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.
Tom Anders says
Schultz asks how we can get an account of the good from the concept of virtue, concluding over and again that it’s logically circular. However, goodness is not circular in this sense, but is instead constitutive of the capacity and norms of performance internal to a natural kind. As Aristotle famously says, if an axe were alive its capacity would be for chopping. It is for the sake of this (its natural end or consequence, though, one imposed by humans) that an axe possesses the characteristic functions that it does; which, in turn, can be in a well-functioning (virtuous) or defective (vicious) condition. This is why the good is a mean state relative to the extremes of disproportion: “for men are bad in many ways, but good in only one” (NE, 106b35).
The analogy between artifacts and human beings, then, is an analogy between functioning and living, or between functioning well and living well. This is partially clarified in the De Anima. A capacity is only involved in “living” when it makes a necessary contribution to the vital activities of a universal form of life (as in the genera of plants and animals). By contrast, a capacity is involved in “living well” when its possession makes only a contingent contribution to the vital activities of a more particular subspecies. In this case, Aristotle would argue the more complex, and inessential, the capacities the more they exist for the sake of optimizing or extending, rather than merely maintaining, the performance of the creature’s core life functions. Why are living beings like this? because a capacity that served no purpose would be in vain, and, according to Aristotle, “nature does nothing in vain.” It’s this kind of metaphysical biology in conjunction with his ethical view (or some variation thereof) which grounds something like a meta-ethical justification for Aristotle’s account of the virtues and of the highest good.
So viewed, it’s not clear to me why the analogy between a person’s health and their moral or intellectual good should fail to be intelligible. We clearly speak of people being in good health when their body, rather than their mind, is of sound, or vigorous constitution. How is the healthy person significantly different than the person who, for example, is friendly, just, or honest? In either case we’re speaking about certain exceptial qualities embodied in the nature of the person, rather than their strictly determined social roles or traditional way of life (as in MacIntyre). Granted, health might appear closest to our biological nature, while the virtues are only natural in a secondary sense. But this, I think, is part of Aristotle’s point in distinguishing capacities for living and living well. The lower capacities are ontologically prior in the order of development than the higher capacities. The lower capacities are therefore conditionally necessary, existing for the sake of the higher. In rational beings, the intellect commands the lower nature; in animals, it’s rudimentary sensation, locomotion, and practical reason that commands basic nutrition and reproduction; etc. In other words, higher-order thought is an extension of our biological nature, which is what makes the distinctive human virtues possible. Being friendly, just, honest, and so on, are the necessary consequences of acting in accordance with our nature; which is equivalent to saying that we act in accordance with reason.
To sum up, I don’t understand why people have argued for such a radical break, rather than a continuum, between natural and moral categories. If human nature is viewed metaphysically, or logically (in the Hegelian sense), rather than in a purely empirical scientific mode, then a naturalistic account of virtue ethics is, at the very least, not a conceptual impossibility.
Can we agree on a concept of health or human nature that would lead us to concrete universal “higher-order virtues” or rational action?