Virtue Ethics

By now we all agree that modern ethics – at least utilitarianism and deontology – has gone badly wrong somewhere. A natural response is to go back before the problem and see what we had then, so let’s take a look at the main branch of pre-Enlightenment ethics: virtue ethics.

Instead of trying to figure out what the moral rules are, a virtue ethicist tries to imagine the most moral person. In particular, the virtue ethicist tries to achieve a balance of virtues in life. Balance is the key word here, because the central insight of virtue ethics is that there can be too much of an ethically good thing. Caution exaggerated becomes cowardice; boldness exaggerated becomes brashness; mildness exaggerated becomes milquetoast, and so on. The virtue ethicist keeps a careful watch on the motives that characterize her action to make sure that she strikes what Aristotle called the Golden Mean between extremes.

This sounds pretty good! Already we’ve avoided thinking of life as a series of acts, the primary pitfall of post-Enlightenment ethics. But are there any dodgy psychological assumptions in virtue ethics that might make it a poor model for day-to-day life?

Maybe. It’s certainly plausible that trying to model ourselves on some ideal person is a practical way of living ethically. In fact – and I say this as observation, not justification – it’s likely that we evolved to learn ethical behaviour by copying those around us, especially during childhood. On the other hand, a skeptic like Nietzsche might be saying “hold on, what’s a virtue, really?”

Are virtues like pity and compassion really descriptive of the way we think? Aren’t there good and bad instances of pity that can’t be accounted for by calling the good ones moderate and the bad ones too extreme? And aren’t some ‘virtues’ actively harmful to our flourishing as individuals? This is a somewhat-cartoonish summary of Nietzsche’s critique. It’s worth noting, however, that Nietzsche critiqued utilitarian and deontological modes of thought much more harshly. Virtue ethics must have something going for it after all.


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