The Primacy of Virtue or Duty?
I still have a few more posts on Phillipa Foot I’d like to make, but I have a short one I’d like to eek out on J. B, Schneewind, or more precisely on Slote and Crisp on Schneewind’s 1990 piece “The Misfortunes of Virtue” (it’s in a collection Slote and Crisp put together). The question is meta-theoretic and has to do with what constitutes a ‘virtue ethical’ theory in the first place.
I’ll talk more about Schneewind’s central claims in another post later on. For the moment, all that needs to be pointed out is that at one point of the article he points out that he thinks that Christianity is a duty-based ethical system, not a virtue ethical one. In the introduction to the book (where they discuss the various pieces in the edition), Slote and Crisp suggest in response that:
Christianity was essentially duty-based and duty was understood to be obedience to divine law. At this point one may begin to wonder whether a hole has appeared in the net woven by Schneewind to capture virtue ethics, for could Christianity be seen as a duty-based virtue ethics, according to which our duty is to manifest certain virtues, such as love?
My concern here is with Crisp and Slote’s notion of “duty-based virtue ethics” — I’m not sure what they mean, or the point they are trying to make. I presume that the “hole” they see here is that Christianity could still be seen as a virtue ethic, albeit a “duty-based” one. Or, they could be making the weaker point that some duty-based systems have a role for virtues. I’m not sure which they mean (they don’t pursue the point).
If it’s the first point, then I don’t agree. If Christianity is a duty-based system that calls upon one to develop the virtues, then it’s not a virtue ethic — it’s a deontic theory which has a place for virtues within it. It would be akin to a kind of character consequentialism, perhaps — a theory which finds a place for virtue, but at the end of the day the final role for virtue is not one which grounds the value of the system as a whole. In CC, it’s utility that grounds value, and virtue finds a place within that whole in order to better serve utility. If it’s duty-based, then it is still obedience to law that grounds value — it’s just that virtue will have a place in that system in such a way that laws are properly obeyed. So if what they’re trying to argue is that Christianity can still be a virtue ethical system, then it doesn’t appear to be one by this argument (any more than character consequentialism would be a virtue ethic).
If it’s the weaker point — that some deontic theories have a role for the virtues, well, then I suppose that Schneewind might shrug his shoulders and agree, but after noting that by the weaker point virtue is merely an ancillary device within a system that grounds ethical/moral value in a way independent of excellence, the “game” is lost for virtue theory if it is looking to be taken seriously as a counter to deontic or consequentialist theories.
It could be that I’ve misread Crisp and Slote here, I’m not sure. Just a small point, in any case.