Virtue Ethics and Complexity.



Foundations of Ethics: can there be any?...or is an Ethics merely constructed?


The Existential problem (Aristotle): Ethos...the best way to live


The Logical Problem (Hume): can I derive an Ought from an Is? - a value from a fact? If we cannot, then we go down the road of subjectivist ethics.

David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1738) at the end of section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”

Hume’s idea seems to be that you cannot deduce moral conclusions, featuring moral words such as ‘ought’, from non-moral premises, that is premises from which the moral words are absent.




First order Ethics - what I ought to do



Second order (META) Ethics - what is the meaning of good? (and other moral predicates)



3 types of Ethics -


1) Meta-ethics - What is the meaning of  the predicate 'good' as in 'X is good'



Intuitionism - Emotivism - Descriptivism - Prescriptivism


largely comes from anglo-american linguistic philosophy in 50s and 60s which was concerned with how words are used in ordinary language (though intuitionism is usually traced back to Moore's Principia Ethica, 1903)


Intuitionism makes the celebrated point about the 'Naturalistic fallacy' - that is to say the equation of 'good' with some set of definable things, qualities, objects, properties etc


and that therefore this does not tell us what is the meaning of good

Admittedly, Moore accepts that 'good' is indefinable but is a matter of civilised judgment.




Prob (for all four) - not a clear distinction between the moral and the colloquial


'This apple is good'


'Helping old ladies across the road is good.'



'is good' or 'is wrong' are not objective properties of the act/states of affairs....


 but a mental attitude (subjectivism) for three of the 4 types of meta-ethics above (viz Ayer's conclusion in chp 6 of 'Language, Truth and Logic' (1936) that science and morality do not mix (the latter being 'untestable'). Note how this side-steps the idea of there being moral criteria/properties. Morality is simply the evincing of attitudes. But if this is so it reduces to subjectivism - that is to say YOUR attitudes constitute the meaning of 'good'.


Descriptivism (Nowell-Smith, 1957) is linked to moral cognitivism (or realism) that holds that, to say 'X is good' is not only to recognise a subjectively evaluative force in the statement ('it is good' = 'I like this') but a descriptive force  such that 'X is good' describes the character of a person/thing.


'X is honest' does not merely say 'I approve of X' (the emotivist view) or 'I approve of this, do so as well' - the prescriptivist view),


it says something about (describes) the person in moral terms


and we can agree or disagree about this (something which moral subjectivists cannot do)



and this led onto later debates in the 80s and 90s (which continue today)  about realist/anti-realist ethics


Can a moral judgement be said to be true....or is it in some way always necessarily subjective?


Under what conditions might 'X is good' be said to be true?


But this puts the moral character upon the act rather than the actor - an untrue moral judgement - a moral mistake is about, as Sayre-McCord puts it, 'truth-aptness' (fits the situation) and it works when applied (thus it is 'real')


it's wrongness will gain the opprobrium of others (unsuccess/testability)




Subjectivism - anti-realism/non-cognitivism - (utilitarianism being one form - because it is rooted in an inner judgment of better/worse) in lacking criteria of its truth has an epistemological problem -


how can I KNOW what is wrongness? and thus whether my judgment/action has any MORAL character at all?


Note that John Mackie in his Inventing Right and Wrong (1977) argues that the 'moral' does not exist - it is nothing we can point to and thus is not truth-functional or cognisable.



(Can all of this also apply to 'emotions'? Can my having this emotion be a mistake? (untrue in some sense?))


But meta-ethically how do we decide what counts as a morally relevant problem in the first place?


A: What is the right way to deal with witches?

B: but there are no witches

A: all of us round here believe there are witches = there ARE witches; look the pot broke when being used to cook our food and she was present. She is a witch.

B: your 'moral realist' viewpoint may seem to have merit, but the nonsense that there are witches makes the idea of acting (morally = we ought to take measures) in any way, simply redundant. Morality and witches do not go together (in the 20th C) was it any more justifiable in the 16th and 17th C

A: yeah whatever....Drown the witch!....all hail....


Is morality universalisable with regard to a) time b) culture? c) all individuals



Issue raised: Is morality and its applicability both objective (realist) and subjective (applies to us lot but not your lot) and relative to cultural complexity?



However, the meta-ethical theories of the 1950s and 60s which were primarily concerned with the question of the MEANING of moral predicates (is good etc) and how such predicates functioned in ordinary language was challenged by two thinkers: Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillipa Foot. It is perhaps Anscombe classic paper in 1958 'Modern Moral Philosophy' and Foot's Moral Beliefs paper, again in 1958, that started the revival of Virtue Ethics. As a recent writer put it: a return to the Aristotelian notion of good sense is what Anscombe and Foot were proposing.


Further Foot wants to breach the Is-Ought gap; she wants to say that facts and situations do shape/bring about the goodness of matters.


Foot wants to argue that good is a cognitive property - that there are factual conditions and reasons under which it can be applied. Good is not definable outside of circumstances/situations...and this is a key way in which Virtue Ethics operates - situational criteria for moral judgement..and tht the very term 'moral' is not absolutely distinguishable from the question of quality of life - (upon seeing a rather basic painting by a child: 'that's very good darling' (which does not seem to be the same kind of 'good' as: he IS good (moral), he fulfilled his obligations)


Foot gives the analogous example of Pride: I cannot have a (evaluative) sense of pride without a link to achievement


"It would not make sense to feel pride in laying one hand over another three times in an hour, unless there is a special background condition, such as a stroke, which made this a difficult task and an important step in recovery. To be said to be feeling certain emotions, it is not sufficient that one be in a certain mental state.[1] Rather, the person must stand in an appropriate relationship to a proper object of those feelings. In this way; “even feelings are logically vulnerable to facts”.


Analogously...someone must stand in an appropriate relation to a proper object of ‘good’ to be said to think something is good.


One commentator has noted: "Foot develops the outlines of a positive position that should be labelled a version of ethical naturalism in view of the role that it accords facts about human life in defining the content of morality." And in interview just after her book 'Natural Goodness' had been published, and just before her death in 2001 she said:


"What I believe is that there are a whole set of concepts that apply to living things and only to living things, considered in their own right. These would include, for instance, function, welfare, flourishing, interests, the good of something. And I think that all these concepts are a cluster. They belong together. When we say something is good, say one’s ears or eyes are good, we mean they are as they should be, as human ears ought to be, that they fulfil the function that ears are needed for in human life" (Foot, Interview 2001)



Good is thus not an abstract pre-defined property - rather it emerges by practical reason (Aristotle would have liked that) about the world of experience and practice - a the form of FLOURISHING life one leads where things show as good or bad, better or worse; and thus right (proper/good) actions are implied. AND THE VIRTUES HELP ONE LEAD THAT LIFE.


And this may bring us close to Kantian Categorical imperatives (or at worst hypothetical imperative) in that, for some (perhaps Foot - see her other early paper: Moral as a system of hypothetical imperatives), Virtues - a good judgment about how to deal with classes of things and behaviours - can act a sort of general moral rule because it does help humans to flourish...which can be varied/broken in difficult situations e.g. I should not kill unecessarily brutally in war - (fighting well) but if attacked in the street I may pick up a jagged piece of gas ad slash an attacker. I have a moral exception - an excuse.



2) Ethical Theory (the classics - Kantianism and Utilitarianism)

Rooted in rules; aimed at individual choice



Objective - carrying out ones duty to a logical law (the categorical imperative - act in accord with a will that your action could be universalisable) You would wish 'not lying' to be universal, thus you should not lie - what if nobody could be believed?


(but of course, rationally you would wish that nobody else would lie, so that you can lie most effectively assuming that in a truth-culture everybody, bar you, believed that everybody told the truth)


which in the eyes of many makes Kant a moral realist - giving us an account of an objective rational test of morality.




But...because he says that the only ultimate good (in the moral sense) is a good will, others say that...


Kant is a moral subjectivist (i.e. morality and one's ability to be moral is a reflection of your mental mind dependent state)




Utilitarian Subjectivism (classically John Stuart Mill) - choosing according to a calculative schema where according to my perception I assign values to definite actions/goods etc and, calculate which is most advantageous...but


there is rule-utilitarianism (as opposed to simple act-utilitarianism) - calculating advantage against the backdrop of a prior rule (so a realist aspect to utilitarianism is possible)




Issue raised:  Agency in relation to obligation (duty) OR perception/judgment of (relatively unconstrained) advantage.


or as the american humorist Ogden Nash put it: "Oh duty, thou art neither a sweetie nor a cutie" = prob (Stocker's objection):


A: how kind, you went to see them in hospital; you were so good

B: yes I was good, it was my duty.

A: ah.....


If I do something out of duty, am I acting morally?


Williams’s famous article “Persons, Character and Morality” makes virtually the same point Stocker did about the influence of principles upon action.

If a husband sees his wife and a stranger both drowning and can rescue only one of them, then, if he is any sort of husband, he will not (have to) think about

moral principles that tell him it is morally all right or obligatory for him to save his wife, before he goes in and saves his wife. Moved by love for her and

realizing that it is his wife who is in danger, he will be impelled to go in and save her; and if he clears his way toward saving her by thinking that it is morally

permissible/obligatory to save one’s wife in such circumstances, then, as Williams so felicitously puts it, he will have had “one thought too many.”

Such an argument goes against Kantian rationalism, which has no way of explaining why conscientiousness should ever be morally questionable or uncalled for.

(Slote, Essays on History of Ethics, p.142-3)



Am, I a moral agent or merely a rule-follower -a sort of moral machine?


Issue raised: does morality involve complex judgments?


or automated response either cos of prior rule (categorical imperative)




simple weighing up of personal inconvenience (utilitarian)


But if I simply know how to act, am I moral? ( looks like the inverse of the kantian Cat Imp - an automatic 'moral' response but this time motivated by say love as opposed to duty- see Slote on Williams above)


Do we need moral conscience/evaluation to be moral


This stops the cultural relativist claiming that it simply what we do round here


The requirement of Moral reason forces people to step outside of their culture and universalise (morally)

But 'moral know-how' has to abandon the force of the argument against 'duty' and 'moral rules' i.e. of simply doing the right thing...and perhaps makes us no more moral than a computer or animal-parents.





3) Practical Ethics: applying (2) to real world/contemporary problems such as just war, abortion, race and sexuality issues, lying in politics, animal rights....


Emerges as a movement in the 70s perhaps as a response to the big ethical questions raised by the 60s and 70s out of Vietnam and the Selective Service Act 1965 ('the draft'), race riots, Roe v Wade etc. Noted contributor: Peter Singer.



(3) came to the fore cos (2) as giving us frameworks to use in our moral decisions had drifted from debates within philosophy - Kant and Mill were just taught as ethical theories you should know because they are classics...nuff said (bit like having to know something about Marx even if neo-liberal capitalism has by-passed his ideas)


and (1) appealed to analytical philosophy - which was all the vogue in 70s as meta-ethics was 'analytical' and used detached logical reasoning which appealed to the academic mind despite students wanting to argue on matters of substance: 'what ought I to do?'


(1) was concerned with questions such as : under what conditions can I utter the predicate 'is good' in the sentence 'Her action was good' - the substance of the action (what it was did not matter, it was merely an 'X'



Issue raised: COMPLEXITY of life.










the key ones being:


agency in relation to moral reasoning: is moral judgment about individual rationality tied solely to individuals and their actions


cultural limits to morality: are moral problems and the possibility of moral judgment tied to culturally specific ontologies and beliefs (around here)


moral complexity: newer forms of moral problems given by the extremity of the world - 'fight bravely'...with atomic


socio-political complexity: the non-linear and fractal character of daily life and interaction that demands endless calibration and re-calibration of what we ought to do - (Globalisation under politico-moral rights based institutions e.g. UN has focused us on moral complexity in relation to relativities of moral ignorance. "They could not have acted properly as it is not part of their culture"



So does the moral weight fall on the actor or the act:


deontological (the (good) intention of the act makes it moral)




teleological theory (telos (greek) = goal/end)  (the outcome makes it moral)


Kant or Mill.


But intention implies that morality is about the individual agent...just as desired ends (utilitarian) do....


and these are timeless with respect to either application of a rule....or insight/decision to act on my desire/preferences


and moral complexity is precisely complex qua non-linear - i.e. relatively unpredictable in that situations change shape in semi-patterned ways




because of TIME


in relation to multi-various activities that


shape and re-shape the way of the world and thus the issues that require decisions.




How do we act/judge morally in such a world?





In the last 30 years there has seen a revival of the ancient greek approach to ethics notably found in the work of  Aristotle (384-322 BC)


and that is VIRTUE ethics.



It is initially capturable by the prob we mentioned above: Is a duty-bound person acting morally?


In other words - 'KNOWING HOW TO do the right thing' is a mode of the well-judging self in relation to action?


And to know how to judge well is not presumably an emotion nor an obedience to a law/rule (duty), nor an immediate summing up of my interests as opposed to my costs of doing action 'x'.



Rather I live in a community (the encumbered self) (also link to the 1980s communitarian political theorists such as Walzer, Taylor, Sandel et al)


and that 'system' acts in all kinds of ways throughout the day


to which I have to adapt and in which I act and to which thereby, others adapt (dialectic of structure and agency)



This could make Aristotle a moral realist!




Thus there is an 'objective' structure of reciprocity and socio-politico-moral responsibility because if I do not judge well with respect to this structure and indeed do not care (individualism - not a greek concept - no word for it) in other words, if I do not share the ETHOS of my community - the patterns of obligation and responsibility - I will not be welcome and will exiled from the city. I will lose any honour accruing to me...and for Aristotle, honour - the good appraisal of me by my fellow citizens - is key.





and this requires education - training - knowledge - subtlety and insight....acquired though living in the community/world. Morality is an art (being artful)



Q: do we need intellectual abilities to be moral - i.e. Can the stupid be moral?


So...the meek (the innocent) are unlikely to inherit the earth!


My ability to judge well - to bring together abilities that feed into my overall ability to judge well is a gathering of  3 aspects into one act consonant with the ethos



arête (excellence or virtue) - the qualities of character (character traits) and the ability to deploy them 'correctly' in the circs (linked to phronesis) - justness, moderation, honesty, courage, generosity.... ( The activities of the virtues are concerned with what conduces to the end...)



phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) - the synthetical skills of judging well


Two aspects of practical wisdom.

a) the morally relevant features of a situation

b) It is part of practical wisdom to be wise about human beings and human life - the likely consequences for the people involved




eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing). The goal of the good life, but as a kind of equilibriation of self and society. Eudaimonia is hierarchically structured.


Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational

choice, is thought to aim at some good; and so the good has been aptly

described as that at which everything aims. But it is clear that there is

some difference between ends: some ends are activities, while others are

products which are additional to the activities. In cases where there are

ends additional to the actions, the products are by their nature better

than the activities. (opening para of Nicomachean Ethics)


... Knowledge of the good would seem to be the concern of the most

authoritative science, the highest master science. And this is obviously

the science of politics, because it lays down which of the sciences there

should be in cities, and which each class of person should learn and up

to what level. And we see that even the most honourable of faculties,

such as military science, domestic economy, and rhetoric, come under it.

Since political science employs the other sciences, and also lays down

laws about what we should do and refrain from, its end will include the

ends of the others, and will therefore be the human good. For even if the

good is the same for an individual as for a city, that of the city is

obviously a greater and more complete thing to obtain and preserve. For

while the good of an individual is a desirable thing, what is good for a

people or for cities is a nobler and more godlike thing. Our enquiry,

then, is a kind of political science, since these are the ends it is aiming

at. (bk 1, chp 2 Ethics)





Virtue is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities.



To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset.



But I would like to argue that some virtues make others open to revisability and improvement - honesty makes us open to revisiting our judgment about say what is courage and how I may do it better next well as honesty being a kind of intellectual virtue that encourages us to contemplate such matters.


This very revisability is what makes us face complexity to thereby recognise its presence and thus the need for circumspective judgement.





The globalised world and its anthropology may lead us to be too understanding -was the fear of being accused of being racist driving Rotherham into ignoring child abuse.


It goes back to being obliged to pretend to accept witchcraft and the punishments meted out to its practitioners..for the sake of not offending cultural beliefs however mad they may be.


Can we be too understanding?


But Aristotle has side-constraints - he suggests that we have to calibrate our judgment - the play of virtue with phronesis to arrive at the right amount of virtue leading to the correct moral perception.




Too much generosity - profligacy


Too much courage - recklessness


Too much fear -cowardice


Too much adaptability - fickleness.


Too much confidence - arrogance.



But.... "Foreseen actions can be rationally chosen on the basis of calculation and reason, but unforeseen ones only in virtue of one's state of character."


And this is the resource that in the face of a relatively unknowable world - where things are going next is the (unencumbered) force that enables us to make good judgments.



The doctrine of the Mean:


there is an excess, a deficiency and a mean in actions. Virtue is concerned

with feelings and actions, in which excess and deficiency constitute misses

of the mark, while the mean is praised and on target, both of which are

characteristics of virtue. Virtue, then, is a kind of mean, at least in the

sense that it is the sort of thing that is able to hit a mean.


Since we have already stated that one should rationally choose the mean,

not the excess or the deficiency, and that the mean is as correct reason

prescribes, let us now analyse this prescription.


In all the states of character we have mentioned, and in the others as

well, there is a sort of target, and it is with his eye on this that the

person with reason tightens or loosens his string. There is also a sort of

standard for the mean states, which, as we say, lie between excess and

deficiency and are in accordance with correct reason.




Objection to the moral holism of VE = The Moral Luck problem


and the Machiavelli argument: it is not the good man oriented towards a conception of the good society in which and through which he does his best...but rather it is the cunning man adapting to circumstances for now and for the future, trying to outrun 'fortuna' (Lady Luck = the turn of the cards)


and thus goes back to:


Who would you wish to have govern you - who is to be 'The Prince' (Il Principe) - the virtuous man or the cunning devil?