Virtue Dilemma

How do virtue ethicists know what the virtues are? The problem for virtue ethicists can be stated in a dilemma:

Either a virtue is known when an act is carried out by a virtuous person or they are known by some quality in the act not in the agent. 

If a virtue is known when an act is carried out by a virtuous person then we still don’t know what makes the act virtuous and if we don’t know what makes the act virtuous we don’t know what a virtue is. If, on the other hand, we know virtues by some quality in the act, then it is not virtue ethics that tell us what virtues are.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue at my old school, Stowe, Buckinghamshire, England

The most obvious choice is to say that virtues are known intuitively. One can spot them when one sees them. The problem with this answer is that what we are seeing are actions. We may think the action is carried out by a virtuous person and we might be right, but we are trying to justify the virtue by pointing at an action and saying that we can tell that the person has such and such a virtue, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the virtue and it surely doesn’t explain the virtue.

What exactly do we mean when say “look how courageous that person is”? What is the quality apart from the act of courage? We merely point at an act and, from the act, spot an additional quality–the agent’s motive or intention, his attitude perhaps, or some inexpressible detail about the demeanor of the person–and we say, “see! what makes this good is not the action, but the agent who has courage.”But, one can see that an additional quality accorded to the person without reference to the act is pretty vague. All we have really seen is the act of doing something courageous and inferred the rest.

One might respond that the agent involved is not merely one who has been observed carrying out a courageous act, but that he always acts courageously. He is in the habit of doing courageous things. However, this merely says that there are many actions that are right actions and from those actions we can tell that the agent has some disposition to act in that way. The justifying principle is found in the act. We observe the act multiple times and are justified in thinking that courage is a virtue. 

A mixed theory, a theory that combines a rule based system with virtue ethics, might suggest that an act is morally praiseworthy if and only if it is a right action carried out by a person with the natural disposition to carry out right actions. If a person carries out an action that was intended for evil but turned out to be the right action then the agent is not morally praiseworthy. If a person intended a good action, but was not able to achieve it and, instead, produced an evil action then he acts immorally. They might be tempted to conclude that virtue ethics conjoined with a duty ethic is the best ethical theory. 
The trouble with this solution is that there is a difference between a virtue theory of ethics and merely including motivations within a duty theory of ethics. Most duty ethicists include motivation as an important good making quality for an action (Kant made a point of it), so to think that intention is a good making quality one does not have to be a virtue ethicist.

Perhaps, then, the virtue ethicist might suggest that one can think of virtues without acts. It appears possible to think conceptually about qualities such as courage. For example, Aristotle said that a virtue is a mean between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. Courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. One can think about these qualities apart from acts and if that’s possible, then one can justify virtues on those grounds.

The trouble is that virtues are agent linked. In other words a virtue is not an agent independent idea. And how we come to know an agent is through intentional acts. Furthermore, it is not clear what we might mean by “courage” “cowardice” or “foolhardiness” without considering those ideas apart from an agent carrying out an act of those qualities.

Perhaps the most prevalent response is provided by Alasdair MacIntyre who suggested that communities determine virtues. As community-determined entities they are culture and language dependent relying on culturally praised habits and discourse that reflects moral approval on certain qualities the meaning of which is in turn culturally determined. Some suggest this amounts to a cultural relativism according to which there is no act that is inherently evil. McIntyre seemed to accept this charge and argued for his theory in part because duty and utility were pretty poor alternatives.

Though this response invites the criticism  of relativism, it is by no means clear that virtue ethicists are adversely affected by this charge. Sure, virtues are culturally determined, but determined by human communities living in a shared real world according to natural laws inherent in the world. This means that cultures are variously skilled at recognizing natural laws in nature and what it means for human beings to flourish in nature.

An appeal like this, however, suspiciously calls on laws of nature. Surely laws of nature are accorded with best by acting. And if acting is how one accords to a law it is not a virtue ethic.

I have been particularly attracted to virtue ethics since I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue. However, the knowledge problem seems to require me to at least hold to a mixed theory. It is still not clear, however, what shape a mixed theory should take without a distinctive role for virtues and the ground upon which they are justified. 

John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg, Ethics For a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.