Virtue Ethics, Or, The Mental Hygiene Police

      2 Comments on Virtue Ethics, Or, The Mental Hygiene Police

Hey, I’ve got my first follower! So this had better be good… unless he’s following out of morbid curiosity?

The subject for today’s rant will be Virtue Ethics.

Most ethical systems seem to be all about defining what is a ‘good’ thing to do (leave out the difficulty of defining ‘good’, or we’ll be here all night). They’re about how you figure out what you should do in a particular situation, and they generally attempt to give us some useful advice. Like Utilitarianism is basically ‘whatever will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the right thing to do’ (I’ll probably talk about Utilitarianism later, because it’s my favourite – Jeremy Bentham is my hero).

Not so Virtue Ethics.

Virtue Ethics says ‘If you are a good person, then you will do good things’.

I mean, how useless is that? It sounds exactly like my mother: “Why can’t you just be nice?”

Aristotle (OK, Plato, but Aristotle did more) started it, and it was all about eudaimonia which is basically ‘human flourishing’ – the state you’re at if you’ve reached that state of perfect harmony, I guess. So he went on about how a person should cultivate certain virtues, and by practicing them would get really good at them, and would eventually achieve eudaimonia. Happy, happy, happy.

Elizabeth Anscombe et al picked it up more recently. (I’m missing out a lot, can you tell? But this is my rant and I’ll do it how I want. If you want a lecture, that’ll cost you.) She reformulated the virtues, but kept the same idea that if you practice virtue, you will become virtuous, and then you will know what to do.

Yes, that’s great if you’re Mother Theresa.

And for those of us who aren’t Mother Theresa, this is helpful how, exactly? It doesn’t give you any help in dealing with difficult ethical situations – in fact, it makes your situation even worse because not only do you not know what to do, but now you feel guilty about it (on account of being told that if you were a good person, you would know what to do).

The thing is, the people who like Virtue Ethics, in their several forms, tend to say that Utilitarianism etc simply provide a list of rules that anyone could follow (well, duh… I thought that was the point). And that if you do a ‘good’ action simply because you were following rules, or for personal gain, or duty, then it’s not really virtuous. You should do virtuous things for their own sake, and only then can you be virtuous.

I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of my mother (again – she isn’t an ethicist, honestly). It wasn’t enough that I did what I was told – I had to be happy about it. And that’s bad enough when it’s between parents and kids, but when we’re talking about a whole ethical theory, I find that really, really creepy. Why should anyone else have the right to prescribe what I think? How I act, that’s fair enough – but surely the inside of my head should be private? It’s worse than looking through people’s underwear drawers.

What do you think about an ethical theory that cares more about what people think than about what they do?

When you consider it, it has quite far-reaching implications. Currently, our criminal justice system says that you have to actually commit a crime before you can be punished for it. Under Virtue Ethics, not only do you not get your karma points if you aren’t thinking the right things, but could you be punished for Wrong Thoughts?

If I really don’t like someone (and, believe it or not, even someone as sweet and lovely as I has people they would really, really, like to drive a bus over… several times) then is it bad if I fantasise about pushing someone off a cliff… or only if I actually do it? Do I get any karma points for resisting temptation? Under Virtue Ethics, I don’t think I do, and that’s got some fairly nasty implications too. If there isn’t an ethical difference between the thought and the act… then come walk that cliff path with me – if you dare!

Elizabeth I had it right, I think. When speaking of the religious differences in England – moving from the enforced Catholicism of Mary I’s reign to a return to the Protestantism that had been introduced by Henry VIII, she said to Parliament “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” She meant (I think) that she didn’t much care what people believed in their hearts – what mattered was that they acted Protestant and upheld the religious solidarity of the Church of England, and therefore did not upset the peace of the realm. She believed that a person’s mind and thoughts were their own business; the state – or presumably any other external parties – only had a concern with people’s actions.

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2 thoughts on “Virtue Ethics, Or, The Mental Hygiene Police

  1. lowestofthekeys

    “What do you think about an ethical theory that cares more about what people think than about what they do?”

    This makes me think that the point of the theory is to address the cause before it can form into action. I remember reading a book that commented on this in regard to the justice system. The author said the system is more concerned with crime prevention instead of actually correcting the underlying cause of it.

  2. theophaniaelliott

    Sort of like… character CPD? (Continuing Professional Development, for those who are lucky enough not to know what it stands for.)

    I do most certainly see your point – presumably if one has achieved eudaimonia and is flourishing and in harmony etc, then one does not wish to commit crime, hence crime goes down… and everyone is happy because everyone is doing ‘the right thing’ because they want to, not because they are being forced to. Karma points all round.

    But I still find it more than a little creepy. I quite like me the way I am (others may not; there’s no accounting for taste) and I don’t like the thought of an ethical theory that wants to change the way I think, and therefore who I am. I once read a Doctor Who book about a planet where everyone was forced to be happy – by law.

    The question is, am I still being forced to be happy (and good) if the application of Virtue Ethics principles as a societal norm have changed the way I think?

    (I do like a good discussion… it makes one challenge preconceptions one didn’t even know one had…)

    (And I admit that I don’t like Virtue Ethics, so I’m probably not being altogether fair. Hence proving that I have not yet achieved eudaimonia.)

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