Monday, May 6, 2013

Relative Virtue & Unqualified Virtue

Any philosophical account of ethics will try to discover something that is universally descriptive of moral beliefs and behaviors.  Some accounts are limited to description and these we may call relativistic accounts.  What is right and wrong are so only relative to some observer (moral subjectivism) or to some group of observers (cultural relativism).  Both forms of relativism deny that there are moral standards that are true, independently of the observer. 
The varieties of moral objectivism look for precisely such a standard.  The four serious contenders are follows:

1.       Divine Command Theory holds that the standard is the authority of a divine or otherwise transcendent lawgiver. 
2.      Utilitarianism holds that the standard is the beneficial consequences of the moral action. 
3.      Deontology holds the standard is the good will: moral actions are those and only those done because they are the right thing to do. 
4.      Virtue ethics, as I have argued in these posts, finds the standard in the reciprocal relationship between the virtuous action and the virtuous character. 

All of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses and, I believe, each captures some genuine features of moral behavior and consciousness as it actually presents itself in human life.  Most of my students in Philosophy 100 tend to switch between the first three depending on the situation. 
I hold with number 4 because I believe that it provides both the best descriptive account of morality as a universal dimension of the human being and because I believe that it provides the best counsel for someone wanting to know what to do.  I would add to this that it incorporates the insights of the other accounts, including even some of those that come from cultural relativism.  I will focus here on the latter. 
Cultural relativists recognize that different groups frequently have different sets of moral rules.  The relativist argues that these rules are ultimately arbitrary and thus to be right or wrong is nothing other than to be in sync or out of sync with some particular cultural set.  Relativists tend to emphasize the disagreements between distinct moral cultures and prefer to ignore or deny that there are any universal rules.  All moral cultures are the product of a distinct history and thus owe their character largely to accident. 
Interestingly, Aristotle (the authority in virtue ethics) recognized what one might call relative virtue in his Politics.  To be a virtuous citizen in an aristocracy is not the same thing as to be virtuous citizen in a democracy.  The one must support and the other must oppose an inegalitarian distribution of political honors and offices.  On the other hand, Aristotle thinks that the virtuous man is the same in all regimes. 
It is true that the vast majority of human beings acquire their moral beliefs from the culture they are raised in and that moral codes differ at least in the values and rules that they prioritize.  Cultural relativism allows these facts to obscure the universal ground of morality.  From Chapter 2 of Moral Origins, by Christopher Boehm:
The rules that individuals internalize are the cultural product of groups that gossip moralistically on an ongoing basis.  That’s how moral codes originate, stay in place, and are continuously refined. 
The facts that Boehm points out here are not relative but universal.  Virtually all human beings are born and raised and live in moral communities and internalize the moral rules of the groups.  This is to say that those rules become part of their psychological equipment and form the original ground of their moral intuitions. 
However, just as the multitude of human languages all testify to a human capacity for speech, so the various moral cultures testify to our universal capacity for morality.  A particular rule internalized by some culture may be specific to that culture (e.g., not eating shell fish).  Internalizing moral rules, enforcing them by shaming, shunning, expulsion, or some more violent sanction, are not specific to any culture.  They are human things. 
When something like moral consciousness and collective enforcement are universal, there are two likely explanations.  One is that they are natural.  These have been selected for in our evolutionary history.  The other is that they are artificial but address universal human needs.  Which is it?  Both, I am sure.  Our tendency to form moral cultures is too deeply engrained in us to be a recent product of history.  However, it is flexible enough that we can modify it by intention. 
While cultural relativism blinds one to the universal foundation of morality, it also overemphasizes the difference between moral cultures.  Again from Boehm:
Today human groups come in the form of nations or cities, as well as tribes and nomadic bands, but they all have such moral codes.  And even though certain types of moral belief can vary considerably (and sometimes dramatically) between cultures, all human groups frown on, make pronouncements against, and punish the following: murder, undue use of authority, cheating that harms group cooperation, major lying, theft, and socially disruptive sexual behavior.  These basic rules of conduct appear to be human universals. 
Again, these universal rules must be either the products of natural inclinations or they emerge historically because they meet natural needs.  Again, it is probably both; though I suspect that the flexibility we in definitions of murder or decisions about which uses of authority are undue puts the weight on the latter. 
Virtue ethics is grounded in a realistic appraisal of moral development.  We learn to be good, in so far as we can, by internalizing the moral rules of our native culture and imitating those who are identified as virtuous by that culture.  We learn that some people are better than others and if we strive to be like the best we will make moral progress in that context. 
As moral cultures differ, the best person in one may well be different in character from the best person in another.  However, if Boehm is right, the two may not be all that different.  Boehm relates the story of collective hunting among the Mbuti pygmies.  The hunting system was a genuine prisoner’s dilemma.  If everyone cooperates, all will get some meat.  One hunter cheated and was punished with ridicule by his tribe.  I seriously doubt that there is any human culture that would not recognize this tale and condemn the cheater. 
At some point one may recognize that some cultures are better than others and at that point adopt a critical view of her own culture.  This may result from an exposure to other cultures.  When I compare our ways to theirs, I might conclude that in some ways theirs is better.  Such a comparison is possible, however, only if there are some standards that are independent of cultural differences.  If human intelligence can discover such standards in the natural function and meaning of morality, then virtue ethics represents the mature stage in moral thought. 


  1. Any thoughts on what kind of selection -- eg group selection -- is behind the moral sense?

  2. brev: I am pretty sure that group selection plays a role in human evolution. I am currently reading Moral Origins, by Christopher Boehm. Boehm seems to think so as well. The problem with group selection is that, while groups with a lot of altruists may out compete groups with few altruists, the altruists within the group would put themselves out of business by their acts of self-sacrifice. One possible solution to that problem would be for the altruists to expel the free riders. I think that that is where Boehm is going with his argument.

  3. I'm inclined to agree with that.

  4. This is an interesting idea - but I'm not convinced that the fact that something seems to be a relatively universal concept means that it is naturally right. The ideas that slaves rightfully belonged to their masters was prevalent throughout history and in civilizations all around the globe. From the Babylonians and the Hebrews in ancient times to the Russians and Americans in more recent history, the ideas that masters were more moral than slaves and that slaves owed their masters obedience prevailed. One could argue, I suppose, that the fact that these ideas were long lasting and fairly universal, they were naturally right - but I think that view would be wrong.