Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?
Virtue ethics is standardly taught and discussed as a distinctive approach to the major questions of ethics, a third major position alongside Utilitarian and Kantian ethics. I argue that this taxonomy is a confusion. Both Utilitarianism and Kantianism contain treatments of virtue, so virtue ethics cannot possibly be a separate approach contrasted with those approaches. There are, to be sure, quite a few contemporary philosophical writers about virtue who are neither Utilitarians nor Kantians; many of these find inspiration in ancient Greek theories of virtue. But even here there is little unity. Although certain concerns do unite this disparate group (a concern for the role of motives and passions in good choice, a concern for character, and a concern for the whole course of an agent's life), there are equally profound disagreements, especially concerning the role that reason should play in ethics. One group of modern virtue-theorists, I argue, are primarily anti-Utilitarians, concerned with the plurality of value and the susceptibility of passions to social cultivation. These theorists want to enlarge the place of reason in ethics. They hold that reason can deliberate about ends as well as means, and that reason can modify the passions themselves. Another group of virtue theorists are primarily anti-Kantians. They believe that reason plays too dominant a role in most philosophical accounts of ethics, and that a larger place should be given to sentiments and passions -- which they typically construe in a less reason-based way than does the first group. The paper investigates these differences, concluding that it is not helpful to speak of “virtue ethics,” and that we would be better off characterizing the substantive views of each thinker -- and then figuring out what we ourselves want to say.