Virtue Ethics Can Be Hard to Wrap Your Mind Around

After I gave such an enthusiastic recap of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue yesterday, and after spending much of the last several months studying, summarizing, and commenting on The Nicomachean Ethics, I hate to admit it, but virtue ethics has still kind of got me flummoxed.

We cannot base our ethics on the will of God because there is no God to will anything, or, at any rate, his believers seem to each have their own ideas of what this will might be, rendering it effectively arbitrary and no guidance at all. We cannot base our ethics on utility, because utility is no basis at all but is itself an arbitrary evaluation that implies a preexisting ethics. We cannot base our ethics on inherent rights and duties because these things too do not exist but are just shorthand ways of, again, stating our unbased preferences.

You can, I suppose, embrace this and consider it a feature, not a bug: ethics are nothing but arbitrarily-chosen preferences? Well then, I’m going to arbitrarily choose some marvelous ones! Horray for the freedom of choice!

But MacIntyre held out the possibility that ethics are not arbitrary at all but that they follow logically from the telos of being human. This telos isn’t to be found in our biology, the way Aristotle thought you could look at a species and determine what it was uniquely designed to do and therefore discern its telos (humans are uniquely designed to reason, therefore to reason is our telos). Instead, MacIntyre says, it is the web of socially-defined relationships that we are cast into by accident of birth that determine the stories we inhabit, and these stories encode our tele; ethics follows and is defined as those virtues that will enable us to succeed in playing the roles in these stories well.

But he also said that you still have to use your freedom to decide which stories are your stories and how you are going to play your role: you may find yourself in the role of a prince, but that still doesn’t tell you whether you’re the prince who is going to kill the king and rule the kingdom, the prince who is going to renounce the throne and marry his beloved, or the prince who is going to sit under the Bo tree until he reaches enlightenment.

That said, you pretty certainly don’t want to be the prince who has a sudden loss of nerve and flees the battlefield in surrender, the prince whose flighty indecision turns his family into intriguers, or the prince who lets his kingdom go to hell because he’d rather work on his butterfly collection than on pressing matters of state.

Although the virtues may not be able to decide between the radically different options available to you, they may help equip you both to choose wisely and to follow through on your choice in such a way that your story turns out successfully.

But isn’t choosing your story and defining the criteria of success no less arbitrary and indefensible than any of the other bases for ethics that have been proposed? The first person who suggested that a story of a prince who renounced his throne to seek for enlightenment (or to marry a commoner, or what have you) was a story of a successful prince, was someone who was inventing and defending (emotively!) an arbitrary ethics, no less than the first person to say that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

It wasn’t until 2020 that I got around to reading G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy.” She seems to have sooner detected the central problem that MacIntyre examined in his later book (Anscombe’s essay was published in 1958): “[T]he concepts of obligation, and duty — moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say — and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought,’ ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.”