Presentation on theme: "Virtue Ethics in Action. TYPES OF ETHICAL THEORY: Utilitarian --based on considering the consequences of actions for people's well-being. Deontological."— Presentation transcript:
Virtue Ethics in Action
TYPES OF ETHICAL THEORY: Utilitarian --based on considering the consequences of actions for people's well-being. Deontological --concerned with duty, understood in terms of rules that are fairly absolute. Virtue ethics --assesses actions and their motives in terms of whether they are characteristic of virtuous people, i.e., those who possess morally admirable qualities.
What is a 'virtue'? Rosalind Hursthouse conceives of a virtue as a multi-track disposition, that is, it affects a range of emotional reactions, choices, values, desires and perceptions. For example, an honest person: 'chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed by dishonest means rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.' (Hursthouse, 'Virtue Ethics'.)
Virtue is a matter of degree. Fully virtuous people manifest all elements of these multi-track dispositions all of the time and are never subject to temptation. Most of us are, at best, virtuous only to a lesser degree and have to struggle against temptation.
Two useful Greek terms Phronesis = 'practical wisdom' (needed when different virtues seem to make conflicting requirements). Eudaimonia = 'flourishing' (more value-laden than mere 'happiness').
Agent-focused versus agent-based theories The agent-focused view: The morally creditable act is the act that a virtuous person would perform. The agent-based view: The morally creditable act is the act that a virtuous person would perform, carried out with a virtuous person's motive.
Can virtue ethics really affect our decisions? Virtue ethics appears to tell us, not so much what to do, as how to be. But we don't determine our own characters, nor the motives with which we act. So how can we make use of the theory? Answer: if we assume compatibilism about free-will, then we can choose to let certain motives prevail over others by concentrating our thoughts in certain directions. And if compatibilism about free will is not granted, then virtue ethics is in no worse a position than any other approach to ethics.
Hursthouse on the ethics of abortion Concerned with the morality of abortion rather than with whether it should be legal. Finds the emphasis on women's rights unhelpful to this debate. Dismisses as irrelevant the 'personhood' issue. (This metaphysical debate threatens to put the necessary wisdom beyond the reach of an ordinary person, but virtue--and hence wisdom- -should be within everyone's reach.)
Hursthouse's positive view Hursthouse maintains that the attitude of a woman who chooses abortion may be morally defective (though exceptions are allowed for) because: 1) Parenthood is intrinsically worthwhile. 2) The cutting short of a human life is an evil. Are these claims convincing?
Is parenthood intrinsically worthwhile? The benefits and drawbacks of being a parent cannot be objectively weighed against one another, since they are incommensurable. So (in general) the decision as to whether to become a parent is a personal one, not to be determined objectively.
Is the cutting short of the foetus' life an evil? In the earliest stages of pregnancy, it may be no worse than some part of the world having a slightly lower population than it might otherwise have had. After about the eighteenth week, when 'quickening' occurs, a willingness to choose abortion may indicate less empathy than is normal for a human being (given the foetus' capacity to feel pain).
The problem of 'distant others' Do we have an obligation to help suffering people with whom we have no connection? The utilitarian position (Singer): We are morally obliged to seek the greatest overall level of well-being of everyone affected by our actions, with each person counting equally. Therefore, the 'claims' that others have on us are determined strictly by their level of need; and we should give to the needy, including those unconnected with us, up to the point where we are left with only the necessities that we require to live.
A virtue ethicist's response (Slote) For Slote, the key virtue is empathy. An act is wrong if it is uncaring. It is uncaring if it displays less empathy than is normal for a human being. This solves the problem of 'distant others', since it would not be showing less than normal empathy to be less moved by those whom one does not actually see suffering. Also, a failure to make great sacrifices to help others does not necessarily show an abnormally low level of empathy.
The problem of the trapped miners (Fried) Suppose some miners are trapped underground. They can be rescued, but only at enormous expense. Charles Fried argues that the we should instead use the money to improve safety conditions, so that we save more lives in the future. Slote's response: a normal person's level of empathy is affected by immediacy. The plight of these miners is more immediate than that of potential future victims of mining accidents, making a decision in their favour morally acceptable.
Go to 'A level philosophy files' to find: 'Virtue Ethics in Action' (These slides) 'Guide to moral philosophy', pp and pp