A Ku Indeed!

The Primacy of Virtue or Duty?

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on May 29, 2008

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.


4 Responses

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  1. Dennis Arjo said, on May 29, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Hi Christopher,

    I’m not sure we can speak of Christianity being a single system of ethics, since at the very least it displays different ethical tendencies in its various guises. There’s the aspects that give us Divine Command Theory, for example, and then there’s the Natural Law Tradition that suggests a very different ethical picture. It’s the latter that’s usually counted as a version of virtue ethics (cf. Foot on Aquinas), yet at the same time it has a central role for duty as well. Perhaps this is what Crisp and Slote had in mind.

    Briefly, following Aquinas, the idea is that absolute prohibitions, for example, keep us from acts that are intrinsically counter to our natural ends. In this they reinforce the beneficial tendencies provided by the virtues. If I remember right, this is the interpretation urged by MacIntyre in a paper on John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor”.

  2. Chris said, on May 30, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Hi Dennis,

    I recognize your name — aren’t you a member of the upcoming NEH seminar? I remember seeing your name on an email. If so, nice to meet you (well, virtually, anyway)! I’m looking forward to the seminar myself.

    On your points above: I’ll grant you the points about Christianity; in truth, I’m not sure how to classify it. Many times I am tempted to say exactly what you just did — that it seems to house a variety of different ethical systems.

    Your reading of the Aquinas-inspired system sounds a bit like Foot, who argues herself that virtues are “correctives” that serve to push us away from natural tendencies that we have (say to be selfish), but natural tendencies that actually work against us developing more fully (say, in communities). But it’s been a while since I’ve read Aquinas, so I could be wrong there.

    I think the part that I’m not clear on (or not satisfied by) is this: if our primary obligation (say) is to cultivate our nature, then it seems as if (cultivated) human nature itself is taken the good from the beginning, and then we work backwards from there. So, we’d be obligated to follow laws that facilitate the development of human nature, and virtues that help us to do that, or that make us more amenable to following the laws, will be seen as good or excellences to have.

    This is all well and good, but I worry that if this is the case, we don’t have a pure virtue ethic. What we have is something that looks a bit like character consequentialism, where virtues play a role in the maximization of some good that is acknowledged as such independently of virtue. Instead of maximization of that good, we instead get the demand (or duty) to exemplify that good. In either case, it feels as if virtue (as a theory) is playing a backseat role, instead of driving the car.

    Not sure — that was a lot of mouthing, as my wife would say! What do you think?

  3. Dennis Arjo said, on June 2, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Yes, that’s me–I will be at the NEH seminar. I’m really looking forward to it. It should be great.

    I think we need something in virtue of which certain traits are morally desirable, so I’m ok with Foot’s characterization. I like the idea of the virtues as “corrective”.

    Is this utilitarianism? I guess I would draw a distinction based on the nature of end the virtues serve–it should be something we can define objectively, rather than subjective happiness or preference satisfaction. Hence the stress in Aristotle (and Aquinas) on learning to find pleasure in the right things, things that we may not initially find pleasurable. Aside from Mill’s higher/lower pleasure distinction, that’s what seems to be missing in utilitarianism.

  4. Chris said, on June 3, 2008 at 8:12 pm


    I am unsure what the virtues should track, speaking for myself. Still, it seems to be that the virtues could, say, track something objective (whether it be God’s law, happiness, human nature, the norms of historical culture, etc) but this would still leave open the question of whether we’re dealing with a pure virtue ethic, theoretically.

    Say we decide that the virtues track the cultivation of human nature. If they do, then we still have to wonder whether they are tracking this because (a) human nature can be valued as good independent of the point of view of virtuous dispositions, or (b) it can be seen as good from within those dispositions.

    If (a), it seems to me that it’s not a pure VE, but rather an outcome-based theory that uses virtues to secure those outcomes. If (b), then it could be a VE, since the value of the outcome (say, in this case) is grounded in the point of view of virtue itself.

    What do you think?

    By the way, I assume you received the reading schedule for the seminar today — looks like some good reading!

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