Review of After Virtue

After Virtue was one of the most challenging things I’ve read in awhile, both intellectually and emotionally. I’m coming to it from the perspective of someone who was more or less sold on utilitarianism (or some form of consequentialism at least), having had very little contact with virtue ethics previously. Since I assume most people are coming from a similar place (since as best I can tell, consequentialism and to a lesser degree deontological ethics have more or less “won” in university philosophy programs), I generally won’t bother teasing apart my thoughts on the book itself versus virtue ethics—for the most part, the contents of the book are identical with my understanding of modern virtue ethics.

(Rather than recapping the full content of the book here, I’ll cover the main argument only, and refer the reader to my complete notes for more. If you’re pressed for time, I consider chapters 2-5 and 12 important, but only chapters 14, 15, 17, and 19 essential. The rest are interesting, but somewhat tangential.)

Virtue ethics in a nutshell

Fundamentally, virtue ethics says that what our ethics should be concerned with cultivating the virtues—positive qualities we should be striving for—rather than coming up with rules for what not to do.

Virtues are those characteristics/habits of human behavior which fulfill the following three criteria:

  • They are necessary for advancing a “practice” (a field of human endeavor subject to serious study, insight, advancement, and, yes, practice; think chess, not Go Fish; think engineering, not ditch digging).
  • They help achieve the good life for the individual.
  • They help achieve the good of the individual’s community.

Where different virtues place different demands on us, the virtue of judgement is required to correctly balance those demands.

Importantly, we note that the what qualifies as the good life will vary depending on:

  • Your society
  • Your time
  • Your familial history
  • Your geographic location
  • Your roles within that society/time/family/location
  • Your biology
  • Your natural and learned dispositions

Thus, virtue ethics acknowledges up front that it isn’t concerned with finding a universalizable set of rules that apply to all people at all times—except in so far as it defines a framework within which those people can develop their own unique formulations of the virtues specific to their situation.

Much of the weight of virtue ethics hinges on whether you subscribe to rule-based ethics over “act”-focused ethics in general. (Make no mistake: despite MacIntyre’s disdain for negative rule frameworks, virtue ethics is still very much a rule-based ethics—much more so than any form or rule utilitarianism I’m familiar with.)

The empirical claim given in support of this idea that we should adhere to our principles (namely, the virtues) even when their outcome will be bad is twofold:

  • First, that we’re often wrong about the predicted consequences of an action. If our limited knowledge casts doubt on the consequences of an action (and the second effects, and tertiary effects, and so on of the action), we should err on the side of following rules known to be good most of the time.
  • Second, that humans are not capable of adequately following a rule like “never murder, unless the overall consequences will be positive.” Empirically, it seems like one is either the kind of person who could commit murder (in which case lots of other problems follow naturally), or not. The same, of course, goes for willful violations of other virtues. The idea here is that a person’s present actions inform their future actions, and only with discipline can we mold ourselves into the kind of people able to consistently and naturally both know and do the right thing.

If you can subscribe to some rule ethics, the remaining question for virtue ethics to answer is how we characterize “the good life” for both an individual and a community. For a book that spends a lot of time talking about how it has clearly spelled this out, I actually found very little to go on here. (This isn’t too sharp a criticism, because of course the whole point of virtue ethics is that what’s good for a person depends on a lot of factors.)

Here’s what I have been able to piece together:

  • The good life itself a narrative of advancement and achievement—with respect to both individual aspects of one’s life and the development of one’s own practice of the virtues (which span all aspects).
  • The good life is part of a broader narrative of advancing the cause of something bigger than oneself.
  • Fundamentally, an individual’s good is tied up in the good of their community (for some definition of a community—maybe that’s a single family, maybe a nation; probably both and everything in between to varying degrees).
  • Both an individual’s and a community’s view of the good life is subject to criticism—”is that really the kind of life you want for yourself and others?”
  • The virtues themselves are necessary components of the good life (e.g., human relationships don’t function without honesty, justice, etc.), but not identical with it.
  • Certain forms of happiness/enjoyment follow characteristically from this; others are contingent and not guaranteed (and, the book hints, less important or valuable).

Things After Virtue/virtue ethics gets right

There’s a lot to like about the position laid out here.

First, it is eminently practical. It doesn’t trouble itself for a moment with “deserted island” ethics, nor out-of-control trolleys, etc. It is explicitly formulated to help us live in the real world, in the situations we actually encounter, and especially in the cultures and communities we find ourselves embedded in. This focus on community is unique among ethics I’m aware of, but it makes a lot of sense. Morality derived from deserted islands tends to tell us very little about how real people should act, because we’re fundamentally embedded in a society. Ethics is especially prone to over-emphasis on both the illusion of individuals acting in total isolation and thought experiments, so this practicality is appreciated.

Along the same lines, the heavy emphasis on positive things you should be doing, rather than negative prohibitions, is welcome. This isn’t unique in the field of ethics—there are formulations of utility ethics, for instance, that hold that the right thing to do in a given situation is whatever single action maximizes utility (rather than just banning actions with negative overall utility). Even so, this focus is certainly rare enough that it feels like a breath of fresh air.

The open acceptance of moral relativism here is interesting, if only because relativism was dismissed more or less out of hand in all my university discussions of ethics. Perhaps more interestingly, I think it could be argued that virtue ethics asserts itself as a universalizable meta-ethics, while leaving the “normal” level of ethics open to discussion. This resonates well with me: the diversity of goals, dispositions, situations, etc. makes a single, universal “right way to live” or even “right goal for reason to strive toward” hard to endorse. Virtue ethics embraces this diversity rather than arguing against it. This has huge implications for a pluralistic society. No one else is really talking about “fundamentally incommensurable moralities,” but virtue ethics provides a way forward: it’s not only okay for subcultures to have different values, different rules, etc., but it’s expected and probably even good, since they are in a different cultural position than others.

Finally, the book’s focus on history is fascinating—indeed, it could be read as a history of ethics (with a particular bent)—and makes for a great read, despite the fact that I found the historical aspects nonessential. (After all, my recap of the argument above doesn’t reference the first eleven or so chapters at all!)

Criticisms

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its propensity to dive deep into tangentially-related but fascinating aspects of other fields—for instance, its deep dive into the history of philosophy, or its criticism of formulations of social science that tout it as being fundamentally law-governed in the same way as “natural” sciences. Neither of these have much to do with the main thrust of the argument, but they make for great reading, and they do contribute to understanding the context of the argument.

But, these tangents also take the book to some very bizarre places. Case in point: MacIntyre hates managers. He devotes more or less an entire chapter to railing against the very suggestion that effective management might improve the results of workers. If the history of ethics and the proper role of social science are tertiarily related to his core argument, asides like this have to be six degrees separate at least. This criticism doesn’t affect the core ideas of the book, but it does present a real problem for readers.

Now, on to criticisms actually relevant to ethics. We’ll begin with examining some of the reasons MacIntyre has for rejecting utilitarianism (or consequentialism more broadly).

First, a semantic point, but one that just cannot stand: he claims that ethics based fundamentally on prohibitive rules can tell us what not to do, but never what we should do. I say my objection here is semantic, because as a practical point, I agree: positive guidelines are much more useful. But clearly, an infinite set of rules can prohibit all but the things a person actually should do—for instance, “do the thing which produces maximum utility.”

Another of MacIntyre’s out-of-hand rejections of utilitarianism comes from his complaint that the concept of utility is too vague—is it happiness, or something more complicated? If happiness, how could we possibly quantify it? And so on. This is a weak criticism at best… but the fact that he then turns around and talks about “the good of man” being the aim of our ethics is just absurd—his notion of the aim of ethics is at least as vague as “utility.” I’ve heard this termed an “isolated demand for rigor.”

Let’s talk about issues with virtue ethics itself, beginning with something I’m going to call a (scare-quotes) “problem” because it stems from a shallow or incomplete understanding of virtue ethics. This is something actually addressed in the text, but I think it’s worth calling out explicitly, because I see this argument brought up a lot.

A shallow understanding of virtue ethics might lead one to ask: if morality is relative to one’s situation, by what possible standard can we judge someone else’s behavior? For instance, how can we say that there’s no one for whom cold-blooded murder helps achieve their telos? Who’s to say murder isn’t a virtue?

The answer from virtue ethics, of course, is that there is more to the virtues than just achieving the good life for you—to be counted a virtue, it must also advance one’s community and some human institution (MacIntyre’s awkwardly named “practice”) that it’s applied to. With these additional constraints, it’s clear that lying, cheating, and stealing—even if they were good for some individual in isolation—cannot qualify as virtues. (Even communities of pirates aren’t advanced by such behavior!)

This brings us to a point I wish would have been addressed more explicitly in the text: by what standards might we compare rival moral frameworks? Given two groups’ conflicting accounts of ethics, how do we judge which is better? In this case, I have some suggested criteria:

  • Efficacy: Does this morality achieve what it sets out to do? (E.g., does it drive its practitioners toward the good life?)
  • Efficiency: How directly does it achieve its goals? Is there a more straightforward path?
  • Side effects: What consequences does this morality have on aspects of life outside of its explicit goals?
  • Worthiness of the goal itself

The last item is the only one that’s (probably) subjective… but it’s worth noting that most moral frameworks we find “in the wild” tend to aim at reasonably similar goals (e.g., something resembling human happiness/flourishing/wellbeing/etc.).

(As an aside, I have to observe that my proposed set of criteria winds up evaluating computer programs just as well as it does ethical frameworks… there’s probably something very Freudian in that.)

Now, that takes care of what I’ve termed the biggest (scare-quotes) “problem” with virtue ethics. Let’s turn to a real objection I have to it, one that is kind of fundamental.

MacIntyre convincingly demonstrates that many of the conflicts in ethics today stem from having premises which are fundamentally incompatible, and more importantly, incommensurable. The different conceptions of justice espoused by Robert Nozick and John Rawls are one example of this. You’ll likely be persuaded to one side or the other based on whose premises you like better, and it seems impossible to construct a rational argument for why you should favor one set of premises over the other a priori. The best you can do for deciding between them is to consider whose vision of the way a society works appeals to you more.

My primary objection to virtue ethics takes the same form; it’s an issue with the premises. Simply put, I think that trying to couch all moral questions in terms of virtues is problematic—it forces you to shoehorn virtues in as a post hoc justification for explaining moral intuitions, rather than providing a compelling framework for explaining where those intuitions come from. In some cases, it’s much more natural to describe moral behavior in terms of values.

Consider: what virtue is at play in the principle “you should save someone you see drowning, given minimal risk to yourself”? Surely virtue ethics compels such behavior, but to which virtue can we ascribe the motivation? Courage, compassion, charity… you could shoehorn any of these into an explanation, but it still feels like we’re having to stretch the notion of the virtues (or worse, treat them like a religious “revelation,” where anything can mean anything if you think hard enough about it). The virtue of justice perhaps comes closest; you could explain that the drowning person doesn’t deserve to die. But that seems to only make the problem messier—what if your morality condones capital punishment? Must your moral principle actually be “save someone from drowning if you can be sure they don’t deserve capital punishment”?

I submit that this situation is understood much more naturally in terms of the principle: treat human life as valuable. Indeed, that principle can inform one’s understanding of all the other virtues! This and similar concepts of values seem like a natural extension to virtue ethics: in the same way the virtues are ways of behaving that help achieve the good life, our values are the very things that make up the good life. Trying to couch guidelines for behavior solely in terms of the virtues is going to lead to vague, confusing direction at best, since MacIntyre himself admits the virtues are very often in conflict, and it requires wisdom to thread the needle between their many demands on a person. At the very least, I find that making the concept of values primary helps clarify one’s thinking on the proper application of the virtues.

But, MacIntryre says, the virtues must be pursued not only for the results they bring (i.e., the good life), but also for their own sake. The former, to my mind, requires no justification (after all, if your morality is not aimed at the good life for humanity, you’re in luck, because you’ll need little direction to achieve a bad one!), but the latter needs justification that it doesn’t receive. In his defense, he does explain this at least partly as a practical matter, saying that empirically, a person focused only on the good life won’t have the strength to stick to the virtues when the going gets tough. If this is true, though, it still doesn’t help—you could say to yourself, “I’m going to behave as though the virtues themselves were the goal, while secretly remember that the virtues are actually a proxy for achieving the good life.” It certainly doesn’t help here to claim that the virtues themselves are an essential component of the good life—maybe they are, but it doesn’t help explain why we should pursue them for their own sake.

No, I think the truth is, MacIntyre is committed to some form of advocating the virtues for their own sake specifically to avoid something like my “values extension” to virtue ethics. He’s painted himself into this philosophical corner by insisting on the primacy of virtues, but with good reason, as we’ll see.

What happens if we instead admit that the good life is supreme, and that the virtues are guidelines that generally help achieve them (and which should be adhered to even when you think they won’t help, because of course our knowledge is imperfect)? We resolve the contradiction surrounding virtues-for-their-own-sake, to be sure. But look! We’re back to consequentialism! We’ve just replaced “consequences” or “utility” with “the good life,” specified a little more about what that utility consists of (the virtues themselves, communities, etc.), and given a set of positive behaviors to achieve it. This might be a unique formulation of consequentialism, but it’s fundamentally recognizable as such.

My conclusion from all this is simply that I don’t think MacIntyre achieves what he set out to do—namely, to tear down the very foundations of the ethics of his day. His attempt at such relies on an unjustified (arguably unjustifiable) premise, that the virtues must be sought for their own sake. If that premise fails—and I think it does—what you’re left with is a very compelling “meta-ethical” variant of consequentialism. That’s an achievement in itself, to be sure… just not the one he was aiming for.

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