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Ethics and Free Will > Virtue Ethics

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message 1: by Gerard (last edited Feb 14, 2017 01:26AM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Virtue ethics is one of three contemporary ethical systems along with deontological and consequentialist theories.

Where deontological theories emphasise duties, and refer to rules to derive 'right action' and consequentialists emphasise some notion of best majority outcomes to derive 'right actions', virtue ethics emphasizes the virtues, or moral character and would give the advice “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.”

The other point of departure for virtue ethics is the emphasis it lays on phronesis or practical knowledge as a guide to finding the best suited 'right action' for a particular situation. Phronesis puts virtue ethics at odds with deontological theories because it insists that no rule can ever cover all situations and finding the best outcome for this specific situation requires a form of practical knowledge that is skilful and which can only be gained to be through maturity of character. Similarly virtue ethics can appear be drawing from a different base to consequentialist theories as its emphasis on phronesis and character means that rather than putting the entire emphasis on outcomes, virtue ethics looks back to how one forms and sustains character with questions like “How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”

The relatively recent return of virtue ethics to a principal position in meta-ethical discourse was a surprise to many in this age of consequentialism. We do after all live in an age where consequentialism rules not just in ethics but in politics, economics and management theory.

My personal turn to virtue ethics happened in stages. Initially it was through Nietzsche whose psychology emphasised choice, habit and the cultivation of character. While Nietzsche was a revelation I did not at that time realise that virtue ethics was a "thing". It wasn't till I was studying ethics as a part of my psychology degree that I came upon virtue ethics in its specifics both in discussions about the nature of the psyke in ancient thought and in the work of Bernard Williams.

Williams discussion of the concept of 'moral luck' was the final straw. I could no longer allow consequentialism the free rides and ambiguities I had waved through in the past as acceptable.

If the concept of moral luck holds it appeared to me that deontological and consequentialist theories were seriously flawed at the ground level because neither could account for the contingency of a lived life. Neither rules or outcomes help when confronted by the terrifying choice between two seemingly conflicting but inescapable moral choices.

Moral luck. A strange, uncanny idea.

So we are left with character, and the best and wisest exercise of good character we call virtue.

When rules fail you still have character. When consequences are brutal, you still have character.

When character fails, it could be argued you have nought but intemperance, incontinence and the anxiety of the loss of self.


message 2: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Jan 23, 2017 07:41AM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Gerard wrote: "The relatively recent return of virtue ethics to a principal position in meta-ethical discourse was a surprise to many in this age of consequentialism. We do after all live in an age where conseque..."

The academic concepts and terminology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries confuse me. After reading a number of books, in whole or in part, by twentieth- and twenty-first-century philosophy professors writing about ethics, I share the view of Alasdair MacIntyre on the first page of the preface to his book After Virtue, 2nd ed., which I first read on January 9, 2017: "The notion that the moral philosopher can study the concepts of morality merely by reflecting, Oxford armchair style, on what he or she and those around him or her say and do is barren. This conviction I have found no good reason to abandon; and emigration to the United States has taught me that when the armchair is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in Princeton, New Jersey, it functions no better." (Italics in the original.) I had arrived at essentially the same conclusion in my October 6, 2016 review of Stephen Toulmin's The Place of Reason in Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1950] 1986) here.

As a result of my current focus on the US electoral college, I will be unable to read further in MacIntyre's book during the next few months, but I look forward to reading it thereafter.

Gerard, I have also only recently discovered that "virtue ethics" is a "thing," though I question whether it is really an ontological thing in the Aristotelian sense. From what I have read of recent academic philosophy so far, I don't think that any of the professors have improved upon Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or Eudemian Ethics, except for some of Aristotle's expressed views (on slavery and women, for example) that are obviously dated.

One of the trends that I find very peculiar is the modern definition of "consequentialism." I would say (and have said) that any ethical philosophy that does not consider the consequences of human action is not ethical. (See: Kant, Immanuel.) But I find the professors debating "consequentialism" as being somehow synonymous with some kind of utilitarianism. What is your definition of "consequentialism"? Do you think that this concept has been wrongfully appropriated by utilitarianism or some such notion?

So my tentative view is that we should abandon all these nice, artificial, misleading academic distinctions and get back to a truly Aristotelian approach to ethics. Perhaps this is the "Straussian" in me, though I disagree with what many Straussians have to say about philosophy and politics after the ancients.

By the way, how does Nietzsche become a virtue ethicist when he explicitly argues that the Übermensch should be "beyond good and evil" and when he seems to teach that the Übermensch should disregard ordinary ethical compunctions about, for example, the initiation of force? I grant that Nietzsche is often spot-on regarding his critique of contemporary ethics, but his extremism not unnaturally led to the Third Reich.


message 3: by Gerard (last edited Jan 24, 2017 01:37AM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Well I just lost a 1000 word essay that was to go right here, on meta ethics and Nietzsche that I think was amongst the best writing I have done in years.

Very upset.

Enough for today after well over two hours of searching for references and carefully trimming and refining my arguments.
Sod Goodreads.


message 4: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Jan 24, 2017 10:26AM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Gerard wrote: "Well I just lost a 1000 word essay that was to go right here, on meta ethics and Nietzsche that I think was amongst the best writing I have done in years.

Very upset.

Enough for today after well ..."


Sorry to learn of this. I have also had this experience. Now I write everything more than a short paragraph in a Word document, which I save to my computer. When I am finished with the Word document (after repeatedly saving it during the writing process), I then copy and paste it onto the Goodreads comment form.

Your post 1 was very good, and my post 2 was directed more to the ethics professors than to you. Upon rereading your post, I realize that you were not exactly saying that Nietzsche was a virtue ethicist. And Nietzsche did have many insights, for example in his section "Wir Gelehrten" ("We Scholars") in Beyond Good and Evil.

It is true, as you indicate, that when the consequences cannot be ascertained or when they are equally bad, one must go back to one's own understanding of what is the right thing to do. But I think that such a situation is relatively rare, especially with regard to evaluating political questions. In evaluating political issues, assuming that one has correctly understood what is the good (and that, of course, in itself may be a difficult inquiry), one must consider the likelihood of both intended and unintended consequences as well as the question of whether the means are just. Such thought process is, to me, the summum bonum of political reasoning. But I certainly don't think that "the greatest good for the greatest number" is the ultimate criterion. That begs the question, first, of what is "good" (Plato, of course, wrote much on this) and, second, the situation of minorities in a majoritarian democracy. Perhaps, for example, the "greatest number" might (wrongly) consider it their "greatest good" to commit genocide against one or more minorities. Numbers are meaningless in such circumstances. And it can never be good to commit injustice. See Plato's Republic.

I'll have to read Bernard Williams, of whom I was ignorant before reading your post. Would you consider Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy his best book for someone who has not read him before?


message 5: by Feliks (last edited Jan 24, 2017 10:22PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Gerard wrote: "Well I just lost a 1000 word essay that was to go right here..."

OUCH. Very sorry to hear this anecdote. Don't be chagrined. 1000 words is bad; but remember its approx just a 5-page essay. And if you wrote it once you can write it again, once the sting wears off.

In your browser, there are options to prevent text loss. I have every setting available, geared to prevent it. The projects I work on are typically 10,000 words.

Look into 'session restore' and 'TabMixPlus' (it has its own session-restore).


Alan wrote: "It is true, as you indicate, that when the consequences cannot be ascertained or when they are equally bad, one must go back to one's own understanding of what is the right thing to do...."

Agreed. But I think one refers back to oneself not 'rarely'; but constantly, every day. At least I do, as a self-avowed existentialist. "Judgment day happens every day" (<--Camus quote)


message 6: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Jan 25, 2017 07:03AM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Feliks wrote: "But I think one refers back to oneself not 'rarely'; but constantly, every day. At least I do, as a self-avowed existentialist. "Judgment day happens every day" (<--Camus quote) "

I don't find daily conflicts between what I think is right and the consequences of acting on that belief. Of course, I am now retired from gainful employment and no longer have to curb my tongue with regard to people (or their workplace spies) who have the power to hire or fire me. Additionally, as the Amazon Prime Video series The Man in the High Castle illustrates, one would often have such ethical conflicts if one lived in a totalitarian political order. I have now finished watching the second season of that series, and it is quite chilling to see how these kinds of ethical conflicts would play out under such circumstances.

Consideration of political issues, even in a democratic republic, does, however, bring such conflicts to light. Take, for example, the principle of noninitiation of force (nonaggression principle) touted by libertarians and Objectivists (following Locke, who, however, had a lot of exceptions to the rule). In one's personal life, it is not difficult to act on the principle that one should not initiate force against another (defense of oneself or others against the initiation of force does not violate this principle). But the libertarians (often called "liberals" or "neoliberals" outside the US) and Objectivists apply this principle to any initiation of compulsion, including (especially) governmental compulsion in the form of taxation, regulation, and so forth. It is difficult to argue, in principle, against the nonaggression principle, even in a governmental context. But consider the consequences. If government is to adhere strictly to the nonaggression principle, all taxation and regulation have to be abolished. This would eliminate government, as voluntary support of government in a complex societies is self-evidently impossible. The anarchocapitalists and old-fashioned anarchists to the contrary notwithstanding, the consequences of not having government, at least in complex societies such as those that today populate the globe (aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribes possibly being an exception) would be total chaos.

Virtue ethics, following Aristotle, addresses primarily issues of personal character, though Aristotle himself also considered ethical or moral issues between one human being and another. I think that both understandings of ethics are necessary, though today many people think of morality as only addressing interpersonal relations.


message 7: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Alan wrote: "I don't find daily conflicts between what I think is right and the consequences of acting on that belief...."

You'd be forced to opine differently if you resided in New York City...it is a daily battle, I assure you...


message 8: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Feliks wrote: "You'd be forced to opine differently if you resided in New York City...it is a daily battle, I assure you... You'd be forced to opine differently if you resided in New York City...it is a daily battle, I assure you..."

My sympathies. Your experience confirms that I made the right decision in the late 1960s not to go to graduate school there. I hope you will have an opportunity in the near future to relocate.


message 9: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments First things first. I have updated my original post to include a definition of virtue ethics to form a general guide and prompt for conversation. I don't think this changes or challenges anything said thus far.
With my regard to my 'lost' response to Alan's questions they are coming. I am taking your advice and drafting them in Word first. The fact that I am currently reading two books on virtue ethics is also slowing me down a little as I keep moderating some of my initial thoughts as I learn more

To the latter contributions above:

Alan wrote: "But the libertarians (often called "liberals" or "neoliberals" outside the US)..."

I find US usage around the word "Liberal" very confusing as I think do many others in both Australia and the UK. It seems to conflate a number of ideas from different traditions or at least to be used in a number of conflicting ways. I suspect this has something to do with the historical development of the term in ways unique to the development of political philosophy in the US.
In Australia we have a Liberal party who are similar to your Republican party though not quite so far to the right. They are socially conservative and economically 'dry' (Thatcherite neo-liberal).

To me liberalism means the Lockean tradition of emphasising personal rights over the intervention of the state but that doesn't seem to be how it is used in the US when people scream that this is a 'liberal' problem.
I can see Alan that you have come closer to my understanding of the term above but again you have had to use different words and invoked a slightly different political tradition, libertarianism, to get your point across.
I am finding my series of audio essays on "Cycles of American Political Thought by Prof J. Kobylka very enlightening on this topic as Kobylka frames his argument around the three themes of Liberalism, reactions to Liberalism and democracy. I'm now well past the constitutional period and Jacksonianism (I can now see some supposed parallels between what Jackson did and what Trump "thinks" he is doing) and have just finished with George Fitzhugh. Wow! Gobsmacked! Kobylka calls him the arch conservative Marx for his hard materialist analysis of political and social reality in the ante-bellum US.

Lastly, Alan you finished with a note about virtue ethics which I agree with whole heartedly and to get at these points is why I have extended my introduction. The only comment I have is that which I have had dunned into me repeatedly by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, and that is that for the Greeks of Aristotle's time while the outcomes of living a virtuous life is personal eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing) and most moral reciprocity takes place one on one, no Greek of that age would have been able to have even consider ethical thought without having it wholly encompassed by the polis. You were defined and gained your value through your activity with your fellow citizens as citizens. This of course makes Aristotle's and Plato's thinking on virtue more relevant to your comments on the relationship between politics and ethics and further, particularly apposite in this new political reality we all find ourselves dealing with today.


message 10: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Feliks wrote: "Look into 'session restore' and 'TabMixPlus'..."

Thanks Feliks. I'll have a look later tonight.


message 11: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Alan,

With regard to Williams books. Both books are sustained attacks on Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Williams tries to re-introduce notions of complexity in ethical considerations while returning the emphasis of moral concerns to the individual and the individuals concerns.
Williams felt that both Kantian and utilitarian thought had neglected emotions, personal attachments and 'moral luck', a term he coined (though the Greeks had given a similar idea consideration in their own thought). He felt both theories had simplified ethics making it both bland - without the stuff of life - and useless.
'Moral Luck' is a series of standalone essays while 'Ethics and the Limits' is a unified book but essentially they have the same theme.
I'm not sure which one I'd pick. 'Moral Luck' is more famous because it introduced the notion of moral luck kicking of a tremendous debate but both books are excellent.
Possibly 'Ethics and the Limits' because having been written after 'Moral Luck' it takes those ideas into account but the thematic approach is more consistently framed.

Interestingly though Williams has concerns about ethics that line him up quite closely with virtue ethics like a concern for individuals and character, the requirement of skill and maturity and the insistence that 'right action' can only be right if it is based on the real lived situation as opposed to derived to abstractions like rules and best outcomes he's not really a holder to any particular theory. He's best described as someone who thinks that no theory can capture the complexity of moral requirements. Though I think if he was forced to chose it is quite clear which ethical model he would plump for - virtue - because it gives him the greatest freedom to account for complexity and character.

Lastly, be aware that they are both books of "analytic philosophy" so they can be dense and their might be the occasional recondite term or idea. That said Williams is a master of clarity.

If you wish I can send you through PDF copies of both free.


message 12: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Feb 14, 2017 07:05AM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Gerard,

Thank you for your posts 9 and 11 and your revised post 1.

With regard to the term "liberal," I recall reading somewhere (I don't remember where) many years ago that it was Franklin Roosevelt who changed the meaning of "liberal" in the US to mean what is perhaps called "social democratic" in the other English-speaking countries. However, the US definition of "liberal"—notwithstanding the imprecations of the American right wing—does not include socialism (defined as governmental ownership of the means of production, which was its original meaning). Bernie Sanders is the only US politician in my lifetime (to my recollection) who calls himself a "socialist," but by that term he does not mean governmental ownership of the means of production but rather the kind of social democracy that one finds in, for example, the Scandinavian countries. Even the latter is way too left-wing for the vast majority of Americans, and the word "socialist" has been hurled against US politicians of the Democratic Party for as long as I can remember as the equivalent of "Communist." Barry Goldwater used to talk about "creeping socialism" and Ronald Reagan opposed the "socialist" governmental program of Medicare. In short, all these terms have degenerated from their original meanings once introduced into the cauldron of American politics.

Another explanation of the American usage of the word "liberal" has a more historical background. Again, I heard or read this explanation long ago and don't remember its source. "Liberalism" originally meant something like what John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers meant: political freedom, separation of church and state and liberty of conscience (not entirely shared by Locke, but very much advocated by Roger Williams ), individual rights, and economic freedom (as opposed to mercantilism, for example). Most if not all of the Enlightenment "liberals" were advocates of some version of laissez faire. The original "liberals," in this view, did not see a conflict between liberty and equality. (See, for example, the writings of Thomas Jefferson.) Significantly, governmental involvement in the economy was then seen as governmental intervention to help the rich get richer or the government to become more powerful in a mercantilist sense (see, for example, the debate over government-granted personal monopolies in sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century England, the writings of Adam Smith, and the debate between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over Hamilton's economic program). The notion of governmental intervention in the economy to assist the less fortunate and to promote equality of opportunity (or of condition) apparently did not occur to anyone in the eighteenth century. When that idea did finally occur to serious thinkers (perhaps after Marx), "liberalism" split between the advocates of total economic freedom (the "classical liberals" or "libertarians") and the advocates of governmental programs to help the less fortunate (called "liberals" by, if my memory is correct, FDR). In an ironic twist, the "liberals" in the US kept the part of the liberal tradition that favored separation of church and state and liberty of conscience, while the "conservatives" followed the Tory or Burkean view that government should be involved somehow in religion or personal morality at that same time that they adopted the part of the liberal tradition that supported laissez faire.

The foregoing is my understanding, which I don't claim to be either original or one-hundred percent accurate. If someone has a better analysis, I'd be pleased to consider it.

Back to "virtue ethics": I think your revised post 1 is much on point in focusing on phronesis as distinguished from deontological rules or consequentialism (understood in the Utilitarian sense). But I think that phronesis is not oblivious to the consequences of one's actions, whether those actions are purely individual or whether they involve political action. As I understand it, you are right that the classical Greeks generally did not understand ethics outside of the polis (see the transition between ethics and politics at the end of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, for example). On the other hand, the dialogues and letters of Plato, for example, pointed to the conflict between the perfectly ethical human being and the political demands of the polis, and the same may (or may not) be true of a final understanding of Aristotle.

See also my Goodreads message.

Alan


message 13: by Gerard (last edited Feb 21, 2017 10:50PM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Alan wrote: " I think that phronesis is not oblivious to the consequences of one's actions, whether those actions are purely individual or whether they involve political action..."

I completely agree Alan. As I hope to be able to argue in my response to your original queries the term ":consequentialist" is more an indication of where that particular group of ethical theories lays their emphasis. It is I think undeniable that all ethical theories must make some place for character, rules and consequences / outcomes (virtue ethics, deontological ethics and consequentialism). The nomenclature points out the difference in emphasis each theory gives to each of the three; effectively 'what is your starting point'.
Deontologists will argue that rules are the place to start, that character makes it easier or harder to keep to rules and that consequences will fall out correctly because the rules are correct. Virtue ethicists will argue that character and phronesis are most important and allows the correct application of rules which will eventuate in good outcomes. Consequentiatlists argue that outcomes are where to start and that rules and character are only valid if they support the best outcome. So consequentialists I would characterise as arguing from the end to the middle. Deontologists argue from the middle out to both the end and the beginning . Virtue ethicists argue from the beginning to the ends.
Undoubtedly supporters of each of the other systems would argue that my characterisation is wrong but then that is why there are different traditions in the first place.


message 14: by Gerard (last edited Feb 22, 2017 01:03AM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Part 1.

First a few side notes. When I said virtue ethics was a ‘thing’ you are correct. No ontological being was implied. A metaphysical thing is closer in the sense that unicorns and mathematics exist because we can describe them and they exist beyond my own small comprehension but you cannot poke them or skin your knuckles on them. I picked up this colloquialism from my son who is want to say “Dad, we have to go to the pub before the game, it’s a “thing”! (we do).
I do think there have been “improvements” on the Aristotle’s ethics though not in the sense that I think they have been surpassed. Aristotle left much unclarified and I do believe that modern debates about what constitutes the way we reach the point of decision that will lead to 'right action' are very enlightening and important. Not least because the context in which we act today has a profoundly different context than it did in Aristotle’s day. This could be simply contrasted as the difference between a communal context assumed by all ancient Greek thought and our current liberal conception of responsibility and motivation.

So to the first major point. Why is consequentialism called thus when surely all ethical systems must be concerned with the consequences to others of our actions?
Here I will take an academic leaf and look at the problem analytically. If we look at a moral action we can divide it up into a decision sequence. Dispositions (character) > particular motivations > right decisions / specific acts > outcomes.
There are three generally accepted ethical theories: deontological (follow the rules); virtue ethics (act as a good person would); consequentialism (act according to the best outcome for the majority). Natural law theories still get argued but mostly they are the preserve of either religious parties (Catholic and Protestant and so are relevant only to a minority) or they have been subsumed into Universal Rights like the right to life, education, habeas corpus etc.

Now this is where I come entirely into my own characterisation of the theories. Going back to the moral facets described above, virtue ethics emphasises the first elements: character and then particular motivations. Character needs no explaining from a virtue ethics point of view but particular motivations is where phronesis comes in. It is a recognition that each situation is unique and that a virtuous person must take this particularity into account because at times they will be acting against their own best interest. And they must be willing to do so because character trumps self interest even when judging between two outcomes, both moral but where one might be marginally better for you than the other. This takes skill which is how Aristotle defines phronesis. In virtue ethics getting the first two right or in the technical parlance 'Right disposition' and 'right motivation' combined with phronesis lead to ‘right action’ cannot ever guarantee right outcomes but you at least gave it your best shot and kept your virtue in tact.

Deontologists put all the emphasis on right decisions / specific acts, the middle part of the decision sequence. Their argument is that there are laws for good reason. That following the laws may occasionally result in less than optimal outcomes but generally rule following will overall lead to better outcomes than the other systems (and here is the biggest weakness) because it is a rule that you should follow rules! Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue just demolishes this argument forever and I have never understood why people who have read it can still be deontologists and that includes probably every religious ethicist who ever lived. I have never heard of a coherent refutation of the Euthyphro nor given how complete it is do I ever expect one to be made.

Lastly consequentialists argue from consequences first. Rules are meant to be broken if they don’t get the maximum outcomes and character matters not a jot. The perversity of this position can be shown very simply. It would be a perfectly ‘right action’ for me to carve up a young person and distribute their organs amongst the needy because the majority would benefit. The best barrier against this happening is not a theoretical argument but a virtue ethics argument – good people don’t do this! We value people not outcomes.

It is important however not to demonise the consequentialist view. There are many consequentialisms. Rule consequentialism (act for the best but there are some rule limits), act consequentialism (the normally accepted version I have pilloried above), eudemonic consequentialism (everything is reducible to pain and pleasure – surely the stupidest version of all) and other subtle variations on the above, some of which take the best of virtue ethics and deontological ethics and blend them.

The most important thing historically (at least for the last century) is that the debate has gone from one simply between deontology and consequentialism, to virtue ethics coming roaring back with G.E. Anscombe and MacIntyre and Williams all of whom argued that both of the other systems were extraordinarily flawed because they removed the individual human decision maker from the most important part of the decision tree; dispositions and motivations. The sudden return of virtue ethics into the contemporary debate has meant a shift in both the other systems trying to accommodate the insights virtue ethivcs provides into their own systems. I don’t argue against this, it is part of what makes a good society and a good knowledge system – the willingness to accept your own limits and incorporate the best the other has to offer.
Both consequentialist and deontological systems were too abstract, too clinical, too removed from real human concerns and were therefor bound to fail. You can’t make a system work universally unless it lines up with what we do and feel to be “right”.

Ethics has been called "the peculiar institution" because it is "sticky". i.e. it is not amenable to normal philosophical and scientific reductions because we "care"!
William’s famously put a series of conjectures to prove the point. Here is just one. You are in a lifeboat with your wife and a large family. The lifeboat gets tipped over. You can only save one person. Do you save your wife or do you save the child. Consequentialists would argue that you save the child because a larger group would benefit. Deontologists just throw their hands up and say “umm, save both?!” But are you honestly going to let your wife drown. Are you going to accept for the rest of your life that you did the immoral thing by choosing your wife?! That you are an abhorrent moral creature because you looked in her eye and put your hand out because you loved?
That is what Williams meant when he coined the term moral luck. Life doesn’t give us clean choices that are amenable to rule based or outcome based systems. We must and will make decisions based on our character and try to decide skilfully on the fly to do the best we can do and accept the consequences. And because the other two systems allow for no succour, no self interest, no allowance for being simply human they must by definition be mal-adaptive moral systems for humans.
The point is where along that decision chain do you think that the most frequent best outcomes can be achieved? I think that virtue ethics because it starts at the beginning and recognises the very human nature of all moral decisions is better than the others. Of course, by its very nature no moral system can ever be correct in all situations but at least virtue ethics recognises that very fact in it’s very decision making process while the other two try to pretend it can be ignored.


message 15: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Next...Part 2.
Strauss, Liberalism in ethics and why Nietzsche may be the virtue ethicist we needed to have (and if that isn't channelling Nietzsche himself nothing is). ;-)


message 16: by Marcus (new)

Marcus Vinicius | 8 comments Clear and enlightened explanation Gerard! I liked to read it!


message 17: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Thanks Marcus. Regardless of the hard thrust of philosophical argument I would personally describe myself as having a virtue ethics base but accepting that consequentialism is probably the best at sorting between possible outcomes.
As in most things I tend to be a syncretic thinker even though it might not seem so in that argument. What's your inclination?
I read a brilliant justification of natural law ethics recently. Didn't convince me but I babe more respect for its tradition.

How would you characterise yourself? I think this has suddenly become important in a world where political movements are challenging us to consider what we think are our core values. Please be confident that I will not "judge", just engage.


message 18: by Marcus (new)

Marcus Vinicius | 8 comments Well Gerard, I think I had a serious relationship with consequentialism (R.Rorty pragmatism, if I grasped it correctly). But, with time, this relationship eroded a little bit. I guess it isn't easy for a christian like me (reformed christian) to justified it. Actually I look for an intermediary (mixed) position. One thing for sure: I take these questions seriously. It's matter for me!


message 19: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Feb 22, 2017 12:58PM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Re posts 13-18:

Thank you, gentlemen, for your comments.

I have only read a few of the twentieth- and twenty-first century ethicists, and I accordingly do not think it is appropriate for me to opine about what I do not know. I'm preoccupied right now with researching and writing my book on the US electoral college. After I finish that (sometime this year), I'll return to my project of substantially revising my 2000 book on ethics. This will require, inter alia, study of the ethical thinkers of the last 150 years.

In the meantime, I will state my longtime thinking about ethics as follows. It seems to me that there is a "natural" order that ethics should recognize. We human beings are endowed by evolution with an advanced prefrontal cortex and other brain mechanisms that allow us to exercise reason. Although various emotions are also part of our evolutionary heritage, it is the advanced exercise of reason that distinguishes us from other animals. In this connection, see especially the discussion in Plato's Republic of the tripartite nature of the soul (or "brain," if you will) into the rational, the spirited, and the desiring faculties. (Freud, of course, famously revised this demarcation in his own inimitable way, but that's another story.) A person is virtuous when the rational element, assisted by the spirited element, is dominant. (The desiring part of the brain is also necessary for human life, but we must be careful not to let that element control the rational faculty as distinguished from the other way around.)

What, concretely, do I mean by this? I don't have time right now to compose a treatise on it, but interested readers can learn in some detail what I am talking about by reading my Master's Essay, "The Teaching of Plato's Seventh Letter" (1971), which can be accessed here.


message 20: by Feliks (last edited Jan 31, 2018 08:16PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments I have a question and I do not know where--in this discussion zone--I ought place it.

Alan and I have debated afore, on 'emotion' vs 'reason' and the subsequent arbitration of human behavior via social institutions such as law.

I'm pondering all this once again, tonight. I have only faint contact with the US legal system--a sprinkling of varietal incident such as a traffic accident, an injury case, a grand jury trial in which I was an expert witness--nothing much to speak of.

Alan has repeatedly insisted to me that reason is the supreme means to sort out right and wrong. Yet--is not the entire legal system of this country built not at all upon reason and fairness, but instead upon the notion of 'hurt' and 'harm'?

When someone experiences pain and we (their peers) deem the pain to have been inflicted by another party, is it not the degree of suffering and pain which is entirely the order of fineness, leading to the deliberation upon punishment or civil penalty?

Don't we place the utmost weight upon the element of suffering which one of our fellows has borne, this determining our verdict and little else? Isn't it the plaintiveness of the 'wound' rather than the wisdom of the 'remedy' which speaks loudest?

Any injury can have a dozen means of redress adjudicated for it by a jurist, or prescribed for it by a medico. These verdicts can be too little or too much, as happens. But the pain of the sufferer carries the most weight, doesn't it? Doesn't that pain answer all?

Isn't suffering the most 'just' arbiter and doesn't the degree of pain inflicted, always call upon a corresponding degree of redress to be extracted, from our legal system, from the malefactor?

If I am struck, and fly into rage, striking my opponent in return--isn't that that righteousness, that mammalian humanness, recognized as a response being in accord with nature and thus given more priority over merely what courts determine is 'correct'? Pain is always given more recognition, no?

When an injured party acts punitively--but with deliberation and the opportunity for forethought-- isn't it usual for vindication of his actions to be withheld (by the rest of us)?

Just musing aloud.


message 21: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Feliks wrote: "I have a question and I do not know where--in this discussion zone--I ought place it.

Alan and I have debated afore, on 'emotion' vs 'reason' and the subsequent arbitration of human behavior via s..."


I have responded at post 123 (2/1/2018) of the Reason, Logic, Evidence, and Critical Thinking topic.


message 22: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Unrelated question

When talking informally to everyday people about the lives they lead, decisions that they make...doesn't it often seem as if one ethical system is usually substituted for another, 'as needed' by whatever question you put to them about their personal choices?

For instance if you point out to someone that they carelessly litter when they smoke on the street; they might shrug and reply with, "well maybe yeah but I buy from indian reservations so I'm helping the indians". Or some such nonsense; I'm straining to fnd easy examples here.

If you say "hey you're letting yourself really deteriorate health-wise" they could say something like "well I don't believe in burdening the national economy with my health problems" or something which (to them) offsets their failure on the first point, with some swapped-in success in some other area.

It even enters in to public discourse and economics. Advocates for 'swift justice' might endorse putting an offender right into jail after three-strikes, but then turn around and criticize crime prevention programs for their upfront costs.

Is there any name for this convenient form of rationalization?


message 23: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments 'The Cowboy Code'

by Gene Autry


1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot.


message 24: by Cary (new)

Cary Giese Words to live by simply stated! Send copies to your children and grandchildren! I just did!


message 25: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments I love it as well. Thanks for the vote Cary


message 26: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Heard a strange, rough, and crude 'ethical system' articulated in a western movie I watched last night.

A bandit has captured a little frontier town and intends to plunder it for food, water, resources--all of which are needed by the townspeople themselves, to subsist on.

The heroes quiz the bandit on the fairness of his actions. The bandit shrugs and replies, "if God had not wanted them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep in the first place"

Curious and self-serving justification, of course. But what logical fallacy is this, specifically? The 'appeal' to...? Thanks


message 27: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Feliks wrote: "Heard a strange, rough, and crude 'ethical system' articulated in a western movie I watched last night.

A bandit has captured a little frontier town and intends to plunder it for food, water, reso..."


I'm not sure whether this kind of thing has a named logical fallacy, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the argument of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic.


message 28: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Thank ye Alan. Maybe it harkens back to natural rights or a perceived lack of natural rights? 'Food chain' ethics? Nature serving as 'arbiter'?


message 29: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Feliks wrote: "Thank ye Alan. Maybe it harkens back to natural rights or a perceived lack of natural rights? 'Food chain' ethics? Nature serving as 'arbiter'?"

Thrasymachus claimed, if I recall correctly, that his was the "natural" definition of justice—the advantage of the stronger as in the nonhuman animal kingdom. Socrates disagreed, and his dialectical takedown of Thrasymachus on this issue is priceless.


message 30: by Christopher (last edited Apr 28, 2018 01:18PM) (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 142 comments I thought maybe you wanted to know if there is an obverse to the "anthropomorphic fallacy," - attributing human qualities to non-human things. (eta: "Willow, won't you weep for me?," etc.)

What would the obverse be? Reducing the human to something non-human.

It happens all the time.

The fallacy is that they are not sheep.


message 31: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Christopher wrote: "I thought maybe you wanted to know if there is an obverse to the "anthropomorphic fallacy," - attributing human qualities to non-human things. (eta: "Willow, won't you weep for me?," etc.)

What wo..."


Good question. Perhaps false analogy?


message 32: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Donut...on the move! :D


message 33: by Gerard (last edited May 18, 2018 12:09AM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Just catching up having been away for a while.

The argument that Alan mentions from the Republic about might and right is also reproduced in real life in the Athenian argument against Melos, one of its allies/subject states in Thucydides 'The Pelopenesian War' - "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". Both Socrates and Plato were alive and active citizens at the time of the siege, sack and slaughter at Melos so it is not to hard to imagine Plato had this in his mind at the time of writing that section of The Republic.
Plato having Socrates rebut the argument is telling given both Plato and Socrates were both deeply conflicted about the war even though Socrates fought in at least three battles for Athens.

With regard Feliks' query about emotion in the judicial system and Alan's response.
From my point of view most judicial systems in democracies are a balancing act between reason and emotion. Alan is correct in that the rules of law lean heavily on reason as I believe they should for without reasoned argument and rules of evidence we would be back to burning witches because someone believed their bad luck was because a spell had been cast.
That said, for the victim and the family of victims, the penalty handed down must be seen to emotionally address the harm done. Every court case that makes the news finishes with a report from those harmed along the lines of "we are happy/unhappy that the he/she did/didn't get what was coming to them."
So reason and emotion are both always in play but they are in play for different reasons and in different places and that is as it should be.


message 34: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited May 18, 2018 06:59PM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Gerard wrote: "Just catching up having been away for a while.

The argument that Alan mentions from the Republic about might and right is also reproduced in real life in the Athenian argument against Melos, one o..."


Thank you, Gerard, for your thoughtful comment. I do have one question: how do you conclude that Socrates and Plato were deeply conflicted about the war? I am not aware of any historical evidence, one way or another, on this precise issue. Socrates did fight for Athens, but he is on (Plato's) record as saying that he tries to do his legal duty. See Plato's Apology of Socrates and Crito. Is there somewhere in Thucydides or Plato in which Socrates and/or Plato are represented as having a position on the war itself? I don't recall anything myself, but I have not read the entirety of these works, and, moreover, I may have forgotten a reference that I read earlier.


message 35: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Gerard ..its good to see you back!


message 36: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 1320 comments Feliks wrote: "...doesn't it often seem as if one ethical system is usually substituted for anothe..."

Replying to my own message #22

I finally discovered the appropriate term for this kind of ethical rationalization. It is known as, 'moral offsetting'

Philosopher Amanda Askell writes on the topic here:
http://www.rationalreflection.net/can...


message 37: by Gerard (last edited May 31, 2018 03:49AM) (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Alan wrote: "I do have one question: how do you conclude that Socrates and Plato were deeply conflicted about the war..."

Mere inference Alan but from a fair bit of circumstantial evidence. No, I am not aware of any statement Socrates makes specifically regarding his feelings about the war that would support a strong claim. However, Socrates was a known Spartophile. In Plato's dialogues he regularly praises the Spartan institution over the Athenian and the Spartan political character over the Athenian (Protagorus 342b, Crito 53a, Republic 544c). He even dressed and behaved in the 'Spartan manner', wearing his hair long and wearing no shoes even while campaigning during the winter months. Playwrights made jokes about 'Laconism' it was so obvious.
Many of Socrates young followers were also notorious Spartophiles, Alcibiades and Critias the most prominent. Critias played the most prominent role in inviting the Spartan's back into Athens during the post war unrest and then led the Rule of the Thirty, the tyrannical government set up by Sparta. Alcibiades even spent time working for the Spartan war efforts during his exile from Athens. I would argue that they too were deeply conflicted about the war.

I think what might be at issue here is how you interpret "conflicted". I merely meant like many of the other Athenian Spartophiles Socrates would have felt unhappy about being in a war with a country he admired and where he had friends. I meant no more than saying something similar to the fact that I would be sorely conflicted if Australia and the US were to somehow fall into armed conflict with each other. Like Socrates I would do what I felt was right and just to defend my country but I would be deeply sorry that things had come to such a pass and I would grieve for my American friends. This was not a war like the one fought against Hitler. It was a war between two people with strong ties who had been allies in the past and it required many Athenians to attempt to defeat a country whose politics and institutions they admired and where many had kinship and guest host ties (xenia, guest host duty was a serious moral duty).

I hope that clears up what I meant though clearly I should have written "were most likely deeply conflicted".


message 38: by Gerard (new)

Gerard | 88 comments Feliks wrote: "Gerard ..its good to see you back!"
Thanks Feliks. Good to be back.


message 39: by Alan, Moderator and Author (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Gerard wrote (post 37): "Alan wrote: "I do have one question: how do you conclude that Socrates and Plato were deeply conflicted about the war..."

Mere inference Alan but from a fair bit of circumstantial evidence. No, I ..."


A response to this position would require a lengthy discussion of the proper interpretation of various Platonic dialogues, which I don't have time right now to do. I have an appointment today for which I must now prepare. After I return, I may direct your attention to other interpretations.


message 40: by Alan, Moderator and Author (last edited Jun 01, 2018 05:57AM) (new)

Alan Johnson (alanejohnson) | 3674 comments Mod
Addendum to my preceding post:

I have now responded to Gerard's post 37 at post 221 (June 1, 2018) in the Plato topic.


message 41: by Robert (new)

Robert Hanna | 241 comments Dear All,

Interested in a brief exposition of the basics of Aristotle's virtue ethics?

Here's latest installment in Philosophy Without Borders's
series on "Morality and the Human Condition"--

Morality and the Human Condition, #11–Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.
https://againstprofphil.org/2020/03/2...

And I've also posted this in the PWB thread.


message 42: by Robert (new)

Robert Hanna | 241 comments Dear All,

Here's the twelfth installment in PWB's series on "Morality and the Human Condition"--

Morality and the Human Condition, #12–Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, & Contemporary Virtue Ethics.
https://againstprofphil.org/2020/04/1...


The COVID-19 pandemic of course raises many moral & political issues, including issues about everyday virtues, often misdescribed as issues about mere "etiquette"--

https://www.citylab.com/life/2020/04/...

So I'll also post this in the COVID-19/coronavirus thread.


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