No Virtue in Virtue

Julia Driver does not think virtue ethics is plausible as a primary means of establishing ethical norms.  Specifically, she contends that virtue ethics is no more advantageous than consequentialist ethics.  The reason she makes this assertion is that she views virtue ethics—particularly the variety proffered by Hursthouse—as borrowing from consequentialism.


Virtue ethics seeks to place itself in a position of primacy based on its ability to provide both an internal and external motivating component.  Internally, the virtues compel, motivate, and normalize ethics.  Externally, the consequences of the virtues is the greatest good for the greatest number.  So, internally and externally the virtue ethic approach works.


Driver puts the brakes on the enthusiasm of virtue ethics by pointing out that in adopting this two-pronged approach it has, in essence, opened itself up for a two-pronged critique.  Virtue ethicists, according to Driver, “want theories that have a strong internalist component and yet don’t cut the agent off from the world, so also have an external success, or effectiveness condition.  What this means is that the theories have numerous problems associated with both conditions.”  The combination of virtue and consequences does not work, according to Driver; it only complicates the matter by increasing the range of critique.


How does one know what the virtuous person would do?  This is the application problem inherent to virtue theory.  One would have to be virtuous to answer (and would have to be completely virtuous).  How does one become completely virtuous?  How does he function in the meantime before he becomes virtuous?  Who is the model for a completely virtuous person?  And, of course, there is still the problem of why one should care to be virtuous, particularly if it is costly or painful.


In addition to these (and other) application problems, Hursthouse’s ethical application of virtue theory also suffers from the critiques inherent in consequentialism.  When is it ok not to maximize good?  How does one know the greatest good without omniscience?


Driver points out a very helpful distinction to be made between what is the “minimally decent” thing to do and the heroic (supererogatory) thing to do.  In a situation where one sees a group of children drowning, the minimally decent thing to do would be to get help, call 911.  The more heroic thing to do would be dive in and save the children.  Which is better?  Are we obligated to heroism? Are we not all obligated to sell all that we have and serve the poor in a manner reminiscent of Mother Teresa?  Is that not what a virtuous person would do?   

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