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Should we return to virtue ethics?

We can trace Virtue ethics all the way back to Aristotle. It fell out of favour in the face of the dark age and Christianity, but has made a comeback more recently. The idea of Virtue ethics is that what matters in a moral dillemma is a person’s virtues, or in other words, their character traits. For example, courage could be a virtue, loyalty could be another virtue whereas cruelty could be an example of a vice. What makes a virtue good? It could be argued that some character traits are good because they are necessary for our society in order for it to function well. Take the virtue of honesty, a frequently used example as it’s easy to imagine the chaos that would take place if no one could trust a word that anyone else was saying. Similarly, when we think about vices, it might be safe to assume that a society of vicious criminals would not function as well either. However, the explanation above looks a lot like Ethical Egoism and the question of why a virtue is good is still something of a problem for Virtue ethics. Though, is it really a bad thing if one of the problems for Virtue ethics is answered in similar terms to Ethical Egoism, because can’t the answers to questions raised within philosophy be compound, when everything is compound? According to Aristotle a virtue is somewhere in the middle of two vices. For example, if you give too much you might wind up hurting yourself and if you give too little then you could wind up hurting others. It can be stated that different people require different virtues. A mother might need to be patient in order to raise her children, whereas a drug lord would require different traits.

Does this differentiation strech to a division between societies as well, or perhaps even between different worlds? Could some virtues that we perceive as good really be bad virtues in other societies, or in other worlds if such worlds exist? If so, which of the virtues are actually good? For example, imagine what a societies could be like in alien worlds in other parts of the universe? Does morality as we understand it- does right and wrong even exist in the actual universe as actual truths that we have yet to discover fully- or are definitions of good and bad only meaningful to us because we define the meaning through our language, our ideas, our laws and so on and so forth? If this is the case, then perhaps we should return to Virtue ethics? I will look into this and ask many questions in order to investigate the value of Virtue ethics.

It’s not unlikely that alien worlds exist or else we wouldn’t be searching for them, so I hope that using aliens as an example to highlight some problems will be deemed reasonable. Us humans are searching for aliens that could be very different from us and there are many possible explanations as to why we have not yet been able to make contact, but that is a different matter. Let’s just imagine for the sake of argument, that alien worlds are out there. Could it be that an alien race out there require extremely different traits than us in order for their soceity to functon well, for example if they were creatures far more advanced from us with a super intelligence that would make them appear to us as something like half-gods for example? Traits so different from ours that we would view their world without being able to understand their ideas of right and wrong? Or different worlds, worlds where we would perceive the creatures and their ways as monsterous and perhaps without there necessarily being anything actually wrong with their ways, apart from the fact that it would differ from ours? We do not judge sharks or dinosaurs for their ways eventhough sharks have been known to chew humans to death out of mere curiosity and not hunger, but do we refrain from judgement because these types of animals are further down some evolutionary line of a moral development or are they simply different from us as far as morality is concerned? Is it because they are unaware of the (by our standards) illegality of their actions that we refrain from judgement?

Different cultures in our world have different customs and we do not simply barge in and tell other cultures off for their ways with ease, no, these are complicated matters. We have something called the Universal declaration of human rights in our world, the human rights include rights such as the right to life, the right to freedom from torture and more, and is this a step toward a final global agreement of what humans perceive as right and wrong regardless of our differences? Are those differences to be evened out and could Virtue ethics be a good candidate for the ethical theory that we would then be left with? If we were to be left only with Virtue ethics that would really be something we know as Radical Virtue ethics and this is because Virtue ethics is seen as an ethical theory best suited to compliment other ethical theories such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism. This is because Virtue ethics seems to be lacking in some respects. By focusing on the character and his or her traits, the question of what we are going to do can become difficult to answer. Sometimes more than one virtue will conflict. For example, should we be honest and tell someone the truth or should we be kind and spare their feelings? However, why should we tie ourselves down to only one ethical theory either way? If there are no right or wrong answers or regardless even, as different situations will often require different solutions. In real life things are seldom black and white, but require a human to process many different factors. There are flaws with every ethical theory, none of them have been deemed perfect yet, so why not pick and choose the best parts from several of them, depending of what suits a given moral dilemma best at a given point in time?

Though, if good is only good because we perceive it as good and being in possession of character traits that we also perceive as good tend to lead to actions that we perceive as good- is this then enough to add to the equation? If there are no truly right or wrong answers beyond those which the majority of the human race agree to? If we might never reach a uniform agreement to every given ethical dilemma in some future version of Utopia then perhaps, good intentions, good and balanced virtues (not too foolhardy, not too cowardly, but brave for example), is the best that anyone could hope to achieve? If there is more than one possible right answer to a moral dillemma, then perhaps it doesn’t matter that someone devoted to Virtue ethics won’t always get it right? See, Virtue ethics first and foremost face the same weakness as any other ethical philosophy, namely that ethics is by no means a field that we are done developing. In other words, no one can state with certainty that they hold all of the right answers about morality and we are not as of yet in agreement as a species or even as philosophers about what is right or wrong regarding every given issue. No, on the contrary, ethics is a complicated field and with many complicated issues that could throw anyone for a loop. It’s possible to argue, and argue well, for different answers to the same questions, so what makes Virtue ethics any better than other ethical philosophies? What makes Virtue ethics the one, so to speak?

Virtue ethics does not focus on what we are going to do about various matters. The focus is all on the character and his or her traits, but is that a bad thing? Perhaps. It could lead to the justification of a bad action by the reference to good intention, but are we ever guaranteed to make the right choice? Utilitarianism faces similar problems. With Utilitarianism what matters most is the amount of happiness for the most amount of people that is achieved as a result of a choice and that could justify hurting or even killing some to benefit the majority. Kantianism will also justify bad actions because it’s an ethical theory that’s rulebased, so if the rule is that one must never lie, then one would have to surrender a girl to a criminal if the criminal asked about the whereabouts of the girl, for example. These are extreme examples, but they highlights flaws in the systems. Based on all of this, maybe virtues really would work best when it’s complimenting other ethical theories? Virtue ethics is at least an ethical theory that falls naturally for many people. Utilitarianism for example, could make one think of a computer that’s computing it’s way to the most correct answer, but is that how humans function best? Shouldn’t an ethical theory also feel right when ethics is so closely tied with our feelings? If we were not as easily engaged, but felt nothing in the face of a moral dilemma, would it even be a dilemma? To conclude, there are positives and negatives with every ethical theory, including Virtue ethics. Nina Titternes



Sources: Rachels, James. Rachels, Stuart. 2019. The elements of moral philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.