Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Virtue of Virtue Ethics

A fundamental (no doubt the fundamental) question in normative ethics is: What makes an action or policy the right (or just) course of action? Is it the consequences of an action/policy? Or is it the extent to which an action or policy conforms to a particular principle? In philosophical debates about ethics a great deal of energy has been exerted weighing up the pros and cons of consequentialist vs deontological accounts of ethics.

So where do I place myself in this debate? Of late I have been moving further and further away from both of these positions, and closer towards a virtue-oriented political and personal ethic. That is, I don’t think the rightness or wrongness of a particular action or policy depends (ultimately) on its purported consequences or on its conformity to particular principles. Why not?

Well, with respect to appealing to consequences, there are a couple of problems. Which consequences matter the most (in different contexts)? And *who* decides which consequences matter the most in these different contexts? I what a moral theory that takes these concerns very seriously.

Furthermore, we often have imperfect information concerning the likelihood that particular actions or policies will be followed by particular consequences. What do we do if there are competing claims concerning the proposed efficiency or inefficiency, for example, of particular policies? Policy analysts claim “X” and yet group activists claim “not-X”. What do we do to resolve this disagreement? How do we make sound decisions in conditions of indeterminacy, fallibility, imperfect information and other non-ideal constraints? Whose judgment should we trust to provide us with reliable answers to different difficult questions? Appealing to a consequentialist ethic will not help us navigate many of the challenges we face when making individual and collective decisions in the real, non-ideal world.

Tackling the kinds of concerns I raised above are what I want a moral theory to address. And such concerns are often discarded or sidelined by the desire to formulate some over-arching fundamental currency of welfare- like preference satisfaction, the greatest happiness etc. , which is purported to provide us with the blueprint for creating a more humane society. But the moral terrain is so complex that I doubt consequentialism alone will give us adequate guidance.

How much weight should we place, for example, on greater economic prosperity vs better healthcare, education or national defense? These decisions will impact the life prospects of different citizens as well as non-nationals and future generations. How much weight should we place on the interests of our intimates vs strangers, non-nationals, other species, or future generations?

No doubt consequentialists might retort that all of these are secondary concerns, that they do not distract us from the ultimate concern—that the consequences are what makes an action right or wrong. But for me, these considerations are not simply something that one can resolve by merely fine-tuning one’s favoured version of consequentialism. Rather this quagmire of concerns should be at the forefront of our moral theory. They should inform, in a substantive manner, our moral theory (rather than being something we address as an afterthought).

And what about the appeal to principles? I expressed my related concerns about the principled paradigm here. So you can visit that post to hear my list of complaints against the principled paradigm.

But let me just finish with this final thought- the most difficult decisions we face in life, both as individuals and collectively as a society, are typically decisions we don’t have to answer, once and for all, at one particular moment in time. They are questions we continue to revisit, time and time again (e.g. healthcare reform, the environment, the economy, balancing work and family, etc.). As time goes on the circumstances change, new information comes to light, our moral sensibilities evolve. How we respond to these changing circumstances is really the measure of our moral integrity, rather than appeals to consequentialism or deontology.

We view the moral agent as one who learns from experience, who exercises the appropriate amount of humility, who is willing to defer judgment when faced with tough decisions they are not well positioned to answer, who is willing to consult with others, and who is open-minded. This is all lost if we say— “the right decision is that which promotes the best consequences or moral principles”. Such a vision of ethics is worrisome for a variety of reasons. One concern is that it can delude us into thinking that we can be self-sufficient at living a moral life. That all we need to do, if we want to make the right decision, is get the information about the consequences right, or properly deduce what the principles from some hypothetical original position are.

I believe virtue ethics offers us a much richer and attractive account of morality than its main theoretical rivals.