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A framework for ethics

Published in the Oxford Philosophical Society Report (2019) p 64

Virtue ethics offers the best framework to encompass the full spectrum of moral theories in an attempt to offer comprehensive, dynamic answers to radically diverse moral dilemmas.

In what follows, I aim to argue why virtue ethics has the inherent potential to offer the most comprehensive framework to deal with complex moral dilemmas, but is, just like any other moral theory, insufficient on its own. In other words, while no moral theory can claim singular, conclusive answers to each and every moral dilemma, virtue ethics offers the best framework, in combination with alternative moral theories, to offer comprehensive, dynamic answers to radically diverse moral dilemmas.

I start by critically analysing Aristotle’s basic principles of virtue ethics, highlighting its pros and problems. Secondly, I briefly point out the problems with all contemporary moral theories when applied in isolation. Thirdly, I explain how each of the alternative moral theories has an important role to play in the broader context of virtue ethics, and how they are necessary for virtue ethics to form a comprehensive and dynamic moral framework. Finally, I conclude that it is virtue ethics’ inherent flexibility and focus on learning and maturity that enable it to absorb alternative theories and offer the most comprehensive and dynamic moral answers.

1. Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Aristotle says that while nobody is born with an innate, complete knowledge of right and wrong, every human is born with an innate capacity to grow, shape and mature a moral character. This capacity is grounded in our unique ability to reason. Reasoning is a uniquely human capacity, and because it is uniquely human, it shows us the way to our uniquely human purpose. Reasoning makes us human, reasoning well makes us good humans. Human rationality is an objective, universal concept, and in relying on rationality, virtue ethics allows for metaphysically true morality.

But first, is reasoning really a uniquely human capacity? Animals have empirically demonstrated to either possess some degree of human-like rationality (Frans de Waal, 2019) or to possess a rationality we may not (yet) fully grasp – perhaps a rationality that is different from ours (Thomas Nagel, 1974). Aristotle may, 2000 years before Darwin, have assumed that humans and animals are fundamentally different species, but today we have evidence to question, if not refute, this assumption. Second, is it right to determine a species’ unique purpose by its unique capacity? Is it the cat’s purpose to miaow, the dog’s to bark? Just because a species has a particular capacity does not necessarily imply that this capacity indicates its sole, essential purpose. Third, all species around us serve more than one purpose, so why not humans? Is it the seed’s purpose to grow into a plant or to provide nutrition for herbivores? The buffalo’s purpose to graze the plains, raise calves or to feed the lions? The particular purpose a species serves appears to be in the eye of the beholder. Fourth, it is arguable that a species’ purpose serves a process that transcends the individual, namely, to create more and better adapted copies, to procreate, and to keep the species alive. The fruit tree’s purpose may not be to provide food, but to attract insects and animals who spread its seeds by trampling and eating and excreting the sweet fruit and seeds, and thus assisting the tree’s reproduction and the survival of its species. Humans’ purpose may be simply to guarantee the survival of the human species, and there is nothing rational about that. Fifth, perhaps virtue ethics is overly reliant on individualism – the belief that individuals are independent and self-reliant, with a capacity to self-develop and to find purpose in the individual self. For the virtue ethicist, a virtuous character is the result of a wholly individual, personal, introspective process. But does virtue ethics hereby ignore the crucial role a moral community plays in achieving and awarding moral status to its members? Isn’t a moral character given (by a community), rather than taken (by the individual)?

Aristotle says that the capacity to reason is correlated with a capacity to know right from wrong. Morality is based on rationality. The right moral decision is found as a result of a rational process of weighing up opposite vices. We must always, habitually and consistently, apply rationality to analyse moral dilemma, and rationally weigh up the options between excessive and deficient extremes, against a background of particular circumstances and our particular personality. In doing so, the right moral decision – the ‘virtuous mean’ – will dawn on us in doubtless, truthful clarity, automatically, as an inevitable result. It is in acting upon this result, resisting any other temptations, that we act morally. It is in acting consistently upon this result, that we shape our moral characters. At first this may be a tedious process, but the more and longer we do this, the better and quicker we will get at this.

But first, the capacity to reason is not equally distributed among humans. Does this mean that smarter people are better at finding the virtuous mean, and therefore morally better people? If true, it would follow that university professors are morally better than shop assistants, or at least stand a better chance at shaping a truly virtuous character. I don’t believe there is any empirical basis for this claim. Second, “average” is another word for “mean”. But does an “average” always represent the most desirable moral option? What is the mean between torturing and not torturing? Torturing a little? For cheating, a little cheating? Third, is virtue ethics circular? If morally right actions are defined by their agent, and the moral agent is defined by his actions, then virtue ethics does seem circular. However, virtue is defined by the rationality of the action, and rationality is a universal, objective concept, which can be judged objectively by the moral community. As a result, a moral agent is defined, not by any action, but only by her rationally sound actions – actions that are universally approved by the moral community.

Aristotle says that practice makes perfect. If we live virtuously, consistently, over a long period of time, for no other reason than virtue, virtue will become a habit, a second nature. Like a musician or an athlete, the more we practice virtue, the better we will get at it. Only living consistently virtuously for the right reasons instils in us an ethical maturity, a disposition to know right from wrong.

But first, this concept of ‘time’ is a most frustrating and complicating requirement for the virtue ethicist’s, and goes against humans’ most basic understanding of and approach to decision-making. Human cognition is based on clear-cut, tried and tested instruction manuals. It is central to human cognition that we set out goals, we try and fail and try again, and memorise the successful strategies, which we teach to our children and students and re-apply to similar future goals. Time, however, cannot be memorised, taught or learned. Time is fickle, unpredictable and outside of our control. How can the virtue ethicist rely on a factor so vague and fuzzy in shaping a virtuous character? Second, it seems to me that Aristotle was aware of this time-issue with his moral theory, which is why he suggested a shortcut: we can look to moral models, or convene them in committees and let ourselves be guided by their judgements. The moral guidance Africans and the rest of the world get from Nelson Mandela is a case in point. The same can be said about Jesus for Christians, Siddhārtha Gautama for Buddhists and Prophet Mohammed for Muslims. It is not necessarily the religious rules that provide guidance to their followers, as deontologists would have it, but the model characters of their protagonists that set the example and provide an easily copiable shortcut for moral guidance. For a virtue ethicist, with her focus on individual self-development, meekly following others’ examples can of course never suffice to shape a truly virtuous character. Third, some claim that the lack of a clear-cut decision-procedure is a weakness of virtue ethics. This claim, however, is founded on other assumptions. One, that an instruction manual is possible, and that it should be our aim to find one. But many moral questions are so complex and dynamic, their constituent and conflicting issues ever-changing, that the ambition to find clear-cut answers is a futile illusion, an arrogant simplification of the facts. Two, that not having a clear-cut decision-procedure is a weakness for a moral theory. I argue that the lack of an unambiguous set of rules constitutes the very essence and strength of a moral theory, by guaranteeing plasticity of the moral decision-making, and flexibility with regard to personal and circumstantial particulars. Three, that virtue ethics lacks any decision-procedure. Aristotle, however, does offer a decision-formula of some kind, be it not as clear-cut as some may like. We must always calmly and rationally analyse moral dilemma, hold off unreasoned temptations, define vices of excess and deficiency, and find virtue in the mean, against a background of particular circumstances and our particular personality. Fourth, how does one develop a moral character over time? How does the learning process proceed? I am born with the capacity to run, and practicing can make me a better runner. This is a linear process: I develop stamina and muscles. I am born with the capacity to play the piano, and practicing the piano over a period of time improves my piano playing skills. This is also a linear process. The more I practice, the more skilled I become. But developing a virtuous character is not a linear process. Most complex moral dilemmas have equally strong opposite options, and it is often hard to see which lessons I should learn from my actual moral decisions. How do I learn from my decision to bomb a terrorist laboratory while killing 99 innocent bystanders? How does this decision mature my moral character? Does it make my dilemma to bomb the next target any easier, or any better informed?

Aristotle says that if we live virtuously, all the time, for no other reason than virtue, we can achieve a state of contentment and completion, a state of realisation that we are living in accordance with our real purpose. Note how eudaimonia is connected with rationality. Only rationality can lead to eudaimonia, because eudaimonia is a state of completion of our purpose, and our human purpose can only be defined in terms of what makes us humans unique.

But first, can only rationality lead to virtue and eudaimonia? Can I gamble my way towards a virtuous character, or just go with my ‘gut feeling’ and hope for the best? Can I employ someone to make moral decisions on my behalf? What if I blissfully sidestep all moral dilemmas I come across? If all these scenarios consistently turn out well – that is, in a morally approved outcome – would anything keep me from achieving eudaimonia? Is Aristotle correct to correlate virtue with rationality? I will refer back to this later, in my brief discussion of non-cognitivism, where I claim that virtue ethics’ rational introspection fails to acknowledge virtues like empathy. Second, why would I want to be morally good? Does every human aspire eudaimonia, as Aristotle claims, and does eudaimonia necessarily require virtue? Would this mean that restless, ambitious people who are unable to achieve a sense of contentment, have been immoral throughout their lives? Would it mean that a nasty, violent and treacherous career criminal can never achieve eudaimonia? I see no reason why she couldn’t. We all respond differently to experiences in our lives. Some people never get over a simple insult they received as a child, other people happily go on living after acts of cheating, robbing or killing. Third, how do I know that I have achieved a virtuous character? “Because you feel a sense of contentment,” Aristotle may reply. So who judges and decides about whether or not I have achieved this state of mind? “You do,” replies Aristotle. But I would argue that a virtuous character is given, not taken. Given by the moral community. A moral character is, at least in part, a social concept. I cannot claim to be virtuous if I am not awarded this status by my moral community. If I myself am the only criterion and reference point to judge my moral character against, then there is great opportunity for cheating, or “virtue signalling”.

2. The problem: no moral theory, isolated on its own, is able to give conclusive answers to each and every moral dilemma.

Due to the concise nature of this essay, I can only point out moral theories’ most problematic inconsistencies and ambiguities, without being able to delve much deeper into these claims.

Consequentialism’s premise is that we can always predict and measure the consequences of our actions. Reality is, we often can’t. Deontology’s premise is that there are universal rules which we must obey. Which rules, and why these rules? Rules don’t exist in thin air. Where does deontology find the authority for its rules? Whether that authority is grounded in rational thought, religious belief or social consent, it is grounded in assumptions – that humans are rational, god exists, or people have consented. Non-cognitivism’s premise is that we can only be motivated by passions, to which our reason is subjected. But sure this denies the value of intellectual education in our moral maturation. Vices of intolerance, racism and prejudice are often grounded in cognitive ignorance, and can be dissolved with rational arguments. Cognitive arguments do have the power to change people’s morality. Virtue ethics is built on the premise that humans have the capacity to reason, to learn from personal moral challenges and individually grow and mature, and aim to complete our unique purpose in a state of contentment. I have questioned each of these assumptions above.

3. The solution: an all-encompassing, flexible ethical framework

Virtue ethics’ inherent flexibility and focus on learning and maturity allow it, like no other moral theory, to absorb alternative moral theories. While I have very briefly claimed above that all moral theories fail to provide conclusive moral frameworks when isolated on their own, integrated in the broader context of virtue ethics, each of them has an important role to play. Let’s look at these roles.

On its own, consequentialism is substantially limited in its knowledge about the consequences of moral actions, and is therefore substantially limited in its moral judgements. But in the context of virtue ethics, consequentialism has an important role to play. Virtuous actions are defined, not only by their rationality on the scale of the golden mean, but also by their real consequences. A moral agent that consistently acts virtuously for the right reasons but consistently causes pain and damage, cannot be a virtuous character, and cannot achieve eudaimonia. The truth or falseness of the virtuous act is partly defined by its consequences in respect of the recipient. Empathy is a virtue, and should be included in the application of the golden mean. A moral agent that, in good conscience, causes pain, must adjust her actions. Virtue ethics’ time concept, in which we learn from our mistakes, allows for these adjustments.

On its own, deontology focuses on universal rules, procedures and the agent’s duty to adhere to them. Even though it is the agent that is held responsible for actively applying the rules, his individual character, circumstances or development are not taken into account. The agent is only important to the extend that he has the capacity to apply the rules, and whether or not he categorically applies the rules. Ignoring individual, circumstantial factors is one of deontology’s most striking shortcomings. But in the context of virtue ethics, deontology has an important role to play. While virtue ethics fundamentally shifts the focus away from decision-procedure onto the moral agent and the maturity of its moral character, it does allow for mature moral models to guide and lead by example, and postulate helpful, deontological rules in doing so. Virtue ethics embraces the principle of deontology in two ways: deontology can provide helpful shortcuts on our path towards a virtue character, and virtue ethics provides a flexible but nonetheless deontology-like decision formula in the shape of the rational golden mean.

On its own, non-cognitivism lacks universality and consistency, and may lead to moral relativism. If moral actions are driven by personal passions, and reason is slave to these passions, how do we consistently apply individual emotions, passions, urges and whims to varying moral circumstances? Personal emotions, even when tempered by reason, even when guided by a stable and general perspective by morally experienced individuals, cannot guarantee consistency. But in the context of virtue ethics, non-cognitivism has an important role to play, in two ways. Firstly, the emotional desires we feel when reaching out to the world and other people should be – and almost inescapably are – taken into account in our rational process of finding a virtuous mean. Finding a virtuous mean does not need to be, and cannot be, a dry, cold, rational and solely introspective process. It is important to also reach out into the world, to other people, with love and empathy – emotions that are not self-centred, but outward-reaching, and therefore important virtues in themselves. Secondly, the habit of living virtuously instils in us the desire, the disposition, yes the passion to act virtuously, an “… ingrained pattern of action and desire that is manifested over a whole lifetime …” ( ) In other words, a non-rational passion for the world outside of ourselves encourages us to live virtuously, and the habit of living virtuously instils in us a passion to live virtuously in this world.

4. Conclusion

While virtue ethics, isolated on its own, may seem elusive, its time-requirement frustrating, and its assumptions of rationality and eudaimonia flimsy and inconclusive, it does provide the best possible framework to bring together the best aspects of all moral theories, while adding its very own inherent concepts of flexibility, learning and maturity to the whole. No moral theory can provide us with a sole, absolute and self-sufficient set of answers to all moral dilemmas. But virtue ethics provides the best framework for all moral theories to work together in an attempt to offer comprehensive, dynamic answers in response to diverse and dynamic moral dilemmas.

  • Bibliography

  • Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Wordsworth Classics, translated by Harris Rackham, 1996
  • Frans de Waal, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
  • Thomas Nagel, What is it like to be a Bat?, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.
  • p 492, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, [ Ethika Nikomacheia,c 325 BC], extracts from Bk i, Ch 7 and Bk II chs 1, 5 and 6. Translation by John Cottingham, in Western Philosophy (Second Edition) Edited by John Cottingham, Blackwell Publishing, 2008
Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]