A recent post on Scientia Salon by Peter D. O. Smith defends virtue ethics as a way to work through many of our contemporary moral stumbling blocks. An excerpt:
In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.
The rest of the essay is here. It’s well-informed, and written with intelligence and clarity.
One thought on “A defense of virtue ethics”
When I took Ethics, it seems like many of us thought both Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics were untenable when pushed to extremes. A few people walked out of class before finishing the lecture on Peter Singer, in which he argues cohesively for vegetarianism and post-natal abortion. Some had no attraction to Kant telling an ax-murderer the truth when he asks where someone’s babies are. Instead, some of us tended to enjoy Aristotle for the fact that he has room for both duty and utilitarianism and also the alluring ideal of moderation and personal character built into the structure. So I like where Smith’s coming from, but here are some thoughts and questions about it. Also, an objection toward the end: I wonder what happens when Smith’s idea of virtue is pushed to an extreme itself.
First, I’m attracted by Smith’s idea that religion and secularism ought to find ways to agree or disagree productively, but I’ve been strongly disappointed by contemporary books such as Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, who proposes appropriating religion art and space for secular celebrations. This seems to me to be naive, since the reliance on a transcendent figure brings hope to a world filled with natural suffering and pain; I am not yet convinced that an atheist has a strong argument against a metaphysical pessimism that makes “celebrations” of nature anything but cute and ignorant. (Imagine a real atheist celebration – a Dionysian party at NZ’s house – who would drink the punch?) Furthermore, recalling the French Temples of Reason, pillars of human achievement fall into Ozymandias-like despair quickly, and I doubt many would attend, much less fill the collection tray with money. How long will common people look up to go-get-’em “humanists” like Dmitry Itskov, the billionaire Russian who wants to upload his brain into a computer, or Mars-exploring technologists, for the sake of “human achievement”? (Really “one human’s achievement”)
Smith seems to me too optimistic about reconciling religion and secularism via virtue theory: “Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference.” This just sounds wrong. These are no minor difference for any genuine Christian, whose virtues rely on a transcendental metaphysics, and first and foremost (at least in Corinthians) holds charity above all, even above human wisdom itself. Atheists, on the other hand, might have supremely different political and economical views branching out of the idea that there is no such thing as real charity; so the two camps might rant all day about virtue with no way to implement anything into the fabric of society. Charity and faith and hope are not small fry. The catalogue of “economical” virtues, on the other hand, which Smith lists, is a mushy bundle, “universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.” This sounds like a brochure for a dog trainer. Here’s an offhand list of virtues someone thought up for both cats AND dogs.
Sorry for being snarky. But I hazard to think this approach needs a very concise list that either includes or doesn’t include those three special virtues.
One other objection: I’m imagining a perfect society according to 52 virtues of the “Virtues Project.” Who would want to live there? It sounds like a Huxlian utopia or the ultimate senior center. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the Edgar Allen Poe? The dirty art, the smelly night clubs, the one-eyed beggar who tells you rambling stories or steals your shoes? In other words, anything that makes life *interesting*? This perfectly virtuous world seems to have no place for poetry, since literature is made of the flaws and foibles of humankind, and often written by failures. In fact, the more I look at the “52 virtues” the less I ever want to meet the person who lives up to all of them. Is this just my problem?