Saturday, January 12, 2013

Virtue Ethics & Circular Reasoning

One of the key differences between virtue ethics, on the one hand, and utilitarian and deontological ethics, on the other, is that the latter are systems of abstract rule making.  For both the utilitarian and the Kantian, ethical behavior begins by discovering a set of abstract rules and then proceeds according to those rules.  Virtue ethics, by contrast, is rooted in the actual behavior of virtuous persons.  We discover the rules of virtue (or V-rules) only in the process of acting virtuously. 
In Intelligent Virtue, Julia Annas addresses a number of common objections to virtue ethics.  One that seems fairly obvious to me is the charge that virtue ethics involves circular reasoning.  What is a virtuous action?  It is the kind of thing that a virtuous person typically does in morally significant contexts.  Who is a virtuous person?  This is someone who typically does virtuous things.  Stated in that way the problem is obvious: we can’t identify virtuous actions unless we first identify virtuous persons and we can’t do the latter unless we first do the former.  So we are stuck. 
Why this objection is unwarranted was tipped off by Annas in reference to Plato’s Laches.  Someone may learn that bravery means standing fast in battle and personal misfortunes with equanimity without asking what it is about both kinds of conduct that make them brave.  Socrates, famously, forced his interlocutors to confront just that question.  Of course Socrates (or at least Plato’s Socrates) held that there are forms for such things as virtues.  All the different examples of bravery in distinct contexts have to be expressions of or reflections of one idea of virtue. 
Annas points out that children begin to learn simple virtues like honesty and bravery when they are admonished to be honest and brave by their parents and other teachers.  At first this may involve only learning the examples in their contexts.  As the person develops, however, he or she comes to learn how to be virtuous in novel situations, confronting unexpected challenges.  If the person succeeds in developing the virtues, he or she will gradually learn both what a virtuous action is by performing such actions and what a virtuous person is by becoming one. 
So Aristotle’s view of the reciprocal relationship between virtuous actions and virtuous persons is not a case of circular reasoning at all; rather, it is a description of a dynamic that occurs when someone develops in virtue.  The virtues are something real that we discover in the process of ethical development rather than abstract rules that we simply learn and then apply to diverse situations. 
Annas frequently employs the example of learning to play the piano.  What is great piano playing?  That is what great piano players do.  What is a great piano player?  Someone who does great piano playing.  There is nothing circular about this reasoning.  It is what everyone who learns the piano discovers, in so far as they develop their talents.  It is also what anyone who develops the skill of listening to great piano player discovers.  This is something I can attest to over the course of my own development as a fan of jazz. 
Great piano playing is a “design-space” that opens up out of the human capacity for producing and enjoying music, the physical nature of the instrument, and to some extent out of the history of musical development.  Like the dimension of time, it has a certain direction.  It points upward toward genius.  Arbitrary conventions and abstract rules have a role to play; however, they do not create that design space.  They are merely means of exploring it. 
Much the same goes for the virtues.  Mammalian and then specifically human evolution opened up the moral design space.  When we develop morally, we are exploring that space and that exploration will discover the meaning of virtuous actions and their actors.  I suspect that the dominion of utilitarianism and deontology over modern ethics is in part a consequence of the view that human beings are blank slates and that the virtues, like music and the other arts, are arbitrary constructs.  This idea dates back to the early moderns like John Locke, who were equally suspicious of Aristotle and innate ideas. 
Virtue ethics, by contrast, begins with the idea of human nature.  Human beings are born with a moral capacity that is a product of evolution.  When we act morally, receive and pass on moral rules, innovate in novel situations and try to work out theories about ethics, we are, to be sure, engaged in a process of self-invention; however, that invention works out in the context of a much larger design space that is our nature.  All human freedom, moral or otherwise, operates in the confines of a much larger nature which we are blessed by. 


  1. I'm sorry but that reasoning is indeed circular. Please look the definition up.

  2. I'm sorry, anonymous, but you are going to have to give me more than this to go on.

  3. The piano analogy is absolutely circular. It leaves out what actually distinguishes great playing from bad: the experience created. Granted, listening plays a part in that, and can be developed as a skill, but the point is that neither playing nor listening would be considered "great" if they couldn't play a role in creating some sort of high-quality experience. The fact that humans are uniquely capable of creating such experiences doesn't mean that capability is what *defines* the greatness of the act. That part lies in the quality of the experience itself, a.k.a. the consequence.