Ethical theories attempt to give general, abstract accounts of ethics. Ethics, in turn, concerns the consideration we give to other people in both thought and action. So we are looking at general, abstract accounts of why some actions are right and others are wrong or why some people are good and others are bad.
Not every way of being right or wrong, or good or bad, counts. Some people are better than others by virtue of being stronger or better looking, for instance. What an ethical theory seeks to describe, by contrast, is the consideration we have to give to others in order to be a good person. That said, some ethical thoughts are about ourselves and not others. “I couldn’t do that” can be a mark of an ethical person even if “that” doesn’t have any significant effect on others; think about breaking a promise made to someone who has died. In any event, our relations to others are the central cases.
What are philosophical theories of ethics, you might ask? They involve arguments: a structured series of assumptions (we call them “premises”) that lead to (we often say “entail”) a conclusion. There is a lot to be said for this way of approaching the subject. Among other things, it can make it easier to discuss topics on which people disagree. When you put your argument down on a piece of paper or a blackboard everyone can focus on exactly where the disagreement lies. It’s usually, though not always, a productive alternative to getting upset with one another. And ethical disagreements are one thing that people can get angry about.
That said, this cannot be the only way to learn about ethics. Arguments are about the relationship between premises and conclusions. You can be very good at analyzing this sort of thing while having no idea what you’re talking about. In order to genuinely have ethical knowledge, you need to be able to evaluate the assumptions. Philosophical reflection gets you part of the way there. In particular, it encourages a degree of consistency that most of us do not naturally have. But that will only get you so far if you don’t understand other people very well.
Simon asked about why virtue ethics isn’t on the syllabus. The basic reason is that I couldn’t find enough readings that would work. Readings have to be accessible to an audience that hasn’t necessarily taken a philosophy class before and they have to fit together with the other things we are reading. I couldn’t find enough material that satisfies both conditions.
I also have some reservations about the project and so I was reluctant to devote a significant part of our course to it. Students who are new to philosophy can safely skip this without missing anything; I’m mainly making a very quick note to more experienced students. You can come back later, after we have done this some more.
Virtue theories, as I understand them, focus on character traits that they call virtues. For example, an honest person is one who reliably tells the truth when it is appropriate to do so. Telling the truth is a character trait of that person and so he or she is said to have the virtue of honesty. The idea is that once you have described the character traits of a good person, you can tell what the right thing to do is: it is what the virtuous person would do.
There is an obvious problem of circularity here. We identify the honest person as one who tells the truth when it is appropriate to do so and we identify when it is appropriate to tell the truth by looking at what the honest person would do.
The common way of avoiding this kind of circular reasoning is to identify the virtues as character traits that are distinctive of human beings. The idea is that being a good person is the same thing as being a good human being. To know what a good human being is, we have to know what human beings are. We know what human beings are by identifying the ways that they are distinct from other animals. With a list of what is distinctive about human beings in hand, we say that a good human being is one that develops these qualities to the highest degree. And since a good human being is the same thing as a good person, that is what a good person will do. And another way of saying that you are a good person is to say that you lead a virtuous life. So we identify the virtues by looking at what is distinctive about human beings rather than by looking at what is the right thing to do. That’s the idea.
The challenge is to show that the ethical life is one that you would follow if you developed your distinctive human characteristics to their fullest. That is what I do not believe can be done. There are a lot of distinctive human characteristics that are either irrelevant to, or at odds with, the ethical life. These include scientific discovery, artistic expression, cruelty, and the use of fire. For a fuller explanation of these points, I put a chapter from Bernard Williams’s book Morality: An Introduction to Ethics on the sakai site (Williams 1972). It is completely optional and only those who are interested in this question should bother reading it.
That is hardly a refutation of virtue ethics. It is just an expression of my doubts. Given that I feel this way, I thought that I would do a better job with the other material that we have on the syllabus. For a more sympathetic presentation of virtue theory, I remember finding Rosalind Hurstshouse’s article “Virtue Theory and Abortion” very persuasive when I read it a long time ago (Hursthouse 1991). It was on my list of things to consider for this course.
Hursthouse, Rosalind. 1991. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 20 (3): 223–46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265432.
Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.