Philosophy Writing by Stas Medvedev

Beyond Decision Procedures: Exploring Virtue Ethics

“Virtue ethics lacks a decision-procedure to help us make moral decisions. It is not, therefore, a good moral theory.”
What makes a good moral theory? The statement implies that a good moral theory is the one having a decision-procedure.
I will attempt to show that virtue ethics is a strong moral theory precisely because it offers a flexible, context-sensitive framework that prioritises the cultivation of character and practical wisdom, unlike standard forms of consequentialism and deontology each having a fixed decision-making procedure.
Proponents of the view that a moral theory is considered good if it has a decision procedure argue that it should offer clear guidance on how to act morally in various situations and be applicable in real-world scenarios. They stand that a central purpose of moral theories is to guide actions. A decision procedure offers explicit steps or criteria for determining what is morally right or wrong in various situations, making ethical theories practically useful for individuals seeking to navigate moral dilemmas.
Consequentialism, particularly in its utilitarian form, provides a decision procedure with a clear metric to guide moral choices and has a straightforward applicability. It focuses on the consequences of actions which is a pragmatic and objective way to evaluate moral decisions, ensuring that actions lead to the greatest good for the greatest number.
"The greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." (Mill, 1907 ch.2)
Deontology puts the emphasis on duty, rules, or categorical imperatives that dictate actions irrespective of the consequences. This decision procedure offers explicit rules or principles for action as a method for determining the moral rightness of actions based on adherence to these rules, rather than the outcomes those actions produce.
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (Kant,1785)
Both moral theories seem to meet the criteria to be considered good.
However, what actions should we take when it's uncertain how to apply a specific rule to a situation, or if it's even applicable at all? Additionally, how do we proceed when two or more moral rules conflict with each other?
These challenges require further reflection and possibly the development of secondary principles or frameworks within these theories to address ambiguity and conflict. For consequentialism, this might involve more nuanced considerations of long-term consequences or introducing rules of thumb that guide decision-making in complex cases. For deontology, it might mean developing a hierarchy of duties or principles that can guide decision-making when rules conflict.
Ultimately, the strength of a moral theory might be measured not just by the clarity and applicability of its decision procedure but also by its adaptability to the nuanced and often unpredictable nature of moral decision-making in real-life situations.
Let us now look at virtue ethics. At the heart of this theory is the Aristotelian concept of virtue. For Aristotle, the essence of virtue ethics lies in the development of character and the pursuit of a virtuous life.
'Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.' (Nicomachean Ethics, II.6, 1106b36-1107a2).
How do we apply it? We should consider what the virtuous person would do in the circumstances. But what if we don't know what a virtuous person would do? What decision procedure can be used by the non-virtuous to identify what ought to be done in a particular situation?
Rosalind Hursthouse suggests we can start by finding the one and ask him for advice.
What we use or appeal to when making many of our decisions are what Hursthouse refers to as virtue- and vice-rules (or v-rules). She claims that virtue ethics comes up with a large number of rules: “Not only does each virtue generate a prescription – do what is honest, charitable, generous – but each vice a prohibition – do not do what is dishonest, uncharitable, mean” (Hursthouse 1999, 35–36 cited in Van Zyl, 2018 ch.7).
Critics of virtue ethics argue that a set of rules is insufficient and fails to provide a decision procedure, as v-rules (e.g., 'be kind, courageous, prudent') do not specify actions as deontological rules do ('In situation x, one should do y').
Virtue ethicists reject the view that normative theory is to provide a decision procedure as a set of universal moral rules. Given the complexity of moral life, they argue that a normative theory can only offer rules that generally apply 'for the most part.' So they accept that the v-rules are vague and general, but think that this is exactly how they should be. It is a mistake to demand a normative theory that it should tell us what to do. Instead, they think of action guidance as a matter of directing our development into becoming virtuous agents who can figure out for ourselves what we ought to do (Hursthouse 1999, Russell 2009 cited in Van Zyl, 2018 ch.7).
Virtue ethics provides a method for making decisions that has a significant advantage over other decision-making procedures, such as applying a deontological rule (or d-rule).
This approach ensures one acts rightly for the right reasons, rather than merely as the result of following a decision procedure.
Now that we have explored the key principles of decision procedures of deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics, let us examine how those manifest in practical and real-life scenarios.
To illustrate this distinction between the moral theories, consider the case of Maria, a community leader, who is facing the ethical challenges of distributing scarce resources (such as food, water, and shelter) in a small and isolated community after a natural disaster. This scenario is charged with hard decisions as the resources Maria is responsible for are limited, but the needs of the community are immense.
Applying deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethics approaches can lead to different decisions. Below I examine how each framework might guide Maria’s actions in this complex situation.
Deontological approach focuses on adhering to moral duties and principles. Maria might follow established rules such as "distribute resources fairly" or "do not show favouritism." Her actions would be guided by these principles, aiming for what is morally right despite the consequences. She might decide to distribute the resources evenly among all community members, based on a principle of equality. However, this approach may face challenges when adherence to rules doesn't fully address the complexities of human needs or when principles come in conflict.
Consequentialism suggests prioritising the outcomes of actions. Maria might aim at maximising the overall welfare of the community. She can prioritise resources for those whose needs are greatest if this leads to the greatest overall benefit. This is a pragmatic approach, but requires Maria to handle complex predictions about the consequences of her actions, potentially leading to hard decisions when the benefit to the majority may disadvantage a minority.
Virtue ethics involves a nuanced consideration of how a virtuous person would act in her situation. It centres on Maria’s character and the virtues guiding her actions. She might desire to be fair, compassionate, courageous and use practical wisdom. Maria would seek ways to adapt her strategy of distributing the resources to meet both individual and community needs, and committing to ethical leadership. Virtue ethics require Maria to apply personal judgement and wisdom, which offers flexibility even if lacking clear-cut decisions at times.
This comparative analysis shows how each moral theory guides Maria’s ethical choices:
- Deontology provides moral clarity with guidelines based on principles, emphasising intrinsic rightness but potentially lacking flexibility.
- Consequentialism is pragmatic, focusing on outcomes to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, though it appears to be challenging to judge the value of which welfare is prioritised.
- Virtue ethics integrates character and practical wisdom and allows adaptive decision-making that accounts for the complexities of human relationships and needs.
I argue that virtue ethics stands out as it encourages a holistic approach. It enables Maria to overcome the challenges of her role and remain a compassionate and fair leader in the given situation. Virtues provide her a path that seeks not just to address immediate needs, but also to cultivate a community grounded in moral excellence.
In conclusion, while deontology and consequentialism offer valuable perspectives on rule adherence and outcome maximisation, virtue ethics provides a comprehensive and deeply human approach to ethics. It prepares individuals not just to make decisions in challenging situations but to live a life of moral excellence.
I hope my arguments show that virtue ethics is not deficient for its lack of a rigid decision procedure, and rather provides a rich, flexible and sustainable framework for ethical living. In my view it makes this moral theory highly relevant in our ever-changing moral landscape.
Reference list
Aristotle. (2009) The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross, revised by Lesley Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hursthouse, R. (1999) On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (M. Gregor, Trans.). Cambridge University Press, 1998. (Original work published 1785).
Mill, J. S. (1863). Utilitarianism. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907
Russell, Daniel C. (2009) Practical Intelligence and the Virtues. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Zyl, L. (2018) Virtue ethics: A contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge.
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