International Catholic University : Twentieth-Century Ethics

Lecture 8: Rediscovering Virtue

David Solomon

In the last two lectures, I have explored contemporary revivals of two of the most important modern normative theories, the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant and the utilitarian theories of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick. As I said at the end of the last lecture, many people have thought that these two accounts exhaust our options in normative theory. That this assumption dominated analytic philosophy of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s is made clear by the fact that textbooks written in that time suggested that moral philosophers needed to declare their allegiance either to a Kantian style of deontology, which emphasized adherence to moral rules, or a Benthamite style of utilitarianism, which emphasized maximizing consequences.

Beginning in the middle to late 1970s, however, an increasingly vocal group of moral philosophers began to challenge this picture of normative theory. In the name of reviving some kind of virtue ethics, they suggested that Kantian deontology and Benthamite consequentialism were not the only available normative alternatives. What is more, they claimed, each of these normative theories was deeply flawed, and deeply flawed in similar respects, a number of which derived from its close association with particularly modern ways of life and thinking. The first person to introduce this perspective into contemporary debates was Elizabeth Anscombe, who will be the focus of much of what follows in this lecture. She is joined subsequently by Alasdair MacIntyre, whose remarkable book After Virtue appears in 1981 and attempts a full-scale defense of Aristotelianism. After Virtue will be the topic of discussion in our next lecture. Martha Nussbaum, a moral philosopher at the University of Chicago, is more friendly to modernism than either Anscombe or MacIntyre, but nonetheless has also developed ethical views which are, in important respects, Aristotelian in nature. Finally, there is John McDowell, who now teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, and joins Nussbaum in developing views which he takes to preserve what is best both in modern views of ethics and more classical notions of virtue.

Let me begin by discussing Anscombe and then go on to make some general comments about the rediscovery of virtue in the last quarter of the 20th century. Elizabeth Anscombe was a genuinely remarkable person in many respects. She was a protégé of the man many people regard as the greatest philosopher in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and her work is permeated throughout by his influence. Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Elizabeth Anscombe was a very devout Catholic, having been converted at the age of fourteen by reading some works of G. K. Chesterton. For many years, she combined the duties of holding a prestigious chair in philosophy at Cambridge University with domestic duties involving the birth of seven children. She was a fierce opponent of abortion, and was forcibly removed from an abortion clinic protest when she was well into her 80s. She was also famous for her principled stance against other sorts of threats to human life. When Oxford University chose to give President Truman an award in the early 50s, she was the only Oxford academic who raised a serious protest on the grounds that Trumans decision to drop the atomic bomb had constituted a war crime. When Elizabeth Anscombe died quite recently, the world of philosophy lost one of its great figures.

The most influential piece of moral philosophy which Anscombe wrote was an article called "Modern Moral Philosophy," which appeared in 1958. When the article first appeared, it went largely unnoticed. It was not until a decade or so later that moral philosophers realized how truly prescient it was. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that this article is the most prescient piece of philosophy one can find in 20th-century ethics. I think it is also the best article one finds in 20th-century Anglophone academic ethics. It anticipates virtually all of the major ideas that emerge in normative theory over the next few decades, and does so in an almost casual way; it is that full of ideas. Later in life, Anscombe herself downplayed the importance of the article, but anybody who reads it in light of what comes after can only see it as brilliantly anticipating much of what is to come.

There are three main theses which Anscombe defends in the article, each of which I will briefly summarize. She said, first of all, that it was unprofitable to do moral philosophy, given the current state of the discipline. We had wasted too much time on semantic questions, instead of focusing on more important issues, particularly issues in philosophical psychology. We needed to understand the complicated interactions among our sense of obligation, our intentions, our desires, and, in general, those features of human beings that provide the background for our practical life. Ethics had gone on abstracted from any rich understanding of the human persons who were ostensibly its subject matter, and this was a mistake.

The second thesis was that the moral sense of "ought" was a survival from an earlier conceptual world and, given the modern conception of the world, no longer made sense. In particular, this special moral sense of "ought" is a survival of an earlier conception of ethics according to which ethical precepts are divine laws of some kind. Taken out of this context, Anscombe argued, the notion of a special sense of moral "ought" is simply mysterious and lacking in rational foundation. Its not surprising, she suggests, that people end up having non-cognitivist views about "ought" in the modern world because the notion does not make any sense in a totally secularized picture of the world. Trying to understand the notion of "ought" in a world without God, she suggests, is like trying to understand the notion of the word "dollar" in a world without money.

Finally, she suggested that there were no significant differences among moral philosophers from Sidgwick to the present. Whatever else they disagree about, she thinks, they all agree that the most important thing, morally speaking, is that we promote good consequences. If circumstances are dire enough, there is no kind of action which is absolutely morally forbidden. So, for all the apparent disagreement between English moral philosophers from Sidgwick on, they agree on this fundamental claim. The really interesting disagreement, she thinks, would come in if someone denied this claim, which she herself most strenuously does. Since this is one of her most famous claims, and also one of her most important and controversial, let me just read to you a bit of what she says on this issue. She writes,

Now I am not able to do the philosophy involved and I think that no one in the present situation of English philosophy can do the philosophy involved but it is clear that a good man is a just man; and a just man is a man who habitually refuses to commit or participate in any unjust action for fear of any consequences, or to obtain any advantage, for himself or anyone else. Perhaps no one will disagree. But, it will be said, what is unjust is sometimes determined by expected consequences; and certainly that is true. But there are cases where it is not: now if someone says, I agree, but all this wants a lot of explaining, then he is right, and, what is more, the situation at present is that we can't do the explaining; we lack the philosophic equipment. But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.

Notice a few things about this passage: Anscombe's comments about the fact that we cannot now explain why justice is the sort of virtue it is reflects her earlier point that we need to take a break from doing moral philosophy and focus on the psychology of the virtuous agent. The normative point, though, she takes not to depend upon this exploration. Whatever we discover from our examination of philosophical psychology, Anscombe is suggesting that there are limits on what we can do as normative theorists. She does not want to even countenance the possibility that it might be justifiable to sacrifice the innocent.

These three theses were shocking and original claims at the time Anscombe published them, but it seems that over the years they have gained more and more plausibility. If Anscombe is right, moreover, then it seems to follow that we should give up on developing Kantian moral philosophy, which is essentially just trying to rehabilitate a notion of moral law outside of the context in which it is intelligible. We should also give up on doing consequentialist versions of ethics which make it thinkable that we should sacrifice the innocent in order to produce some other good. Turning away from both of these, she suggests, we should begin to think about the psychology of ethical action and, from this basis, develop a classical view of ethics which puts virtue at the center of its concerns.

This revival in virtue ethics does in fact follow, but it does not follow immediately on the heels of this article. In fact, this article was ignored for many years. It was not until the late 1970s, and especially after the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue in 1981, that we get a crescendo of voices suggesting we abandon the paradigmatically modern ethical theories of Kantianism and consequentialism and begin to develop a version of virtue theory. This suggestion is often parodied by its opponents, as if virtue theorists are suggesting we all begin wearing togas and meandering around the Athenian marketplace. In point of fact, however, most contemporary virtue theorists have been very progressive, and have expended considerable efforts to bring their moral theory into contact with contemporary culture. On this score, they are at least as impressive as their Kantian and utilitarian opponents.

As we began our discussion of consequentialism by talking about its central themes, let me also begin our discussion of virtue ethics by talking about some of its recurring themes. Virtue ethics, particularly in its contemporary form, is difficult to capture in a single term. It is more helpfully characterized, perhaps, by noting a number of dominant themes which reoccur time and again in the work of its defenders. Let me here just list the most prominent of them, which I will elaborate on further at a later point. There is, first of all, a general suspicion that rules and principles cannot serve as our best guides to ethical action. There is a related rejection of conscientiousness as the primary virtue -- being good is not merely, nor centrally, just possessing a disposition to follow the rules. Most moral philosophers in the 20th century have focused on abstract ethical terms like good and right and ought. In contrast to this, virtue theorists invite us to think about courage and justice and temperance and charity, which are all more concrete ethical notions. There is often also a suspicion of modern ethical theories, a thought that they might have misled us about what is most important in human life. There is an emphasis on the importance of our nature as social beings, who necessarily live in community. Along with this emphasis on our social nature, there is an emphasis that special relationships are ethically important -- my relationship to my wife is importantly different than my relationship to people living on the other side of the world, and this difference makes a moral difference. Rather than thinking of the ethical as focused on particular quandaries, virtue ethics insists that living an ethical life requires thinking about my whole life, lived out in a narrative from birth to death. Finally, there is a concern for richer moral education. If virtue is to be at the heart of ethics, it is going to involve educating people into a whole way of life. It is not going to be a matter of putting rules on the blackboard and just asking people to copy them down. Like consequentialism, virtue ethics has faced very serious objections, and I want to consider some of the most important of these. To do this, it is helpful to divide the objections into three main categories. There are, first of all, external objections to virtue ethics; objections, that is, which come from outside of ethical theory itself. There are also objections which are ethical in nature; let me call these internal objections to virtue ethics. Finally, we need to consider various modes of what I will call assimilationism, all of which are attempts to show that virtue ethics is not really a free-standing competitor to Kantianism or consequentialism, but should be integrated into one of these other, more complete, ethical paradigms.

What are the external objections? Classical Aristotelian virtue ethics suggests that the virtues are those properties that we have to acquire in order to realize our nature, or, as the ancients put it, to realize our end or telos. On a modern conception of the world, the suggestion that human beings even have a natural end or telos can seem simply incredible, and it is from this suggestion that the two most important external objections to virtue ethics derive. The first objection is a metaphysical one, which simply denies that there is any objective end for human life. The thought behind this objection is most often that the existence of such an end would either require the existence of God, or would have to be discovered by modern science. One typically modern view, however, simply denies the existence of God. And, it is clear that modern science is thoroughly mechanistic and has no room within it for final ends. Given this, many moderns conclude that there is simply no such thing as an objective end for human life. There is a related objection which we might call epistemological. The epistemological version of the objection does not deny that there is an end to human life, but simply denies that we could have any knowledge of that end. One version of this objection was pressed by the Protestant Reformers, who suggested that human beings were so totally depraved that we could not possibly achieve knowledge of our end by the light of natural reason.

The internal objections, as I said, raise objections to virtue theory from within the discipline of normative ethical theory; here, there are three kinds of objections which we ought to mention, along with some basic responses which the virtue theorist can offer. First of all, some people have worried that an ethical theory based on trying to get people to develop virtues does not provide enough action guidance. By contrast, they suggest, moral rules can obviously tell us which actions are morally permissible and which are not. If we tell someone that it is always wrong to lie, for example, they seem to have very concrete instructions for how to act. But if we simply tell them to develop the virtue of honesty, this is not so clear -- does the honest person ever lie? If so, when? To this objection, the virtue theorist can respond that action guidance does not require that we give people a set of simple rules which they ought to follow. Since we are concerned with developing into a person of a certain kind, what we really need is a picture of what kind of a person the virtuous person is, and the moral education and self-discipline required to form ourselves into that kind of person. If we can do this, rules will become superfluous.

A second internal objection to virtue ethics is what we might call a contingency objection. If being good is a matter of having certain virtues, then it looks as if being good is not always within my power. Suppose, for example, I have been a coward all my life. If a circumstance presents itself in which I need to be courageous, it seems clear that I cannot become courageous in a moment's time. Aristotle himself, in fact, admits this. But, the objector continues, this is simply unacceptable. The requirements of morality need to be the kinds of things which are always within my power to fulfill or not to fulfill at any given moment. To this objection, virtue ethicists have responded that the requirements of morality may not, in fact, be the kind of thing which it is always within one's power to fulfill or not to fulfill at any given moment being good really might be something that cannot be chosen or determined in a moment. For the ancients, it was very difficult to become good, and it certainly could not happen in a moment.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, some people have said virtue theories are too self- centered. To be ethical is surely to care for others, and to care for them for their own sakes. To many, however, it has seemed that virtue ethics puts too much focus on the self, requiring that each of us think first about our own character, and the fulfillment that developing it will bring to us. In response to this objection, virtue theorists have emphasized that, while it is true that we want to focus on what kind of people we will become, it is also true that the kind of people we want to become are people who care about others for their own sakes. We want to become good, but becoming good means acquiring virtues such as justice, benevolence, and charity, which take as their focus the well-being of others.

In addition to these external and internal objections to virtue theory, there is another kind of challenge which its defenders have to face. Namely, a number of philosophers have suggested that virtue theory is not a true alternative to either consequentalism or Kantianism, but rather a kind of supplement which can be integrated into these other, more encompassing, theories. Some have suggested, in this vein, that talk of virtues is simply interchangeable with talk of rules. Maybe developing the virtue of honesty is simply the same thing as following a rule that tells you to speak the truth. Or, perhaps virtues are simply psychological dispositions that allow us more effectively to follow rules. Either way, it would look as if our theory of the virtues should be subordinate to some other, more all-encompassing theory about what is right and good to do.

The return to virtue ethics has been criticized by a number of very competent philosophers, who set serious challenges for its defenders. My own view, and I have to confess an interest here, is that we ought to return to virtue and that the challenges put forward by its critics can be answered. In the next lecture I want discuss Alasdair MacIntyre's book, After Virtue, in which he develops a comprehensive account of an Aristotelian virtue ethics which is both relevant to the modern world and capable of responding to virtue theory's many critics.

Required Readings:

Elizabeth Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," in 20th Century Ethical Theory, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), pp. 351-364.

Philippa Foot, "Virtues and Vices," in 20th Century Ethical Theory, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), pp. 583-593.

David Solomon, "Internal Objections to Virtue Ethics," in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988): 428-441.

Study Questions:

1. According to Anscombe, why does the moral ought make no sense in modern philosophy?

2. Why, according to Anscombe, should we abandon moral philosophy at the present time, and when can we engage in it again?

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