Virtue Ethics

It is widely agreed that there are three competing standard theories of morality [1].  In a sentence, consequentialism is the view that the goodness of our actions is derived from their consequences, and that we prefer various outcomes to others; deontological ethics is the view that goodness of our actions is derived from whether they follow various rules, such as “Don’t murder” and “Treat others as you would like to be treated”; and virtue ethics is the view that the goodness of actions is determined by whether they promote good personal characteristics, such as wisdom and courage.  In a shorter sentence, consequentialism refers to our results, deontological ethics refers to our code, and virtue ethics refers to our character.

As a novice to philosophy, I didn’t understand the appeal of virtue ethics.  For one, it has been out of fashion since medieval times.  More importantly, it appears that it must reduce to one of the two competing theories.  How do we determine if it would be virtuous to tell a white lie about our friend’s unfortunate haircut (or if fibbing is something that a virtuous person would do)?  If you answer that the good outweighs the bad, i.e. your friend’s happiness justifies the lie, you appeal to consequentialism.  If you answer that it adheres to the Golden rule, because you would want your friend to do the same for you, you appeal to deontological ethics.

However, as a slightly less novice student of philosophy, I have a new-found appreciation for virtue ethics.  Philosophical debates about morality often do not lead to practical advice about how to be more moral.  A big part of thinking about morality is pragmatism: how can we be clever about being good and overcoming our shortfalls?  When we are tempted to  to spend money on ourselves instead of charity, or to ignore a plea for help from a stranded driver on an empty highway, we would like to draw on our reasoning about the good to help us.  We need help both knowing what is right and how to actually get that right thing done.

Consider the case where I know that I should donate $50 to charity, but I am tempted to instead to buy a ticket to see Brad Mehldau perform with his trio at the Yerba Buena center in San Francisco.  Am I more likely to rationalize and buy myself the ticket if I draw upon consequentialism to motivate me, or if I draw upon virtue ethics to motivate me?  If I were to draw on consequentialism, it’s not hard to imagine that I might talk myself out of giving the $50.  “But if I don’t seek out the joy of music, I won’t be happy and thus will not be able to have a lucrative career, thus limiting my future donating potential!”

But drawing on virtue ethics, it’s unlikely that I’ll talk myself out of doing what’s right by asking myself, “Would a generous person really donate the $50?”  I know very clearly that the answer is yes.  If I want to be a generous person, I know I have to give the money.  And I do want to be generous person.

My point in this essay is that in most cases the problem of figuring out the right course of action is easy and the problem of figuring out how to motivate yourself to actually do that action is very hard.  I’m not taking a position on the issue of which ethical theory (if any) is correct.  I’m taking a position on which attitudes towards ethics are most likely to get the job done.  Is it better to strive towards having the best impact on the world, to strive towards following and ethical code, or to strive towards become the best person possible?  For me, it is the last option.

I must emphasize that all three attitudes, and some others, can be valuable motivators.  When trying to motivate myself to donate to charity, it can help to visualize the consequences. It could also help to remind myself of the rule I have for giving.  And it can help to work towards seeing myself as a generous person.  I have learned more and more that trying to be a virtuous person [2] works best for me.


[1] This is the classical trichotomy.  Modern views include moral nihilism, the view that there is no such a thing as good, and moral pragmatism, the view that goodness depends on our social constructs.

[2] Alternatively, trying to be an awesome person (in addition to a virtuous one) is a great motivator as well.  I learned this from Ivan, my freshman roommate in college.

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One Response to Virtue Ethics

  1. Vicki Wheelock says:

    Like. (Typo in paragraph 2; “an novice” —Dad said you’d want to know). Ivan rocks! Love, Momster

    Sent from my Kindle Fire


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