A few months back I was required to write an essay for a university degree I am completing in Philosohpy. The essay was on virtue ethics and if the motive of acting out of virtue was objectionable. I have copied the essay below for anyone interested.
The assessor also made a few interesting counter arguments in his very helpful feedback, I have copied this paragraph below:
I particularly liked the point you make towards the end of the essay about the acquisition of virtue involving not just the ability to perform certain actions mechanically, so to speak, but also a certain mindset. I think you are right about that. One way in which detractors of virtue ethics might try to respond to that would be by saying that this mindset can only be defined as a set of dispositions to act in certain ways, and since dispositions are merely propensities to act, we are back where we started: with particular actions rather than anything more substantial than that. If that point were pressed, then I think your best option would be to say that one’s mindset is not just about dispositions to act, but about dispositions to act in a certain fashion (e.g. with attending feelings of compassion when such feelings are warranted, etc.) There’s more than can be debated in this area, but for the narrow constraints of your essay I think you’ve put forward a strong enough argument.
Is there anything objectionable about actions performed from a virtuous motive?
Morality most often speaks about what the write and wrong behaviour is asking questions like - What is the right action to perform? However when looking at virtue ethics the question is slightly different. It concerns itself more with the type of person we should be and so asks questions like - What kind of person should I be? Instead of concerning itself with the right action at this given moment, virtue ethics looks at the kind of person I should be in order to be able to decide the correct actions at all times (Athanassoulis, 2015).
One objection that is made by ethicists towards many ethical theories such as utilitarianism is that they appear to fixate on the wrong reasons for carrying out a certain action. If I was to decide to visit a sick friend after doing my utilitarian calculations, finding this to be the action that will maximise happiness, are my motives for carrying out this action acceptable. This action is carried out to maximise happiness and uses the sick friend as a receptacle of happiness in an attempt to maximise it. What seems far more important is not actually taking maximum happiness as the end but the sick friend himself as an end for his or her own sake (Stocker, 1976).
A very similar objection is also put towards virtue ethics by other ethical theorists. If virtue ethics is about acting like a virtuous person, does this still have the wrong reason for action (Keller, 2007)? I wish to look at this question for the remainder of this essay, starting by laying out what virtue ethics is and then seeing if this same objection can be used on virtue ethics. I will then attempt to layout a response to this criticism and analyse my thoughts on if a virtuous motive is actually objectionable.
What is virtue ethics
As was mentioned previously, virtue ethics concerns itself with the type of person I should be and Aristotle argues that the best type of person is the virtuous person. The end goal of this virtuous person is “Eudaimonia” - human flourishing and well being. To achieve this Eudaimonia, one must have an appropriate inner state or good character. According to the virtue theorists, this good character is developed over a long period of time. When one is born, they could possess good and bad characteristics such as the good quality of friendliness or the bad quality of jealousy. These characteristics are then encouraged or discouraged by the influences in daily life when growing up. These influences include parents, teachers, friends and even the situations one is exposed to (Aristotle, 2004).
The development of the good characteristics – the virtues such as kindness, honesty and loyalty relies heavily on the availability of virtuous role models. When learning virtue the student would act in the way the virtuous person would, so that the individual tends to the performance of virtuous acts. However the virtuous person does not just perform virtuous acts habitually, but comes to recognise why the virtuous action is the appropriate response and the value of virtue itself. So by the student carrying out kind actions, the student is able to realise when kindness is the appropriate response and will act kindly. This is not just for a few specific cases but for all situations, towards all people and over a long period of time. The virtue becomes a character of the student (Aristotle, 2004).
Becoming a virtuous person means being able to tell what the correct action is at any given instance. The student has learnt how to apply the virtues and which virtue to apply at a given time as well as in what quantity each virtue should be applied. It is also not enough to act virtuously by accident or unthinkingly, the virtue must be acted on because it is recognised to be the right way to behave (Aristotle, 2004).
Is a virtuous motive objectionable
Now we have seen what virtue ethics is, we can now look at the actual motives of virtue ethics and if they are objectionable. If we imagine an example where a virtuous woman Sheila meets a friend of hers, Ali, on the street as she is walking home. Being virtuous she possess the virtue of kindness and stops to talk to Ali asking him how he is today. The first question that needs to be asked, is what is Sheila's motive for asking Ali how he is. It could be argued that Sheila feels she must act virtuously and therefore in trying to be kind she asks Ali how he is. If this is the motive, then Sheila does not actually care for how Ali is, but just wishes to ensure she is virtuous and for this reason asks Ali how he is. This is a rather selfish motive and has no actual care for Ali.
I however feel this is an oversimplification of virtue ethics and is wrongly conveying the motives of Sheila. Sheila is a virtuous individual and therefore possess all the virtues, is aware of which virtue to apply at which time and is aware of the quantity of each virtue to apply. Whilst kindness is one of the virtues that Sheila possesses, she also possesses the virtues of love, compassion and friendship. Sheila does not only act out of kindness and is not driven to ask how Ali is because she only wishes to be kind. Sheila views Ali as a genuine friend and feels love and compassion for him. When she asks Ali how he is, she does this because she cares about Ali and is genuinely interested in his well being. Anything less than this would mean that Sheila was not actually a virtuous individual as certain virtues were either not possessed by her or she lacked the awareness of how to apply them.
This response however presents a new problem. Is it possible to ever reach this level of virtue, where all the virtues are fully grasped and applied correctly at all times. Let us for argument sakes say that it is not possible. Are we then left with a position where the actual motive behind a virtuous action is objectionable. In the example above, let us make the assumption that Sheila has not yet reached this perfect level of virtue, but is still a student of virtue. What is the motive of her action? It could be argued that Sheila is learning to be virtuous, so she does what she thinks the virtuous person would do and asks Ali how he is feeling. This would mean that her motive is to learn to be virtuous and again leads to a position where she does not actually care how Ali is feeling, but only that she is learning to be virtuous.
I again feel that this position is still an over simplification. Whilst one of Sheila's motives may be to learn to be a virtuous person, this does not have to be the only motive. Would it be kind for Sheila to ask Ali how he is feeling just so that she could be kind? I do not think this is kindness as kindness would require a genuine interest in the well being of those you are being kind to. So to learn the virtue of kindness, one can not enter with the end of only carrying out an action to achieve this end. One must genuinely want to learn this virtue and so develop a genuine love and compassion for those that you are being kind to. So when Sheila is trying to learn to be kind, it is not only the action she is learning but a mindset as well. To learn the mindset requires a genuine understanding of the action of kindness.
The next question that must be asked, is how do we develop an understanding of the virtue, in this case kindness. Just acting on the virtue would not develop kindness as this would not create the mindset. However, if an understanding of kindness was already present then the action could be linked to the mindset and carrying out the act to learn the virtue of kindness would not just be limited to learning the action of kindness but also linking the action to its mindset. Assuming that knowledge of virtues are not a-priori, the understanding of kindness would still be present in the vast majority of adults. This would have come from earlier experiences of others acting kindly towards yourself as well as kind actions being carried out by yourself. As knowledge of acting kindly is already present then kind actions can be carried out with both the mindset and the act producing genuine kindness. If either the mindset or the action were not present then the act would not be genuine kindness.
Returning to the example, Sheila is learning to be virtuous and acts kindly towards Ali asking him how he is when walking home. One of her motives is still to learn to be virtuous, but in wanting to be virtuous she is now also motivated with a further mindset of interest in the well being of Ali. Without this motive the action could not be considered genuine kindness and would not lead to the development of the virtue of kindness. Whilst the initial motivator for asking Ali how he is may have been the learning of virtuous behaviour, Sheila is required to also have a mindset of actually caring for the well being of Ali in order to have acted out of genuine kindness.
A further objection could be made to this to state that the action is still being initiated by the selfishness of wanting to develop virtue, not for a genuine care for Ali. However in truly trying to develop the virtue of kindness the genuine motive of care and compassion must also be present. I think it does not matter what initiated this action but that once the action is carried out the individual is then being treated as the ends in and of himself. Further to this as the Sheila develops to become a more virtuous person, the objectionable motive of wanting to develop virtue would reduce and the other virtuous motives would become more dominant.
Whilst virtue ethics is to an extent subject to a criticism of having objectionable motives, I feel these motives are answerable. An action need not have only one motive, and whilst one of the motives my be objectionable to an extent the others will be motives of genuine virtue. With the development of further virtuous characteristics within the individual the objectionable motives would diminish and one would eventually be left with only virtuous motives.
Aristotle. (2004). The Nicomachean Ethics, Penguin Books
Keller, S. (2007). Virtue ethics is self-effacing. Australian Journal of Philosophy, 85:2, 221-231.
Stocker, M. (2012). The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories. The Journal of Philosophy, 73:14, 453-466.