In a recent review essay, “Morality and Virtue: An Assessment of Some Recent Work in Virtue Ethics“, David Copp and PEA Soup’s own David Sobel present what I take to be a common understanding of the relationship between right action and virtuous people:
It is facts about the alternatives a person must decide among, including such things as the impact the alternatives will have on people’s ability to meet their needs, that determine what a person ought to do. It is not facts about what a virtuous person would want her to do, or facts about the motives that the person would actually be acting from if she were to do the various alternatives. If someone is drowning, for example, and if you can save her at no risk and at negligible cost to yourself, you ought to save her because otherwise her life will be wasted. It is because a life would otherwise be wasted that a virtuous person would want you to save her (552).
Virtuous people are disposed to perform or approve of actions that are antecedently right (perhaps those that maximize happiness, or which are in accordance with some prior set of duties). Here I wish to argue in defence of an alternative embraced by many (but certainly not all) virtue theorists: that it is the approvals of the virtuous that determine which actions are right (and which states of affairs have various values). In particular, I aim to undercut the main intuitions which appear to support the position of Copp and Sobel with respect to the drowning case.
When we consider the drowning case, the potential loss of life leaps out at us as extremely important. It may seem clear that such a loss of life is a bad thing, and that as we consider the case, we are reacting to this antecedently disvaluable state of affairs. There is no apparent need to appeal to virtuous people and their reactions. But crucially, when we do our moral thinking or respond morally to situations we do not do so as blank slates. We possess various virtues, at least to some degree. We may see torturing puppies as wrong immediately, but this is because we are compassionate, just, and so forth. It is far from clear that when we basically decent humans respond to actions (real or in thought experiments) as wrong immediately, that we are responding to some prior, independent wrongness (or rightness) to the actions themselves, or value in the world. Rather, it is quite plausible to hold that our responses are the result of training and perhaps some natural tendencies to sympathy, etc. [See, for example, Kyle Swan’s recent post ‘Poverty of the Moral Stimulus‘.] And if this is correct, there is no difficulty in maintaining that the virtues are explanatorily basic, even in these cases. We strongly disapprove of the potential loss of life precisely because we are virtuous (to some degree); there is no need to hold that we are reacting to valuable states of affairs that are prior and independent of our reactions.
Still, many will hold that the potential loss of life is fundamentally what makes inaction wrong (and rescue efforts right), and an appeal to the attitudes of virtuous agents misses the point. But note: the virtue theorist can entirely agree that virtuous agents would approve of saving the person precisely because a life would otherwise be wasted. The distinctive claim of the virtue theorist (on the present construal) is that the moral rightness of such actions consists in the fact that virtuous agents would respond postively. The virtuous, given their particular psychologies, will respond negatively to actions because of such features as causing suffering, being a case of lying, and so on; similarly, they will approve of actions that end or prevent suffering, and so forth. We can distinguish between why the virtuous will have the responses that they have, and the moral status of actions (or states of affairs). The virtue theorist can at once say both that, for example, acts of puppy-harming are wrong because of the suffering caused (this will be what concerns the virtuous), and because the virtuous would respond negatively to the action.
Humans are creatures who have evolved over time with a range of complex social practices, shared or common preferences, and so on. It could be a mere descriptive fact about most humans that they care about the suffering involved in puppy-torturing – the mere result of social training and certain common human emotional dispositions. On the current proposal, what changes things – what turns a mere disapproval common among many humans – into moral wrongness is the fact that particular kinds of humans under particular kinds of conditions would share a disapproval of this sort. It is the fact that virtuous agents in particular would have particular kinds of negative reactions that makes such acts morally wrong – rather than merely displeasing to most or many humans. There is thus no need to downplay the importance of the suffering involved in puppy-torturings on the virtue theorists’ view; indeed this suffering will be the focus of the concerns of the virtuous; similar points would apply to the drowning case. The only claim is that these actions, states of affairs, and so forth take on a moral status insofar as virtuous individuals in particular will have certain attitudes towards them.
[Of course, a lot will hang on whether a viable account of the virtues (that doesn’t rely on appeals to right actions or valuable states of affairs) can be provided…]