In preparation for our Aristotle Politics episode, I checked out a new semi-philosophy podcast called the Mile High Sanity Project, as they had an episode on Aristotle’s ethics. I say “semi-philosophy,” because the podcast is made up of three guys in different disciplines. They trade off being the lead guy on episodes, so the philosophy ones are “Norm’s Conceptual Corner,” featuring Norm Schultz, who’s got a master’s and teaches at some community colleges in Denver. So it’s essentially a one-man PEL, with some other non-philosophy guys to act as interlocutors (and they do a fine job at that). The several ethics episodes go through various issues in ethics such as divine command theory, cultural relativism, and natural law, but given that this one on virtue ethicsis the last in the series and came out in October 2011, I wouldn’t hold your breath for the subsequent promised issues on utilitarianism and other moral theories.
Virtue ethics, Schultz says, is a non-starter for ethics, because it doesn’t actually tell you what the good is, and the criteria that are suggested by Aristotle’s work such as “obey the golden mean” aren’t sufficient to provide us matter for ethics or to justify it. And it’s true, I think, that if like G.E. Moore you take it as obvious that the fundamental starting point for ethics is figuring out “the good,” then Aristotle doesn’t deliver, and to the extent that he does, in describing the human telos (e.g. what is psychological health), then he doesn’t give us justification to get us from “this is healthy” to “this is good.” So you can’t consider Aristotle’s theory on par with utilitarian and Kantian theories, without doing some meta-ethical work of the type that MacIntyre did, which in his case amounted to denying the is-ought distinction as basic in favor of a teleological account of values, and admitting that values are to some degree cultural, yet still obligatory upon us.
We get a more direct account of this from Hegel, but Aristotle in the Politics also argues that given that the state’s good and our good as individuals are very tightly related, in that human purposes are only fulfilled in a successful state, then the laws of the state are going to be in general morally obligatory upon us, although of course Aristotle doesn’t talk about obligation like that. Rather, it is part of individual virtue to obey such laws, even for the most part when they’re unjust laws. The “for the most part” points out the other difficulty in mapping virtue ethics against other types: it’s phronesis that ultimately tells an individual what to do in a given circumstance. Likewise, Aristotle doesn’t see the need to distinguish between distinctively moral obligations and other types of normativity, such as the “ought” involved in prudential or logical considerations. So for Aristotle, the virtuous person will have the wisdom to navigate conflicting demands and figure out the right thing to do given the circumstance. While one can generalize about the good life (e.g. that it involves contemplation as well as effective action), the main point is to become the kind of person who’ll read the right path off of the situation. We needn’t, and in fact can’t, just make a list of rules that then even those without phronesis could then follow and count as virtuous too.
I don’t think Schultz is necessarily mischaracterizing Aristotle on this podcast, and he admits that he’s trying to smash Aristotle’s square peg into a round hole, but the fact that he sees apparently all types of virtue ethics (which has many strong adherents among ethical philosophers today, among them Flanagan and Churchland) as an obvious failure to meet the challenge of devising and justifying ethics should indicate that he’s asking the wrong questions to get the most out of Aristotle’s system.