A Critique of Virtue Ethics

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’m taking on virtue ethics, the family of moral philosophies that make the character of the agent (as opposed to the effects of the agent’s actions) the focal point of moral theory. In other words, what’s important in virtue ethics is whether or not we are good people, not whether or not we do good things. I disagree with the view because I think there is no such thing as a good person divorced from good actions. Here’s why.

To catch a mouse, you have to think like a mouse. Let’s first explore why people are drawn to virtue ethics in the first place. Here’s a case, a somewhat modified version of Richard Sylvan’s last man argument:

Suppose that all of the people and other animals on the earth have been killed in an unknown catastrophe except for one man. Let’s call him “Bob”. Bob is a pyromaniac. Bob would like to spend the rest of his days on earth starting forest fires and killing trees for his amusement. Is Bob’s choice morally acceptable?

Note that in this case, all of the animals are also dead–this avoids the common argument that Bob is obliged to preserve the natural habitats of the animals. It is intended that the reader have the moral intuition that it would nonetheless be wrong for Bob to start a series of really awesome forest fires. This requires a justification, however. If Bob isn’t saving the trees for the benefit of himself, other people, or animals, on what grounds could this moral intuition be defended? There are two possibilities that are consistent with the view that Bob shouldn’t start forest fires just because he wants to:

  1. We have moral duties to plants
  2. Virtue ethics is true

There are a variety of reasons why the first option might be problematic. Only one of these need be true for it to fail:

  • It’s too demanding–it would make every man, woman, child, and animal a murderer.
  • It violates reciprocity–plants are not willing and capable of reciprocity. Their only possible contribution to human/animal societies necessarily involves their deaths.
  • Plants lack the intellectual capacity to understand that they are being harmed or benefited in a meaningful way. They do not feel pleasure and pain as we do.
  • We can only have moral duties to beings that are capable of recognizing their own moral duties.

Personally, I find the first and second bullets most persuasive, but I’m sure some of you are drawn to the latter, or to other reasons I neglected to list. Perhaps one or two of you actually does think that we have moral duties to plants–if that’s the case, I’m going to need to ask you to lay that to one side for now and grant that we do not, so that we can talk about virtue ethics.

How does virtue ethics play into the last man case? Virtue ethics argues that it is wrong for Bob to start forest fires not because those fires will harm any morally relevant beings, but because it demonstrates that Bob has poor character. If we presuppose that one of the virtues is “respect for the environment”, Bob’s starting of fires demonstrates that Bob lacks this virtue and is, in that sense, of bad character.

Of course, in order to get that answer, you have to presuppose that “respect for the environment” is a virtue. This brings us to the principle difficulty with virtue ethics–how do we know what the virtues are? Why would it be virtuous to respect the environment, or be compassionate, or be honest, or what have you? Appealing to deontology begs the question. If we answer the question of why the virtues are what they are with “because they just are” or “because God says so” or  “those are the rules, follow them”, we’re just making assertions, we’re not providing an argument in favor of a moral system. We’re appealing to authority, to nature, to a thousand silly things. In some of these cases, we’re even attempting to derive virtue ethics from a metaphysical belief in a supernatural being, which is a massive no-no insofar as it attempts to derive an “ought” from an “is” and violates Hume’s Guillotine. This leaves virtue ethics looking arbitrary.

Are there any plausible answers that escape arbitrariness? The only answer that comes to my mind resorts to a kind of rule consequentialism–the virtues are defined such that conforming to them tends to promote good outcomes. Of course, as soon as we’ve grounded our virtue ethics in rule consequentialism, our virtue ethics is no longer virtue ethics, it’s consequentialism under a pseudonym. If we presuppose an alternative state of affairs in which behaviors that are generally beneficial in this world no longer are, the justification for the virtues collapses.

This is precisely what happens in the last man case. Bob exists in a world that is fundamentally unlike ours, so the set of behaviors we consider socially useful are no longer so. In our world, it would be harmful if people went around starting forest fires. That’s why we have Smokey Bear. The world Bob lives in is fundamentally different. None of us are around to be bothered by what Bob does. Human beings have difficulty comprehending a situation in which they are asked to give a moral opinion about a case in which they themselves are not morally relevant. In Bob’s case, we cannot be harmed by Bob’s forest fires because we do not exist. In the universe in which Bob lives, our opinion, that trees are pretty or valuable or ought to be preserved, is non-existent. Bob has no obligation to care about the non-existent opinions of non-existent beings. The only opinion that matters is Bob’s opinion, and it’s Bob’s opinion that the landscape would look much better if all the trees were on fire.

In sum, the intuition which the last man case attempts to extract from the reader is a false intuition predicated on a natural cognitive bias on the part of human beings that causes us often to overlook the moral significance of our non-existence. If Bob and I were both survivors, he might have a duty not to burn down trees for my benefit, but with me out of the picture, Bob is right to maximize his own welfare. Bob would wrong himself if he failed to burn down the trees based on a misplaced fealty to the opinions of dead people.

Now, if you or I were the last man, we would probably not be inclined to start forest fires. I assume most of my readers are not pyromaniacs. I freely admit that if I were to ask someone “what would you do if you were the last sentient being on the planet?” and that person were to answer “burn all the trees”, I might not be inclined to be friends with that person. But this would not be because it is wrong to burn all the trees when you are the last man, but because people who hold that opinion are more likely than the average person to be unpleasant to be around or dangerous in some way. If I avoided this person, it would be a matter of social taste, not because the person was necessarily bad.

This is the critical distinction that proponents of virtue ethics miss–there is a big difference between compatibility and moral goodness. There are morally good people who behave in socially helpful ways that I can’t stand and want nothing to do with. Their personalities or characters still repulse me. By the same token, there are morally bad people who harm others that I find entertaining, amusing, or who just so happen to be nice to me as an exception. Just because I don’t like someone or agree with someone, doesn’t mean that on balance that person acts harmfully, and just because I do like someone or tend to agree with that someone doesn’t mean that on balance that person acts beneficially. We have to evaluate people as potential friends separately from our evaluation of their net moral impact. There is a necessary separation between character and deeds that virtue ethics mistakenly ignores. I don’t want to hang out with Bob the tree-killing pyromaniac, but I have no justification for thinking Bob a bad person or for condemning Bob’s choice to burn all the trees in an alternative world in which I’m dead.