideas that we simply “conceive in our mind”.


          6. This is what I gathered from Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature”, Part III (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#link2H_4_0027) — that belief is distinguished from other ideas simply by the intensity of emotion which it causes. In section X, he defines belief as “… nothing but A MORE VIVID AND INTENSE CONCEPTION OF ANY IDEA.” There are a few pages of reasoning on this.

            You have a way of summarizing such things very well. Have you written anything about why people believe things — something similar to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/ ?


          7. Thanks for the links! And you flatter me. Truth is, other than pondering to what degree beliefs are voluntary, I haven’t thought out their formation.

            My (probably naive) notion is that we believe something or not in light of how we experience it and our existing beliefs, our worldview. We also have a tendency to believe things we want or need to be true (I’ve never met anyone completely immune from this), which we usually can’t see in ourselves, although it’s usually obvious to others.

            For example, I believe Captain Kirk is fictitious and William Shatner is real, not because I have first hand knowledge of either, but due to my understanding of the world.


          8. How beliefs are formed is an interesting topic. I became interested in it when I tried to understand whether we need evidence for every belief we hold prompted by some heated debates in atheist forums. Apparently, not. And, apparently, not for every belief it is possible to have evidence (e.g. moral beliefs). Also, apparently, we do not reach every belief by reason. This lead me to read William Clifford, William James (http://ajburger.homestead.com/files/book.htm), Hume, and other essays such as the “ethics of belief” from Stanford web site. Perhaps, I need to write my own review of this topic. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many people parroting their “show me evidence”, “burden of proof”, and “what is asserted without evidence…” mantras, without real understanding of the topic.


          9. Some beliefs have to be formed from probabilities based on prior experience, and that will always vary by individual. I think forming beliefs from evidence or valid reasoning is an important goal to shoot for, but it’s one that all of us, to one degree or another, struggle with. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to see the failures in others than in ourselves.


          10. It seems to be a separate topic. But, regarding evidence and reasoning, very few people seem to base their decisions on probability calculations. This source http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes mentions that only 15% doctors understand the Bayesian probabilities of a diagnosis based on medical tests. Follow the problem in this link. It’s quite amazing how probabilities get misinterpreted.

            However, evidence and reasoning covers only the “epistemic norm” as described in the Stanford page. There are other norms. E.g. moral: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” This is an obvious falsity held as a moral “truth” by a huge majority of people in the U.S.

            Another example is “prudential norm”. If you want to sell a product, you better believe that the product is useful.


      2. For example, when somebody argues that homosexuality is immoral, in my experience, all arguments and rationale for such opinion can be traced back to one of the two things: 1) physical disgust with homosexuality or 2) religious tradition. There was some research showing that “easily disgusted” people tend to be more conservative and intolerant whereas people who are tolerant to “disgusting” things tend to be more liberal and tolerant in other areas.


        Both, disgust and religion are irrational reasons for moral judgments.


        1. Are you familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work? He has a theory of morality called Moral Foundations. These foundations are intuitions in the human makeup. Their relation to morality is like the relation of taste buds to food preferences.

          One of those foundations is sanctity / purity, which probably derives from our disgust reaction to things like rotting meat or diseased animals, a protective instinct. But it can be conditioned by societal norms like the proscription against homosexuality.


          1. The idea that feeling of disgust can be affected by social norms makes sense. I’ll check about Jonathan Haidt. Children tend to copy adults. So, when adults consistently express disgust towards certain things, children will copy them. As the TED video implies, feelings of disgust and conservative adherence to traditional views seem to be related.


      3. With all this said, I don’t think that all moral precepts are relative because there are things which universally cause the same emotion in all people, regardless of culture. E.g. all people respond in a similar way to pain and suffering. Therefore, things causing them can be considered “universally bad”. Once we agree on the definition of pain and suffering, we, probably, can detect, using scientific methods, whether certain things cause them or not. But I don’t think, science can define pain and suffering for us. Definitions seem to belong to the world of ideas rather than experience. Some other things are a matter of personal preference, so, the answer whether they are “good” or “bad” is not so clear.


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