Sunday, January 20, 2013

Intelligent Virtue 4: Thick & Thin Ethics

An ethical concept is thin to the extent that it narrowly describes an action, as for example: the right thing to do is the thing that maximizes utility or satisfies the categorical imperative or is in accord with the commands of God.  It is intended to work regardless of what assumptions we make about the world and the persons that act morally in that world. 
An ethical concept is thick to the degree that it includes descriptive elements about the context of the action, based on shared notions about people and the nature of human existence.  Hiding Jews from Nazis was the right thing to do because it was the brave thing to do, knowing what we know about the peril faced by the persecuted and their defenders. 
In Chapter 3 of Intelligent Virtue, Julia Annas defends the thickness of virtue ethics.  Her best point employs the skill analogy against thin ethical theories.  Such theories demand “right-making characteristics” that have to be present in all right actions.  The best example would be in Kantian ethics.  An action is right if and only if it is done because it is right.  Okay, but which actions should be done because they are right? 
To answer that question, Kant deploys his two versions of the categorical imperative: a right action is one based on universal principles and it is one that treats human beings as ends and never as means.  Okay again, but do these principles tell us what to do when the Nazis show up at my front door?  Maybe, but it isn’t clear.  Should I universalize the principle that everyone should always tell the truth or the principle that everyone should protect the innocent against the evil? 
Annas considers the case of learning Italian.  Is there some principle that all grammatically correct Italian sentences must comply with?  Or is it rather the case that you have to know whether it is a statement or a question or an exhortation, who is speaking to whom, whether it is about the past, present or the future?  To know the correct way to speak in any actual case it is necessary to have thick concepts of grammatical correctness.  You need to understand tenses, moods, parts of sentences, etc. 
Likewise with moral actions, you need to know how to act in a range of contexts that vary widely in ways that will resist reduction to any simple formulation.  To decide whether I should lie to the Nazis about the Jews hiding in my basement, I need to know something about bravery in particular.  To be truly virtuous, I have to have the dispositions and understand to act bravely (and creatively) in a range of situations.  I am more likely to act calmly and effectively if I am fluent in the virtue in question. 
To add to Annas’ reflections, the development of virtue, like mastering a language or learning to play the piano, depends on a considerable number of evolved dispositions and capacities.  It is not reducible to those products of evolution because it must be developed creatively in response to unforeseeable circumstances.  Virtue is as much a product of that development as it is of the basic evolutionary legacies. 
It seems clear to me that the thick concepts of virtue ethics are far more realistic and richly endowed than the any thin, abstract approaches to ethics.  It is also the case that virtue ethics can be grounded in evolutionary biology and so has the most solid foundation of all the modern theories. 

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