Virtue Ethics and Complexity.



3 types of Ethics -


1) Meta-ethics - what is the meaning ofthe 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)


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 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.




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) 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?


(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: 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.






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

Rooted in rules; aimed at individual choice



Objective - carrying out ones duty to a logical law (the categorical imperative)


which in the eyes of many makes Kant a moral realist.

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 ability to be moral is a reflection on your mental mind dependent) state




Subjectivism - choosing according to a calculative schema where according to my perception I assign values to doing and not doing and, do which is most advantageous...but there is rule-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 Ogden Nash put it: "Oh duty, thou art neither a sweetie nor a cutie" = prob:


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?


Am, I a moral agents 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 (utlitarian)





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 '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 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 intentions implies that mortality 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 ofAristotle (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



arÍte (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.