Monday, November 10, 2008

Uniting the Factions: Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism

Why is it that people think of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism as incompatible or in tension with each other? It seems to me that each view can be stated in terms of any of the other views. For example, deontological theories state that we must take certain actions and avoid others. But it seems reasonable to think that the reason why we should do those things have something to do with what will happen if we don't -- the consequences of our actions. What a deontologist is basically saying is that consequences matter, but the way that they matter is not simply aggregative. Capricious killing is wrong because your victim dies, and that is morally significant, so you should avoid capricious killing regardless of the overall outcome for society. From there, there will be disagreement about what kinds of consequences ground moral obligations, but that's what we would expect to happen.

To reformulate a deontological view in terms of virtue ethics, it seems like we could ask, "Well why should I do what's morally right?" And the answer, to borrow some terminology from preeminent virtue ethiconomist Dan D'Amico, would be something along the lines of "Because don't be a dick, dick." Working the other way, when we try to think about a hybrid between virtue ethics and deontology, we can see that the marriage helps us deal with what I find to be one of the trickier issues in deontological ethics: imperfect duties. Imperfect duties, I would argue, aren't really duties at all: they're virtues. And because we ought to be virtuous, we should do our best to do virtuous things. Drawing from deontological theories, though, we can understand why some situations are more demanding of us to be virtuous than others: it's not simply that doing certain things is virtuous; we are morally required to do them -- they are our moral duty.

Approaching consequentialism from a virtue ethical standpoint, we can see that narrow-minded teleological views which do not include a place for anything but aggregate felt happiness will not only fail to carry convincing moral weight, but will also likely miss much of what is actually worth promoting about human life and wellbeing. Going the other way, we will see that the propensity to consider the big picture and to take proper account of the consequences of one's actions are obvious virtues, as will be a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the common good.

So essentially, I'm just not seeing why these approaches have to be separate. If anyone can shed some light on this, I'd love to hear it.


neverfox said...

Roderick T. Long said some great things about this very thing in his lectures on a Foundations of Libertarian Ethics. He talks about "consequantialist reasons for becoming a non-consequentialist" all while speaking as a virtue ethicist. I think you will like the lectures if you haven't heard them.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for these; I hadn't seen them before. I'll definitely try to check them out over the next few days. Do you have any idea in which lecture that discussion occurs?

neverfox said...

There are about 15 hours of lectures there and I listened to all of them but didn't (stupid!) take notes. The topic comes up a few times. I would just suggest listening to them in order so because they all build on the previous ones. I need to send Long an email and ask him for the lecture notes that were apparently available to those present.

Danny Shahar said...

I'll certainly give them a listen when I can!

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