History and Tradition in Virtue Ethics

By Caiazza, John C. | Modern Age, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

History and Tradition in Virtue Ethics


Caiazza, John C., Modern Age


Ethical theory is the one area of philosophy that possesses immediate importance because we can apply its conclusions to actual living, in contrast, for example, to metaphysics. How we determine what acts are moral and what morally objectionable obviously influences how we live our lives, if we are at all conscientious or self-aware (or possess a conscience). Personal morality is not necessarily a matter where theory precedes action, yet it is human after all to try to understand our own behavior, and in that manner to develop explicit standards for ourselves, and then on further consideration to try to understand how we came to believe and act on them, and then finally why others have a different understanding of what constitutes ethical behavior.

Ethical theory has applications on a social level as well, since it most often describes standards to judge how we relate to one another in a family or in society at large. Such questions as what parents owe to children or what the individual owes to the state, and vice versa, are all matters that are dealt with under the broad rubric of ethical theory. In contemporary political terms, it seems evident that the Liberal state currently under construction in the United States presumes that individuals owe quite a great deal to the state in terms of taxes and obedience to regulations, while at the same time deserving the state's financial support and official recognition of their particular social group and style of living. Thus we may ask, What broad ethical principles influence or direct the policies of the current Obama administration? And if we oppose the ministrations of this new state--increasingly intrusive, ominously secular, and presumptively omniscient--what set of ethical principles are available to oppose it?

The answer to the first question is that the administration's statist policies are seemingly directed by a utilitarian theory of ethics supplemented by a doctrine of individual expressiveness; the answer to the second is that the most direct opposition is from conservative motives and organizations. The conservative opposition in turn is largely if somewhat vaguely influenced by the idea of personal liberty and responsibility, an attitude that has been associated with natural law ethics but that increasingly finds its philosophical expression in the newly developing theory of virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is an expanding school of philosophy as indicated by the recent appearance of scholarly books and articles; it is noteworthy that the recent turn to virtue ethics is not an explicitly conservative response in the political or ideological sense but arises mostly because of the perceived inadequacies of those ethical theories that have appeared since Enlightenment times. Advocates of teaching virtue, such as William Bennett and Leon Kass, as well as many others these days, present moral education in terms of historical and fictional examples-more can be learned about true leadership from Washington's return to Mount Vernon after the War of Independence than from Aristotle's Politics, more about courage from Sam and Frodo's quest than from Aristotle's Ethics, it might be said. But this refers to the inculcation of virtue and is not really a theory of ethics.

But as a theory or comprehensive account, virtue ethics constitutes a repudiation of the possibility of developing theories of ethics as has been attempted since the seventeenth century, that is, since Hobbes. The historical nature of the case for virtue ethics was originated by two formidable advocates, the English philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe and the American philosopher (transplanted from England and Scotland) Alasdair MacIntyre. The thinking of both figures will provide the background for this essay.

Virtue ethics has as its theoretical basis a view of the history of ethical thought, a view expressed prior to MacIntyre's writings, by G.E.M. Anscombe in her article "Modern Moral Philosophy," written in 1958. …

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