Julia Annas “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing”. How do we address the ‘vices’ of virtue theory? How can we apply virtue theory to practical situations? Does virtue theory tell us what to do?. The applicability of virtue theory. Can virtue theory be applied to ‘the real world.’
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How do we address the ‘vices’ of virtue theory?
How can we apply virtue theory to practical situations?
Does virtue theory tell us what to do?
Can virtue theory be applied to ‘the real world.’
It seems very easy to apply utilitarian theory and fairly easy to apply Kantian theory. But if someone says ‘what should I do?’ what do we tell him or her if we start from virtue theory?
Annas: You could say ‘be kind’ or ‘don’t be mean’ or ‘don’t be dishonest’ but this doesn’t satisfy the objector.
Why not? Because they may claim that we understand virtues from “family and social contexts, and our culture in general” so virtue ethics will “tend to be parochial in a way unsuitable for ethical thinking.” (735)
Also, virtue ethics will be too vague to resolve disagreement.
Does this seem true/fair?
There is a ‘Virtues Project’ that uses virtues in school. Virtues are used to resolve conflicts in schools. No teachers use consequentialism to “resolve conflicts in intercultural situations.” (736)
But there are still issues
Virtue terms are learned socially/culturally
Telling someone ‘be honest’ or ‘be brave’ may seem vague. We expect that an ethical theory could “apply to everyone in the same way and tell people what to do specifically.” (736)
One model: We take the general rough idea of things we get without thinking about them and then we ‘refine’ them. We try to take the rules that are common and clean them up and make the consistent so they don’t conflict.
Or we look for general principles that justify ethical rules. E.g., what could justify the rule ‘don’t lie’ or ‘don’t steal’?
Annas calls this the ‘decision procedure’ model.
As explained before, virtue theory is not a theory of right action. We don’t have a decision procedure.
Consequentialism is a clearer theory of right action.
How do you, in everyday life, figure out what to do?
What are the pitfalls of our ordinary way of figuring things out?
Does consquentialism help up with those pitfalls? Could virtue theory be helpful in everyday life?
She says the decision procedure/theory of right action approach is like a computer manual approach.
We take a complicated problem and we get an explicit set of instructions for what to do. It “makes clear to us the theoretically simple grounds of the decisions we need to make when we use the computer.” (737)
Anyone can do it, so it is egalitarian. It doesn’t require expertise or special talent. It requires following directions.
It doesn’t require a particular type of character (or set of emotional dispositions). Kant would approve (of this anyway).
The first problem: Why aren’t clever teenagers the most virtuous people of all? I.e., “the understanding required is technical and…mastering this kind of information is notoriously something which some people can do at a very young age…” (737)
Why aren’t clever teenagers the people we turn to for moral advice.
The ability to do the right thing on the decision procedure model looks like it is an intellectual process. Someone says, e.g., ‘in situation x, it is wrong/right to do y.’
But then “it would be possible in principle for someone to be brilliant at it…offer outstanding moral advice, while having a character and values that were morally detestable.” (737)
Even a cruel, sadistic person could use the ‘manual’ for moral advice… “’I hate the way you torture kittens,’ I might say, but I appreciate the excellence of your theory of right action. What a good job it is unconnected to your character and values…” (737)
WHAT ARE BAD PEOPLE MISSING? Can bad people really know what the right thing to do is?
What do we want from a moral theory?
To be “told what to do”?
Annas says that something is missing if we are just using a moral computer program.
A theory of right action is a theory and so it will “show us why this answer is correct.” However, this also doesn’t seem to be enough.
Rather, “[m]y moral decisions are mine in that I am responsible for them, but in a further way as well. They reveal something about me such that I can be praised and blamed for them in a way that cannot be shifted to the moral theory I was following.” (738) So if I follow the computer manual and do the wrong thing either the manual was wrong or I read it wrong. But my mistake is all in the manual.
Annas example: Suppose someone’s mom were his decision procedure. He did what his mom told him to. If he doesn’t follow her orders he feels guilt, etc.
Is it OK if we replace mom with a decision procedure? What if mom always happens to be right?
What’s missing there?
I internalize the computer manual/decision procedure. Then the decisions are my own.
She says “whether the theory is pictured as outside me, like a manual, or inside me, like a set of directions as to how to think, it is still telling me what to do.” (739)
What is wrong with this? Why doesn’t it correctly describe what we want our moral life to be like?
Virtue ethics starts with the question ‘how should one live’ and consequently the question ‘what kind of person should I be/what kind of character should I have?’
But how does virtue give us a conception of right action? How do we use it?
“An action si right iff it is what a virtuous person would ‘reliably (or characteristically) do.’” (739)
The virtuous person has to be understood independently or you have a circular argument (so you can’t say the virtuous person is someone who always does the right thing, e.g.)
What might be the problems with this view?
First, it’s supposed to be practical and action-guiding. So how do we know who is virtuous?
Second, we could say that there are no perfectly virtuous people. But then it’s not practical and action-guiding.
Third, we might all agree that there is a right thing but it isn’t something the virtuous person will do. E.g., if a person behaves badly, what is the right thing? The virtuous person is no guide since such a person does not behave badly. She also doesn’t have to improve herself even though that might be right for me.
If we are saying what virtuous person A or B would do, we are still “applying the theory in a way that anybody might have done regardless of character.” (740)
What could be an alterative?
Being virtuous and doing the right thing is “a developmental process.”
Aristotle says that becoming virtuous is like “learning to be a builder.” Virtue is analogous to “a practical skill.”
What does a builder do to become a good builder? A builder has a mentor/role model, he learns gradually, he starts off shakier and then develops his own deeper understanding of how to build, he aspires to improve, etc.
You start off with a model/exemplar [great piano player] but eventually the goal is to do the ‘performance’ in your won way, which may be different.
Part of the development is to go beyond and challenge the moral views we were given in childhood. But we don’t try to go and create a decision procedure. (We must have rules of thumb though)
We start off as learners and eventually we develop “an uncodifiabile ability to discern morally relevant situations….developed practical wisdom which…goes beyond that of his role models…a grasp of rules and principles…[to apply] intelligently and with insight.”
You start off by acting brave. Gradually, you see the point of being brave. You habituate yourself to be brave. You start to develop “greater understanding of what bravery requires…”
“An action is right iff it is what a virtuous person would (reliably, characteristically) do. (742)
Annas: We can’t have an account of this that is indepednent of the virtuous person. “The fully virtuous person is the ideal that the beginner is aspiring to be.” (743)
We can still praise the beginner though, even if it only approximates what the virtuous person does.
Not everybody can do this. There is no decision procedure.
Annas—This is just realistic. “We don’t emulate, or get advice from airheads, or untrustworthy people.” (744)
But we can identify virtuous people based on their credentials. [What would these be?]
Virtue ethics is practical because it “guides us by improving practical reasoning with which we act…” (744) We emulate good people and in this way open the door to becoming good ourselves.
But what about moral responsibility? How do we explain bad people and then hold them responsible?