Thursday, July 06, 2017

Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics - Part 2

I am continuing with my commentary on Rosalind Hursthouse, “Normative Virtue Ethics,” from Roger Crisp,
ed., How Should One Live? (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-33.

The last two sections of this article have to deal with conflicts and moral dilemmas.

The question being addressed is whether a virtue theory can answer the question, "What should I do?" In other words, can it be action-guiding?

Hursthouse is arguing that it can be, using the principle:

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

One problem with this answer concerns conflicts. There are many situations where different virtues can yield conflicting answers. The type of case that Hursthouse discusses involves those in which honesty would imply telling somebody the truth while kindness would suggest lying. A prime example involves the white lies that we tell to prevent hurting another person's feelings for no good reason.

A type of example I often bring up in my own writings is that of a doctor who promised to meet her father for lunch who witnesses an accident. The virtue of being trustworthy says to meet her father. The virtue of kindness says to help the people in the accident.

Another example I often bring up involves a person whose child is stung by a bee and is having an allergic reaction. His car will not start. Another car sits nearby with the keys in the ignition. Care for his child will say to take the car and get his child to the hospital, while concern for the property of others says not to do so.

Hursthouse offers a suggestion that conflicts could simply be an illusion caused by an insufficient wisdom - that a wise and experienced virtuous person would be able to make a choice and others who understood virtue would be able to determine what a virtuous person would do. She argues that this is not the option she would want to defend because she thought that genuine moral dilemmas was possible.

Desirism offers a different answer. It acknowledges that conflicts would exist and, what is more, that conflicts should exist. The behavior that agents are to perform in times of moral conflict acknowledge the conflict and the unfortunate fact that the agent could not satisfy both (or all) obligations.

For example, even the virtuous agent will experience cases when a desire to keep an appointment will clash with a desire to provide help to somebody in need. I consider a mark in favor of desirism that it accounts for cases in which conflict is actually to be expected. In this type of case, desirism says that the individual who cannot make the appointment should still be motivated to tell the person waiting for her that she cannot keep her promise. She should apologize and explain why this is the case. These actions indicate that the agent was aware of competing obligations and felt motivated to fulfill those obligations, even though she failed to do so.

A theory should not only account for the existence of conflict, but account for the ways in which conflicts can sometimes be resolved. If the amount of aid one can offer is relatively slight (e.g., emergency crews are already at the scene of the accident) and the meeting is important (her father is dealing with a significant personal tragedy and at least needs comfort and support), then the obligation to keep the promise may carry the greater weight.

If, on the other hand, the need for aid is slight (the accident victim has suffered severe injuries and there is nobody better qualified to give aid available) and the meeting is not important (she meets with her father daily), then the conflict may be settled with helping the victim. Note that virtue theory still answers the question "What should I do?" in this case - but it does not let the agent off the hook for the conflicting obligation that is left unfulfilled.

Of course, there are cases where the two virtues will be in a more balanced conflict. If it is a minor conflict than the agent can settle the difference on non-moral grounds (based on a personal preference). If it is a major conflict than it may approach the level of a genuine moral dilemma. This would be the case in a Sophie's Choice type of situation where a mother is told, "Choose which of your children you will have me kill or I will kill both."

Hursthouse fends off an objection where, in the case of a moral "tie" between virtues, the agent can casually flip a coin to make a decision. She asserts that a truly virtuous person would not be so casual about such an important decision. Desirism goes further and argues that a true moral dilemma would be one that threatened severe psychological trauma. It would be a case in which an agent had to choose between two extremely strong desires/virtues. She would be desperate for an answer and wrought with grief over the desire/virtue that was thwarted.

As I wrote above, if the conflicting virtues are not of great significance, then an individual can flip a coin or decide the case using non-virtue considerations such as personal preference.

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