Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics and Right Action: A Reassessment
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- Svensson, F. J Ethics (2011) 15: 321. doi:10.1007/s10892-011-9108-0
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My question in this paper concerns what eudaimonist virtue ethics (EVE) might have to say about what makes right actions right. This is obviously an important question if we want to know what (if anything) distinguishes EVE from various forms of consequentialism and deontology in ethical theorizing. The answer most commonly given is that according to EVE, an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. However, understood as a claim about what makes particular actions right, this is not especially plausible. What makes a virtuous person’s actions right must reasonably be a matter of the feature, or features, which she, via her practical wisdom, appreciates as ethically relevant in the circumstances, and not the fact that someone such as herself would perform those actions. I argue that EVE instead should be understood as a more radical alternative in ethical philosophy, an alternative that relies on the background assumption that no general account or criterion for what makes right actions right is available to us: right action is simply too complex to be captured in a ‘finite and manageable set of…moral principles’ (McKeever and Ridge, Principled ethics, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 139). This does not rule out the possibility that there might be some generalizations about how we should act which hold true without exception. Perhaps there are some things which we must never do, as well as some features of the world which always carry normative weight (even though their exact weight may vary from one context to another). Still, these things are arguably few and far between, and what we must do to ensure that we reliably recognize what is right in particular situations is to acquire practical wisdom. Nothing short of that could do the job.
KeywordsConsequentialismDeontologyEudaimonist virtue ethics (EVE)ParticularismRight action
1. Suppose that we accept a classical, eudaimonist approach in ethical philosophy, according to which (1) the most basic question concerns what constitutes the kind of life that is best or most choice-worthy for us as humans (eudaimonia), and (2) as a first approximation, at least, the kind of life that is best for us is a life of virtuous activity. Given our acceptance of this approach, a central task (or, depending perhaps on how the connection between the best life and virtuous activity is more specifically conceived, even the central task1) for ethical philosophy should be to investigate the nature of virtuous activity; to help us become clearer about what such activity involves and how we can develop the capacity to engage in it. An account or conception of virtuous activity would provide a target to aim for in our thinking about how we should organize our lives in order to live as well as possible.2
Suppose, furthermore, that we also accept an account of what virtuous activity is such as Aristotle’s, according to which it involves several different components (see NE, 1105a 29–35). Virtuous activity requires thus (a) that what is done “is of a certain kind”; one must do what is called for in the circumstances, or, put differently, it is required that one’s actions and affections are in accordance with correct reason (kata ton orthon logon); (b) one must choose or decide to do that which is called for in the circumstances for its own sake, and not merely as a means to some further end; (c) it must be done “knowingly”, i.e., one must do it knowing not only that but also why it is called for; in Aristotle’s terminology, one must recognize what one does as “noble” or “fine” (kalon); (d) finally, it must be done from virtue, or from “a firm and unchanging disposition”; it must be something that one enjoys or takes pleasure in doing.
Conditions (a) through (d) must all be fulfilled in order for our conduct to count as fully virtuous. This is an ideal, of course, but it seems it is an ideal against which we could really compare ourselves and in that way determine in which respects we need to improve if we are to live the best life: we could ask ourselves whether our actions and affections are generally in accordance with correct reason; whether they are usually chosen for their own sakes and not merely as means to some other end; whether we are generally capable of appreciating on our own why that which we do is called for in the circumstances, or if we are rather relying uncritically on the example of others; and, when doing what we should, whether we usually have to struggle against inclinations or desires to do otherwise, or if we instead characteristically enjoy doing it. Thus, the Aristotelian account of virtuous activity provides a goal that we could use when thinking about how we should live.
Furthermore, granted the assumption that we become virtuous, and thereby capable of fully virtuous activity, by trying to emulate the activity that would be characteristic of the virtuous person (the phronimos) as far as it is in our power to do so (cf. NE, 1105b 9–12), it seems we might say that, for those of us who are not yet fully virtuous, the right way to live consists in devoting ourselves to virtuous activity as far as we can given our individual levels of virtuous development: that is the best way for each person to promote the life that is best or most choice-worthy for him or her. Thus, suppose that I am currently in a state where, at least most of the time, I am able to fulfill conditions (a) and (b) in my conduct, but not (c) and (d). The way towards greater virtue (and thereby towards a better life) would then consist in making sure that I actually fulfill (a) and (b) as often as possible. In that way, I will gradually develop the intellectual capacity, what Aristotle calls practical wisdom or intelligence (phronêsis), that is needed to reliably appreciate why the things I should do are called for in the circumstances [condition (c)], and eventually I will also begin to find it easier and more enjoyable to do those things [condition (d)].
2. Eudaimonist virtue ethics (EVE) of the kind sketched briefly above is concerned primarily with thinking about the human good and what we must do to achieve that good. EVE advances the provocative thesis that it is at least a necessary condition for living the life that is best for humans that one does what is right (noble/fine/in accordance with correct reason) in particular situations, and also that one does what is right with knowledge of why it is right.3 But what, if anything, does EVE have to say about what actually makes right actions right? At first glance, it may be tempting to think that this question is beyond the purview of EVE. It is, however, traditionally one of the main concerns for consequentialists and deontologists, so what we should do (assuming that we accept EVE) is perhaps to simply integrate one or another form of consequentialism or deontology about what makes right actions right into the EVE framework and in that way receive a more complete or comprehensive ethical theory. Putting the point differently, it might be suggested that there is a lacuna in EVE with regard to the substantive content of the first and third conditions for perfectly virtuous activity (conditions (a) and (c) above), and that consequentialist and deontological accounts of right action seem to provide precisely what is needed to fill in what is missing.4
Now it is in fact far from clear whether we could insert or integrate just any consequentialist or deontological account of what makes right actions right into the EVE framework. It might very well be the case that some such accounts would not fit so easily with the conditions for virtuous activity that EVE puts forward. Still, I see no reason to think that this would be true for all such accounts. I think it should therefore be conceded that someone could (in all likelihood, at least) coherently endorse EVE about the human good and also accept a certain consequentialist or deontological account of what makes right actions right.5
However, it seems clear that most defenders of EVE want to resist a combination of this kind. My question in this paper is what they might have to offer instead. I will first consider what is often thought of as the most natural suggestion for the proponents of EVE to make with regard to the topic of right action, namely that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances (Part II). This suggestion, it seems, can be understood in different ways. However, understood as a suggestion for an account of what makes right actions right, I will argue that it should be rejected as implausible.6 In Part III, I will then introduce and defend an alternative view, according to which what is distinctive about EVE when it comes to right-making features or properties is that it relies on (what I shall call) a weak form of particularism. Conceived in this way, EVE denies that an account or criterion of what makes right actions right of the kind that is traditionally offered by consequentialists and deontologists is available to us. Instead, what we must do to ensure that we reliably recognize what is right in particular situations is to acquire practical wisdom, understood as the capacity to discern or appreciate the salient features for what should be done case by case. Nothing short of that could do the job.
1. According to a long-standing tradition in analytic moral philosophy, a tradition which has recently been vigorously defended by Sean McKeever and Michael Ridge, moral theorists are in the business of searching for “a finite and manageable set of…moral principles” (McKeever and Ridge 2006, p. 139) which together specify the non-moral features or properties of the world that ultimately make right conduct right.7 These basic principles, or, as the case may be, the one basic principle (the utility principle, e.g.), should ideally “codify all of morality” (McKeever and Ridge 2006, p. 139), and thus not contain any ceteris paribus or pro tanto clauses; or, if the principles do contain some such qualifications, it should be possible at least in principle to cash out the qualifications in purely descriptive or non-moral terms.8
Once a set of principles of this kind is firmly in place, moral theorists can proceed to consider the question of which considerations that we should be guided by in our everyday moral thinking in order to ensure that we regularly act rightly. It might be thought that the answer to this question, at least from the perspective of moral theory, must be obvious: if we want to make sure that we act rightly, then we should simply apply the basic moral principle, or principles, to our circumstances. But, as it is often pointed out, there might be all sorts of reasons for why applying the basic principle, or principles, directly to our circumstances would not always, or even very often, be a particularly effective way of figuring out how we should act.
The point that there is a distinction to be drawn here between, on the one hand, the question of what makes right actions right and, on the other hand, the question of how we should ordinarily think about what we should do has been stressed most often by utilitarians, for whom the problems associated with trying to apply their basic moral principle directly to our circumstances indeed seem especially acute. But the distinction might very well be important with regard to various forms of deontological moral theories as well. However, even if we should not in general use basic moral principles in our everyday moral decision-making, they might still serve an important practical function insofar as they constitute standards against which we can evaluate the methods of decision-making that we do use in everyday life. We have reason to adjust our ordinary moral thinking if we come to realize that it often leads us to perform actions that are wrong in the light of the basic principles.9
2. How should we think about EVE in the light of this tradition of moral theorizing? The first thing to notice is perhaps that EVE would reject any notion that finding an account or criterion of right action is the primary or mostimportant task for ethical philosophy. According to EVE, having such an account is important insofar as it contributes to a deeper understanding of the best life and of how that life is obtained.10 However, it certainly seems as if it would contribute to a deeper understanding of the human good, at least given how EVE conceives of that good, if we were to have a principled account of what makes right actions right. If we had such an account, we would have something that could help us determine which actions that are part of the best life (namely those actions which have the property, or properties, specified in the relevant account). Also, it would teach us something important about the content of practical wisdom. Presumably, the wise person would have knowledge of this principled account and even if she perhaps would not consciously apply it in each particular situation, it would reasonably serve an important function for her at a higher and more general level of moral thinking.
But what, then, could EVE have to say about wherein such a principled account of right action consists? The most natural suggestion, it seems, would be the following: whereas utilitarianism, e.g., tells us that what ultimately makes an action right is that it maximizes “the overall balance of happiness over unhappiness” (Crisp 2000, p. 28), and contractualism that it rather is the fact that the action is in accordance with a rule or principle that no one could reasonably reject, EVE states instead that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do.11 That an action is right because it is what a virtuous agent would do is thus EVE’s basic principle for right action, and it is comparable to the basic principle, or principles, for right action provided by other moral theories.
It might be worth emphasizing that I am interested here in a particular way of understanding the claim that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would do, namely as a claim about what makes right actions right, or, put differently, about that in virtue of which right actions are right. Another possibility would be to think of it rather as a more straightforwardly metaethical claim about the nature or essence of right action.12 Thought of in this way, however, the claim arguably leaves open the question of which property (or properties) that makes right actions right. True, the metaethical claim rules out any criterion of right-making features or properties that implies that there are at least some actions which are right, even though these actions would not be performed by a virtuous person. But it seems possible to develop different accounts or criteria of right-making features which would not have such implications.13
Now if what makes right actions right is that they would be performed by a virtuous person, it seems it must be possible for the proponents of EVE to offer some story of what is involved in being a virtuous person (i.e., a person in possession of the virtues—courage, generosity, justice, moderation, and so on) that does not itself assume the existence of some independent substantive conception of right action. Of course, an analogous requirement holds also with respect to utilitarianism and contractualism. It must be possible for utilitarians, on the one hand, to specify what happiness consists in, and for contractualists, on the other hand, to specify what it is for someone to be in a position to reasonably reject a certain rule or principle, without assuming some independent conception of rightness. If, e.g., McKeever and Ridge are right, it is furthermore required that all these things (i.e., the virtuous person, happiness, and the reasonable rejection of rules or principles) can be spelled out in purely descriptive or non-evaluative terms. This last requirement, however, is in fact controversial even among consequentialists and deontologists. Thus, even if it were to turn out that EVE does not meet it (and at least one prominent defender of EVE, Rosalind Hursthouse, is quite explicit about thinking that it does not14), then that would perhaps not be so disastrous: there are indeed examples of consequentialist and deontological moral theories which fail to meet it as well.15
The first requirement above does really seem crucial, however. I will argue below that EVE cannot plausibly live up to it.
3. Different objections could be raised against the view that what makes right actions right is that they would be performed by a virtuous person. I will here restrict myself to two closely related ones which seem especially acute for the purposes of this paper.
The first objection is simply that the fact that a virtuous person would perform a certain action does not, intuitively, constitute a very plausible candidate for what makes the relevant action right.16 To illustrate: suppose I have a bad headache and you kindly give me an aspirin. Presumably, giving me an aspirin is what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. But that does not seem to be what makes your act of giving me an aspirin right or called for in the circumstances. Rather, it seems what makes your act right (if it is right) has to do with the fact that by giving me an aspirin you are helping to relive my headache.
Perhaps it will be responded to this objection that we need to distinguish between the features that we, insofar as we are virtuous at least, would be moved by to perform (and, presumably, would cite as the reasons for why we perform) certain actions in particular situations, and a deeper and more comprehensive account of the feature (or features) that makes all right actions right.17 In the light of this distinction, it might be argued that it is part of being virtuous, and indeed part of being virtuous even to the limited degree that most of us actually are, that one is characteristically moved to offer someone an aspirin, e.g., if one will thereby contribute to the relief of that person’s bad headache. It is precisely the contribution that one can make to the relief of the other person’s bad headache that will appear to one as relevant in the circumstances and that will lead one to offer the person an aspirin (assuming, at least, that there are no other considerations present in the circumstances which appear as even more relevant and in the light of which one is therefore led to perform some other action instead). From the perspective of the particular situation, it is therefore to be expected that it seems odd or counterintuitive to us to that what makes it right to offer an aspirin to someone suffering from a bad headache is that that is what a virtuous person would do; this is simply not how we, decent people that we are, are disposed to see it. If we were to take a step back, however, and ask not why this particular action is right here and now, but instead what makes this action, along with all other right actions, right, then there is nothing counterintuitive about the answer that they are all right because they would be performed by a virtuous person.
I find this response unpersuasive. Even if we were to become convinced upon reflection that behind the considerations which virtuous persons are moved by (or react to) in particular situations, there exists some deeper and more comprehensive account of what makes right actions right, it still seems quite counterintuitive to claim that the deeper and more comprehensive account should be spelled out in terms of what a virtuous person would do. Whatever the content of this account more specifically might be, it seems intuitively much more plausible that a virtuous person’s actions are right (insofar as they are right) because of some feature, or features, of what is actually done (perhaps sometimes including facts about how it is done), and not because they would be performed by someone who is virtuous.
4. Let us now move on to consider the following question: could a virtuous person herself agree that what makes right actions right is that a virtuous person would perform them?18 I think the answer to this question (at least given a certain qualification that I will return to in a minute) must be “No, she could not”. A virtuous person would ground her decisions about how she should act on what she, due to her possession of practical wisdom, correctly appreciates as the ethically salient features of her circumstances, and she would reasonably consider those features to be what makes her actions right.19 What this strongly suggests is that the proposed account of right action gets the order of explanation the wrong way around. The virtuous person’s actions are not right because she would do them; rather, she is virtuous, at least in part, because she is disposed to do what is right (as well as to recognize why it is right).
It might be responded that I have failed once again to distinguish between the question of which considerations the virtuous is guided by in particular situations, and the question of what makes her actions right. Even though it might be correct that a virtuous person would regard the fact that someone has a bad headache, e.g., as relevant for what she should do in a particular situation, it is nevertheless the case that the truth about what ultimately makes her actions right is that someone such as herself would do them.
This response just relocates the problem at another level, however. We would now have to ask whether a virtuous person, when thinking in a “cool hour” about whether she is usually doing what is right, could agree that what ultimately determines if she is indeed usually doing what is right is that her actions are such that a virtuous person would do them. And again it seems to me as if the answer (given a certain qualification, at least) is “No, she could not”. When pressed about her ultimate standards for acting as she does, we would not expect the virtuous person to respond by saying that her aim is to always do what someone such as herself would do, but instead to refer to whatever standards that she appreciates through her practical wisdom.20
A different line of response to the objection that a virtuous person could not agree that what makes right actions right is that someone such as herself would perform them might be the following.21 While it seems correct that we would not expect a virtuous person to agree that right actions are right because she (or someone just like her) would do them, she might nevertheless agree that right actions are right because they would be performed by a virtuous person. All that is required for this is that she does not quite believe herself to be as virtuous as she actually is, i.e., fully virtuous, or virtuous to the degree required for it to be the case that what makes actions right is that she (or someone just like her) would do them.
Now instead of trying to argue that it is constitutive of being a fully virtuous person that one actually believes that one is fully virtuous, I will here, in the light of the response above, simply rephrase the original question as follows: could someone who is fully virtuous, and who also believes that she is a fully virtuous person, agree that what makes right actions right is that someone such as herself would perform them? I think the answer, for the same reasons that have been cited earlier, is indeed “No, she could not”.
To this, in turn, someone might try to respond that believing that one is fully virtuous is incompatible with actually being a fully virtuous person. But what could be the reason for this alleged incompatibility? Let us consider two suggestions. First, it could be suggested that the epistemic difficulties involved in determining whether one is fully virtuous are in fact so great that even if one is actually fully virtuous, it is still extremely unlikely that one would ever have good grounds for believing that one is. Furthermore, it seems plausible that a fully virtuous person would believe that she is fully virtuous only if she were to have good grounds for believing it (that is plausibly constitutive of being fully virtuous). Thus, it is extremely unlikely that a fully virtuous person would ever believe that she is fully virtuous. All of this may very well be true. But even if it is extremely unlikely that the world has ever seen, or ever will see, a person who is fully virtuous and who also believes (on good grounds) that she is, it seems we can still conceive of such a person. And that is enough I take it to raise the question whether such a person could agree that what makes right actions right is that someone such as herself would perform them. A second suggestion, however, could be that in order to count as a fully virtuous person, one must possess humility and it is contrary to humility to believe that one is fully virtuous; to believe that about oneself is a sign of arrogance. I find this unconvincing. While I have no fully worked out theory of the nature of humility to offer, it strikes me as quite implausible that the possession of humility would necessarily lead the fully virtuous to underestimate the degree of virtue that she has actually achieved.22 It would not, presumably, be characteristic of a fully virtuous person to brag about her virtue, or to think of herself as more important than she is. But insofar as one has good grounds for it, it is hard to see anything arrogant or contrary to humility about having an entirely correct picture of oneself as being a fully virtuous person. Thus, even if it is granted that one must possess humility to count as fully virtuous, that does not seem to establish any incompatibility between being fully virtuous and believing that one is.
I suppose it is still at least theoretically possible for someone to hold on to the view that what ultimately makes right actions right is that a virtuous person would perform them. The defender of this view could simply stick to his guns and embrace what we may call academic house virtue ethics, i.e., the view that even though the virtuous person herself (insofar as she is well aware that she is virtuous, at least) must believe otherwise, we academic moral philosophers know that she is in fact deluded: it is really the fact someone such as herself would do them that makes her actions right. However, this view seems to me too absurd to be taken very seriously.
5. At this point, the defenders of EVE might try a different tack. They could argue that “ok, so maybe it is not especially plausible to think that we can account for what makes actions right in terms of what a virtuous person would do. Nevertheless, what a virtuous person would do is still central or dominant with regard to the seemingly more practical question of how we should ordinarily think about what we should do in order to ensure that we regularly act rightly. Thinking about what a virtuous person would do is likely to be a much better way of figuring out which action that is right in the circumstances than either attempting to consciously apply the utility principle or the set of principles offered by different forms of deontology”.
For the purposes of this paper, the most important problem with this view is that if EVE does not have anything to say about what makes right actions right, then EVE seems in the end compatible with consequentialism and deontology. The latter, I take it, are aiming to provide accounts of what makes actions right, and EVE, on the construal of it that we are considering here, just does not address that issue. Indeed, if thinking about what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances is really the most effective way of figuring out how one should act in everyday life, then thinking about that is what consequentialists and deontologists would (or should) recommend on the level of everyday decision-making as well.23
In addition, I must admit that I doubt strongly that thinking about what a virtuous person would do, were he or she in our shoes, could play any very significant role when trying to figure how we should act.24 For the virtuous person herself, it seems it must be simply superfluous to bring in the consideration that a virtuous person would do a certain action in the circumstances. As we have said before, the virtuous person is practically wise and she will thus ground her decisions about how she should act on what she correctly appreciates as the morally relevant characteristics of her situation. As for those of us who are not so virtuous, I would have thought that in cases where we are indeed genuinely unsure about what it is right to do (a phenomenon that I suspect is actually not so common in the lives of most people as one might think given the emphasis that has been put on it by moral theorists), there is not much help to be gained from thinking about what a virtuous person would do. If one could figure that out, then that must be because one is capable of first determining how one should act on other grounds. But if that is the case, then it once again seems superfluous to bring in the consideration that a virtuous person would act in a certain way in the circumstances.
It is sometimes suggested that the virtues themselves provide rules which could be used if we are unsure about what we should do: the virtues tell us to do what is charitable, courageous, just, temperate, and so on (cf. Hursthouse 1999, pp. 35–38). I do not think this suggestion is very promising, however. I do not see that the claim that we should do what is charitable, courageous, just, temperate, etc., amounts to anything more than saying that we should do what a person in possession of the corresponding virtues would do in the circumstances, and that, in turn, is a matter of doing what is called for, which is precisely what we were unsure about to begin with. (Of course, the virtuous person’s conduct would characteristically involve much more than just doing what is called for in the circumstances, but the other conditions are not relevant here.)25
1. If EVE aims to constitute a position that is clearly distinct from various forms of consequentialism and deontology, then it seems it cannot just sidestep the question of what makes right actions right. But if it is not plausible to think that we can account for what makes actions right in terms of what a virtuous person would do, then what could EVE say about this question that would distinguish it from other, more familiar accounts?26
On the view I favour, EVE is best understood as an ethical position for which the aim of finding a “finite and manageable set of…moral principles”, which together specify the properties that make all right actions right, does not arise (and it does not matter here whether the relevant principles are thought of as being of an all-things-considered kind, or merely pro tanto).27 However, the reason for this is not that the question of what makes actions right is beyond the scope of EVE. The reason is instead that within the EVE framework, the idea that any such set of moral principles exists is not seriously entertained: it is rather part of the background assumptions on which EVE relies that when it comes to why particular actions (and affections!) are right, we must quite often rest content with generalizations that hold true only for the most part.
In the light of this, it should not seem surprising or curious that EVE does not offer a comprehensive set of basic moral principles, which we could potentially internalize and use as ultimate standards in cases of uncertainty about how we should act, or when trying to improve our everyday thinking about right action. EVE focuses instead primarily on the nature and development of a virtuous character, including the specific intellectual capacity (the practical wisdom or intelligence that we have briefly alluded to earlier) which gives us the ability to reliably appreciate the morally relevant features that are present in our particular circumstances.
It is important to stress that none of this entails that there would be anything wrong or illegitimate, according to EVE, to emphasize such things as that in general, or for the most part, one should keep one’s promises, and that one should feel some amount of distress if or when one is for some reason unable to do so. On the contrary; both of these things are quite plausibly true and they can, presumably, play an important role in moral education. But they can never replace the need for virtue in order for a person to reliably reach the correct decision about what should be done in a particular situation. The person in possession of the virtue of honesty is someone who can be counted on to recognize when she is in one of those unusual situations where the circumstances are such that she should not keep a particular promise that she has made, and where there may indeed be no reason at all for her to feel distressed about not keeping it.28 The thought here is not that the honest person is just equipped with a more sophisticated rule or principle which states not only that one should, for the most part, keep one’s promises and feel some amount of distress if or when one fails to do so, but in addition also all possible exceptions to when one should do these things. The thought is rather that we just cannot find a formula specifying exactly where the fact that one has promised something matters and where it does not, or exactly where distress or regret about failing to keep a promise is appropriate and where it is not. To reliably get things right in this area of life, there is no substitute to the development of honesty; there is no virtue independent standard for these matters, in the light of which we can develop a method of decision-making that could do the trick for us (or, at least, in the light of which we could assess specific instances of promise-keeping as right or wrong).
2. Now one immediate worry about the view I am proposing might be the following. In disowning the project of searching for a complete or fully comprehensive account of what makes right actions right and, in at least this respect, associating itself with particularism, EVE might turn out to be even more radical than what many of its defenders would prefer. Even though virtue ethicists often quote Aristotle on the inexact nature of ethics approvingly (see NE, 1094b 11–27), and often stress the importance of judgment or wisdom for acting well, they might still balk at some of the more extreme claims that are sometimes associated with particularism, such as the denial of there being any valid and exceptionless ethical generalizations at all, and the claim that any feature that counts as a reason in one context “may be no reason at all, or an opposite reason, in another” (Dancy 2004, p. 7).
In response to this worry, we should note that denying the existence of a “finite and manageable set of…moral principles” which together explain why all right actions are right, does not by itself exclude the possibility of there being at least some valid and exceptionless ethical generalizations. EVE-ists could agree with, e.g., Aristotle in thinking that there are some things we must never do, including perhaps murder, theft, adultery, making fun of others without paying any attention to what is fine (NE, 1107a 10–11, 1126b 36–27a6, 1128a 4–7), and (to use an example that is common in the contemporary literature, but that is not found in Aristotle), torturing babies for fun. They might conceivably also want to claim that there are at least a few considerations which are always normatively relevant, even though their exact weight may vary from one case to another.
Even when taken together, however, these things are very far from constituting a virtue-independent set of standards which together specify what makes right actions right. Practical wisdom is still clearly needed in order to determine the truth about what it is right to do in particular situations. The negative claims concerning what we must never do provide only a very minimal framework within which the development and exercise of virtue must take place.29 Furthermore, even if there exists a few considerations which are always normatively relevant, one must still be practically wise to determine the correct weight of these considerations in particular situations, as well as for appreciating the relevance of all the other considerations that are present in our circumstances, considerations which indeed might count strongly in favour of doing something in one context, but not count as relevant at all, and even count as opposite considerations, in other contexts.
I believe there is, therefore, in the end no good reason for why virtue ethicists should be weary of committing themselves to at least a weak form of particularism in the realm of right-making features, even if they also want to agree with Aristotle in thinking that principles or rules have at least some (if only a very limited) role to play in morality. Of course, there is room for internal disagreement among virtue ethicists about which principles or rules there actually are (they need not, after all, agree with Aristotle on this substantive matter), as well as with regard to the question of which of the relevant rules or principles that are overriding, and which that are rather stating features of the world which always carry some normative force, though how much exactly is something that must be determined case by case.
3. This constitutes thus my response to the challenge raised in the beginning of this part of the paper. By endorsing at least a weak form of particularism with regard to what makes right actions right, EVE has an account (albeit not a principled one) that is not reducible to one or another form of consequentialism or deontology, and that also enables proponents of EVE to renounce the implausible claim that the virtues or the virtuous person are explanatorily prior to the right. On my view, the virtues are dispositions to reliably recognize and act for the correct reasons within different areas of life. Thus, honesty, for example, is the virtue concerned with keeping promises and telling the truth when one should (and, indeed, in the way one should), whereas courage is a matter of acting in the face of danger or fear when one should (and in the way one should), and moderation a question of pursuing physical pleasures and avoiding physical pains when one should (and in the way one should). The virtuous person is someone who gets these things right. But, again, her actions are not right because someone such as herself would do them. She is rather disposed to reliably appreciate what features of her circumstances that are salient for what she should do. Acquiring the capacity to do this might involve learning about the existence of certain useful rules of thumb, a few absolute side-constraints, and perhaps also a few pro tanto reasons (i.e., considerations which always carry at least some normative force either for or against doing something), but ultimately there is no substitute for developing the virtues in order to be capable of reliably determining the truth about what one should do in each particular case.
4. Before wrapping up this paper, I will address at least two further concerns which could be raised with regard to my proposal above for how we should understand what EVE says about the features that make right actions right.
(a) One concern that some people seem to have (and these people include not only committed consequentialists and deontologists, but also, I think, some who are drawn towards a more virtue based moral theory) is that if EVE is conceived in the way I am suggesting that it should be, then it does not share quite the same theoretical or systematic ambitions as most forms of consequentialism and deontology. And this, in turn, makes it much harder to compare EVE with the latter: unlike most consequentialists and deontologists, EVE-ists do not (or, in my view at least, should not) aspire to produce any basic principle or principles for right action, the pros and cons of which could be easily compared with the pros and cons of the principle or principles provided by other moral theories in order to help us to decide which general method in ethics that we should ultimately endorse. (Or, as the point may also be put: if my conception of EVE were correct, then EVE would not fit within the framework of many recent textbooks in normative ethics.)
I have to admit that I fail completely to be moved by this concern. It is not the case, after all, that one or another generalist account or criterion of right action must be correct, and one might very well think that since generalists have so far been unsuccessful in their search for a convincing account of what it is that makes actions right, it should be worthwhile to take seriously the alternative that no such account is forthcoming and see where that leads us.30 If the lack of a generalist account of right action means that EVE does not quite constitute a distinct method of ethics, in the same sense as consequentialism and deontology, then so be it; maybe the idea of searching for such an account should simply be abandoned anyway.31 However, it is important to stress that denying a generalist account of right action does not entail that we cannot say anything interesting philosophically about ethics at all. According to EVE, at least, there is a lot of philosophical work to be done with regard to understanding the nature and acquisition of practical wisdom and a virtuous character more generally, as well as about what constitutes a good (even the best) life, the components of acting virtuously, and so on.32
(b) The second concern is this: could EVE ever provide concrete guidance? Could it ever be practically useful? Even Aristotle, it seems, agrees that we are pursuing ethical philosophy not primarily because we want to know about the components of the best life or how we should live, “but for the sake of becoming good” (NE, 1103b 27–28). But if EVE does not (or should not) aspire to produce a comprehensive set of principles governing what is right or called for in the circumstances, then how could it be of any help to us in our attempts to live well?
I am not particularly moved by this concern either.33 Notice, first, that it seems just false that EVE is without guiding abilities altogether. As we saw in Part I, an Aristotelian form of EVE, at least, offers an account of what it is to behave virtuously, consisting of four conditions which are jointly necessary and sufficient. Insofar as eudaimonists are correct that such behaviour is constitutive of the best life, we could use that account for guidance to living well. It is true that one of the relevant conditions is that one does what is right or called for in the circumstances (that one’s actions and affections are in accordance with correct reason). But most of the time we seem to know what that is; we do not characteristically go through life constantly facing situations where we are genuinely unclear about how we should act. Furthermore, it should also be practically important to learn about the nature and development of a virtuous character. The more we know about these things, the easier it should get to decide on the steps required to actually acquire greater virtue.34
Still, on my view of it, EVE does not aim to produce anything that could be used (given enough time and information, at least) by each person as a foolproof method of decision-making in cases where one is unsure about which course of action that would be right; the particularist background assumption rules out the possibility of this. And in this respect, EVE seems importantly different from certain forms of consequentialism and deontology.35 It must be noted, though, that this does not mean that EVE-ists cannot have anything at all to claim about how one should deal with situations where one is unclear about how one should act. It is certainly open to them to point out such things as that if one finds oneself in such a situation, then one should, if possible, ask someone who is wiser than oneself for advice, or more generally try to find others to discuss the matter with and thereby hopefully gain some insight into what is called for. Doing this could presumably be useful not only in order to solve the particular quandary that one is currently in, but also to open one’s eyes for considerations that might be important in future cases as well.36
Neither does it mean that we would have to give up on serious discussions about difficult ethical issues. Within the EVE framework, such discussions would not take the form of applying a certain account or criterion of right action, but instead consist either in looking at various aspects of a very specific case, trying to determine whether it should be treated in the same way as some other case which seems very similar or if there is perhaps some relevant difference between the two cases. Or, alternatively, in highlighting different considerations that may (and perhaps often do) make an important difference with regard to whether a certain kind of action is right or not.37
My question in this paper has been what EVE might have to say about what makes right actions right. This is obviously an important question if we want to know what (if anything) distinguishes EVE from consequentialism and deontology in ethical theorizing. The answer most commonly given is that according to EVE, an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do. However, understood as a claim about what makes particular actions right, this is not especially plausible. First, it is not what we would intuitively agree explains why our right actions are right. Second, it seems that it could not be accepted by the virtuous themselves: a virtuous person would reasonably think that the features which she, due to her practical wisdom or intelligence, appreciates as salient for what she should do in the circumstances are what make her actions right.
I have argued that EVE instead should be understood as a more radical alternative in ethical philosophy, an alternative that relies on the background assumption that no general account or criterion for what makes right actions right is available to us: right action is too complex to be captured in a “finite and manageable set of…moral principles” (whether of an all-things-considered or pro tanto kind). This does not rule out the possibility that there might be some generalizations about how we should act that hold true without exception. Perhaps there are a few absolute side-constraints on what we are allowed to do, as well as some features which always carry normative weight (though their exact weight may vary from one situation to another). But such generalizations (if they exist at all) are few and far between. To ensure that we reliably recognize what is right, what really matters is to acquire a virtuous character.
There are different views among eudaimonists about how strong the connection between eudaimonia and virtuous activity is exactly. Aristotle, for example, seems to treat virtuous conduct as necessary but not sufficient for the best life (external goods are needed as well), whereas the Stoics arguably held that virtuous activity is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. More recently, Rosalind Hursthouse has defended an interesting third position, according to which virtuous activity is, strictly speaking, neither necessary nor sufficient for the best life, but instead constitutes our best bet for achieving it (see Hursthouse 1999, Part III).
I suppose this is not quite right according to Hursthouse’s account of the relation between virtuous activity and eudaimonia (mentioned briefly in fn. 1). In her account, doing what is right (together with knowledge of why it is right) is constitutive of the way of life that is more likely than any alternative to lead to eudaimonia, but it is not, strictly speaking, necessary for the best life.
Notice that both of the relevant conditions for virtuous activity concern our actions and affections. In what follows, however, I will restrict my attention to right action.
Another possibility, it seems, could be for the defender of EVE to remain uncommitted regarding the true account of what makes right actions right. She could say that her only concern with regard to that question is that the account must not be incompatible with her favoured conception of the human good.
Another way of understanding the suggestion could perhaps be as simply stating something that we should be able to use when trying to figure out what we should do in particular situations (we should ask ourselves “what would a virtuous person do, were he or she in my shoes?”). Understood in this way, however, it could conceivably be accepted by consequentialists and deontologists about right-making features as well. Thus, we would still be left with the question of whether EVE has anything distinctive to contribute with regard to such features. (I will return briefly to this point below.)
Searching for a set of principles of the relevant kind is not, presumably, the only job for moral theorists, but it is often treated as their most important task.
Some moral theories which seem to belong within the tradition of moral theorizing that I am sketching here do not quite live up to this ideal, however. An interesting example in this respect is arguably the pluralist moral theory associated with Ross (1930). Ross defends a list of seven pro tanto (or, as he calls them, prima facie) moral duties or principles. These duties or principles, it seems, are (1) not stated in purely descriptive or non-moral terms, and (2) such that the pro tanto qualifications cannot be eliminated. Still, Ross’ theory constitutes a kind of generalism in the sense that all right conduct can be explained by reference to the basic list of duties, even though it often (always?) takes judgment to determine which duty that wins the day in a particular situation. Rossian-style pluralism has been defended more recently in, e.g., McNaughton and Rawling (2000, 2006).
Of course, it is also open to defenders of the view that we should not always, and maybe not even very often, use basic moral principles in ordinary decision-making to say that there still are at least some cases in which we can profitably apply the basic principles directly to our circumstances.
As Aristotle put it, in ethics we are not seeking “the why” because (or at least not primarily because) we want to know about it, “but for the sake of becoming good” (NE, 1103b 27–28).
See, e.g., Hursthouse (1996, 1997, 1999); Oakley and Cocking (2001); Zagzebski (1996, 2004). (Zagzebski in fact distinguishes between, on the one hand, right action, and, on the other hand, moral duty. The former is couched in terms of what a virtuous person might do, whereas the latter is instead couched in terms of what a virtuous person would do.) Kawall (2002) defends the view that right action should not be understood in terms of what a virtuous person would do, but instead in terms of what a virtuous person would deem right in the circumstances.
Even though the metaethical claim is not among my main concerns in this paper, some of the things I will state below are nevertheless relevant with respect to it. In particular, I will argue that there is strong reason to think that the notion of the virtuous person must be understood, at least in part, in terms of right action. If this is correct, then it would be (at least in part) circular to account for the nature or essence of right action in terms of what a virtuous agent would do.
In a recent paper, Jason Kawall defends the view that virtue ethicists should indeed accept (roughly) the claim that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would do, both on the metaethical level and on the level of normative theory (i.e., as a claim about that in virtue of which right actions are right); see Kawall (2009), Sect. III. As Kawall points out, however, one could conceivably combine, say, virtue theory on the metaethical level with one or another form of utilitarianism on the normative. (I thank an anonymous referee for The Journal of Ethics for drawing my attention to Kawall’s interesting paper).
As I pointed out earlier (footnote 8), this seems true for pluralistic moral theories of the kind that we find in Ross (1930); and in McNaughton and Rawling (2000, 2006). For a consequentialist example, we might think of J. S. Mill’s view, according to which there are higher and lower pleasures which we need to take into account when determining what it is right to do.
A distinction of this kind is drawn in Kawall (2009), Sect. III. Kawall distinguishes between what he calls the instantiation sense and the normative sense of the question “why is this action right (wrong)?” The answer to the instantiation question tells us what makes the action such that it would be performed by a virtuous person in the circumstances (that it contributes to the relief of another person’s bad headache, e.g.), whereas the answer to the normative question instead tells us in virtue of what the action is right (namely that it would be performed by a virtuous person). In this picture, virtuous persons are thus not guided by what strictly speaking makes actions right, but instead by different considerations which appear as morally relevant to persons in possession of the virtues in particular situations.
It is true that Aristotle at one point indeed states that right or virtuous action is “determined by rational prescription and in the way in which the wise person would determine it” (NE, 1107a 1–2). This might seem to suggest that Aristotle thinks it is really the fact that a virtuous agent would do a certain action that makes the action right. However, another, and I think much more plausible, interpretation of Aristotle is that he thinks the virtuous person, due to his or her practical wisdom, is simply in the best possible position to appreciate what it is right to do in the circumstances.
I do not intend this to mean that the virtuous person must necessarily be able to refer to a set of ultimate principles or rules. It might be (indeed, on the view I will defend below, it is) the case that what makes right actions right is so context dependent that on a general level, the best that a virtuous person can do is to point out that what it is right to do depends on the circumstances, and then in addition perhaps provide some examples, explaining why it is right to do an action A in circumstances C, an action A* in circumstances C*, and so on.
This line of response was suggested to me by an anonymous referee for The Journal of Ethics.
For an account of the nature of modesty in which underestimation indeed plays a crucial role, see Driver (2001, chapter 2). (The central claim in Driver’s account is this: “A modest person underestimates self-worth”, p. 16; emphasis in original.) Now if modesty comes down to basically the same thing as humility, then I would probably have to engage with Driver’s arguments in favour of her account to defend some of my claims about humility in this paper. However, whether modesty is basically the same thing as humility and, if it is, how I might respond to Driver’s arguments, are questions which I will set aside for another occasion.
For a defence of the view that utilitarianism indeed recommends a life of virtue, see Crisp (1992). However, it should be noted that what Crisp is defending is not quite (or at least not necessarily) that we should think about what a virtuous person would do when deciding how we should act in particular situations. Rather, the view is that the best life, on utilitarian grounds, is a life in accordance with the virtues and that, presumably, means that we should also aim to think about how we should act in the way a virtuous person would do that, and the virtuous would not, I take it, deliberate in terms of what someone such as herself would do. (I will return to this last point just below.)
I should perhaps add that I do not wish to deny that it might have some motivational force to think for oneself that “it would be quite callous not to tell her”, “a courageous person would do A here, I should really do A too”, and so on. Thoughts of this kind, it seems to me, do not (at least not normally) help us to figure out what it is right (or wrong) to do; rather, they add motivational force to do (or to avoid) what we know already beforehand is right (wrong), by reminding us about the kind of person we will appear as in the eyes of ourselves and others if we act in a certain way.
One further objection to the suggestion that right action should be cashed out in terms of what a virtuous person would do, which seems relevant whether or not this is understood as a suggestion for what makes right actions right or instead (or perhaps also) as a suggestion for what we should think about when trying to figure out how to act, says that it fails to produce the right answer in cases where no virtuous person (precisely because she is virtuous) could ever be. Common examples of such cases in the literature include: (a) cases where one has done wrong towards another person and where what is called for is that one make amends for what one has done; (b) cases where one is unsure about what one should do and one therefore asks a wiser person for guidance; (c) cases where one decides to pursue some strategy for getting rid of some character flaw that one has. In response to examples of this kind, it is often suggested that what needs to be done is to revise the original account so that it states, e.g., that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would advise one to do in the circumstances. (Other ways of revising the original account include that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would want one to do, or perhaps what a virtuous person would deem right, in the circumstances.) I argue elsewhere that it is in fact possible to construct counterexamples to many of these proposed revisions as well (see Svensson 2010). However, I suppose it is still conceivable that someone would be able to develop an account which avoids counterexamples entirely. Notice, though, that even if we were to opt for an account of right action couched in terms of, e.g., what a virtuous person would advise or want one to do in the circumstances, instead of one couched in terms of what a virtuous person would do, this would not make the account any less implausible as an account of what makes actions right. Neither would it make the account any easier to use when trying to figure out what one should do in particular situations.
It is perhaps worth noticing that one response to this challenge that is not open to the proponents of EVE is to claim that what makes right actions right is that they promote one’s own individual flourishing (eudaimonia). This possibility is closed just because EVE involves the claim that acting rightly is itself constitutive of eudaimonia. Thus if we want to know why our right actions are right, we need to look elsewhere than to the notion of eudaimonia. (The idea that the rightness of our actions is determined by their conduciveness to our own flourishing is problematic for other, independent reasons as well. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it seems quite counter-intuitive to claim such things as that what makes your act of giving me an aspirin right is that you are thereby promoting your own flourishing, rather than claiming that it has to do with the fact that you are thereby helping to relieve my headache.)
I am not suggesting here that there could never be reason for distress or regret about not fulfilling a promise that one has made if keeping the promise is not what one should, all things considered, do in the circumstances. Presumably, the fact that one has made a promise sometimes carries normative weight, even if it is, in the final judgment, outweighed by other factors. In such cases, some amount of distress or regret for not keeping the promise seems appropriate or fitting. However, I suppose there could also be cases where the fact that one has promised to do something has lost all its normative force and where distress or regret about not keeping the promise therefore is out of place.
I am sympathetic to the suggestion developed in Leibowitz (2009), according to which we should think of generalism and particularism as two different research programs in ethics which should be evaluated on the basis of the fruitfulness of their results.
My response to concerned textbook writers is therefore just this: widen the framework! Why not let the readers at least consider a position in ethical philosophy, according to which there is no account of what makes right actions right that could be stated in a “finite and manageable set of…moral principles”?
Providing an account of practical wisdom or intelligence that fits with the view that I am proposing in this paper will probably be an especially important task since one of the main worries many philosophers seem to have with particularism is precisely how, if particularism is correct, we can come to have knowledge of what is right. I am not in a position to make much progress in this respect here, however. (For a recent and, I think, quite interesting discussion of the nature of practical wisdom, see Hursthouse (2006).
I should say that the question whether virtue ethics is usable has been the topic of much discussion already in the literature. However, much of this discussion proceeds on the assumption that virtue ethics is indeed in the business of trying to produce a distinct account or criterion of what makes right actions right, comparable to accounts or criteria found in various forms of consequentialism and deontology, and I want to deny that.
Presumably, not only philosophy should be important in this respect, but also (and perhaps even primarily) developmental psychology.
I think this difference is in large part responsible for distinctions such as MacIntyre’s (1984) between a classical “Aristotelian” mode of ethical philosophy and a modern “Nietzschean” mode; Norton’s (1988) between classical “ethics of character” and modern “ethics of rules”; Pincoff’s 1986 between “ethics of virtue” and “quandary ethics”; and Taylor’s (1985) between “ethics of aspiration” and “ethics of duty”. It is worth noticing, however, that EVE is not the only ethical position with limited capacity to provide any very specific guidance about what we should do in concrete cases. The same seems true also of, e.g., pluralistic moral theories which consist of several basic pro tanto principles, the application of which to particular cases require the exercise of judgment (for examples of pluralistic moral theories, see the references in footnotes 8 and 15).
Insofar as the proponents of EVE acknowledge the existence of certain side-constraints and pro tanto reasons, they can of course also point out that having these things before one’s mind should be useful when thinking about what one should do (even though they will not pick out one specific course of action as right).
Even on the particularist construal of EVE that I am proposing in this paper, EVE does not deny that we must treat like cases alike, in the sense that if it is right to do an action A in a situation S but not to do A in S*, then there must be some relevant difference between S and S*.
I wish to thank all those who contributed to the discussion of earlier versions of this essay at the University of Arizona, Oslo University, Uppsala University, and at the third annual RoME Congress in Boulder. I am particularly grateful to Julia Annas, Anne Baril, and Michael Bukoski. I also want to thank an anonymous reviewer for this journal for several helpful suggestions.