theory, as rules of conduct, has been questioned by
virtue theorists, and other contemporary anti-theorists.
course, rules have been questioned all throughout the history of
often in opposition to established religious and juristic
Yet, anti-rule theories are often deeper arguments against
rules of reasoning, or rules of decision procedures, or any
of moral judgement. The arguments usually focus on one or more
five main reasons for the attack, that rules are either
undesirable, impossible to apply, or often lead to wrong
judgements (meaning their `correctness' is doubted), or the
of the normative concept of `moral rightness' is
questioned. Usually central to virtue theories is the argument that
of moral character cannot (or in some, should not) be based
acts, nor consequences, but should be based on the expressiveness
good moral dispositions and sensitivities, or on certain [moral]
to Robert B. Louden ("VIRTUE ETHICS AND ANTI-THEORY",
Studies, 1990. p.94) virtue ethics is a protest against
assumptions concerning what ethical theory should look like.
that no consensus exists among those professed to be
theorists, he briefly summarizes the most frequently mentioned
of ethical theories. He
Solve Problems: what to do when faced with a moral quandary.
Test Beliefs: how to know what is a correct vs. incorrect belief,
how to test internal consistency and eliminate errors.
Formalism: exposition of formal principles to be applied to
cases, or how to deduce correct decisions from relevant
4) Explicitness: principles must be explicit and stable.
Decision Procedure: applicational procedure.
Universality: binding all rational agents, regardless of place
7) Objectivity: impartial moral judgement, not determined
8) Abstraction: the method abstracts out
relative subjective factors or spatial/temporal conditions.
Systematic Hierarchy: less general rules and principles are
from more general ones.
10) No Moral Dilemmas: there is
a correct solution, even if one cannot easily figure it out.
An Imagined Best Way of Life: a positive vision of higher moral
12) Moral Expertise: that some agents would realize
correct principles and expertly apply the explicit decision
Louden explores the thesis that virtue ethics does not share these assumptions about what an ethical theory should explicate, so it is an "anti-[ethical] theory". Yet, virtue ethics need not be named an "anti-theory", but could be thought of as an ethical theory having alternative or opposing assumptions. We need to then look at what alternative assumptions are held by virtue theorists. Whether or not virtue ethics is an alternative theory or an anti-theory is a semantic matter, depending on how "theory" is defined. Obviously, not all of these twelve assumptions are essential to theories, traditional or not, and moderate acceptances of some of these is quite possible. Virtue ethics is predominantly an `anti-traditional' theory, opposed to most or all of the assumptions above, but in its opposition we can surmise some of its own assumptions or presuppositions.
If virtue ethics does not attempt to answer any of these above questions, then there is probably some rational theory or assumption behind this avoidance or snub, in which case it is an alternative theory, or a theory of a whole different kind. Or, what is meant by "anti-theory" is that virtue ethics does not attempt to solve or provide such theoretical solutions as does traditional normative ethics, in which sense virtue ethics is anti-normative, anti-derivative and anti-systematizing. It does not theorize about these twelve questions or aims. At its base, virtue ethics is skeptical of any professed correct guide or rational method (or methodological theory) for moral judgements and behavior.
This philosophical position is not a mere anti-intellectual stance, but is defended by argumentation, of which Stanley Clark ("ANTI-THEORY IN ETHICS", American Philosophical Quarterly 24:1987,p.237) categorizes into three reasons: that normative theory is unnecessary, theoretically impossible, and undesirable. To state moral theory as unnecessary means that some other possible and better route to moral behavior makes any normative procedure "unnecessary". The reason usually implied for the un-necessity of normative systems is that agents can apply a natural moral sensitivity or intuition to moral problems. I will later discuss this.
The usual reason for the argument of the "undesirableness" of normative systems is that such applications can lead to fanatical rigidity and, often, immoral decisions. This kind of argument is based on a belief that explicit rules and procedures are destined to be inadequate in many cases, and so those agents applying these rules will, unfortunately, carry an arrogant and false sense of righteousness in their every moral judgement and will often state these rigid rules in defense of what is actually an incorrect moral decision. Thus, the undesirable argument implies that normative theories can, or will, result in immoral, "undesirable" moral decision or action. This implies that the virtue ethic has a better grasp of moral truth, in order that it could judge normative theories as "undesirable" or bad, and it implies that some other alternative ethical route is "more desirable" or leads to better [good] moral behavior.
A different sense of "undesirableness" would be that "moral behavior", as a concept, is undesirable or `not-good' from the moral view. But then this negative ethical judgement presumes some true moral viewpoint and is itself a universal ethical truth statement, and it would be based on some theoretical assumption or believed fact of human nature. The same is true if the undesirableness is to do with the traditional ethical approach. The argument either contradicts itself or it lacks substantiation or a theory for substantiation.
Clark and Louden express the most interest in the argument of "theoretical impossibility", that the aims of normative theories cannot be met in practice. Clark presents three arguments for impossibility. First is the vagueness argument, that moral norms schematically expressed `are often'(or`can only be'?), vague and indeterminate in their interpretation. Any act of deriving a determinate meaning, or rule application, is an interpretative act applying known cultural moral practices. Therefore, the norm is either vague in its universality, which disqualifies it as explicitly and determinedly clear, or it is definite only by certain relative cultural presuppositions, which disqualifies it as universal.
The problem I see with this argument is that it is either untrue or is an argument against vague, ill-defined normative theories. If moral norms "often are" (Louden 100) vague and indeterminate, then this discovery has merely pointed out what are poor norms. Any argument for "theoretical impossibility" cannot be based on what is "often" the case in philosophical theories. What the argument should claim, for it to make sense as "impossible", is that vagueness cannot be avoided, so that any theory is impossible to apply due to its inherent vagueness.
"Impossibility" must imply a logical contradiction, whereby the norm `can only' be vague and indeterminate or the interpretation `can only' be definite within a culturally relative understanding. Such a claim of impossibility can be defeated if we can show but one example that does not follow such a logical impossibility, or one exemplar theory that can be definitely understood and applied with objectivity and universality. An anti-theory cannot be fully justified merely because many normative examples fail to meet their intended aims or because many theories appear to contradict themselves, so an anti-theory must either systematically or logically show the impossible application of every proposed theory or norm.
It is hard for me to believe that semantic features of all moral norms are necessarily vague and indeterminate. Is it really impossible to Not be vague or Not be indeterminate in the interpretation? To kill or maim another human while they plead for safety does not seem to be vague, whatever the culture or language. The interpretation of such a taboo or injustice does not depend on relative cultural practices. So, the vagueness argument seems easily defeated by many `possible' clearly interpreted and applicationally determinate norms. Unless, of course, the arguments become vague or petty. What might be said of all theories is that they are either too general a principle or too context-specific, but this is a question of how ideal and perfectly applicable rules can be.
Clark's second argument for theoretical impossibility is "the moral dilemma argument", whereby normative theories typically assume that moral dilemmas do not exist, and that there is always a correct answer to any problem. Stuart Hampshire is quoted (MORALITY AND CONFLICT, Harvard U. Press 1983, P.152) as saying "there must always be moral conflicts which cannot, given the nature of morality, be resolved by any constant and generally accepted method of reasoning." This is an argument based on "the nature of morality". But what does Hampshire know about "the nature of morality"? What does he mean by this nature? That morality presupposes conflict or "has its source in conflict"? How does he come up with this?
Certainly, the question of morality has its source in [moral] conflict. All this says is that there are moral dilemmas, meaning there are conflicts within the soul, or unresolved moral questions. Ethical theories do not deny this experience of moral conflict or these unresolved questions of the mind or heart; but they believe the questions and dilemmas are resolvable. They don't deny that many people cannot seem to resolve moral dilemmas, or that many people just give up trying to resolve these dilemma; they just affirm that after a final and comprehensive analysis of the situational conflict, and the correct applicational procedure, such "dilemmas" will no longer be dilemmas because they will be solved.
Hampshire has no argument here against resolvability; he has only stated the obvious existence of conflicts which ethical theories attempt to resolve. He believes there "must always" (necessarily) be [unresolved] moral conflicts because of the "nature" of morality - that "nature" being that the essence of morality is moral conflict. Obviously he is logically confused or at best engrossed in a tautology. He is confused in that his essence of morality as conflict is the source of the moral question but not the essence of moral decision, for moral decision is about resolving the conflict. He confuses morality with moral conflict. He confuses the possible resolution of conflict with the conflict in question.
The only real argument against this theoretical assumption that a correct moral solution is possible for every problem is that sometimes agents experience incompatible obligations within an applied theory or normative system. This may be due to the agent applying different and incompatible theories, just as we might learn different sets of values, such as religious and economic values, in which case the incompatibility is not within one theory but within the psyche or within behavior. But if a theory presents incompatible obligations in certain circumstances, then this shows a fault in the theory itself. Yet, the argument put forward by anti-theorists for theoretical impossibility must show that all possible theories have this fault. Either they must show the fault of every known theory or must show an inevitable logical contradiction in any theory.
I can't see why there would necessarily be incompatible obligations. A good theory should be able to define general value priorities which would be justification for one obligation over-riding another. But let us make a guess that certain circumstances would present a logical problem for any theory, and we'll call these "very problematic circumstances". Pick your favorite. And now let us concede that a few possible circumstances present insurmountable problems or unresolvable moral dilemmas. This would deny that one assumption (#10) that there is `always' a derivable answer to any problem. But is this some major defeat for ethical theories? One of the twelve aims has been defeated and only in specially difficult circumstances. Maybe the theory even solves most every typical moral question, except a few. Yet, the ethical intention to resolve any incompatible obligations still stands as a good intention, where that attempt at resolution, through principles and reasons, can often successfully lead to resolving the problem of incompatibility, even though success is not guaranteed.
Are we to be convinced that any sort of systematic guide or general rule for moral behavior is ill-advised or unhelpful or undesirable or unnecessary or impossible? This seems tantamount to denying all scientific theorizing just because no theories ever fully comprehend all of universal phenomena and measurement can never be absolutely exact. Shall we claim that Newtonian theory is wrong or impossible just because it does not work well near the speed of light or near black holes or in sub-atomic spaces? My point is that the finding of special or unusual circumstances which show contradictions in a theory does not contradict the theory in other circumstances where it is successful, and such findings are not necessarily significant arguments against the theory as a whole nor theories in general.
Shall we discard baths because they never get us perfectly clean? This kind of argument is like chastising Einstein for not coming up with a unified field theory, and priding oneself for not trying. The typical anti-theorist has tried or considered but a few possible theories and then concluded that all theories are "impossible" in practice or a waste of time. Maybe ethical theorists should just concede that no simple and hierarchically general theory could be comprehensively and perfectly applicable to all possible moral circumstances. But even if they made this concession, which some may not feel obligated to do, it is merely a slight weakening of the normative position and not a defeat.
The third argument for impossibility is the virtue argument, which argues that not all important moral virtues are rule-governed or necessarily lead to action-imperatives. This is a circular argument. The virtue theorist (or "anti-theorists") states a moral virtue (such as `integrity') and then shows it to not be rule-governed, or shows the indeterminacy of actions resulting from this characteristic. But how do we know what are more moral virtues? On what grounds are character traits virtuous? Is assertiveness a moral virtue? One could be assertively benevolent or assertively greedy. Why do we consider benevolence as a moral virtue, while greediness is not? Because of the typical actions resulting from the characteristics.
In other words, we can only know what are virtue characteristics by either their usual consequences or as defined by some ethical system. Integrity, as a virtue, has no action imperative. True. But that is why integrity, in general, is not necessarily a moral virtue. Hitler might have felt a high degree of personal integrity. If integrity is necessarily a moral virtue, then how is it defined? It would have to be defined in some terms of objective action- imperatives; otherwise its meaning would be subjectively defined, as "a sense of integrity", which Nazis and racists could well possess. The only kind of integrity which is moral is that kind which leads to moral action. Any `moral virtue' has to be consistent with an overall theory or belief system, encompassing what is moral action or behavior. There is no argument in assuming without grounds that a certain characteristic is virtuous and then showing how it can contradict an ethical theory. And in order to judge what is a moral virtue one first needs some theoretical grounds, unless one is deciding this by a personal feeling.
may be other, better arguments for impossibility,
and undesirability, of which I'll later mention. Now,
review and critique how Louden contrasts virtue ethics, as
told, with his twelve features of usual ethical theories.
Virtue ethics (* VE ), does not search for formulas to solve moral quandaries (#1). It does not believe problems are solvable by formula, which is a belief either in the inadequacy of moral formulas or the impossibility of formula solutions. So how does VE solve problems? It doesn't! VE believes either that moral problems cannot be solved in any way, or that it is unnecessary to focus on problems -- the impossible and the unnecessary arguments. The focus of VE is on the person's character. A good or virtuous character, or a character with good virtues, will spontaneously act morally in any given situation. She will "see" what the situation calls for, discriminating this by experience and not by formulas or rules. VE chastises rule-based ethics for ignoring the essential character traits at the heart of good persons and moral action, and they point out that only good characters will and can act morally. And those lacking in good character and virtuous experience could not rightly apply good formulas (assuming they were to be useful).
The main assumption here in VE is that a good character will do what is morally right without any need of formulas, while there is no guarantee that the formula applying person will act so rightly. But, this assumption is flawed in many ways. Why is the virtuous character more guaranteed to do the right thing than the formula following character? And what really is the difference between these characters? Both have an intention, or care, to do the right thing, so the real difference seems to be in how one decides what is good. We'll consider this a bit later. VE often states the unwarranted assumption that those of good character will do what is morally right. This claim is either smugly optimistic, or it is merely an analytical statement defining good character by those doing good. In the former we deserve some way to test the claim, which would involve knowing what is morally right to see if good characters perform sufficiently well. And in the later we must know what is morally right in order to designate those of good character.
Normative ethics distinguishes good character people by how well they judge what is good and do what is good. The good people are known by their decisions and/or actions. It is unclear how VE distinguishes good character in some other way. We are left to assume that good character cannot be judged by any objective criteria or principles testing the actual behavior in action, so only the good character herself can realize how good she is in a kind of subjective praise-worthiness. In normative ethics those who can and do correctly apply the fundamental principles are those people of good character. Those who follow the commandments are worthy of moral praise, vs. moral blame, and they are worthy of being distinguished for their good character, or virtue traits, by the very objective fact that they have followed the theoretical principles or the obligations explicitly defined as Good. The intention and act of trying to follow or apply normative principles is the way to develop good character. Virtuous character is defined as the ability to follow or apply the principles, as well as to realize the principles, and the development of virtues is by disciplined practice of the principles.
How is the virtuous character defined in VE? As I argued above, what logically makes a trait virtuous is the kind of actions it entails. What is a caring person? How do you know who is a generous person, or giving person, or sharing person, or helpful person? You know a good tree by its fruits. You know a good animal by its behavior. And what is good moral behavior? How are we to define this? He who treats others as he himself would wish to be treated is man of moral integrity and ethical universal impartiality. She who helps others achieve their happiness or their decided goals is a moral person, while she who harms others or impedes the goals of others is not a moral person. Such general rules of moral action actually define what are character virtues. So, of course, only good characters make good action, and only good characters would follow good rules. So let us look at the person. But what are we looking at? At their actions. I know who is a caring person by their active caring or caring behavior. And how is this defined or known? There is a general definition, based on a general rule or linguistically sufficient rules for that designation or personal description.
I must judge the goodness of my neighbor by some means, that is, if I need to judge them - (some VE might deny any pragmatic use in judging character, as in let each be their own judge). If our question is about moral action, and not just moral intention or moral thought, then it is insufficient to speak only of virtues or character traits, unless these are logically tied to behavior and action. The man next door may feel himself to be so warmly loving, and maybe he even appears to be a friendly, caring character, but he may be sweetly molesting his children - in a loving way of course. But VE must say here that this man has a character flaw, or that he possesses a character vice, and not a virtue. So, by what reasoning would VE deny the man's virtue? Well, he's molesting children. But by what principle is that bad? If not judged by some principle, then by what? If we judge the virtue by the action, then how do we judge the action?
I think VE has two basic alternative substantiations for judging this behavior or this character trait as bad. One would be simply a moral intuition or feeling of disgust. The other, related to the first, would be a right judgement coming from someone of good virtue and character, such that I, a self-realized man of good character and experience of virtue in action, would never even consider molestation as a manifestation of virtue. So, in VE good action and good character is finally known only by someone of good character. Intuitively, this feels to be a sound argument, but the problem here is knowing if I or another is a person of good character. The argument ultimately circulates upon itself. This judgement is known either by objective principles of action, or by subjective realization. If VE takes the later position, then I can claim myself to be virtuous and judge others according to my experience. I know that molestator is bad because I, being virtuous, would never do such a thing. Yet, the man may, as well, feel himself to virtuous and know that sexual encounters with children is a good thing since he, being of virtue, spontaneously feels right to do this. There is no way to objectively resolve the conflict of judgement between him and I, if our grounds of judgement is purely subjective or self-realized. His view of this issue is as firmly grounded as mine. VE seems to hold no comment on this and would seem to avoid the problem by invoking the argument of impossibility of resolution. Or, is this kind of question an unnecessary concern?
But if we look at the stated critical reasons for his and my judgement, respectively, and the underlying principles grounding those reasons, then we have something to discuss or debate, rather than mere subjective feelings opposing eachother. The man says he is loving and caring for the children. I say the same, but I disagree with his actions and also deny his self-proclaimed virtue, grounding my disagreement and denial on my own self-proclaimed virtue. Let us begin here, but let us not end here. So I shall ask `why' he sexually engages with children. He replies that he feels good about doing this. And such a reply seems to be a good enough answer for VE. But on principle, I will ask for a critical reason why he believes this activity to be good, other than merely justifying it by his supposed virtuous character, as VE would allow. So then he replies that he believes sexual activity is good for young children, that it is good for children to learn early the joys of sex and that this should be taught by the father.
Now, we have something explicit to argue about. Is it true what he says? I believe differently. My ethical theory denies his claim. Our principles and basic assumptions might be different. Is there some possibility of resolution? There is if we both can agree on some fundamental principle meant to govern rules of conduct, and then we can look at the logical connection between the principle and its deduction. Let us say that we both agree that children need loving care and that it is good to care for the needs of our children. We agree on this general principle, as any good mother would. But we disagree on the method of manifesting the principle, or we disagree on what is the need of children. We are disagreing about what is true knowledge of what is good for another's well-being or the knowledge of how to actualize well-being. This moral question seems to finally reduce to a scientific or psychological question, whereby we need to study what is psychologically and physically good for the well-being of children.
VE would never get close to this kind of knowledge, because of
denial of theoretical and critical reasoning and its avoidance of
principles. VE never gets off the ground of mere subjective
of virtue and unprincipled acknowledgements of virtue. VE
say that a good character would never sexually advance on
but they give no critical arguments for this judgement,
their self-realized "intuition" or their tautological
of virtue. Yet, they are often confused whether this
is universal or not. Is sex with children universally
or is this culturally relative? Would your intuition about
practice of child sex be the same if that practice were your
norm? Maybe the "intuition" is merely a cultural
based on a cultural standard. Imagine that this man's
activity with children is standard in his society and
to be evidence of a virtuous character. Then, VE would
this behavior, for it would have no alternative grounds to not
it. Those minority people who feel that behavior to be wrong
be chastised as un-virtuous. Or does VE accept every feeling and
as legitimately moral, that morality is purely and
VE attacks the problem-oriented approach as either an unnecessary or impossible or undesirable task. A good character will just simply know what is needed and do the right thing. This is not only naively simplistic, but it also has no grounds for testing whether such intuitive optimism is true. We could see this as simply an analytical statement, that a good character does the right thing, or that a virtuous trait is one which results in good action. But as an argument for VE it is a tautology. If this is a synthetic statement, then how do you know what is needed and how do you know you are doing the right thing? You say you must be doing the right thing because you are so very virtuous. "I have such a fine character that I must be doing right!" Is this presumption, or what? What is good character and how is this known?
VE says that virtue and experience, not formulas, will solve problems. But how are these problems solved, or how does virtue necessarily beget moral activity? Even if one has the good intention to do the right thing, it seems that one must nonetheless need right knowledge, just as a healer most often needs some knowledge of the patient and his science, as well as good intentions and a benevolent character. So, VE argues that experience, not rules, is the key. But the experience, if it is to be morally relevant, must be previous experience of acting rightly or morally, in contrast to other experiences of acting wrongly. So how are these experiences discriminated? How does one know what experiences or previous actions were good, vs. bad? There must be something about the consequences of one's actions which tell us what is good, and this knowledge of good consequences or right behavior must involve some kind of general rules, unless of course this knowledge is thought to be simply intuitively derived.
VE is not concerned with solving moral problems, because all it takes is a good character to act morally. Thinking about or reasoning about moral issues is unnecessary or undesirable to VE, because all of what I need to focus on is my own ethical character or virtues. Just work on being a "good person", says VE. I can understand what it means to work on or focus on being a caring, loving person, having a virtuous heart and good intentions. And I believe this to be a morally worthwhile practice. Yet, my aim is to also do what is good or morally right. That right doing seems to proceed necessarily from my good intentions and my character virtues, but I still find myself in moral and personal decision dilemmas and quandaries about what is right to do.
The virtues are like talents or dispositions for moral or right action, yet some kind of knowledge seems necessary for the successful actualization of right action. How is that knowledge gained? It can't be just by "experience", because experience as a gained knowledge presupposes an acknowledgement of good or morally correct experience. Just as one can morally develop by developing good habits, yet one must first know what are good habits. So, I still need to know what is good action. It's not known by what is good virtue. That would be circular and begging the question. I want to know what are virtues or good character traits. I want to know what is moral knowledge or what are exemplar experiences of right action. How can I know this without begging the question? Maybe it is only known intuitively or in the heart. Or, it is known by some rationally derived principle. Or, maybe the general principle is intuitively realized and the knowledge of right action derived from this. It seems that VE must take some kind of intuitive approach to the knowledge of right action, whereby the moral intuition is one of the essential moral virtues.
The testing of moral beliefs is not a concern of VE (#2), since any rational test would be governed by some normative theory or belief. But if VE does not follow any test principles for moral behavior, then does it have any test of moral virtue? Surely, VE does not ascribe to a radical relativist position, that any action is moral, though it could hold that any action could be moral depending on the situation. Surely, VE does not believe that all character traits are virtuous. So, how does it discriminate between what is virtuous and what is not? Or does VE assert that virtue is simply known by a subjective feeling that "I am good" or "I feel this is virtuous". Do you think that Hitler or Stalin thought they were bad people? Louden states that in VE correct moral beliefs are those emanating from virtuous characters. As Hume stated in his aesthetic paper, good taste is known by those with good taste. Yes, of course! We shall know what is good behavior by those refined virtuous people. I'm sorry to be low-minded, but please tell me who decided who these virtuous people are? What Was the test? Those of good will shall be the spokesmen of moral behavior! Oh, but may I ask who are those of good will? Those who personally claim to be? Those of you who feel to be virtuous? Very fine test! Or no, you don't want a test. You don't even want to think about that! The only other test would be a test of action, where I know who has good character by their moral actions. How do I test these actions? Must be by some moral rule of action or deliberation. Oh, but this is too objective, and so disqualified by VE, and such a non-subjective test would have to be based on some objective principles or procedure for moral decision. But VE appears to reject all of this.
Contemporary VE rejects any formalism (#3) or at least it attempts to strongly diminish the role of formal rules and principles. Though usually admitting that some rules are indispensable, VE tends to be anti-formalist. Louden sees VE as "clearly anti-formalist" and then goes on to say that "`mainstream ethical theorists' tend to construe moral rules `exclusively' as rules which regulate action," while "rules in VE must have a broader scope." This is an appeal to `broaden' the application of rules, to not only have rules of action but "rules which regulate emotions, passions, desires" as well (Roberts, 2). This sounds to me like more rules, not less. Here, VE is calling for not only rules-regulated action, but rule-regulated emotions, desires, and even thoughts and attention. Isn't this a spread of formalism, vs. a diminishing? Again, confusion among the VE ranks. Yet, most VE calls for a different sort of regulation from the traditional rule-governed action. This is a regulation of moral character and attitude. I consider this in just a moment.
The most radical departure from formalism would be a full rejection of any action imperatives or principles of right behavior. This position would demand a full reliance on moral intuition and moral character. It also supposes that right action or moral behavior can never be constrained by necessary or sufficient principles and rules. Each moral situation of the moment is unique and contextually dependent, so any list of moral codes are either outdated inductive generalizations or inapplicable deductions. This radical rejection of rules has two possible justifications, one or both of which could substantiate the departure from the rule tradition. First, the negative one, is that rules are far too inadequate to be applicable in complex, unique situations, so we need some other approach to moral decisions. Second, the positive one, is that a reliance on moral intuition or moral character better succeeds at correct moral decisions, than trying to follow some fixed set of rules and principles. This positive supposition carries forward a trust in our moral nature and sensibilities.
VE and anti-formalist positions vary in degree as to how negative they are about rules or how positive they are about our spontaneous or developed moral sense. At the least, VE loosens up formal rules. It loosens up the overly strict action-imperatives by contextualizing and relativizing the unique situation at hand. This seems to be worthwhile project of de-formalizing what is too strict and fanatical, so that each agent has more responsibility in seeing what is uniquely right for the unique situation. The agent must decide what is right in this unique moment, she must see what is needed, weighing the various factors within the moral context.
VE places emphasis on this responsibility of the person to decide the good in unique situations, instead of giving away that responsibility to the rule or formula, or trying to fit the situation into some rule-mold. VE emphasizes the moral sensitivity and moral dispositional abilities of the person. That the general rule of moral being, or obligation on the person, is to care, be sensitive, and be determined to carry out what needs to be done, to the best of one's knowledge and abilities. That is a rule, and it is broader than just action-rules, and it does not emphasize what definite action to take, nor emphasize action principles and strictly determinate deduction procedures.
The difference is in how VE attempts to derive moral decision and action. It sees the inadequacy of relying solely on formal rules, while emphasizing the need for sensitivity and other such abilities which are needed in making immediate decisions, taking into consideration new contexts and a plurality of needs*. It seems to rely more on intuition, or a `moral sense', which can make moral decisions in situations where rule-based or formula imperatives would be clumsy and slow to apply. Formula-action ethics is very often too difficult (and maybe impossible) to apply, especially in the immediate moment. And because many situations involve a unique combination of contextual factors, a rule-ethic would often be either too general or too specific.
If overly general, then it may allow or forbid a large range of possible actions and so inadequately answer the immediate moment of moral question. If too general, then contradictory actions may be allowed or forbidden. If too specific, the rule would have less chance to apply to the unique situation; it would be too situation-specific, and so inadequately fit many different contexts. Therefore, VE offers an alternative approach to moral decision and action, in the face of these virtually inevitable inadequacies of rule-based ethics. I think these criticisms are valid, and so is the different approach. I would not, though, discard action-principled ethics, but would attempt a synthesis or juxtaposition of the two polarized ethics and realize how each should regulate and develop upon the other*.
Maybe we should consider how ethical theories might ground itself in the sensitivities and moral feelings of healthy, thoughtful, and emotionally stable people, and that the principles can be inductively realized given the assorted variety and quantity of moral experiences and sensitive decisions. Theory of principles can then be modeled on the ground of experiences, as the ethical hierarchy of values and principles are built up from people's feelings, instead of the ethics deciding the character of the person.
The emphasis of VE ought to be an ongoing building of ethical theory and principles, based on feelings and experiences, instead of reason-developed theories which tyranize the person's sensitivities and feelings. Rules, inductively built from this ground up, could then guide the person's actions and stand as a checkpoint or reminder to re-check one's moral sensitivity, while the final decision would have to be made by the sensitivity and not the formal rule, for the rule is but a generalization of the sensitivity and must follow or adapt to this, just as a scientific theory ought to base itself and adapt to newer, realized experiences or facts. Rules must ultimately derive from moral intuitions. Even Kant's de-ontological system is derived from intuition or some presupposed principles of ethical logic.
So, the different approach of VE to moral decision is the emphasis on sensitivity, feeling, and good-will, which virtues must be relied upon in immediate and unique moral situations, while rule-derived decisions may often be an inadequate or inappropriate fit to the situation, or the rule application may often be too difficult a deductive analysis to solve, and in many cases there may be no time for reflective deliberation. An even stronger diminishment than this inadequacy argument is the argument for prioritizing moral feeling over moral theory. As I suggested above, theory should be based on feeling and not the other way around, and moral feeling has the final word. And yet, some kind of theoretical and principled consideration would seem to be helpful and maybe enlightening to the act of moral judgement, so rules ought to be well considered by the moral sensitivity, if there is time for such reflection. One of the important virtues should be the ability to give thoughtful consideration to one's most coherent system of ethical principles, and to test the situation with those principles, as well as test the principles with one's moral intuitive feelings. This is a possible approach to ethical decisions and theory making, which I have briefly sketched as a synthesis of the intuitive and rule approaches.
VE is a movement away from action imperatives and rule-based decision procedures, while moving towards a theory of moral character and principles of character development. In this sense it is a different kind of ethical theory, which supposes that moral character and agency have a far greater significance for ethical questions than the traditional emphasis on actions and duties. VE makes the distinct claim that a moral character cannot be defined by set rules of conduct, as if the morality of a person could be essentially judged by doing this and not doing that. Actions cannot define the character for two essential reasons. One is that a book of right conduct could never encapsulate all possible situations, so would either be too general or too specific. Right conduct cannot be sufficiently set forth into a specific list, and any list would be insufficiently applicable in practice. Second is that an identical action in different situational contexts may not be both morally best, so even if I could adequately follow a listed code of conduct my dutiful obedience would not guarantee moral action because the context might be different.
These seem to be good arguments against defining moral character by codes and principles of action. Yet, the crux of these arguments concerns the insufficiency or inadequacy of rules and codes in defining both the moral agent and the moral action. It seems a lot to ask of rules. VE seems to chastise that tradition for its imperfection and incomplete certainty of moral judgement, while not offering any more certain theory, other than vague talk of virtue and an intuitional optimism. VE is a skepticism of ethical tradition and usually focuses its attack on the obviously weaker points. The alternative it offers is either moral idealism or moral skepticism or moral relativism.
VE and the anti-theorists are attacking the belief that if I perfectly follow a given set of principles or codes of conduct then my character is guaranteed to be morally perfect. The attack seems justified but not necessarily the conclusions often supposed. If we view life as a continuous and changing moral moment, whereby every moment presents a moral situation if we but take responsibility for viewing many of our possible choices, then it seems clear that no specific codes could ever adequately deal with the almost infinite complexity of these moral situations and contexts. There just cannot be any simple or explicitly defined rules to follow in the face of this existential life situation.
Yet still, though a rule list be incomplete, many rules might serve the greater part of our moral life. In other words, there may always be something missing in a rule book, and there may always be contextual confusions to some extent, but, nonetheless, a lot of moral questions could be adequately answered by moral codes. General principles can answer a lot of questions as well. But there will always be some problematic situations and confusions and exceptions in any theory. I think that all we should expect of general theories are general guidelines. And we might conclude that principles of action or codes of behavior can, indeed, define moral character, but only generally and inconclusively. The relation could come close to being conclusive, but not completely or without exception. And these exceptions cannot be covered by the theory, so can only be realized by a moral sense. Therefore, the practical application of theoretical principles may be in some cases impossible without contradiction, or in some cases morally undesirable. These unpredictable cases can only be known and dealt with by some means other than the theory which failed to predict them, and this can only mean that the final responsibility is upon the moral sensibility of the agent.
think the moral here is not to reject principles and rules of
but to hold some suspicion of their adequacy, and realize the
need for a developed moral sensibility and character
And realizing the insufficiency of action rules for a moral
we must consider what else is needed. So obviously we should
our attention to developing the character of the moral agent. The
virtues of following rules and procedures, and of duty and
are not enough and may even lead to a morally undesirable
fanaticism. We must look for other virtues as either necessary or
towards moral behavior.
What may be needed in VE is theory and principles of an ethical attitude necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, for moral decision, judgement, and action. This ethical attitude would be the psychological preconditions of moral responsibility and action. Assuming we all have dispositions for moral choice, the question to ask, then, is how to develop this disposition, or moral sensibility, and what are the preconditions for its actualization. Primary for the ethical attitude would be the attitude, feeling, or intention of caring about the needs of others and doing whatever is possible to help fulfill those needs. The attitude would also include a willingness and commitment to serve and care for others in a way that is not merely a means to serving oneself. It may even involve a willingness to self-sacrifice one's own immediate wishes for the more significant needs of the other. The attitude would include a respect for the intrinsic value of others, as synonymous with the intrinsic value of oneself, and not treating others as mere objects or instruments for one's own self-centered ends. The attitude would include a respectful sense of impartiality for the justice of others, though also including a warm congenial respect for the uniqueness of each person. It might also include a sense of opening one's heart and feelings for another in a kind of receptive willingness to be emotionally effected by the other. And, the attitude must also include a commitment to learning about the other and their needs, as well as a reflective attitude about making the best moral choice possible. This reflective attitude may need to involve some basic accepted principles, for it would seem that any reflection concerning choices would inevitably be guided by some sort of presupposed theory or moral principles.
The transition from an ethical intention or feeling, such as caring or wishing to help others, to an actual understanding of how to help others and the question of moral choice among many possible actions, seems to be an inevitable transition from feeling to reflective thought, and reflective thought seems to inevitably bring us to rational ethical theory. It would seem that unless VE is content to exclude itself from the questions of moral decision and action, and remain in the limited realm of moral feeling, intention and wish, it must consider the virtues of philosophical ethical reflection and critical review of the theoretical presuppositions underlying one's moral choices. What VE and the anti-theorists often ignore is the inevitable theoretical undercurrent behind everyone's moral choices, whether or not those presuppositions are consciously reflected upon. What may be believed to be moral intuition or spontaneous caring activity may, in fact, be a cultural moral conditioning or even a self-deceiving self-centered other-manipulating motivation and sub-conscious action principle. The point I'm making is that in the ethical decision stage, beyond just care-feelings and care-intentions, that is, concerning the question of what to actually do or what choices to make, one could make these decisions in a non-rational, intuitive-feeling manner, but without any theoretical reflection there is the inevitable possibility for moral self-deception, a false sense of moral complacency or moral faith, and an "anti-theoretical" rationalization for allowing one's habitual conditioning or selfish (or capitalistic) inclinations to completely sway one's ethical choices.
whole philosophical tradition of ethical reflection and theory
it seems, with Socrates questioning people's naive trust in
own "natural sense" of morality and justice, which was most
merely the reflection of cultural opinion and appetites of the
soul. Socrates asked the youth to question their held beliefs
look into the presuppositions behind those beliefs, through his
therapy, whereby one's grounds of opinion are broken up
dissected in the passionate search for an objective truth grounded
substantiating reasons and evidence. Thus began the philosophical
for truth and rightness, which attempted to be more rationally
than mere sophistic rhetorical persuasion, and which
to critically uncover the rational presuppositional
behind our supposed beliefs and theories. This
project demanded critical reasons and/or empirical
for propositions of truth and rightness, which became
ground rules for both philosophical critiques and systems.
and anti-truth traditions have come forth to critique
Socratic tradition, often suggesting either the impossibility of
objective project or the incompressibility of its fundamental
but none seem able to defend against the charge that without
critical reflection and reasoning one is at the mercy of cultural
and insidious indoctrination, as well as the possible
behind beliefs of self-realized "intuitions".
Anti-theorists argue for the impossibility of explicitly (#4) defining a systematic ethical theory of principles and rules of action. Yet, this is a confused argument, because principles can be explicitly defined, as well as the normative procedure for applying them. The correct argument is that the application of these defined principles may not always be workable in practice, or the right action may not be clearly deduced from the principles and procedures, and the principles may be too general to be of practical benefit in moral judgement and may even lead to undesirable actions. Principled theories may inevitably be imprecisely applicable in many contexts, so in this sense the moral solution, or deduction, cannot always be explicitly realized. Also, explicitness of theory is a matter of degrees, so that no theory could ever be perfectly explicit, clear, and precisely applicable, but it's silly to claim that theories cannot be made more explicit, or that theories should not aim at greater explicitness, even if perfect explicitness is impossible.
better argument would be that explicitness is undesirable (but
impossible) for moral decision and practice, that the more
a theory is the more it undesirably or unnecessarily confines
agent's moral sensibilities and intuition. Moral contextualists
probably take this position, seeing that no theory could
define the moral solutions to all possible situational
and if theories did try to explicitly cover all possible
they would inevitably fail and sometimes result in immoral
in the fanatical following of these explicit codes.
would, then, show greater acceptance of more
principles and less acceptance of action-specific rules. I
this step is applaudable, as long as the principles themselves
explicitly defined. Jesus seemed to take this route. He was
to break religious and political codes, while following more
principles of virtue.
In what Louden called the virtue argument, anti-theorists of the VE position call into question the possibility of explicating all virtues in terms of the kinds of action they entail or in terms of ethical rules of action. Virtues cannot be necessarily tied to specific, explicit actions, and attempts to do so would overly confine the meaning of that virtue. It would be just be too impossible and unrealistic to attempt an explication of what kinds of action define a certain virtue, in the sense of 'this is virtue X because of action Y, Z, or Q'. Virtues could not be explicated in this kind of essentialism. Their meanings could not be necessarily or sufficiently tied to a determinate set of referents. Yet, some virtues Could be tied to an explicit set of sufficient or necessary actions, according to a theory's definition, and these certain virtues could, by the theory, be all that is necessary or sufficient for defining the agent's moral character, so that all the other virtues sited in the anti-theorist's argument are unnecessary and insufficient for moral praise, that is, praise for moral action.
Many theories are concerned only with moral action, and not necessarily with moral intent or what others think are moral virtues. VE often tends to chastise moral action theories for not including other virtues not essentially tied to action. They want these other virtues to be morally praised. They want the ethical question to be focused on these virtues of feeling and intent. Yet, they tend to shy from the questions of moral action, so their ethical project is as exclusive as those it attacks. What we should recognize is that the virtues thought of as significant within the virtue argument may be important preconditions of moral actions, but they are not essential to the judgement of moral action, according to action theories, because the very question here concerns moral action and not just intent or virtues underlying action. If the question is about moral action then we are not concerned, essentially, with the agent's feelings, intentions, and those virtues not logically tied to action.
But if VE wishes to open up the ethical debate into questions about virtues not essentially tied to action or moral questions other than questions of action, then this seems applaudable. Here, we might consider if these other virtues can be explicated or defined in some way other than action. How Do we understand these virtues "very difficult to formulate, while not so difficult to recognize and encourage (Annettte Baier Postures of the Mind 220)." If they are recognizable, then how? What is being recognized? Are these feelings or intents or action-attempts? What else?
Some virtues may only be definable in a disjunctive set of sufficient conditions, which is an anti-essentialist position, but I don't think this is a major blow to traditional ethical theories, for any theory could accommodate certain exceptional ethical concepts that cannot be so clearly explicated as one would hope, and the significance of this unexplicitness would depend on how essential are these virtues to the ethical theory. VE most often include certain essential or relevant virtues which cannot be represented as stable rules, or are mutually referential, or may be only self-referential. To include these virtues in a VE theory is a departure from the essential rule of explicitness, as well as maybe a departure from the rule of theoretical objectivity.
VE are divided on the question of the internal relatedness of the virtues. Not only is there uncertainty as to how the virtues are defined, there is also uncertainty as to how they are related and if they can be organized into a systematic hierarchy (#9). Depending on how a virtue is defined I would assume that some of the virtues, or positive moral characteristics, are instrumentally valued in relation to some other greater moral value or a self-evident intrinsically valued virtue. Virtues, such as patience, determination, or perseverance, would seem to be instrumental values, though, like compassion, one could assume these to be self-evident intrinsic virtues. There may, then, be a plurality of intrinsic virtues, yet there would logically be an assortment of virtues instrumental to these, as well.
Any theory must be based on what it assumes are intrinsic values, which could be a plurality of non-essentially related values, each self-evident, or the theory could suppose one overall or unifying intrinsic virtue (or principle). More contemporary theorists tend to hold the pluralists position, whereby any number of virtues or values are recognized as self-evident and without an instrumentalist justification. In a pluralistic virtue theory many, non-essentially related character traits are assumed as self-evident virtues, without an essential, substantiating relation to higher values, and ethical behavior is then defined by the possession or actualization of these various virtues. A higher normative ideal of unifying or balancing these virtues could be assumed within this pluralistic position, but not necessarily.
An argument could be made that pluralistic virtue theories would need to include some normative supposition of unification, not because of a logical requirement, but because, logically speaking or presupposing, each human psychic needs some kind of unifying coherence in order to be sanely one person; although such an assumption of 'need' may not be provable or anything more than a normative claim, and it seems certainly possible, if not probable, that people have opposing, self defeating, and contradictory character traits. Still, psychic unification seems to be a self-evident normative value, while psychic balance is less self-evident, since the psychic can be unified without necessarily balancing all the natural dispositions.
philosophical elegance of the normative theory of psychic
is that it can base itself on empirical facts of natural
dispositions or tendencies, without necessarily judging or
which ones are inherently ethical, because all can be
valued, intrinsically, while their higher ethical value
on how well they are harmonized, in actualization, with the
That is, the higher ethical value, or virtue, is the
or harmonization or balance of whatever is found to be
manifesting within the total psychic disposition of healthy
Classical virtue ethics supposes a unity of the virtues, both in a logical and normative sense. Aristotle supposes a logically unified ultimate value of human happiness or human fulfillment, to which all virtues should and must serve. The logic of this supposition is that any virtue we can name could only be recognized as a virtue if it were believed to be good (instrumentally) For our 'well-being' or however we define our ultimate ethical purpose. The ultimate end does not need justification, for it is the logically assumed intrinsic final end to which all other values must depend.
This is also an efficient ontology because only one such ultimate end must be presumed. The problem here is that this end is merely logical. It is undefinable in any practical sense; its essential criteria is purely analytical and without any substantial empirical basis of reference. So, how is it possibly to judge other values by this ultimate standard which cannot be conditionally defined? How can I know what is self-fulfilling or good for well-being? How can I know if X-trait is virtuous, that is, instrumental to human fulfillment, if human fulfillment cannot be defined other than by those virtues which are supposed to be defined by human fulfillment? We are lost in a kind of circular tautology. So, this logical unification of ethical values is not sufficiently practical.
mean, what is happiness or well-being? There is no consensus on
question. To base its criteria on biological facts would greatly
that concept, since physical health is not the extent of which
seek. And to base the criteria on what psychologists or
tell us would limit the ideal to their "scientific"
assumptions. The only acceptable position, I think, is to base the
of well-being on what each person believes it is for them, and
this subjective basis one could judge ethical value by how well
trait, habit, or behavior contributes to that self-defined ideal,
plurality of ideals, and we would judge ethical action concerning
by what serves their self-defined ideals, or if we don't know
ideals we would have to logically assume theirs to be same as
and so treat them as we would like to be treated.
Aristotle's ethics is essentially instrumental in that virtue is judged by how behavior serves a final end. That final end is human fulfillment, which is served by being a well-balanced person. Virtue, then, is essentially defined by what serves this balance. Another way of comprehending Aristotle's ethical logic is to realize that actualization is the logical purpose of creation, so self-actualization is the purpose of selves, and self is none other than a plurality (though internally related) of dispositions or self-potentials. Thus, the complete man is one who can actualize his full self-potential. One who excels in this is virtuous. The goal, then, is to actualize a unified self, or at least to actualize disjunctive properties in a harmonious way. In other words, let us fulfill each of the potentials without defeating any of them. We do this by the higher ethical principle of either 'moderation' or 'justice'. If one trait becomes too dominate then another will be deficient, so we must moderate whatever tends to become dominate. Aristotle believed that the principle of virtue is to practically manifest a moderate mean between the possible extremes of two logically opposing kinds of behavior.
By the principle of justice we attempt to equally express the different virtues, or natural [ethical or hedonistic]] dispositions, in a kind of psychic balancing act. Here, the fundamental ethical principle of justice demands the ethical action of unifying and harmonizing the various psychic dispositions. The will-to-unify, or the will-to-balance, becomes the higher normative virtue. And the different virtues are each necessary within the moral man, but none are sufficient by themselves. The question would remain, though, which human traits, or dispositions, are truly necessary for the complete ethical character, or which are more important or which might even be anti-ethical. For instance, a disposition to act toward extremes, or to one-sidedly eliminate certain traits, would be logically contradictory to the principle of unification and psychic justice. So, it would seem, we need to make some assumptions about virtues, not dependent on this principle.
The classical virtue theories tend to presuppose an internally related unity of the virtues, either because `virtues` must, by logical definition, each be instrumental to one ultimate Ideal, or because the ethical theory demands the virtues be harmoniously consistent (or unified) with each other. The former sense of unity is neatly simple but also trivial. And in the latter sense of unity there is no assumption that unity is easy or ready-made, but that unity is the normative ideal to which one strives. This unity is presupposed as possible but necessarily actualizable by anyone in any situation. Thus, moral dilemmas (#10) do not essentially exist but certainly exist temporally or until it is resolved.
Some VE tend to obscure this issue of moral dilemmas by arguing that people can't always resolve conflicting allegiances or moral dilemmas. VE tend to be skeptical about traditional and classical theories which imply the inherent possibility of resolving any moral dilemmas according to some objectivist decision procedure. Various different theories show ways to resolve these moral conflicts, but they certainly do not guarantee that any person can actually resolve the conflicts appropriately, for that would be the definition of ethical expertise or true success. So, in classical theory the ethical ideal is defined, albeit vaguely, but ethics could not be based on simply the absolute success or failure of this ideal. Nobody would claim such absurdity. The ethical ideal must be one's approach to the ultimate ideal. In other words, if absolute success is not attainable, though still logically possible, the next best thing is to approach that ideal and come closer to it.
Maybe VE would be pleased with a looser definition of the moral character and behavior, which does not demand ethical perfection or the ideal of absolutely resolving all dilemmas. Maybe we just need to concede that not all moral situations are easy to resolve, and we should replace moral blame with the concept of moral regret. But still, the moral person would have to be defined as one who at least attempted to resolve moral conflicts. If that attempt is not essential to the ethical ideal, because of skepticism or whatever, then such a theory is certainly at odds with the ethical tradition.
Some VE do not assume any unity of the virtues. They recognize moral dilemmas as logically inevitable and thus ethically permissible. Still, it seems, the question remains as to if the theory demands some attempt at unification and resolution, vs. no attempt. Alasdair MacIntyre recognizes that "our situation is tragic" as we experience "rival allegiances to incompatible goods (After Virtue 142-3)." Well of course this is tragic. It's tragic that some people starve to death. The question is if we try to help this situation or if we just accept this tragedy. The question is if this situation, or experience, is inevitable and unresolvable, or if it is possible to resolve. Or, maybe the theory tells that an ideal resolution of rival allegiances to incompatible goods is not only impossible but undesirable (unethical) as well? This seems to me to be unacceptable as a normative claim, and somewhat presumptuous as a claim of impossibility.
Nonetheless, any ethical theory, contemporary or traditional or classical, should in some way tell us how to deal with moral dilemmas, since this is the question at the heart of ethics. Or, how do we deal with rival allegiances to incompatible goods? Are we to just suppose that such rivals are unresolvable or that what seems to be incompatible goods are essentially incompatible? * Wouldn't we at least have to try and resolve these incompatible allegiances before assuming them to be essentially incompatible? Then, after trying to gain unity we could not know if we actually tried hard enough or if we just needed more skill or practical reasoning to accomplish this; yet, we could concede that we have done the best we could in this ethical task and regret any unresolvable conflicts of ethical decision.
suppose a theory could tell us to not bother dealing with a
of moral conflict, and to accept our situation as inherently
yet, this is a normative theory of its own, to just accept
dilemmas and the unresolvable heterogeneity of the psychic. Some
will suggest "doing the best you can" as the premier
in practice one would still need to know what is best or better
comparison with other possible decisions, so some theoretical
is needed here as well, except within the "woman knows best"
Theories do not necessarily have to define what is the perfect or best moral life; yet, they should have some notion as how to make a better life or become a better person. We need to at least understand what is `better' (or worse), or how to make sense of this notion; otherwise the theory has no ethical import. Theories do not need tell us what specifically is the best way of life for each and everyone. Yet, they should at least tell us a general criteria for determining what is a better way of life (# 11) or what is a better ethical approach to life. An ethical theory must have some general criteria for the notion of the good life (or better life), since this notion is necessary before making moral decisions. I need to first know what someone needs or what is good for them, or how to determine this, before knowing the ethical value of my decisions or actions concerning them.
Theories should offer us an ethical approach. If we ethically judge others, and ourselves, by some criteria of this approach, then our judgement cannot be essentially tied to objectively fixed action criteria, since an `approach' is relative to each person's capabilities and history, as well as the full context of the moral situation. An approach is an attempt and not necessarily a success. It is doing the best one can, which is relative to each person. The good life, in general, as an ethical notion and not just as a aesthetic or hedonistic notion, is a life where everyone is attempting to be ethical, including myself. Yet, I need some definition of ethical, which does not need to be action-based but at least needs to define the ethical approach or attempt. How that approach translates into specific action will depend on each person and can only be subjectively substantiated, since only that person can know the extent of their attempt or what is the best they can do.
and balance can be guidelines for an ethical approach,
the criteria for what this is can only be subjectively realized by
person moderating or balancing herself, or harmonizing various
as best she can. Thus, the moral life for each of us may
a bit different, depending on our own narrative development of
ethical character. The ethical ideal is the ethical quest.
still, to avoid absolute relativism, we need some criteria for
good from bad ethical quests, a criteria which we must
to ourselves but which cannot be verified by others simply by
evidence of action.
VE attacks the need for an explicitly rational decision procedure (#5) by pointing out that morally good people do not always engage in rule-guided deliberation. How, then, do these [other] good people make moral decisions or act morally? Three alternatives come to my mind. They either intuit the decision, or the decision/action comes forth out of well developed moral habits, or moral choice lawfully results from certain character virtues.
If we can always intuit the correct moral choice, then rule-guided deliberation becomes unnecessary. But we might bee skeptical of this claim. Some good people may be able to make intuitive moral decisions. Those are the good people, having a strong 'sense of morality'. But many of us would clearly be confused if in every moment we had no rules to guide us, and many people appear to make immoral decisions from their supposed intuition or "inner guidance". So, those very good characters may not need rules for guidance. Fine, but what about those not so good characters? Those are the people I worry about in the dark! I worry about their intuitions, their habits and impulses. Maybe these are the people, and the marginally good characters, who do need more rule-guided deliberation. I would feel safer if they followed the rule of not raping or maiming people in the park, rather than merely trusting their moral impulses and keeping that decision open for 'contexts' where rape may be appropriate.
The morally good people may be those who have developed moral habits, while those bad people have other habits. So, we need to look at how those good habits were developed. VE emphasizes the development of good character traits, many of which are not action defined, such as feelings of relationship, identity, intention, and wish. Such an emphasis seems to be the strong point of VE, as it seeks to heal and develop the psychic foundation of action, i.e., the character herself. Yet, its rejection of rule-guided deliberation may be an undesirable rejection of a very important character virtue. Moral development seems to require the development of a healthy psyche and relationally feeling person. As VE points out, and I agree, the exclusive emphasis on rule-guided action by traditional theories is clearly insufficient in the question of moral development. A consistently moral character would need a firmer foundation of relational virtues and psychic health, more than just the virtue of being a follower or executioner of rules. Thus, rule-guided deliberation within the full question of morality may be insufficient, and yet it may, nonetheless, be necessary in the greater picture, though not necessary in every possible case of moral decision.
Rule guided decisions and behavior may not be empirically evident in all choices of good people, or in what is considered moral action, but this is no proof that rule-guidance did not play an essential role in developing that moral character or their moral habits. Since we early learn in our culture about principles and rules of being good or doing good, and these rules are often imposed upon our character building and behavior, it would seem that those "good characters" might well be those who have been well educated in moral manners and rules, and who's present behavioral habits have long been consistent with certain morally indoctrinated principles, rules, and procedures, which are now as subconscious an ability as driving a car, or as habitually "intuitive" as looking both ways before crossing a street. What is at first a conscious deliberation can, over time and practice, become a subconscious habit, so that good people appearing to not engage in rule-guided deliberation may have become so accustomed to a principled procedure that they are unaware of the pre-conscious logic and presuppositions behind their apparently spontaneous or intuitive decision.
Lastly, do morally good people, that is, those who make morally good decisions, possess certain character virtues which lawfully result in moral decisions and actions? This would be an explanation of how good people might make good decisions without rule guidance. Of course, anti-theorists would probably denounce theories of natural laws or virtues necessarily entailing good actions. Yet, if there is no logical relation between these virtues significant to VE and what is thought to be moral action, then the argument for the unnecessity of rules for moral action becomes meaningless. What then is being argued? What is the point? On the one hand VE seems to argue that moral decisions do not necessarily involve rule-guided deliberation, and of course here they are assuming the objective-ontological existence of 'moral decisions' or 'right-good action', while on the other hand they attack theories accounting for good action or principles for judging right action. Maybe their point is that there are good actions, but these are epistemologically impossible to realize by any statable criteria and so can only be known by a moral intuition or 'sense'. Or, what are good actions are only known by observing good people. 'Good people', that is, good characters, make good moral decisions and good moral actions. This analytical logic is obviously a tautology if it is thought to be an argument or substantiation of moral action.
The argument of VE is an empirical argument that many good people do not engage in rule-guided deliberation. So, how did they find these good people? How were these people, in the empirical study, distinguished as being good? It would seem that VE has to first judge who are good people, in some kind of objective manner, in order to make that empirical objective observation, and such a judgement would seem to require some sufficient rule of judgement, unless it is another of those "obvious" or "intuitive" claims so often assumed in VE arguments. Or maybe we are to know good people by good actions which we are to know by good people. The only other sense I can make of all this is that good people are not known by their good actions but by how those people think themselves to be. Since I can have no idea as to the private feelings and self-opinions of other people, other than by what they tell me or by how they behave, then how am I supposed to recognize good people? If not logically tied to behavior, then the judgement must stand upon the grounds of how the person subjectively feels or thinks about himself. And that, indeed, is an anti-ethical theory!
But this is clearly not how people judge the virtues of others, if we are to bring some empirical account into this. Friendship may involve subjective feelings which are unstatable in terms of behavior, yet feelings are only half the picture of friendship. Friendship seems to be more than just a feeling, and what is this feeling about anyway? It might be related to a feeling of caring, or to a commitment to reciprocating emotional and physical nurturance. The caring itself would seem to be a kind of intent towards a certain 'kind' of action, that is, a caring action or friendly action or nurturing action. Any feeling of 'intent' or 'commitment', which seems to be the kind of emotion here, has an inherent relation to a kind of action of that intent or that commitment.
What 'kind' is this? The definition of this may not be explicable in terms of essential codes of action or formally recognized by specifically defined conduct; but it can be explicable in terms of general principles, under which many sorts of actions may be acceptable. What is caring? As a feeling it is an intent or commitment to understand the other's needs or wishes and the willingness to serve or nurture their fulfillment. As an action it is the attempt at this, which may not necessarily be completely successful. Any virtue ethics would surely emphasize intent, commitment, and attempts toward morally good action or behavior, but would not, as Kant did not, define morality, nor the moral agent, according to a criteria of successful completion of the moral aim.
There is clearly a conceptual difference between good consequences or moral justice, as defined by utilitarian or political theories, and good moral intention or virtuous behavior. Kant argued clearly for this distinction, and here VE must hold his position as well. For 'virtue' and 'good' can be understood in two main ways: one being virtue as excellence of action and so known by the success of the action, just as 'good' can refer to an effect or consequence or state-situation of justice; while in another sense of meaning, virtue is contributory toward excellence or justice, or it refers to character conditions of the moral agent as attitudes, feelings, and intentions, as preconditions of moral action-attempts, or what is 'good' can be understood as necessary or sufficient preconditions (or at least positive influences) for good performances or good consequences.
two ethical concepts of a) good persons and b) good actions,
well represented by VE and utilitarian ethics, respectively, and
by the Kantian ethic of right intention and decision
are logically related but not synonymous concepts. The
person is one with the intention toward good action and, further,
one who willingly attempts good action. By some theories the good
is also one with right knowledge for good action, or knowledge
the right procedure to good action; while other theories maintain
a person innocent to right knowledge, or without sufficient
to actually succeed in good action, can still be considered
good, meaning the intent to be or do good is sufficient, even if
knowledge or abilities are insufficient to actually succeed at
good. A slightly different version of the good person might be
with a sufficient degree (or number) of virtue character traits,
and abilities to perform good moral actions, that is, the
person is one with qualities necessary or conditionally
(positively directive) toward good action. All of these
of virtue entail some logical relation to moral action. And
if actions or principles of action cannot sufficiently define
virtues, the alternative is that the virtues are defined by
preconditional necessity or positive influence on good action.
VE has yet to come to any consensus about the universality (#6) of its various claims, nor about the essential ground of moral judgements. Some have grounded the virtues in an account of human nature or the nature of human development within an existential cultural context. It seems feeble to explain morality as a kind of human fact, since this would not explain why we believe that many facts of human history do not at all represent moral good. And, to ground virtue in a cultural context of moral development is just to say that different collections of people define virtue and morality according to how they were taught by that collective. This completely begs the question of what is virtue or what is good, or it is an attack on the question itself. But can we not argue with or attack the beliefs of our culture or our moral conditioning? Begging the question, or eliminating it, would seem to entail a denial of moral evolution within cultures. It would seem to be moral relativism. But I'm certainly not willing to let my culture, or the collection of moral idiots and jerks around me, or preceding me, to define for me what is virtue and good. Am I bad or wrong to consider the question of morality? If I do consider the question, not just from cultural perspectivism, I commit to some kind of ethical objectivism which, then, needs some grounding.
Some arguments from VE, as well as other camps, attempt to ground ethical truth upon the intrinsic value of human and ecological survival. Here, what is virtue and good is that which serves, instrumentally or contributory, overall survival of people and the planet. This is, of course, a kind of utilitarian logic, or it could be a teleological approach. We might even extend this value of overall survival to the value of overall abundance or prosperity or fulfillment. A different approach, though still teleological or an instrumental definition of good, would be the intrinsic value or aim of personal fulfillment. Here, what is virtue or good is ultimately defined by its value in serving or contributing to the subject's personal well-being or complete actualization of their human potential. Aristotle could be the model of this approach, remembering that he found reciprocally harmonious and just social relations to be essential features of the person's well-being, remembering that man is a social and political animal, as well as rational and hedonistic, and remembering that man actualizes his potential within a social (and ecological) context. In this view I serve myself by serving the needs of my friends and community. To a great extent this is true, yet this grounding does seem to leave some room for serving myself while harming or neglecting others, if there is reason to believe that the payoff for myself is greater. I'll consider this approach later on.
An alternative, though sort of similar in practice, would be an intention to balance the generally hedonistic goal of self-fulfillment with the utilitarian aim of an overall social good or justice. This balancing act would have to be subjectively defined, since one of its ends is subjective, but it would be a development of a social conscience in dialectic play with the aim of self-happiness, whereby the final aim is synthesis and moral balance. And in many ways there might not be any juxtaposed conflict between the two ends, as with Aristotle's social contextualism, in a kind of win-win situation of mutual reciprocity, whereby the good I do for others directly serves my good or is fulfilling to my well-being, or my self fulfillment and benefit serves the social body. We might also consider that many virtues related to social well-being are personally fulfilling as well. Yet the relation of self-fulfillment and social fulfillment is not necessarily or always mutually contingent. Capitalism assumes this essential contingency but we do not always find this to be true. Therefore, some sort of moral reciprocating conscience seems essential to the ethical theory.
The importance of objectivity (#7) in VE is much more loose than with traditional ethics. Modern and post-modern thought has tended to doubt the possibility of objectivity and stable criteria defining ethical concepts. Of course, the most difficult aim of all ethical theories has been to explicate the essential concepts of ethics and objectively substantiate their claims. The struggle of philosophical theories is to posses objectivity. This is the game, so to speak. So it is no surprise that each theory appears to fall short in some way, or that we can attack their objective claims and grounds. To berate theories for attempting objectivity, or assuming its importance, is like finding fault with a high jumper for attempting too great a height while the fault-finder sits on his butt. Yet, there is philosophical legitimacy in critiques of objectivity, and arguments for the impossibility of objectivity must be respectively considered, even if the alternatives seem destructive to the subject of ethics.
I cannot accept that objectivity is unnecessary or
as instrumental and normative claims, though I can accept
of its logical impossibility. Yet, some argue that ethical
and rules can never, without any doubt, absolutely and
determine what is moral virtue and/or moral action. Due
philosophical problems involving the application of generalities to
situations within unique contexts, as well as the
problem of inductively building a theory of principles
contextualized experiences, as well as the problem of rationally
the most fundamental premises; no theory could ever entail
certainty in all possible practical applications, and all
theories are ultimately grounded in some kind of ethical
or natural feeling. Still though, the aim of objectivity
important and should be approached as far as possible.
Many contemporary ethicists hold an anti-foundationalist position, arguing that no ethical theory can possibly be objectively grounded or substantiated. Every theory will have its assumed premises, which cannot be ultimately proven by any fact or reason. Ethical judgements cannot, in the final analysis, be substantiated by facts, such as what people do or believe in. What is does not prove what should be. Ethics is about what should be and not merely about what is. This is the question of ethics. Anti-theorists may claim that questions of what ought to be cannot be answered with an objective or rationally provable foundation, so they will claim that this ethical question should, for pragmatic reasons, be abandoned, because its objective certainty is hopeless. Theories, such as Kant's, may attempt a proof of rational foundations, and its deductive process may be logically sound, but its ultimate foundation rests upon some sort of intuition or presupposition. Without provable premises any theory answering the ethical question is bound to be doubtful. So, many anti-theories call for the abandonment of any normative claim, or ethical principles of universal or objective oughts, and ethics reduces to a social science of observable cultural customs and/or psychological reasons for rebelling against custom.
This anti-theory is an abandonment of all moral judgements, that is, judgements in the tradition of universal objectivity. The only judgements possible, then, are judgements within the premises, rules, or behavioral tendencies of a particular cultural or socio-historical ethical tradition. So, this would not necessarily imply ethical relativism, as in any or all actions are equally good, since everyone is, in fact, ethically partial and ethically prejudice according to their cultural conditioning. It is, instead, a cultural or contextual relativism, as in any action can only be judged good or bad, relative to its cultural context, that context being a learned system of rules or customs, or learned behavioral patterns, or emphasized dispositions. The problem with this theory, or 'anti-theory', is that it offers no philosophical guidance or suggestion for moral debate between cultural traditions. It leaves us with only sociological facts. It leaves us with our provincial cultural ethical belief systems, and it leaves us with unreconcilable conflicts between cultures in the question of human rights and justice. In this relativism we have no theory for reconciling moral conflicts between cultural traditions. All we have is a plurality of moral perspectives, with no possibility of intercultural rational persuasion, besides a psychological persuasion by propaganda or forced re-education or forced physical threats (or war), all of which were used by the Maoist modernists.
Though, some anti-foundationalists will offer moral intuition, or our [human] inherent moral conscience, as the instrument of objective-universal moral judgement, which offers us the hope that as humans psychologically develop we will come more and more into moral agreement and naturally just realize what is good or bad, better or worse. Yet, here we are fully relying on moral intuition, as the replacement for a tradition of applying principles and rules, because those principles could not be ultimately substantiated without an intuitional foundation. So, the arguments have circulated in an amusing way. The philosopher has bashed theories for not having rational objective foundations, or reasons fully supporting its premises, which means those theories are ultimately supported by some self-evident presupposition or intuition, and so the philosopher ends up rejecting that simple, general intuitively derived principle, while instead relying completely on intuition in each and every moment. Amusingly, the philosopher rejected the theory because it can't be certainly objective anyway due to its reliance on an intuition, and then he or she must, as an alternative, grope for a theory of moral intuition. Some will even go further into obscurity by claiming, in an anti-theoretical fashion, that such intuitions, by morally developed people of course, cannot be used to inductively derive a theory of ethical principles because of the un-generalizability of their relative contexts.
Other anti-theorists will position themselves away from any `sense of objectivity' or universal- intercultural ethical claims, whereby there can be no critical reasons justifying moral judgements, nor facts, nor intuitions. In other words, there is no reason to believe any moral claim or judgement or intuition, including one's own. There can be no foundation for moral judgements, so there is no reason for believing that human's ought to do (or not) such and such, or that dispositions ought to be developed for doing (or not) such and such. Since there can be no foundational substantiation for any moral claim or intuition, besides the facts gained by social observation, or "what naturally is", universality and objectivity are logical impossibilities in ethical theory, and there are no right or wrong moral choices, except within socially accepted assumptions. So here we must abandon any sense of right or wrong, as an ethical truth.
Not only must we abandon the concept of universal right, but we must also abandon the concept of 'right' within contexts, because even contextual truth has no epistemological foundation without a reliance on intuition or moral sensitivity. Moral right, that depends on the context, is still a presupposed objective or universal notion. One might, then, say that X-action is right for you, or "this is right for me." But what does this mean in ethics? The ethical question is not essentially about what is right for just you or just me. And the other sense of this would be that "what is right for me" is what I believe is right, that is, this is my opinion of right, and if this is now the meaning of that concept, then the concept has reduced to relative opinions, or moral relativism.
the concept of a universal, absolutely objective 'good' has to
abandoned due to its epistemological incomprehensibility; to be
by 'pragmatic goods,' or what is instrumentally good for some
but self-evident intrinsic good-end, such as human
or fulfillment, of which can only be subjectively claimed.
other words, 'good' or 'right', in an ethical sense, cannot be
universally, as a substantiated claim that 'X' is
right; instead, these ethical concepts, or judgements, can
be applicable in particular circumstances involving particular
or living things, because what is morally good must logically
dependent on what is instrumentally good for particular persons
animals?) or groups. The only meaningful comprehensibility of the
question as to what is good or right must stand upon what is
FOR someone or some group. That is, what is good for you? or,
is good for me? and finally, what is good for us? So, 'good'
on how its end is defined, that is, on how the 'well-being' of
and I is defined. Without any such final end implied, the ethical
Within the question of what is good is the question of what good is for, or "good for what?" We must define this before comprehending the meaning of the question of 'moral good', and that definition, of the meaning of the question, need not itself be justified. The question is what is good for you or for me or for us. So, the question can be framed as a question about what is good for people, or life on earth, and need not be a question about what is good for 'God' or for some abstract plan. The question must be about what is good for life or people. So now we must consider what is good for you or me, and then reconcile these within the consideration of what is good for us.
And so how shall this question be answered, or who shall answer it? Here, the question is a factual one. In other words, the ethical question of what ought to be done now rests upon the question of what is good For you or me or us, and this latter critical question is about the efficiency for serving What the 'good' is for and its about the What the 'good' is for. We must figure out What 'good' should serve, or What we are supposed to be serving, and only then can we figure out what is good For serving this purpose. The question of what is good For us, that is, you and me, respectively and/or collectively, ultimately is a question of what is good for our well-being, or it is ultimately a question of what is well-being. Either way, these are factual questions, the former being a question of efficient means and the latter being either an empirically subjective question or an objective scientific question. But since 'well-being' is at least partially a value judgement of one's subjective psychological state, and not just an objectively observable health or behavior, the question of defining well-being must at least partially rest upon a relative subjective judgement of what is well-being for me.
So, I must be the judge of what is my factual well-being and hence, judge what is factually good for me. And so the basis of what is morally good must rest upon what each person perceives as the good of their well-being. If you want to know what is good or right to do for me, then ask me. And I should do the same for you, according to Kantian symmetrical logic, the 'ought' being that I should respect your judgement of what is good for you, as I would hope you respect me, and we ought to help eachother because I know your help would be good for me and so my help would be good for you. We each define what we want from the other, and then our moral choice will entail the best solution possible for fulfilling our well-beings.
approach has an objective base of empirical fact, which is
I realize or conclude is good for me or what is my well-being to
served. Such a self-judgement or belief of self-need, subjectively
or reasonably (instrumentally) concluded by none other than
may or may not coincide with the judgements of others, nor
with scientific conclusions of what is good for health,
one's conclusions of what is good may be based on a faulty
logic as to what is efficiently appropriate in
one's ideal of well-being. Therefore, logic is still
needed. The objectivity is based on the subjectivity of each person,
this subjective judgement may fail when involving an instrumental
logic. And so logical and factual reasonings and deductions are
in this objective determination of what is good. But still,
ultimate ground, or the intrinsic end, must be subjectively
determined. And from here we go on to consider the ethical question
how to cooperate in fulfilling these personally subjectively
ends and how to reconcile conflicts of ends. Moral choice,
is a matter of reconciling our interests.
VE has tended to include virtues in their theories of ethical value which traditional ethics have not supposed to be essential. Personal integrity and family-clan provincialism, for example, are often considered meritable virtues in VE, while in traditional ethics these might be considered as self-centered impulses and conditionings, which actually oppose the essential ethical aim of impartial universality. Why these feelings or attitudes are considered to be virtuous or moral is not plainly justified by VE. Often these are assumed as virtues only because common people believe them to be, or because virtue theorists feel such attitudes to be good or morally just.
Yet, such character traits could be justified as moral virtues if we can deduce them as instrumental or contributory to a greater theoretical value, such as psychological health, or community-social survival or evolution, or personal fulfillment. Fundamentally, ethical value justifications will be substantiated by theories of either ethical hedonism, or social stability or justice. Not all virtues, though, would need to be substantiated by greater values. For instance, personal integrity could be viewed simply as an end in itself or a self-evident intrinsic value (one of many). Whether this trait is considered an instrumental value or an intrinsic value will depend on its supposed meaning.
Traditional theories usually have not denied the merit of personal integrity, in the sense that no one is morally obligated to allow oneself to be hurt or abused or made into a slave for others. Duties and obligations often stand in opposition to personal inclinations to just serve oneself or treat others as instrumental objects, but these moral obligations do not usually ask the person to be just a slave to other's inclinations or ends. So many traditional theories do not deny personal integrity or partiality for oneself, as long as the moral agent is impartial in her ascription of moral worth or ethical value. In other words, and in the Kantian tradition, each moral agent, or human being, has the same moral value, including oneself. There is an equality of value, in that the intrinsic value of persons cannot be rated or prioritized. All, or each, are equally ends. None can be instrumental to some other ratable end, so there is nothing to compare their values with. This is Kant's sense of impartiality, that since we are each ends, of intrinsic worth, we should not, under logic, give more consideration to oneself than another, or one group more than another, and when conflicts of need arise no one party should be pre-merited with greater intrinsic worth. Kant's ethic is very democratic, libertarian, and Christian.
The concept of duty could extend to duty towards one's body or existence or aesthetic experience or self-fulfillment and happiness. Duty might extend to duty toward one's integral social environment or the social context of one's existence or to one's known lovers, friends, family and key economic relations. Duty may entail a commitment fulfilling a groups needs over the needs of another group, and without logical dependence on the quantity of each group's membership. So that my little group may be equal in intrinsically moral worth as a quantitatively greater group or majority. Duty towards the provincial group of one's social existence may entail fighting against another group when that group infringes against its rights or when the other group threatens the needs and desires of our group. These duties would not be coherent in a theory where the primary or greater duty was to sacrifice for the good of the greatest whole, because this would entail the sacrifice or servitude of these duties (or the dispositions-virtues for realizing these duties) to the good of the greater inclusive whole.
VE could take the position that moral judgements might have purely personal reasons, as in simply not liking someone, or "not getting a good feeling from/for them." Moral judgements might not be justified by reasons of action, qualified by certain principles or ideals. Instead, the epistemological justification may be a personal, subjective feeling. The objectivity of this feeling would depend on if it has an object-ive (intensional) reason. Is there a reason you don't like him or that group? Is there a reason why you believe he or that group is either good or bad, better or worse? If the feeling (ie. of not liking him) is in response to some type or pattern of behavior, then we can check on what was essentially not liked in that, until we find the assumed principle or reason or criteria for the final judgement, that is, what is the logical connection between this apparent observed behavior and the feeling of not liking or the judgement of bad. So, the feeling is either a response to some observed behavior, or it is a response to some other feeling or sense or intuition.
the moral judgement, justified by personal feeling, is
an unsubstantiated intuition or it is the experiential response
specific behavioral situations. In the latter there is empirical
or fact, which needs to be logically connected to the
judgement, and the only way I can think of is via logical
or rules. While the former, intuition, is self-justified and
Contemporary VE often oppose the ideal possibility of moral expertise (#12). Traditional ethics assumes that correct application of their principled decision procedure will result in moral expertise. Moral experts would know the correct principles for any situation and be able to reason out the correct moral answer. According to Louden (108) VE argue that "good moral judgement cannot be divorced from character", and "good moral reasoning is the result of years of experience and moral education." I cannot see how these are arguments against moral expertise. Traditional ethics defines the moral character by their moral judgement. The one possessing good moral judgement, or whoever has the ability for good moral judgement, and whoever consistently makes and acts upon good moral judgement, is one of good moral character. Would a good moral character not possess good moral judgement? Surely, good moral judgement cannot be defined by good moral character, as in "She's so good she must be morally right." What defined her as `good'? So, I'm confused about the argument.
Many VE believe that some [good characters] consistently have good moral judgement. `Good' moral judgement, as opposed to bad or not so good, seems to be a subscription to moral expertise, though VE does not accept that this expertise comes from applying a rational decision procedure. The expertise is the result of experience and education. I think what they really mean is that it is an intuitive expertise. Good moral judgement is the result of years of experiencing what?
If it is the experience of many moral situations, then this does not entail good judgement in those situations. If it is years of experiencing good moral judgement, then what is this saying but nonsense? A ruthless dictator could argue, in a similar vein, that he is most worthy to rule because of his long experience at eliminating those of lesser moral experience.
Or, is good moral judgement the result of good moral education? What kind of education? Not, for VE, an education of moral principles and decision procedures, which the traditional ethicists would teach. So what is meant must be some other form of education. Maybe it's an education based on imitation or apprentice training. But then who is one following? Who is the educator? VE may be using contemporary ideas about character development, based on psychological studies of early childhood, so they can suppose that moral character, and thus moral judgement as the result of character, is developed through early education. That is a fine empirical claim; but, it does not substantiate a normative claim of `good' moral judgement. The question remains as to what is `good' moral education, or who is a `good' educator or role-model. What is the criteria for judging this? The argument that good moral reasoning, or good judgement, is the result of good moral education seems a bit trivial and obvious, if not tautological.
opposition to moral expertise based on a rational decision
applying rules and principles, the position of VE should be
acknowledgement of a developing moral character, more and more able
make better moral decisions, based on a trial and error application
moral intuition. Aristotle offers another alternative in his
of `practical wisdom'. This is a kind of skill in reasoning
how to practically reach the best life for man. He even calls this
infallible. Well, it is infallible when it is in full
and it isn't when it isn't. In other words, practical
is an ethical ideal, in its perfect sense. What this reduces
is that each person should develop this practical instrumental
skill, in order to become a better moral character and
truer moral judgement. But, this hardly solves the problem.
doesn't even get us very far, because it merely shows an analytical
between a `skillful means' and its intended aim which itself
VE opposes the abstraction (#8) of traditional ethical theories which tend to question and define morality according to ruled procedures of right behavior separated from the individual's social context. They claim that the identity of an individual and the meaning of their actions cannot essentially be abstracted from this social or cultural context. But, I wonder, why morality should relatively depend on one's social context. For are we questioning the morality of individuals or the morality of social contexts? Yes, individuals cannot be fully abstracted from their social context, but unless the social relational theory implies a complete determinism it must account for some individual moral freedom. The concept of social context needs clarification. As far as I can tell, it usually means either social forces or social relations. The former relates to involuntary influences on individual choices, while the latter relates to social needs and reciprocal voluntary obligations.
Certainly, traditional ethics would not morally blame an individual for actions forced by their society. And yet, traditional ethicists might well blame military personnel for killing Jews even though they were obeying orders from their Nazi social order. The question of morality has usually depended on how free one is from social forces, so that if social forces are too powerful we tend to blame the social forces and not the individual. And yet, we usually demand a certain degree of responsibility from the individual to question the moral decisions of their social forces, even when authoritarian, and to disobey these forces, unless one is forgivably bound to obey under the probability of death or great punishment. As we can imagine, these questions of responsibility cannot be easily answered, so that theories have had trouble defining the relevant rules here and how to distinguish various degrees of agency freedom vs. social forces.
It is usually as unclear where VE stands within this issue of moral freedom and abstraction from the social order. Just as traditional ethics must admit the problem of social forces impeding upon the freedom of moral agency, VE must admit the problem of holding individuals morally responsible for their actions in spite of social forces or 'social context'. In other words, moral agents should be judged for their decisions and actions, abstracted from their social context, in order to be held morally accountable. But again, this accountability depends of the degree of individual freedom within that social context. If the context is about social forces, then we must consider to what extent these forces determine the moral agent's decisions or actions, or to what extent the individual IS tied to their social context.
In another sense of this social context, each individual gains physical, emotional, and mental support from various levels of a social environment, and, as well, each individual has certain obligations, or reciprocating responsibilities, asked by different levels of that social environment. So, for example, one's family or community of friends or interest-club, etc., may have the most direct and powerful social influence on the individual's identity and tied to their obtainment of needs and obligations. This social context cannot be abstracted out from ethical concern, but really, traditional ethics is essentially concerned with this context, because it is the very field for moral behavior. The moral question is about what to do in these social contexts! The only real disagreement would be whether or not one believes their immediate or closest level of social context has greater value than the more distant or more general social context or environment, which is a question of ethical impartiality vs. parochialism.
Feminist ethics, for example, has tended to place more value on the needs of one's family and local community, rather than the general needs of the whole human family, because those with whom we are immediately engrossed, or whom we are engaged in personal concrete relations, will naturally hold more moral worth to us than general statistics or distanced entities. But it remains unclear how far mother-ethics is willing to stand by this kind of partiality. How many [general] strangers would we let die for the sake of one of our children, or would we sacrifice toys and presents for our kids so that other kids (strangers) might eat? Of course, mother-ethics denies the need for these kinds of questions, or it invokes the impossibility of answering them. This is an imperfect world and mothers can't hope to solve these issues. Or the other line, giving us the intuitive approach, is that mothers know best.
Another kind of context of which VE cannot accept abstraction from is the context of the agent's motives, feelings, and life-background. This argument is a confusion as to what traditional theories are asking. If they ask what is the right moral behavior or action in a certain kind of context or moral field, or what is not right in all contexts, they are not here asking what is a good motive or feeling. If the question is about action or consequences, then it is not essential to know the motives or feelings behind this, nor the history of the person. Though Kant's ethics is essentially concerned with the moral motive, intention, and attitude, and what principles define these.
The reason that certain key concepts are abstracted from other concepts, such as action separated from motives or feelings, or actual behavior separated from dispositions and feelings/concerns, is because one concept is essential to the question while the other concept, abstracted out, is accidental to the question. This does not necessarily mean that those non-essential properties are absolutely meaningless or completely irrelevant to ethical questions; it only means that within a given question some features of the moral agent and the moral field are irrelevant. Allow me to note that in Kantian ethics feelings are relevant to ethical questions, in that impulsive feelings of selfish greed and self-partiality are to give way to rational feelings of social obligation, as morality is defined, and the motive of personal happiness is not irrelevant but ought to be sacrificed or forgotten.
Yet, VE does emphasize contextually relational definitions of moral virtues, and it usually attacks moral definitions based solely on actions without considering the person's history. I think, though, that traditional ethics could take into consideration the agent's needs. For instance, a starving African could be morally justified in stealing food, or cheating to get it, or breaking previous promises of servitude and lawful conduct; in a theory of justice he could well be morally right in this action. But the American black does not seem justified in looting white stores or beating up white people because of their racial heritage, and such action does not seem justified because they "feel angry". The anger may be justified as an anger against injustice, but the feeling of anger should not necessarily justify actions harmful to others, especially when those others are not directly responsible for the injustice angered about.
Morally justified feelings, or feelings with moral implications, cannot essentially justify what is moral activity, even though the object of those feelings may be what is relevant to the critical justification of moral action. Anger should not be a critical reason for moral activity, as in "it was the right thing to do because I was angry," or "it was good to do because I felt like it." These kinds of feelings should be abstracted out from moral judgements, even though they are significant in the understanding of the person and the partial causes of their behavior. But admitting relational and contextual causes (or influences) of behavior is simply not the same as admitting these feelings and background factors as moral justifications or good reasons.
What happened long ago is essentially irrelevant to the moral question of what is good now. Every moral agent or character has a personal and ancestral history, which helps constitute their present character, but this should not be justification for present moral decisions and responsibility. The ethical question is about present moral choice and present responsibility, and not about what forces played in the past, or how the past tends to force its habits and reactions into the present. As long as one is not presently forced to act in a certain way, that person should held morally responsible for their present decisions or actions. Again, this is a question of freedom vs. social force or possibly psychotic compulsion. Social scientists are discovering that a great proportion of criminals having physically abused others were themselves victims of abuse in childhood. But to what extent shall we relieve them from any sense of moral responsibility? Are they capable of voluntary choices, or of not abusing others? If morality is essentially relative to one's personal background, as though those past forces or experiences were essentially determinating present choices, then we have the problem of morally excusing everyone as socially conditioned unfree beings.
Still, virtues could be defined in relation to the character's history or in relation to other virtues, and not essentially defined by a logical ruled relation to certain kinds of action. For instance, courage, as opposed to cowardice, could not be distinguished by any set of necessary or sufficient actions or criteria of actions. Moral courage would seem to be distinguished by a willingness or an attempt to risk harm or injustice to oneself in order to help someone else, or to risk humiliation or social contempt in order to make a stand for justice and moral truth. Any logical criteria of moral courage would not be tied to action-results anyway, but would be essentially tied to the character's attitude, or motive, or intention, or attempted action. A concept of courage without any logical relation to intended moral action, or a moral style of action, or an attitude of willingness to act in some moral manner, would seem to be a meaningless concept of courage. It certainly isn't courage if one is content to just think about being good or doing good, without any willingness or commitment to action.
Any definition of moral courage, then, would need to be tied to a theory of moral action. You might say that John has moral courage. But why do you say this? Either because you observe him acting in a certain way, which you think, by your theory or your intuition, is courageously moral, or you somehow discover that John is willing or committed to act in a way recognized to be courageously moral. And this is not recognized by essential properties of the action or intended action, but is recognized by essential properties or criteria as I above stated, whereby the intention is moral and the courage is denoted by the possible risks involved and/or the overcoming of personal factors. This latter criteria of courage, the overcoming of subjective obstacles, has an analogy in the person who overcomes their physical impairment or even their psychological fears in order to accomplish a feat of difficulty. Here, we recognize the virtue's relational dependence on the subject's background, as well acknowledged by VE.
courage has an essential relation to intended action, and
an essential relation to the character's history and present
tendencies. Courage is essentially relative each person.
experienced rock climber would not be exhibiting courage when
to climb the small rock which I, having never rock climbed,
courageously attempting. What is courage for one may not be
for another, because the notion of courage depends on what one
already comfortable in doing or on what one usually fears one
do. It is a notion of voluntary and intended overcoming, which
dependent on the difficulty of the act, and this difficulty is
on the usual abilities and habits of the subject-agent, as
as the objective task. Even the notion of 'moral' in 'moral
is subjectively dependent, since the person of moral courage
not need to be objectively morally correct in their willingness,
or action; they only essentially need to believe in the
of their intention. Thus, Stalin could have been a man of
moral courage, while not necessarily a moral character as
by his actions.
So, was Stalin a moral man? This is the kind of question which confuses VE and most everyone else. Because 'moral man' is a general notion, having different possible meaning senses and different ontological sources. Do you mean by this that the man's actions were moral? or his intentions and motives? Is it about his feelings being good? Did he actually care about others, or his country, or his theory of justice? Did he believe himself to be moral? Did he feel moral? What Are we talking about? Moral man is a vague generalization, and vague generalizations are usually the source of philosophical conflicts. We can only focus on each of these issues or questions, respectively one at a time. We know that Stalin's daughter considered her father to be very kind, generous, gentle and loving. And we know that Stalin protected his closest associates and raised those he liked to political success. We know that Stalin was a man of high ideals for his country and fellowman, and he was a man of vision for the future, with great courage and personal integrity. So, in some social contexts Stalin was a moral man. In certain kinds of abstracted meanings he was moral, while in other meanings he was not.
However we view morality, or the concept of moral agency, we should better define what we are talking about and reflect upon our theoretical assumptions - even if we claim to be anti-theorists. Moral action may not necessarily be tied to moral virtues, and vice versa. The only way to make sense of these confusions is to clarify our ethical presuppositions as to what essentially is moral or good, whether it be actions, attempts, intentions, feelings, attitudes, virtues, or dispositions. Are these 'virtues' talked about by VE really moral virtues or morally good character traits? What kind of 'good' are we talking about? Is it good for the greater whole, or just for the community, or just for my care-group, or essentially for my own self-fulfillment? Is 'good' or 'virtue' defined within a presupposition of ethical hedonism or the goal of self-actualization? If the concepts of virtue are recognized by a substantiating criteria of self-fulfillment or a personal sense of well-being, then those virtues might look different than if the concept were essentially defined by a criteria of social equality or obligated sacrifice of self for the greater good of others or for the future of society, etc. So, in order to build an ethical theory, or defend an anti-theory, one must build or fight on the grounds of an assumed idea of ethical good. And it is futile to argue about ethical notions when those notions are essentially grounded in incompatible theories, such as ethical hedonism vs. utilitarianism.
Many of the arguments made by VE against "traditional" (is that vaguely general or what?) ethical theories are ultimately based on their disagreement with the theory's premised definition of 'ethics', of 'morality', or of 'moral character'. These are not, actually, anti-theory's, for their arguments have their own, but different, theoretical basis and definitions of key concepts and questions; they are meta-theoretical arguments and counter-arguments, striking at the very foundations and presuppositions of opposing theories. It is these foundational presuppositions which actually frame the ethical questions and determine the comprehensibility of the answers.
we need to reflect upon these foundational conceptual
or foundational premises, which no theory, or
is without. Kant framed the ethical question, which is
the basis of his theory, and then logically worked it out. I
think there is any other way, not to mean there is no other way
frame the question, or define the most key concepts. So, the
of key concepts, which is necessary for defining the
itself, is the foundational theoretical normative claim. In a
facts determine the question and the meaning of the concepts,
we have to begin from the questions we naturally ask and the
meanings of words we use; yet, philosophy has a strange role,
permission, to define meaning in a normative manner, justifying
by some kind of rational logic or instrumental logic. My point
that the definitions of essential ethical concepts, which then
the questions, is itself a normative claim, and so should (by
normative logic) be substantiated by some meta-logical
If virtue ethics is about moral character, then how is this character known? What can we know of a person's "character" besides what they do or how they are to us? Do they care? Is virtue, as moral goodness, tied to thoughts, feelings, or actions? I can only think it is tied to action, as even Aristotle's virtues of self-actualization are about action. And if virtue is about intention, then this intention is about action, as in "my intention to...". Do you care? Do I care? -- How do I know I care or you care? If care is defined as a thought, as in "I have caring thoughts", then caring is finally known subjectively. But this subjective knowing depends on knowing what is a caring thought, and `a caring thought' depends on an intersubjective agreement, or what is called `public knowledge' or `public language'. This public knowledge must be known either by some exemplar reference or a definitionally fixed [linguistic] rule - based on an inductive/deductive logic.
A caring thought is essentially a sympathetic thought, a concern, and some impulse to help or act in a beneficial manner to the other, in whatever level of need. We could define a caring feeling in about the same way. A rule binds the qualification to some act, or intention to act, an act which can be stated as a general kind of intention or kind of act, or it could be qualified by a sufficient proof or act-evidence, as in "he leapt back into the fire to save the girl." Therefore, the subjective belief in [me] being a good moral character must be substantiated by as much sufficient reasons or justifications as any "objective" test. Any belief needs justification, or at least needs to justify its use of public words and meanings.
What are we talking about?
"A good moral character is... " is what? one who...? does what? or is this something about feeling, not doing? As in "I feel caring"? How do you know you feel `caring'? Because I feel ... sympathetic? Is caring more than just sympathetic feelings?
A stronger definition (or norm) for caring would include also `an intention to do something actual toward the other's benefit'. And this could be the primary definition of caring. It is debatable whether this is strong enough for moral goodness, but it does seem to be a necessary generalization or rule.
A further necessity for the sufficient justification of the term `moral character' might also be an impartial attitude in the dispensation of caring attention and concern, a free dispensation without dependence on an expected return of the favor, or dependence on "what's in it for me", or "what I get out of it" in material payment or good feelings, an essentially hedonistic concern.
Is the right intention tied to some specific acts? -- an intention to either of any of Y-set of sufficient acts. This would result in a vast complex of sufficiently moral acts-in-generalized-contexts. Such rule book ethics seems undesirable as well as unmanageable. Instead, acts are exemplars, or evidence, of the generalized principle of moral intention and what kind of subjective attitude this principle presupposes.
we could uncover the principle justifications for such specific
or the reasons for qualifying a set of acts as morally good,
we will derive primary principle rules behind these, which are
generalized rules governing moral behavior. To invent my own
I would call these "the principles behind the rules." They
reasons justifying act-rule based moral prescriptions and
and they are the logical source of moral derivations.
we know the logical source (or premise), or the logical reasons,
rule imperatives, we can simplify the theory to more
binding normative statements. If we keep uncovering from
moral beliefs (or rule books) their presuppositions and premises,
come to the essential bones of the theory, and can state the
general theoretical principle(s) of action and/or intention,
which we can derive a good moral action applied to specific
through a generalized recognition of the context kind. Or,
principle could just govern the decision procedure itself (though
procedure is to derive the good moral action).
What is virtue? Aristotle thought of virtue as an excellence of a human potential or a well-developed, healthy, self-actualization. Virtue is the appearance of human dispositions, and the great virtue, or principle ethic, is the development of psychic balance, though a balance serving the principle aim of life, which is logically human happiness and primarily contemplation of law and truth. So, excellent actualization of a human potential is virtue, though a greater virtue (of a different logical kind) is in balancing and directing these potentials (or dispositions), while the intention behind such practical means [of directing] is toward actualizing one's primary aims, such as happiness, rationality, or contemplation. The question becomes "what is [instrumentally] necessary or needed for the actualization of the aims."
A critical question to ask is "what kind of aim is this?" These Aristotelian aims are primary aims of human life. They are essentially about the self, though such aims could be logically extended to a social body or collection of selves, as well. Of course social bodies and societies are not happy, nor do they contemplate, though one could qualify them as rational or not. The social expansion of the concept `self-happiness' would be self-happiness for all. I mean, if self-happiness, rationality and contemplation are the aims of a man, then it goes that these are the aims of each and all humans. If there is a moral justice, one would have to include this extensional logic.
Therefore, morality must be a question about what is right for others as well as oneself. It's a question of justice and equality though, as Aristotle notes, actualizations (virtues) are not equally distributed but distributed by ability [to actualize]. The equality demanded is a logical equality, that if X are virtues of a man, then of all men and women, that the one proposition is mirrored in the other. The ethical question, then, is a) having this respect, and b) acting according to this respect. What would such acting look like? This is a question answered in many ways by many philosophers. Kant prescribed equal respect. The ethical question is not essentially about one's self-happiness. Self-happiness is essentially the ultimate question of self-value from the self-perspective, but moral value must include the happiness of others as well, or it is about the [valued] solution to possible conflicts between mere self-interests and the interests of others.
Ethics is about a greater field of persons, and what is good for them, as well as oneself. Utilitarians view the question as concerning the good of the whole, that is, the whole of the collection. It is a political question, a question about social groups. Kant saw this as a question of equal respect, while many virtue ethicists see this as an ability to care for the good of encountered others. The question is not essentially about self-fulfillment or self values. Though the answer could include these. The question is "what is right, not dependent on what I like or want or what fulfills primarily me."
is `morally right' cannot be merely justified by being good
me or being what one tends to do. It must refer either to some
relation or to what is best for some greater purpose (of God,
universe, or the planet). `Moral right' is either a concept
by a general definition such as "considering others", or it
by right [ruled] reasoning or decision-procedure, or it is
qualification of some behavior which instrumentally leads to a
intrinsic value (other than just me-person), or it
leads to an ethical definition (or ideal) such as "the
of the whole".
Another sense of virtue is the actualization of human potentials. Yet, not all potentials, not all we can do, and not all we tend to do by instinctual or social conditioning, should be considered as morally good, since this would reduce the concept to a meaningless praise. So, what is it that makes certain human qualities morally fine, while other qualities may be justified as good psychological catharsis but do not make sense as moral qualities. It may be good for my mental health to release my pent-up emotions, but it isn't good for others to be the receivers of my aggressions. Qualities of the self are not necessarily good qualities from other perspectives (or good for others). Qualities which are good because they tend to help increase my financial prosperity are not necessarily good for others [prosperity].
Therefore, qualities which are good for the interests of others must be distinguished from the overall set of potential self-qualities. Some self-beneficial qualities may also be other-beneficial qualities, but since this is not always so, we must distinguish the set-criteria for each. We need to know the difference and how to distinguish the difference. We need to know what is a moral virtue or moral quality. Why is a quality moral? The reason will be found in an essential definition of what is moral. What makes moral sense is if an action or intent or thought/feeling is at least concerned with another's well-being (or interests), besides any tendency to be only or mostly concerned with oneself or one's own specific interests. Caring is thus a moral quality or virtue; hating and spite and greed are not.