The Virtue of Virtues
What makes ‘Virtue’ a good way of thinking about ethics?
Ethics, like any discipline of thought, finds itself caught up in the most fundamental philosophical problem. How to hold together the individual, particular nature of things, while maintaining them as part of a unifying structure.
– The problem of Universals
Ethics participates in this struggle, in that an ethical theory needs to account for the particularity of each ethical subject and situation, while providing normative guidance that applies universally.
Most, if not all, ethical theories tend towards the Universal. They seek to formulate one rule or principle which undergirds all our thinking about what ought to be. In many ways, the core distinctions between ethical theories arise from where they locate this Universal.
A theory of ethics centred on Virtue, holds out the possibility of balancing the Universal and Particular dimensions of decision by connecting making the Universal (a Virtuous quality) operative within a Particular ethical subject. Virtue ethics is not primarily concerned with the nature of ‘Justice’ or ‘Courage’ but with the patterns of moral excellence exhibited by a particularly just or courageous individual. The precise manner in which an individual is just or courageous will be unique, but it will be an unique expression of the Universals ‘Justice’ and ‘Courage’.
Certainly, the relation of Particular and Universal is the matter of continued philosophical debate, but at least an ethical theory derived from Virtue seeks to do justice to both.
All this discussion of Universal and Particular, is more easily understood in Ethics through the tension between ‘Objectivism’ and ‘Relativism’. I think these are unhelpful terms, however, a theory too concerned with the Particular will generally be relativistic – it will struggle to provide ethical guidance across a range of ethical situation. Virtues are generally understood to be objective goods, and therefore appear to avoid falling into a relativistic trap.
It is this attention to the individual that has seen the resurrection of Virtue Ethics throughout the 20th Century. It is certainly a refreshing and helpful turn of events. The de-ontological and teleological ethical theories that had come to dominate Modernist thought suffer greatly from a tendency to obscure or obliterate the place of the individual.
However, I’m not sure that Virtue ethics can deliver on everything it promises.
Being Virtuous isn’t Enough.