Virtue Ethics

(This is the sixth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series of talks. Having looked at two of the three main moral theories, I now turn to the third.)


27: Being versus Doing

Not surprisingly, Virtue Ethics is concerned about virtues. But then, the other moral systems would claim to too. Simplistically:

  • With Consequentialism, the ability to determine the best consequences in a particular situation is a virtue.
  • With Deontology, the ability to use reason to determine rules and the ability to apply those rules in practice are both virtues.

What differentiates Virtue Ethics from the other two is that it is not concerned with choosing courses of action in particular situations – determining what to do – but is concerned with the character of the agent making the decisions. A person of good character will make the good decisions. In short, Virtue Ethics is about being good rather than doing good.

One should strive to improve one’s character so that virtue is ingrained in one’s character. To use Michael Stocker’s well-known example: Someone is not virtuous if they think “morality requires me to visit my friend in hospital”, whether because they consider it their duty (Deontology) or because they determine it is a highly felicific thing to do (Utilitarianism). They are merely doing a virtuous thing. The virtuous person would do it because such behaviour is ingrained in their character. It is a habit.

Virtue Ethics goes against the intuition that it is admirable when people manage to act well when it is difficult for them to do so. To truly possess the virtue, it should not be a struggle – it is imbued within our very being.

Consider an example virtue – that of honesty. An individual that possesses such a virtue is one that is able to be honest without being tactless or indiscreet. They will promote honesty and disapprove of dishonesty. But this does not mean that they will never lie themselves. On appropriate occasions, they will be dishonest to avoid being tactless. Virtuosity is a matter of degree; the more virtuous will have a better ability to know what is appropriate in any particular circumstance. Compare this with one who always tells the truth, such as the notorious Kantian who tells the murderer at the door that the person he seeks is inside the house.

The three central concepts of Virtue Ethics can be (grossly) summarized as:

  1. The effectiveness of being able living to one’s full potential.
  2. The embodiment of practical wisdom, and
  3. The dynamic ‘flourishing’ of an individual towards a state of well-being.


28: Virtues and Vices

Virtue Ethics has its origins in Antiquity. Plato introduced the four ‘cardinal virtues’:

  • Prudence
  • Justice, or Fairness
  • Courage
  • Temperance, or Restraint

Aristotle extended the list to 9, adding:

  • Magnificence
  • Magnanimity
  • Liberality
  • Gentleness
  • Wisdom

A virtue is having a particular attribute to the right degree (“not too little, not too much but just right”). Having too much is a vice. But having too little is also a vice. Some examples:

Lack Virtue Excess
Cowardice Courage Rashness
Insensibility Temperance Licentiousness
Pettiness Magnificence Vulgarity
Pusillanimity Magnanimity Vain

(It has been remarked that thinking up a list of vices is easier than thinking up a list of virtues. Having 2 vices per virtue – a lack and an excess – may go some way to explaining this.)

In Mediaeval times, Thomas Aquinas complemented the 4 ‘cardinal virtues’ with the 3 ‘theological virtues’ (ultimately derived from “faith, hope and love” in 1 Corinthians 13):

  • Faith
  • Hope, and
  • Charity

…to produce the list of ‘seven virtues’.

A similar list of ‘seven heavenly virtues’ can be contrasted with their better-known opposites of the ‘seven deadly sins’:

  1. Chastity vs. Lust
  2. Temperance vs. Gluttony
  3. Charity vs. Greed
  4. Diligence vs. Sloth
  5. Patience vs. Wrath
  6. Kindness vs. Envy
  7. Humility vs Pride

Much more recently, modern thinkers have produced their own list of virtues. One well-known example is Jonathan Haidt’s six innate ‘moral foundations’, upon which cultures develop their various moralities:

  1. Care vs. harm,
  2. Fairness vs. cheating,
  3. Liberty vs. oppression,
  4. Loyalty vs. betrayal,
  5. Authority vs. subversion, and
  6. Sanctity vs. degradation.

Liberal cultures rely on the first 3; conservative cultures rely on all 6.


29: Wisdom, Intention and Growth

Possessing a virtue is much more than have the appropriate intentions (e.g. to be honest but not tactless). It requires a practical ability of how to direct those intentions appropriately; it allows an individual to recognize some features of a situation as more important than others.

It is something that generally only comes from experience and hence is correlated with age. We may think that a particular child is good but they are unlikely to be properly virtuous. The growth of virtue is the characteristic of a well-lived life. Moral education should be through the training of character rather than the inculcation of rules.

This concept is often called ‘flourishing’ and is the third major characteristic of Virtue Ethics, alongside Virtue and Wisdom.

The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg posited up to 6 stages of moral development over an individual’s lifetime, each stage an improvement over the previous in the ability to respond to moral dilemmas. Each level can be characterized (briefly) as follows:

  1. Direct consequences of actions on themselves (e.g. avoiding punishment). Infantile obedience to authority (parent).
  2. Limited interest in the needs of others, insofar as it might help own interests. Juvenile.
  3. Conforming to social standards for approval from others, as being well-regarded among one’s peers benefits the self. Intentions are considered. Adolescent.
  4. Obligation in order to maintain society; culpability when transgressed. Adult.
  5. Recognition of differing values between communities. Laws are social contracts rather than absolute, producing mutual well-being. Many do not reach this level.
  6. Principled Commitment to justice, beyond adherence to laws. Searching for universal ethical principles. Imagining what they would do in others’ shoes. Few reach this level.

Although this is descriptive ethics, it captures the dynamic process of ‘flourishing’ of the normative ethic that is Virtue Ethics.


30: Choosing Virtues

A major problem with Virtue Ethics, of course, is how to choose virtues.

Just as the virtue of a knife is to be a good knife – to be sharp, the virtue of a person is…to be a good person! But what does that mean? To have a moral theory that says that people must be good is not saying much! Consequentialism and Deontology are not perfect moral theories but they do at least contain some code of universal rules or principles from which to determine a right action. (But Virtue ethicists would counter that it is unrealistic to think that such a code could exist.)

As a result, some philosophers (such as Martha Nussbaum) question whether Virtue Ethics should be regarded as a distinct moral approach at all. They contend that there is nothing to delineate Virtue Ethics from other moralities and hence it can be subsumed into other major theories.

For example, Alasdair MacIntyre is considered to be a major contemporary figure within Virtue Ethics yet does not consider himself to be a ‘Virtue Ethicist’! He argued that the concept of virtues should be used to supplement rather than replace moral rules and that a particular society’s virtues should be grounded in its historical social practices.

Kohlberg, the proposer of the 6 stages of moral development (see above) had a Kantian inclination and a concomitant low regard for Virtue Ethics:

“The emphasis on moral virtues that are acquired by habit derives from Aristotle, whose bag of virtues included temperance, liberality, pride, good temper, truthfulness, and justice. Hartshorne and Mays’ bag included honesty, service, and self-control. The Boy Scout bag is well known–a Scout should be honest, loyal, reverent, clean, and brave. My quick tour through the ages indicates that the trouble with the bag of virtues approach is that everyone has his own bag. The problem is not only that a virtue like honesty may not be high in everyone’s bag, but that my definition of honesty may not be yours.”

Yet, whilst there is no definitive list of virtues across time and cultures, considerable similarity can be found if looked for. As with Haidt, Martin Seligmann  produced a list of six virtues; his team:

… read Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas and Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido … the Koran, Benjamin Franklin, and the Upanishads …

To our surprise, almost every single one of these traditions formed across 3000 years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

The details differ, of course…[and there are]… virtues unique to each of these traditions … but the commonality is real and, to those of us raised as ethical relativists, pretty remarkable…

So we see these six virtues as the core characteristics endorsed by almost all religions and philosophical traditions…”

This description of world-wide virtues is leading us towards ‘ethical naturalism’, which rejects the hard separation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ – that we can learn about morality by  studying, among other things, how people actually behave in groups and societies.


31: The Neuro Ethic

So far in this ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’, it has been predominantly ‘Moral Ought’ with precious little ‘Neural Is’. This will continue for a bit longer, but here is a quick dip into making a connection between the two – since it concerns Virtue Ethics.

In a companion paper to Jonathan Greene’s ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ paper, William Casebeer, referring to the three main moral theories, makes:

“a tentative conclusion: the moral psychology required by virtue theory is the most neurobiologically plausible.”

The basis for his argument is that moral cognition is a ‘whole-brain’ affair, or near enough:

“that moral cognition might not be a tightly defined ‘natural kind’ in the sense that other cognitive phenomena might be. For example, the domain of the neural mechanisms of visual cognition, owing to the relatively restricted range of information that is processed by the visual modality, might be more tightly constrained than the domain of the neural mechanisms of basket-weaving. In that sense, the former is a more robust, natural kind than the latter, and is therefore an easier target for neurobiological study. Moral reasoning probably falls somewhere between these two extremes and is still worthy of study by neurobiologists, although this fact might make it more difficult to progress experimentally.”

Casebeer justifies this by associating moral cognitive tasks with ‘functions’/activity in a wide variety of places in the brain through:

  • Correlation between abnormal behaviour and the location of brain abnormalities from MRI scans, and
  • Correlation between normal activities and the location of activity in fMRI scans.

Put simply: Virtue Ethics requires a mixed bag of tricks that can be built on existing brain hardware rather than being focussed on some specific supposed cognitive feature:

  • An ability to calculate utilities (Utilitarianism)
  • Some idealized faculty of ‘pure reason’ (Deontology)

And any moral theory should also be physically grounded:

“Unlike Greene in his companion piece in this issue, I think that the neurobiological facts support a version of relational moral realism, … . Ultimately, even the most ardent anti-naturalist would admit that, at the very least, our moral theories must require us to carry out cognitive acts that are also possible for us to implement. The goal of naturalized ethics is to show that norms are natural, and that they arise from and are justified by purely natural processes.”

Casebeer largely justifies his claim with various neuro-scientific evidence of neural correlates with  fMRI scanning.  Particularly interesting is that, recognizing that social environments are difficult to simulate in an MRI scanner, he refers to Read Montague’s ‘hyperscanning’ method of having several subjects interacting simultaneously while each being scanned. Montague says:

“studying social interactions by scanning the brain of just one person is analogous to studying synapses while observing either the presynaptic neuron or the postsynaptic neuron, but never both simultaneously … synapses, like socially interacting people, are best understood by simultaneously studying the interacting components.”

Casebeer concludes:

“Much of our day-to-day moral reasoning does not involve highly convoluted moral modelling; mostly, we can rely on skills and habits of character as informed by conditioned emotion and affect.”

“There is clear consilience between contemporary neuroethics and Aristotelian moral psychology. A co-evolutionary strategy, then, would suggest that some version of pragmatic Aristotelian virtue theory is most compatible with the neurobiological sciences.”

(My bold.)


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6 Responses to Virtue Ethics

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  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Virtue is certainly what I hope for, but — to be honest — does not seem reflective of my inner nature. It was rather disheartening to gauge myself against Aristotle’s Nine or, worse, Aquinas’ Seven. I did do a lot better with Haidt’s Six.

    I don’t know if you ever watched the TV show, House, M.D., but there was an episode featuring a man with an illness that removed his social filters. He spoke whatever thoughts crossed his mind — nearly destroying his marriage in the process (and definitely damaging it). A point that episode makes is that some people do have a virtuous inner nature, but some don’t.

    Those of us who seem to lack genuine inner virtue (guilty, to my shame) do wonder if those others are faking it. It seems impossible to live in the “real world” and be free of non-virtuous thoughts. And, yet,… it seems to be genuine, at least in some.

    I envy (oops, there’s a sin) those people that virtuous nature. I’m not sure it’s possible to get there from here. Put another way, I wish I was the sort of person who wanted to visit a sick friend in the hospital rather than someone who saw it intellectually as “the right thing to do.”

    I did feel a lot better when I got to section 29 and Kohlberg’s Six Stages. I’d like to believe I’ve reached level six. (For the record, I turn 60 this year.)

    I felt even better reading section 30 (and I’d like to believe I have some measure of the six virtues mentioned). I, too, have been struck by the commonality of basic virtues expressed in so many different places. (In my most recent post I ponder whether morals might be the direct product of higher intelligence and reason. As a moral philosopher I have a long ways to go (again: thanks for your blog!), but it is a topic I’ve pondered at length.)

    I’ve often said about religions that they have this in common: How you live your life matters.

    Section 31 was very interesting. It will be interesting to see what comes of hyperscannig. The fMRI experiments in general fascinate me. I’ve long argued and believed that machines will never “think” but I find that position sorely tested by some results.

    My lack of inner virtue is revealed by my snickering at the name, Casebeer. 😮

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