Tuesday, 29 January 2013

What Kind of Character is a Virtue Ethicist?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 3

One of the reasons I worry about this sort of thing is because I feel generally underequipped to persuade people that they are holding the wrong values. So far, what training I have in philosophy has done little to help me in this because philosophy rarely talks about values. It talks about philosophical systems.

I am used to framing ethical disagreements in terms of deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and moral nihilism, largely as a result of my philosophy classes. But a brief look at Wikipedia's page on morality indicates that there are a lot of other ways of measuring ethics. (Or, I should say, other ways of slicing up the moral thoughtscape.) Further, I've never been entirely sure why deontology is also matched against consequentialism as though they are opposites. Utilitarianism strikes me as a type of deontology, one with only two duties: maximize pleasure and minimize pain. (You can tweak any consequentialism to fit.) The point is that the terms "deontology," "consequentialism," and "virtue ethicist" do not tell me much. None of these terms tell me what values you have.

Let's say Alice is a deontologist. That means that Alice believes we have specific duties; the completion of these duties, regardless of their effects, is a moral good. This tells me that she will be strictly principled, and that insofar as she adheres to her own sense of morality she will obey those rules she takes to be true. But I do not know what duties she supposes are inherently good. Deontology itself does not determine these duties. She must have done further work to determine them. (Or cribbed them from somewhere else. But I still don't know where she cribbed them from.)

Let's say Bob is a consequentialist. This tells me that Bob will be interested not in the kinds of actions you take, but in the consequences you think your actions will have. He will not say things like, "Lying is wrong. Telling the truth is an ethical imperative." But he might say something like, "Don't lie to your girlfriend about this because it will just wind up hurting her." What I do not know is what kinds of consequences Bob cares about. Does he care about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in a system? Or does he also care about how equally that pleasure and pain are distributed throughout the system? And what kind of system is he concerned with: local, national, global; present day, within our lifetimes, all generations? The label "consequentialism" does not tell me what he values.

Let's say Carol is a virtue ethicist. This tells me that Carol is interested in being a good person. She wants her actions to help her develop her character such that she will be better at doing the right thing in the future. Carol treats ethical action as though it were a skill, something for which you train--sometimes by directly practicing the skill, sometimes by doing exercises that are adjacent to the skill, like learning dance to play better sport. When she decides an action, she asks herself, "What kind of person will this make me." But when she says she's a virtue ethicist, I do not know what kind of person she thinks it would be good to be. I do not know what skills she considers virtuous. I can imagine an Epicurean as a kind of a virtue ethicist: Epicureans were very interested in becoming skillful at maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain because they were aware that over-indulgence is destructive.

In other words, I've been talking in these posts about values rather than moral philosophies because they seem to make a bigger difference on a strictly interpersonal level than the conventional philosophy labels. (Of course, there are labels I have not mentioned: some that come to mind are Divine Command Theory, moral nihilism, and moral relativism--no, nihilism and relativism are not the same thing. But these seem to have many of the same weaknesses I already mentioned and are also reformulatable as versions of the others, just as the others are reformulatable as versions of these.) I've seen ethical arguements that come down to deontologically-flavoured Divine Command Theory versus consequentialism, but for the most part I get in arguments over values, not systems.

The trouble with arguing about values instead of systems, though, is that values are usually harder to argue for. If I value something, in many ways I just value it. (cf Richard Beck's The Theology ofCalvin and Hobbes, at his Experimental Theology.) How do I get someone else to value something like I do? Or how do I learn to value something like someone else--and how do I know when to try? Maybe there are ways of doing this, but I don't currently see them. So, ultimately, I worry about whether a person with what I feel to be misplaced values can still be a good person; if a person can only be excused if they have the right values, what sense is there in a world where values are largely arbitrary? (And, pressingly, what if my values are skewed?)

Series Index

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin