Tag Archives: Virtue ethics

We don’t need no (moral) education? Five things you should learn about ethics

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

The human animal takes a remarkably long time to reach maturity. And we cram a lot of learning into that time, as well we should: the list of things we need to know by the time we hit adulthood in order to thrive – personally, economically, socially, politically – is enormous.

But what about ethical thriving? Do we need to be taught moral philosophy alongside the three Rs?

Ethics has now been introduced into New South Wales primary schools as an alternative to religious instruction, but the idea of moral philosophy as a core part of compulsory education seems unlikely to get much traction any time soon. To many ears, the phrase “moral education” has a whiff of something distastefully Victorian (the era, not the state). It suggests indoctrination into an unquestioned set of norms and principles – and in the world we find ourselves in now, there is no such set we can all agree on.

Besides, in an already crowded curriculum, do we really have time for moral philosophy? After all, most people manage to lead pretty decent lives without knowing their Sidgewick from their Scanlon or being able to spot a rule utilitarian from 50 yards.

But intractable moral problems don’t go away just because we no longer agree how to deal with them. And as recent discussions on this site help to illustrate, new problems are always arising that, one way or another, we have to deal with. As individuals and as participants in the public space, we simply can’t get out of having to think about issues of right and wrong.

Yet spend time hanging around the comments section of any news story with an ethical dimension to it (and that’s most of them), and it quickly becomes apparent that most people just aren’t familiar with the methods and frameworks of ethical reasoning that have been developed over the last two and a half thousand years. We have the tools, but we’re not equipping people with them.

So, what sort of things should we be teaching if we wanted to foster “ethical literacy”? What would count as a decent grounding in moral philosophy for the average citizen of contemporary, pluralistic societies?

What follows is in no way meant to be definitive. It’s not based on any sort of serious empirical data around people’s familiarity with ethical issues. It’s a just tentative stab (wait, can you stab tentatively?) at a list of things people should ideally know about ethics, and based, on what I see in the classroom and, online, often don’t.

1. Ethics and morality are (basically) the same thing

Many people bristle at the word “morality” but are quite comfortable using the term “ethical”, and insist there’s some crucial difference between the two. For instance, some people say ethics are about external, socially imposed norms, while morality is about individual conscience. Others say ethics is concrete and practical while morality is more abstract, or is somehow linked to religion.

Out on the value theory front lines, however, there’s no clear agreed distinction, and most philosophers use the two terms more or less interchangeably. And let’s face it: if even professional philosophers refuse to make a distinction, there probably isn’t one there to be made.

2. Morality isn’t (necessarily) subjective

Every philosophy teacher probably knows the dismay of reading a decent ethics essay, only to then be told in the final paragraph that, “Of course, morality is subjective so there is no real answer”. So what have the last three pages been about then?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that the very fact that people disagree about right and wrong means there is no real fact of the matter, just individual preferences. We use the expression “value judgment” in a way that implies such judgments are fundamentally subjective.

Sure, ethical subjectivism is a perfectly respectable position with a long pedigree. But it’s not the only game in town, and it doesn’t win by default simply because we haven’t settled all moral problems. Nor does ethics lose its grip on us even if we take ourselves to be living in a universe devoid of intrinsic moral value. We can’t simply stop caring about how we should act; even subjectivists don’t suddenly turn into monsters.

3. “You shouldn’t impose your morality on others” is itself a moral position.

You hear this all the time, but you can probably spot the fallacy here pretty quickly: that “shouldn’t” there is itself a moral “shouldn’t” (rather than a prudential or social “shouldn’t,” like “you shouldn’t tease bears” or “you shouldn’t swear at the Queen”). Telling other people it’s morally wrong to tell other people what’s morally wrong looks obviously flawed – so why do otherwise bright, thoughtful people still do it?

Possibly because what the speaker is assuming here is that “morality” is a domain of personal beliefs (“morals”) which we can set aside while continuing to discuss issues of how we should treat each other. In effect, the speaker is imposing one particular moral framework – liberalism – without realising it.

4. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “right”

This is an easy trap to fall into. Something’s being “natural” (if it even is) doesn’t tell us that it’s actually good. Selfishness might turn out to be natural, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to be selfish.

This gets a bit more complicated when you factor in ethical naturalism or Natural Law theory, because philosophers are awful people and really don’t want to make things easy for you.

5. The big three: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics

There’s several different ethical frameworks that moral philosophers use, but some familiarity with the three main ones – consequentialism (what’s right and wrong depends upon consequences); deontology (actions are right or wrong in themselves); and virtue ethics (act in accordance with the virtues characteristic of a good person) – is incredibly useful.

Why? Because they each manage to focus our attention on different, morally relevant features of a situation, features that we might otherwise miss.

So, that’s my tentative stab (still sounds wrong!). Do let me know in the comments what you’d add or take out.

This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Happy days: Virtue isn’t just for sanctimonious do-gooders

By Laura D’Olimpio

When we think of morally upright, virtuous citizens, do we imagine boring do-gooders? Is the idea of being virtuous out-dated and old-fashioned? Or is “being virtuous” still something we should aspire to in our contemporary society?

Prior to the notion of one Omni-God, Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) claimed that being virtuous was rational and good for everyone. The father of Virtue Ethics, Aristotle’s starting point wasn’t based on reward in another life or on categorical rules, but on what makes us essentially human.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes that we are essentially social, political and moral creatures because we live in a society and our behaviour affects one another. In this way being virtuous makes good sense because if people treat each other well, they’re likely to be content.

This suggests the wellbeing of the individual is linked to the place in which they live, and this idea is still supported today as psychologists claim our environment affects our physical and mental health and annual most liveable cities lists are enthusiastically shared.

For Aristotle, the purpose of life is eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, but is better understood as flourishing, so as to distinguish it from hedonism. A happy or good life is not one in which we have every single thing we desire, instead, it is about being fulfilled and feeling that we’ve contributed something to the world, however small or great, through the life we have lived. According to the virtue ethicist, this goal of eudaimonia is best achieved by following the virtues, and developing a good or virtuous character.

So how do we develop good moral character, and does this mean we’ll be boring do-gooders?

Good moral character is developed by practising the virtues, which are mid-point between excessive or deficient behaviour. Thus, the right thing to do is guided by this doctrine of the mean. The mean is mid-point between two extremes. So, courage is a virtue as it is mid-point between rashness (excessive) and cowardice (deficient).

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Guilherme Oliveira

To practise the virtue of courage, I would consider the specific situation and think of what would be rash or cowardly and then consider what would be the mid-point or courageous thing to do in that situation. I may get it wrong, but Aristotle allows for the fact that we learn by doing things, and thus we can keep practising and get better at working out what is the right thing to do.

If I practise the virtuous action often enough, it eventually becomes a character trait whereby I don’t even have to think about it and my natural response is virtuous. For example, if I decide that honesty is a virtue (as it is mid-point between lying and bluntness), I may practice truth-telling until my usual response is to tell the truth when appropriate. Of course, this also allows for me to become less moral if I practice the vices and, for example, I could become a proficient liar if I work at it enough.

The usual criticism of virtue ethics is that it is too subjective, as the virtues are related to one’s own talents and abilities. For instance, my mid-point between lying and bluntness, my version of being honest, may equate to your version of being blunt. There is also much debate as to whether, say, “tolerance” is a virtue, or whether or not you should ever tell a white lie.

Yet, this weakness of the theory may also be considered as its strength. The subjective nature of the virtues allows for some social and cultural variance, and if this individual difference is respected, it need not be a bad thing but rather improve global harmony. If we respect the traditions of other cultures, provided they don’t cause harm, then most people would agree this is a good thing. Although what constitutes “harm” can still be a grey area.

But the pluralism of virtue ethics that accounts for context doesn’t deny that there are shared values. Generally, everyone will agree that we should avoid being cruel, and try to be kind, but we may interpret this slightly differently according to the time and place in which we live. This means that the theory of virtue ethics is flexible enough to still apply today.

So how does being virtuous help us today?

In today’s contemporary society it may be useful to consider how to virtuously engage in an ethical debate on social media. The excessive reaction may be to troll or bully others whose ideas differ to my own. The deficient response may be to not enter into the conversation at all for fear of confrontation or others disagreeing with me.

The midpoint between these two responses may be to have a reasonable discussion whereby not everyone has to agree, but we understand that we are contributing to an ongoing and meaningful conversation. Following the doctrine of the mean, this is the virtuous act. Sure, this doesn’t tell me what to believe, yet it hints as to how to communicate my ideas, based on respect and empathy and a fellow-feeling that recognises I am one among a community.

Therefore, the old-fashioned Golden Rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated still seems relevant today. Even in a technological world, following the virtues is useful because, by treating others well, I will also benefit. Furthermore, if the majority value virtuous behaviour, then the society in which I live allows for a good or happy life.

It seems that Aristotle is correct, and the virtues can be a useful guide in helping me to reach this goal of living the good life.
This is the first article in a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

The ConversationLaura D’Olimpio does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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