Thursday, July 19, 2007

Virtue Ethics and the Conflict Problem

One of the objections often made against virtue ethics goes by the name 'The Conflict Problem'. Virtue ethics tells us of the importance of cultivating a set of virtues, like honesty, justice, compassion, and so forth. But in many situations that we face in common life, we are pulled in different directions by such virtues. You know, the sort of common-life situations in which you are hiding Jews, and the Nazis come, and they threaten to kill your mother if you don't tell them if you are hiding Jews or not.

Yes, I'm exaggerating (slightly) the extent to which the objector has to go to make this sound like a serious problem. But in fact, even if we take the objection at face value, the virtue ethicist should not be put out at all by the objection. Obviously there will be difficult moral situations -- perhaps even moral situations, in fact, that are so difficulty that we are at sea when it comes to knowing how to apply any sort of rule to them, or determine at all the consequences of our actions in those situations. It doesn't ultimately matter how common or rare they are. Virtue ethics is an ethics that thrives in situations of moral conflict, precisely because it doesn't make the mistake of trying immediately to determine how you should handle the conflict. Someone who accepts virtue ethics takes a step back from the scenario and says, "Ex hypothesi this is a difficult situation, so it's silly to think that it's obvious what we should conclude about it. Rather, the question we should be asking is this: What qualities do we have to have in order to determine well how this situation should be resolved at all?" It's no good talking about rules or consequences if you don't have the wisdom, or the integrity, or the fortitude, to use them properly in the proper circumstances. And, while the virtue ethicist is not without means for discussing the matter, his or her primary aim is not to give you the answer but to show you what is required for being the type of person who can see an answer when faced with a problem.

So of all the objections to virtue ethics, I think the conflict problem is the least dangerous; so much so, I think, that serious consideration of the conflict problem shows that the virtue ethicist must be on to something.

1 comment:

  1. Laws control the lesser man... Right conduct controls the greater one.

     

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