Monday, January 19, 2015

Virtue ethics state of the nation report

Although I've never announced it as such, this blog is part of a personal project to actually live virtue ethics instead of just thinking about it. For the most part, I have not written about how this works out in my life because I don't think it's a good idea to talk about yourself that way. What follows, therefore, is not autobiographical but a sort of lessons learned.

1. Virtue ethics and rules are not exclusive. 

My experience is that you need rules to live. You need two kinds of rules. You need rules that set goals. For example: I will not lose my temper with that irritating jerk of a boss/colleague/brother-in-law/sister/ex-girlfriend who always gets under my skin. You also need rules that set outer limits: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother." [Mark 10:19]

2. Virtue ethics makes rules more useful

Rules are binary. If I tell myself I'm not going to blow up at that sibling who always pulls my chain I do so because I have a history of failure. I do this all the time and I don't like this in myself and I want to change. That's all good but look what happens when I make this a rule. The next time I see my sister I'm either going to succeed or be a failure.  If I fail, then the rule is also a failure. It has served me no purpose. [This, I think, is a big part of Saint Paul's point about works of the law.]

At the same time, there are some rules that we set with the precise intention that they never will be broken. You might call these third-rail rules because very dire consequences follow from them. You might, for all that, still fail; at which point you will have to continue living your life.

"Why have these rules if the consequences of failing are so obvious and dire?" Because they set measurable limits. Sex with someone who isn't your spouse or who is someone else's spouse is adultery. That gives you a clear way of knowing what not to do.

I'd add that I think the Catholic church's huge expansion of the definition of adultery has the reverse of the effect desired precisely because it makes so many people into failures. Faced with a rule they are most likely to fail at, many young adults simply reject all of Catholic moral teaching along with the bathwater.

On the same lines, it strikes me as important that Jesus gives us so few commandments. I think it was Wittgenstein who said that it took him his whole life to see that Paul and Jesus shared the same message. Both seriously undermine legalist approaches to morality; they undermine any legalist approach to morality and not just the Pharisaic one.

3. Virtue ethics make it harder for other people to manipulate you

I've recently changed my uncool quote (first time in six months or so):
Tea partiers and Wall Street occupiers disagree on a great many things, but there’s one place where the Venn diagrams overlap: the sense we’re all being played for suckers, that the rules are being set up to benefit those who know how to manipulate the rules.
The truth is that lots of people know how to manipulate the rules. Anyone in power, including you and me, will occasionally succumb to the temptation to manipulate the rules now and then. And they will do so in order to manipulate you.

Once I was in line for a bank machine at a shopping mall and there was a mentally challenged guy in front of me. Someone had told him that he shouldn't let people stand too close behind him so they could see his pin code.  Good rule! Only he used it for a power trip and started demanding that the I move further and further away. Even when I was twenty-five feet away that wasn't enough and he started yelling and creating a scene.

As I note above, most rules are just tools for living. That includes a lot of rules that classify as laws. Recognizing this makes it harder for others to use rules to run you.

Oftentimes, you will recognize that people are trying to control you and play along anyway. I let the mentally challenged adult have his way and simply left the mall to find another bank machine somewhere else.

4. Virtue ethics makes moral decision making easier

This last one should strike you as odd. If there is anything that both proponents and critics of virtue ethics agree about it is that virtue ethics is not helpful in making difficult moral choices. But here's the thing: nothing is! If there is one thing I have seen in my life it is that difficult moral choices call for a man of action and not an analyst. Someone needs to do something.

"But what if they do the wrong thing?" That might be bad, it might even be very bad, but no one has anyway of knowing ahead of time what the best choice is.

An important qualification is that you should not act too soon but my experience is that the man of action* is better at judging this than the analyst.

*I'm avoiding inclusive language on purpose by the way. Not because women are incapable of being like men of action but because men make the better image; this is a manly skill.


  1. Thought this would be up your alley.

    1. That's interesting. I've read it twice now and will have to read it at least once more.