Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics - Part 1

I should start keeping track of the number of days until my Master's Thesis needs to be finalized. I do not think there is a hard due date, but I will set a date of May 15, 2019 - or 380 days from today.

In 1996, Rosalind Hursthouse defended the notion that:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

I am going to start there.

Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics

The first point that Hursthouse makes is that all three types of moral theory - consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory - can be understood as an argument consisting of three premises.

The first premise describes the nature of a right action. In the case of consequentialism, right action is action that produces the best consequences. In terms of deontology, right action is action in conformity to deontological principles. In the case of virtue theory, she argues, right action is linked to good character.

In the same way that consequentialism must then specify what counts as good consequences, and that deontology must specify what counts as the correct principles, virtue theory must then specify what counts as a virtuous agent.

What Is a Virtue?

When it comes to what counts as a virtue, Hursthouse lists the following options:

This second premise of virtue ethics might, like the second premise of some versions of deontology, be
completed simply by enumeration (‘a virtue is one of the following’, and then the list is given). Or we might, not implausibly, interpret the Hume of the second Enquiry as espousing virtue ethics. According to him, a virtue is a character trait (of human beings) that is useful or agreeable to its possessor or to others (inclusive ‘or’ both times). The standard neo-Aristotelian completion claims that a virtue is a character trait a human being needs for eudaimonia, to flourish or live well.

Of course, I am going to choose the "Hume" option. Hursthouse, in contrast, seems to prefer the Aristotelian option. Specifically, desirism says that a virtuous person is a person that has those desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in people generally, and that lacks those desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit in people generally. Consequently, the overall theory that I defend will be different from Hursthouse's, but the definition of a right action as the action that a virtuous person would perform is the same.

Obligation, Prohibition, and Permission

Hursthouse adds a little detail later in her article.

The above response to the objection that fails to be action-guiding clearly amounts to a denial of the oftrepeated claim that virtue ethics does not come up with any rules (another version of the thought that it is
concerned with Being rather than Doing and needs to be supplemented with rules). We can now see that it comes up with a large number; not only does each virtue generate a prescription — act honestly, charitably, justly — but each vice a prohibition — do not act dishonestly, uncharitably, unjustly.

On this issue, desirism would have a dispute. Desirism produces an account of all three categories of action - obligatory, prohibited, and non-obligatory permission (or liberty).

• An individual has an obligation to do that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would do.

• An individual is morally prohibited from doing that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would not do.

• An individual has a moral permission to do that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) may choose to do or not do depending on other interests. Examples of non-obligatory permissions include what to eat, what to wear, where to shop, who to marry (if anybody), what profession to enter into (if any), what to read, and when to go to bed.

Knowing What a Virtuous Person Would Do

Hursthouse also brings up the question of how a person who is not already virtuous know what a virtuous person would do. If an agent cannot figure this out, then the principle, "Do that which a virtuous person would do" is of no use to her.

Desirism has no problem with this requirement. Knowing what a person with good desires would do is just a branch of knowing what a person with any given desire would do. Can we predict what a person with a fear of spiders would do? Perhaps we cannot predict her behavior with perfect precision (since her behavior will also depend on her beliefs and her other desires, some of which may be unknown to us). However, we can predict a general tendency to make an effort to avoid spiders. The stronger the aversion, the stronger the tendency to avoid spiders. Similarly, we can predict the tendencies of a person with an aversion to assaulting others, taking or destroying their property without their consent, or lying. Similarly, we can at least predict the tendencies of a person who is concerned for the welfare of others and prefers to repay her debts.

Moral Education

The next objection that Hursthouse considers against the idea that virtue theory can be action guiding is the idea that what she calls "v-rules" are not a part of the moral education of children. Deontology handles the simple rules of do not lie, do not cheat, do not take what belongs to others, share, and "wait your turn". The v-rules of virtue theory - such things as "be honest" and "be kind" - are beyond the grasp of young children.

Hursthouse answers this objection in part by reminding us that children are told not only to obey certain rules but to acquire certain virtues. "Don't be mean" and "don't be selfish" are among of the moral instructions given even to young children.

I will need to look into the relevance of the instruction of older children, but I know from experience that the boy scout law is a list of virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent.

Desirism, however, actually gives another advantage to Hursthouse's virtue-based concept of right action. If all we do is give children rules, we leave open the question, "Why follow the rules?" From whence comes the motivation to do what the rule asks us to do? Some may argue that the type of act in question has some sort of built-in motivation that compels action. However, this account is magical and cannot be understood easily as a part of the real world.

A virtue is a rule with motivation behind it. The virtue of honesty manifests itself as a motive - a preference or desire - for truth-telling. The virtue of trustworthiness manifests itself as the rule to keep promises and repay debts that is backed by a motivational disposition to do so. Being courteous, kind, and helpful combine a rule to help others with an internal reason - a motivation - to do so.

Desirism also allows us to provide the answer to the question of the how and why of moral education. Moral education consists of using reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation), acting on the reward centers of the brain to attach motivational force to what may be considered a deontological rule. The why comes from the desires of agents that can be fulfilled if others acquire the motivations that turn these deontological rules (do not lie, keep your promises, repay debts, help those in need) into virtues (honesty, trustworthiness, and kindness).


Here, then, we have an outline of some of the topics that can be brought up in a discussion of the action-guidedness of virtue. Hursthouse's general defense comparing the action-guidingness of v-rules compared to utilitarianism and deontology are applicable without modification. Desirism can provide further answers to the question, "What is a virtue?" It can also address the issues of the three different types of action (obligation, prohibition, and permission) as well as the nature of moral education (reward and punishment to attach motivational force to deontological rules).

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