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Virtue Ethics for the Modern Age

Scott Adams, creator of the popular comic strip Dilbert, trained hypnotist and erudite public commentator, posed what may seem like an odd question on his blog last year: “why do we need moral leadership?” The context of the question was his suggestion that the White House (and the Trump administration) is under no obligation to provide a moral vision for the United States, or that, in any event, Americans do not need them to. Perhaps this is true. The underlying point, however, was that morality, in Adams’ view, is a common sense matter, which people do not need instruction on. This is so wrong that it encapsulates the central error of our time. We are in the midst of a momentous historical transition. Societal evolution (or devolution), in the grip of raging currents of technological progress and the decline of faith in modern institutions, has generated a zeitgeist that has yielded deep reflections on society’s current structural and psychological arrangements. Despite all that has been said about the decline of the academy, intellectual life is alive and well in the digital sphere. So too are conversations about well-being and meaning: Deepak Chopra, Sam Harris, Tony Robbins, Jordan Peterson and a far wider spectrum of thinkers and motivators ground their belief systems in one or both of these themes. In this cultural context, Scott Adams argues that morality—as a specific subject of behavioral instruction, as opposed to a category of psychological or sociological analysis—need not be discussed. Indeed, it could be argued that this is the tacit consensus of society. Moral instruction is a thing of the past, the concept fraught with overtones of presumptuousness and dogmatism. Yet, if asked, most people would say that a moral disposition is fundamental to the health of society. The question, then is “what does it mean to be moral?” The best answer, I argue, is that it is “to be virtuous.” But what is virtue, and how do we ground virtue in society? What might a system of virtue ethics look like in our modern age?

Virtue and Fulfillment

The idea of virtue is a bit quaint. Yet, for 1,800 years (from the times of Plato to the end of the medieval period) a philosophical consensus existed regarding the primacy of virtue to the human experience. Virtue in essence is the substance of moral character. Virtue ethics is an ethical approach focused on character as the basis of ethical thought. Moral character, in turn, is synonymous with the moral individual and moral individuals are necessary to the composition of a moral society. It is necessary for society to be moral—meaning good—if society is to be happy. That happiness may legitimately (though not undisputedly) be thought of as the core objective of life. Happiness itself may be understood as the culmination of virtue and can therefore serve as a useful means of clarifying the topic. In Aristotle’s words:

Happiness is something which is both precious and final … for, it is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else … Moreover, since happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with complete or perfect virtue, it is necessary to consider virtue, as this will be the best way of studying happiness.

Happiness is often defined as synonymous with joy. What is translated as “happiness” from ancient Greek philosophy texts, however, is the term eudaimonia.  Eudaimonia is also defined as “flourishing” or “well-being.” For the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Eudaimonia is, avowedly, a moralized or value-laden concept of happiness, something like ‘true’ or ‘real’ happiness or ‘the sort of happiness worth seeking or having.’” Eudaimonia does not therefore describe a passing wave of joy nor is it jargon defining mental health. It is a vision of happiness rooted in the idea of moral fulfillment. (Such an idea could not exist without relationship to “meaning.”)

Most of the history of virtue ethics is tied to the pursuit of eudaimonia (which I will call “fulfillment.”) There are versions of virtue ethics that are not tied to fulfillment, and part of what we must consider in our own time is whether or not virtue truly is—or ought to be considered as—more than just the pursuit of fulfillment. Yet, virtue ethics as a category of ethical theory first needs to be defended against competing moral postures.

Rival Theories

Over one hundred years ago, just as the First World War was beginning, famed theologian, humanitarian and moral philosopher Albert Schweitzer asked himself a question. He was in a boat floating down the Ogowe River in what was then the French African territory of Gabon, where he had voluntarily settled, in order to dedicate his life to serving the African people as a doctor, to atone for the sins of Europeans on that continent. He asked himself how a culture could be brought into being that possessed a greater moral depth and energy than the one we live in.

Ethical theory has developed three schools which address this question. Virtue ethics is one. The other two are what are sometimes called the “act-based theories”: deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics. Each has its own philosophical history, notable proponents and variety of forms. And each has had a greater impact on the moral thinking of Western civilization over the last several hundred years than have any ethical theories rooted in virtue.

Deontological ethics refers to ethical systems based on adherence to specific duties or rules designed to govern ethical behavior. Many religious moral systems fall into this category. In philosophy, the best-known example of a deontological ethical principle is Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which urges us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Consequentialist ethics (including utilitarianism), on the other hand, is characterized by a focus on the outcomes of actions as determinative of their ethical quality. The notion that “the ends justify the means” is a consequentialist sentiment. The most prominent formal philosophical statement of consequentialist ethical principle is probably Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest happiness principle,” a version of which argues that, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”

Most people are not familiar with these categories of ethical system by name. Yet, every day, society and individuals struggle to choose between them and adopt the appropriate framing through which to discuss and model morality. In political debate, every argument pitting re-distributionism against individual liberties is implicitly an argument between a consequentialist approach to ethics (“we have to maximize public good by raising taxes and providing healthcare”) and a deontological approach (“government must allow people to choose how they spend their own money according to the rule of their own free decisions”). Rights are, in some sense, rules that exist to protect liberties or entitlements. In liberal democracies, rights are traditionally formulated in terms of liberties. Political policies that restrict liberties are generally (not exclusively) justified in pragmatic terms.

Virtue ethics is distinct from both of these. There are no policy implications to such a system. This has been seen as a flaw of a virtue-centered focus on morality. Yet, it is more likely to be the main virtue of virtue theories. Human experience shows that sometimes it’s better to follow prescribed rules (which are important to the structures of society) and sometimes it’s better to make pragmatic choices (which allow us to pursue our greater interests when the existing rules have become maladaptive). There will, and should, always be a tension between these two types of actions. But actions are not the foundation of moral character. Moral intent is. And that is a question of virtue.

Those who believe in virtue ethics as the proper grounding of moral philosophy have traditionally tended to consider and enumerate those critical virtues which we all ought to embody.  The classical Greek virtues include temperance, prudence, courage and justice. These were adopted as the “cardinal virtues” in the Christian tradition, to which in the middle ages were added the “theological virtues”: faith, hope and charity (love), derived from the letters of the apostle Paul. There have been other combinations. Adam Smith had multiple categories of virtues, including virtues allowing one “to enter into the sentiments of” the other person (the “amiable” (meaning empathetic) virtues”); virtues allowing one to “bring down his emotions to what the spectator can go along with” (the “respectable virtues,” including self-control); and many others. These were all predated by the Confucian virtues, ren, yi, li, zhi and xin (roughly, “benevolence,” “justice,” “observance of rites,” “knowledge” and “integrity” respectively.)

A fair amount of energy has been spent quantifying the virtues. Yet quantifying the virtues and embodying them are not the same things. It is enough perhaps to know that there are a variety of virtues. The question is how to exemplify them?

Admiration and Emulation

Aristotle saw virtue as existing in two modes: intellectual and moral. The first, he claims, “is both originated and fostered mainly by teaching,” and requires experience and time. The second “is the outcome of habit.” The two are not unrelated, however. Of the general relationship between wisdom and moral virtue, he says, “Virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it.” In this construction, virtue gives us the impetus to do what is right. Practical wisdom (empathy, open-mindedness, love of truth, imaginativeness, etc.) gives us the capacity to clearly recognize what that right thing is.

This basic Aristotelian formulation has been preserved in the thought of contemporary ethical philosophers such as Linda Zagzebski, who has supported the idea that there is an essential integration of the moral and intellectual virtues, wherein one is facilitated by the other. Zagzebski, however, has emphasized that human beings gather and integrate information as to what constitutes virtuous behavior in a manner that is not strictly intellectual. In her view, people learn about virtuous behavior by observing the personalities of virtuous individuals. This phenomenon is reflected in the stories that we tell each other about paragons of virtue. (“Observation does not have to be limited to what we observe in a laboratory. Narratives count as observation.”)

These role models are looked up to, whether by members of a single family or by entire cultures. We exhibit virtuous action in our own lives by emulating these exemplars. This process begins with admiration, which leads to emulation. This process, in which admiration and emulation produce narrative examples of virtue, overlaps almost precisely with Jordan Peterson’s emphasis on admiration and the illustration of moral truth in the form of archetypes expressed in mythology and religious tradition. Admiration is key to igniting the engine of moral embodiment (in this sense, “admiration” is an intellectual virtue).

Peterson explains, “There’s a reason you admire someone … that’s a hint to your intrinsic value structure right? You wouldn’t admire someone unless there was something about them that you valued and perhaps that you would also like to be able to do.”

Peterson sees this as part of the human search for meaning and the realization of being. Similarly, Zagzebski sees this process as necessary to human flourishing (the realization of eudaimonia). Yet, recognizing that a virtuous life can lead to great suffering (as with martyrs like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi) she makes a distinction between the “desirable life” and the “admirable life.” The desirable life is a life of flourishing and the admirable life a life of virtue. Accordingly, one can live a life of virtue, whether or not one is flourishing in material or emotional terms.

Zagzebski makes this distinction both because of the frequent gap between “joy” and “meaning” in the outcomes of a virtuous life, but also because, in her own estimation, the idea of the admirable life gives us greater direction by which to guide our actions than does the desirable life (the life of eudaimonia):

It seems to me that we are very unclear about what a desirable life is like. We know some of its features, including health, financial resources, love and friendship, and freedom from suffering. But that does not tell us very much.

In fact, even if that is supplemented by an account of the virtues and we come to accept, with Aristotle, that a desirable life requires living virtuously, that still does not tell us what to do all day long.

It does not tell you whether to go to college and what to major in. It doesn’t tell you whom to marry and whether to marry, how to handle your money, how to contribute to civic life, and all the hundreds of other choices both large and small that you need to make every day.

My suggestion is that a desirable life is a life we would desire if we knew what the wisest people know about a desirable life. That leads to defining a desirable life in terms of what admirable persons desire. An admirable life is a life lived by admirable persons, persons we admire upon reflection. A desirable life is a life desired by admirable persons.

Zagzebski’s explanation above almost reads like a tautology. Yet, given that the exercise of virtue occurs across too many situations to be absolutely governed by rules, and that the moral impulse is generated from within, there is wisdom in elevating the practice of virtue to a place in which much of it is derived simply from distilling the wisdom of our own native instincts about the substance of virtue from the examples that have compelled the moral admiration of mankind.

Is it possible then that a virtue ethics that guides us into the future will also conscientiously peer backwards into the past? There are similarities in the examples of Jesus of Nazareth, King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Harriet Tubman. The virtues of courage, truthfulness, love and self-sacrifice are evident in each of these figures. We learn more about their virtues by absorbing their lived examples than by analyzing the definitional implications of words like courage and selflessness.

On the other hand, there are certainly people who are celebrated as admirable figures by some, while criticized by others. Thomas Jefferson is admired as a wise statesmen by some, reviled as a slave owner and a manipulative politician by others. Nelson Mandela, a moral leader to millions, has never been forgiven by some for his early history of political violence. Yet, if we regard wisdom and truthfulness as virtues, as all of these figures did, we can recognize that a flawed moral hero is still moral precisely in proportion to the degree to which he or she did embody virtue. One can still admire the passion and idealism of Thomas Jefferson and emulate his example in those areas, while refraining from any deceitfulness or hypocrisy he may have committed. One can walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela insofar as he modeled endurance, moral courage and magnanimity, without any intention to imitate acts of violence.

The Case for Virtue

The citizens of the United States of America did not elect their current president to be a moral leader. Perhaps a president should be a moral leader, or perhaps it does not matter whether he is or not. But that moral leadership is unnecessary cannot be true, because virtue itself is needed to stabilize the core of society and virtue is communicated through example. Philosophical reflection upon the nature of virtue is important. Its role, however, is to sharpen our intuitive appreciation of the substance of a moral character. That intuitive appreciation is vital.

As Albert Schweitzer felt himself carried upon the gentle currents of the Ogowe River, flanked by a family of hippopotami on the river bank, the sun setting at his back, Schweitzer was struck as if by revelation with an answer to his question of how a culture could be brought into being that possessed a greater moral depth and energy than the one we live in. The answer would define his moral philosophy: a “reverence for life”:

As far as I knew, it was a phrase I had never heard nor ever read. I realized at once that it carried within itself the solution to the problem that had been torturing me. Now I knew that a system of values which concerns itself only with our relationship to other people is incomplete and therefore lacking in power for good. Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us … through reverence for life, we become, in effect, different persons.

Virtue ethics do not have to be spiritual. Yet all virtue is internal. The virtue Schweitzer highlights here, the virtue of “reverence for life,” he perceived as the virtue that allowed him and others to commit themselves to the selfless service of humanity and all living things. Albert Schweitzer also said that “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success” and “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” In the generations that have followed Schweitzer’s humanitarian work in Africa, countless people and organizations have continued Schweitzer’s work or expanded it in his name. Schweitzer’s teachings have done much to instill virtue in humanity. Yet, the example of his person—including, but not limited to, his written philosophy—has done even more. “My life is my argument,” he declared. This was a knowing statement of the fact that virtue is conveyed more effectively through the example of action than through words alone.

We can spot a similar pattern with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the philosophy of nonviolence. Nonviolent resistance demanded the integration of love as a virtue to be effectively activated, in King’s estimation: “At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate.” King’s writings on nonviolence contain multiple claims that he was influenced by moral role models, such as Jesus and Gandhi, in developing and implementing his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. To observe King’s actions across the course of his career is to observe the evidence of these influences. The virtues of love, compassion, honesty, courage and sacrifice continue to be transmitted to the generations that have followed him through the admiration the world holds for Martin Luther King.

Nevertheless, the moral conversation has for many years largely been a conversation held upon utilitarian and deontological foundations. The political left asks “what policies will yield a moral society?” The cultural right asks “what rules?” Our economic analysts consistently return to the question of incentives and try to discover ways to tinker with the structures of society, so as to align the interests of individuals and institutions, in order to guide us to voluntarily do that which is in the interest of others.

There is a place for these conversations precisely because there are indeed morally relevant questions that virtue ethics cannot answer, including in the area of public policy. There is also room for a more systematic and theoretical deconstruction of the operations of virtue than that which can be devised through the elevation of virtue exemplars alone. What are the differences between the individual virtues? How do they manifest themselves in particular situations?

What society needs now is a cultural mooring capable of maintaining a ballast against the tempests of social polarization and geopolitical uncertainty. We need a consensus of values that transcends political ideology and the strictures of religion. We must return to a recognition of virtue in history, a dialectic about where precisely we find virtue in the actions and attitudes of those who, however imperfectly, set moral examples, and why they inspire us. We must return to a dialogue about the virtues, individually and holistically, and explore the nature of love, courage, kindness and truthfulness with reference to those human beings whose actions give these qualities dimension.

Let us return to an embrace of the primacy of virtue as a guide to moral action. Let us establish the centrality of moral example in anchoring the defining narratives of culture and society. Let us consider character for its own sake, as the root cure for the moral ambiguity that plagues us. Let us make the case for virtue ethics in the modern age.

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