, ,

There are three main traditions in Western moral philosophy. Deontological ethics stresses the primacy of more or less inviolable rules such as “do not kill” or “do not lie” or “do not steal.” Consequentialism holds that behavior is evaluated to the extent that it leads to good consequences; good consequences variously described as pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction. The third is virtue ethics which emphasizes the cultivation of certain states of character such as bravery, moderation, wisdom, and justice.

Despite these being considered the three main moral traditions in Western philosophy, I don’t think anyone has ever actually lived their lives according to deontological or consequentialist principles, whereas virtue ethics actually has been the foundation of both Western and Eastern moral systems.

For example, take this passage from Pride and Prejudice:

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, so divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can—But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

“Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”

“Such as vanity and pride.”

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

The characters of Pride and Prejudice are constantly discussing each others virtues and vices (even in the title). (I don’t know if Pride and Prejudice is an accurate description of life during the Regency, but it at least shows that someone trying to describe life in the Regency has its characters concerned with each others virtues and vices.)

In my experience, people today similarly discuss each other’s character, only that our vocabulary and understanding of the virtues is sadly crude and impoverished. (I am not advocating a return to Regency mores; it is only an example of a society where virtue plays a central role. I could have chosen just about any time period or civilization as examples of virtue-based public morality such as traditional Japan and China, Greece, Rome, etc.).

On the other hand, our current post-1960s public morality practices none of the Western traditions. The current popular ethics is a toxic waste dump of existentialism, Freudianism, post-structuralism, and “critical theory.” It is as if we have gone through a selection process for justifications for doing what our appetites direct.  When The West has gone from this:

to this:

in a century it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there has been a concerted effort to promote degradation.

The public morality of 2015 has it origins in the dispute between two models of autonomy. For Plato and Kant, one is self-ruled when you rule yourself. For Plato this happens when the reason rules over the appetites and emotions; for Kant it is when the reason controls one’s inclinations. The opposing view of autonomy has its origins in existentialism in claiming that self-rule is opposed to other-rule. The existentialists believed one needed to be free from all outside influences of church, tradition, parental influence, and social norms if one is to be “authentic.” Instead, one ought to freely choose one’s own principles by which to live. (Predictably, Sartre didn’t really want people to actually be able to choose their principles; he wrestled with the consequence of his theory that one could, say, choose to be a Nazi. He could not abide that on his theory there could be an authentic Nazi. Sartre really wanted everyone to choose the principles he wanted them to choose.)

As Plato (or Darwin) could have predicted, the existentialist rejection of any outside influence on the will didn’t usher in a golden age of existentialist heroes, it simply resulted in giving free reign to the appetites. And so today’s attack on “fat-shaming” or “slut-shaming” marches under the flag of freedom from societal pressure, but really just hands the will over to the appetites. Whenever you hear advice such as “do what you want,” “don’t care what anyone else thinks,” “listen to your heart,” “be true to yourself,” “respect my freedom of choice,” or “people ought to be empowered to resist societal pressure to follow their own path” you are being instructed in public morality c. 2015. These imperatives almost always ultimately reduce to “do what your appetites and feelings dictate.” They likewise produce corresponding public duties such as “you may not criticize someone for pursuing their desires” or “do not judge anyone for doing what they want.”

These two views of autonomy remain in conflict. Although the message to “don’t care what anybody thinks, follow your heart” is blasted at us through popular culture, as I mentioned above, people continue to criticize each others character, and many people continue to cultivate excellences in themselves (although their official non-judgementalism prevents them from actually acknowledging that this is what they are doing). I am going to ask readers to wipe their mind clean of all the rules they have absorbed from popular culture over the course of your life and approach the issue from a fresh perspective. It is quite liberating to throw out all the garbage and declare that you will not live by these rules any longer.

The aim of this series of posts is to begin the work of producing an ethical system to replace the current debauched public morality which leaves destroyed lives and relationships in its wake. As I mentioned, virtue ethics was the dominant ethical system for most of the history of Western civilization, but it was all but dead for much of the 20th century where deontological, consequentialist, and relativistic theories battled it out to mutual exhaustion. Deontological and consequentialist theories have their place; for example, the law probably needs to be deontological. But neither of these is suitable for being a basis on which one may live their life.

Although virtue ethics was all but dead in moral philosophy, there has been a revival of interest in virtue ethics in the last 30 – 40 years. There is now an immense literature dedicated to the topic. In order to produce a modern approach I will begin with a quick overview of classical virtue ethics. Then I will introduce some modern elements in order to overcome the objections to classical virtue ethics in order to emerge with a contemporary model.

Classical Virtue Ethics:

Classical virtue ethics was based around three teleological notions: an item’s end (also called a final cause or telos), its function, and its virtues or excellences.

Here is Plato’s presentation of these concepts:

Tell me, do you think there is such a thing as the function of a horse?

I do.

And would you define the function of a horse or anything else as that which one can do only with it or best with it?

I don’t understand.

Let me put it this way: Is it possible to see with anything other than eyes?

Certainly not.

Or to hear with anything other than ears?


Then, we are right to say that seeing and hearing are the functions of eyes and ears?

Of course.

Now, I think you’ll understand what I was asking earlier when I asked whether the function of each thing is what it alone can do or what it does better than anything else.

I understand, and I think that this is the function of each.

All right. Does each thing to which a particular function is assigned also have a virtue? Let us go over the same ground again. We say that eyes have some function?

They do.

So there is also a virtue of eyes?

There is.

And ears have a function?


So there is also a virtue of ears?

There is.

And all other things are the same, aren’t they?

They are.

And could eyes perform their function well if they lacked their peculiar virtue and had the vice instead?

How could they, for don’t you mean if they had blindness instead of sight?

Whatever their virtue is, for I’m not now asking about that but about whether anything that has a function performs it well by means of its own peculiar virtue and badly by means of its vice?

That’s true, it does. (Republic, 352d – 353d)


In other words, where something has a function it also has a virtue. The function of the heart, for example, is to pump blood so that it may fulfill its end of providing nutrients to the body. Furthermore, where a thing has a function it has certain features that allow it to perform its function. These are the distinctive virtues or excellences of the thing and it is the possession of the excellences or virtues that make an item a good one of its kind. A good heart is one that possesses the features of hearts–the muscle tissue, four chambers, a way to mix oxygen with blood, and so on—that allow it to pump blood.

For Plato, virtue resulted when reason performed its function of controlling the other parts of the soul. When the reason controlled the appetites, the individual possessed the virtue of moderation. When reason controlled the spirit, it possessed courage. This image, that the reason ought to control the appetites and emotions in order to be good and live a good life, is the foundational model for Western ethics. But this has been overturned by our current public morality which celebrates acting on our immediate appetites and emotions.

The great enemy of Plato’s view that reason ought to control the appetites is Hume who held that reason can not produce behavior and always serves the passions or sentiment. Reason can be inductive or deductive, but neither can produce behavior (today we would probably call Hume’s “passions” internal imperative representations). I agree with Plato that virtue involves controlling the appetites and emotions, but I also agree with Hume that reason can not produce behavior. Squaring these two views will be the topic of part II.

Let’s switch now to Aristotle’s presentation of these concepts:

“Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function so it would seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these?” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b25)

“We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of the thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” (1106a17).

So for Plato and Aristotle, evaluating the goodness of a person is a lot like evaluating the goodness of a car, computer, or other manufactured device. The first thing you do is figure out what the things function is; then you figure out if it possesses the features that allow it to perform this function. Take something like a computer. Its end it to produce information for its users, its function is to take input, process it, and produce output. A good computer is one which possesses the features which allow it to do this: a fast processor, fast and sufficient memory, input devices, and so on. These features are the excellences or virtues—the good-making qualities—of computers.

For Aristotle, the end of humans is happiness, its function is reason, and the virtues are the properties of reason that allow it to achieve our ends. Traits like practical and theoretical wisdom, justice, moderation, and bravery are how reason works to produce happiness.

It is potentially misleading to claim that the end for humans is happiness. It threatens to conflate our subjective end with the end of our kind. If humans are designed to seek happiness it is only a means to nature’s further end of survival and reproduction. Darwin would therefore agree with Aquinas that preserving life and having offspring are the precepts of Natural Law, and that the subjective pursuit of happiness must not be the final end for humans, but a means to these more fundamental ends.

Human lives have a form determined by nature: to grow and learn as children, to find a mate, to bear children, to work to support them as adults. In order to increase the chances of doing this successfully, humans work cooperatively with others and form institutions to further shared interests. Striving to live out the natural form of a human life as excellently as possible is the end for humans. Luckily, nature has also designed us to find happiness in successfully reaching these milestones: marriage, childbirth, friendship, and successful labor are pretty much universally celebrated sources of happiness in human cultures. On the other hand, behavior that takes you away from doing a good job at successfully living a human life—excessive drug use, promiscuity, childlessness, laziness–ought to be shunned.

I can hear people shouting “naturalistic fallacy!” Just because human life has a form doesn’t mean we ought to live it! We reactionary types have an answer to objections like this: we allow you to go against nature, if you want, but such values can never endure, the world is always inherited by those who live by enduring, survivable, principles and live by nature’s rules. (We sometimes colorfully put this as allowing “gnon” to devour those who would leap into his jaws.) We are only interested in reaching those who wish to subscribe to enduring values and happily allow others to take the path of extinction, as long as they don’t take us with them.

This teleological framework of virtue ethics all came crumbling down with the advent of modern philosophy. Part of the problem was that Plato’s definition of a function as “that which one can do only with it or best with it” is severely inadequate. The function of sperm is to fertilize an egg, but that is not what they only do or do best, seeing as most fail. Furthermore, Aristotle tried to apply teleology to physics, and so his explanation for why, say, fire rises, was that it was the end, or final cause, of fire to go up. His explanation for why stones move downward when you drop them was that it was the final cause for stones to move downward. In other words, it was not much of an explanation.

Rejection of final causes paved the way for the magnificent success of atomism and Newtonian physics as they swept away the teleological approach which had dominated for millennia. The movement of objects could now be explained by natural forces and laws without having to refer to final causes at all. As Hume writes: “all causes are of the same kind, and that in particular there is no foundation for that distinction, which we sometimes make betwixt efficient causes, and causes sine qua non; or betwixt efficient causes, and formal, and material, and exemplary, and final causes.”

We will see how virtue ethics may avoid these problems in part II.