Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Virtue Ethics?

I have been thinking and reading a bit lately about virtue ethics, especially focusing on applications to economics.  My motivation for doing so is complicated, but one way of explaining the motivation is to respond to Will Wilkinson's argument against virtue ethics, one brand of which is what he is calling Eudaimonism:

The eudaimonist says that eudamonia is the aim of life and the ultimate end of practical reason. Eudaimonia is often translated as "happiness," but it's better understood asflourishing or functioning excellently as the kind of thing one is. Acting in accordance with certain virtues is thought to be both instrumental to and constitutive of flourishing or excellent functioning. Both Long and Vallier accept a version of the unity of the virtues thesis, according to which the content the virtues can be fixed only by reference to the content of the others. 
My trouble is that it is hard to make sense of eudaimonia within a Darwinian worldview, and that there is no good argument to the effect that eudaimonia, whatever it is, ought to be the aim of action. 
You are not an instance of a natural kind. You are a member of a genetic line. You have no essence. If you can be said to have a natural telos, it is to maximize inclusive fitness. But that is not only not in any sense a rationally mandatory aim, it's a completely stupid aim. Making copies of your genome is, in an important sense, what you are for. But it has next to nothing to do what what you ought to try to do with yourself.
Relatedly, there is no non-stupid natural fact of the matter about what it would mean for you to realize or fulfill your potential, or to function most excellently as the kind of thing you are. 

The problem with his argument, as you may immediately see, is that humans are an instance of a natural kind, we do have an essence.  Humans do have a natural telos, and it is not to maximize inclusive fitness.  Moreover there is a non-trivial vision of what it would mean for humans to realize their potential, to function excellently, and it is central to what it means to act ethically.  That is, without rejecting Darwinian biology or natural selection, I still have to reject the larger Darwinian worldview that Wilkinson takes as his starting premise.

Our tradition has good answers to these fundamental questions.  That is, virtue ethics, as many have discovered, provides an ethical language that fits extremely well with Christian theology.  My hope is thus that integrating virtue ethics with economics will help make progress integrating theology with economics.

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