Thursday, August 08, 2002

For example, in his book Character, (Oxford University Press, 1191), Joel Kupperman states that “a great deal of ethical philosophy of the last two hundred years looks both oversimple and overintellectualized… philosophers have treated morality as if each of us is a computer which needs a program for deciding moral questions…. Ethics…in this view is at work only at those discrete moments when an input is registered and the moral decision-procedure is applied (pp. 71-72).” Kupperman focuses on three problems with the decision-procedure model of ethics.

First, the “decision-procedure is parasitic upon and presupposes a classification scheme of features of the world that we are supposed to treat as salient.” Input is never neutral or completely obvious; to know what is salient, relevant, significant in our experience requires capacities of perception and articulation that the decision procedure cannot itself provide. Kupperman appeals to the ineliminable role of the agent’s sensitivity to the concrete situation. The ability to apply a decision procedure presupposes moral education and experience. Kupperman here provides his own version of Aristotle’s warning at the outset of the Ethics that moral philosophy will profit only those who have already been well brought up, who in some way already possess the starting points of ethics.

Second, even given such a classification scheme, the decision-procedure is notoriously indeterminate in the results it yields. Consider, for example, the interminable debates over whether Kantian universalization does or does not rule out suicide, lying, or theft. In the case of utilitarianism, critics are fond of arguing that the maximization of happiness can be used to justify patently heinous acts like the murder or torture of the innocent. Of course, utilitarians offer clever rebuttals, arguing that the calculus need not result in the justification of such acts. The real problem is that the calculus seems to necessitate no specific course of action whatsoever.

Third, the decision-procedure is “oriented toward single decisions, viewed as disconnected from other decisions, in a way which ignores or slights the moral importance of continuity of commitment.” (p. 74). The objection touches upon the atomism of the decision procedure model; sometimes this atomism is exhibited in a fascination with so-called moral dilemmas, as if morality were peripheral to ordinary life, only coming into play in unusual moments of conflict and confusion. Atomism also presupposes that acts and agents are intelligible in abstraction from contexts. Kupperman and others reject the modern partitioning of the moral as a specific realm of human life and recall the ancient conception of the ethical as coextensive with the human.


A related problem with kantian and utilitarian ethical theories is that even where they find an important role for virtue, say in the utilitarian benevolence or Kantian self-control, they seem to reduce the multiplicity of virtues operative in human life to one overriding virtue. This calls to mind Anscombe’s charge against impoverished vocabulary of “modern moral philosophy.” Her modest proposal is that instead of identifying a bad act as “against the moral law or morally wrong,” we should at least “name a genus,” such as untruthful or unchaste.


For now, I want to suggest that virtue ethics has failed to be sufficiently ambitious, systematic, and comprehensive in its reflections on ethics. It still lacks what Elizabeth Anscombe called for in her famous essay, namely, an “adequate moral psychology.” To revive anything like Aristotle’s ethical program would require resuscitating an account of nature and teleology. In spite of some impressive gestures in this direction by MacIntyre (Dependent Rational Animals) and Hursthouse (On Virtue Ethics), there remains a dearth of material on these topics. For a variety of reasons, most virtue ethicists see these sorts of questions as distractions from what they take to be their more concrete and detailed inquiries into the virtues. But even here the results often leave much to be desired. In spite of its persistent appeals to experience, community, history and narrative, the treatments of specific virtues too often lack rich, empirical detail. With the notable exception of MacIntyre, there is still a tendency among virtue ethicists to adduce a generic list of virtues, with quick descriptions of each. And thinking about certain virtues, most notably justice, is almost nonexistent (Hursthouse cites justice as the most obvious gap in the current literature; see On Virtue Ethics, p. 5).

From a lecture by Thomas Hibbs at the Faith and Reason Institute

No comments: