How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues

By Roger Crisp | Go to book overview

6
Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, and Symmetry

MICHAEL SLOTE

A distinctive approach to ethics needs its own distinctive ethical principle or set of principles. Whatever one says, for example, about the arguments Rawls gives in defence of his Difference Principle, the Principle itself is an ethically interesting one, and indeed it may represent the most markedly original feature of Rawls's view. (There are obvious precedents to the notion of an original position, and as Rawls himself pointed out, the device of a veil of ignorance had been employed previously. But the idea, roughly, that we should raise the floor of benefits as high as possible for our society is only very partially anticipated in the historically familiar assumption that social, political, or moral rules should be to everyone's benefit even if they benefit some more than others.)

Act-utilitarianism also, of course, is distinguished by its underlying principles or principle (assuming only that we are capable of fixing on a particular formulation of the Principle of Utility), and other well- known ethical theories, e.g. Kantianism, also rest on or employ certain individuating fundamental principles. But virtue ethics has seemed different. Its advocates have considered it an advantage in ethics to rely on ideals of character or motive rather than on injunctions or rules, and so it may seem obvious that what is most distinctive of genuine virtue ethics will be its refusal to promulgate itself through, and base itself on, rules, principles, or general injunctions. (On such an understanding of virtue ethics, Aristotle's doctrine of the mean presumably does not give rise to an injunction to act medially in all situations.)

In the present essay, however, I shall argue that a certain sort of common-sense virtue ethics is naturally, indeed essentially, associated with its own distinctive principles or general injunctions. And it will turn out that an important subset of those principles bears a strong resemblance to utilitarianism's own Principle of Utility. Both utilitarianism and the

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