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Making virtue ethics less self-centered

February 27, 2014

Virtue ethics is often accused of being “self-centered” or egoistic in some way. The virtuous person is only doing what they are doing “because they want to”. It strikes me that one way of dealing with this is to consider the case of some trying to become virtuous.

One way of looking at this seems open to the egoistic objection. This is when we consider the student of virtue saying “I want to become generous” or “I want to become modest”. This certainly seems self-centered. I want to gain this virtue because it is good for me to gain this virtue and be seen as virtuous – my reason for becoming virtuous seems centered on me.

But what about if we look at the learning of virtues as a widening of ethical considerations? Instead of saying “I want to become generous”, I say “I want to be concerned for those who have less than me” and “I want to always bear in mind that I do not need all my wealth”. These phrases point the desire to be virtuous away from me and towards the other. So, can we characterise being virtuous in terms of ethical considerations?

We can. The virtuous person acts as she does because she is virtuous (ok, that sounds circular, but…). A generous person responds in the way they do because that is how a generous person responds to a particular ethical consideration. What makes the person generous is the fact that they consider the specific ethical consideration they are responding to worthy of consideration in the first place and that they place a particular weight on such considerations and the need to respond to them. We learn to become generous by realising that particular ethical considerations are worth paying particular attention to (someone is worse off than me, someone is my friend etc.) and becoming the sort of person who cares about these ethical considerations and is willing to respond to them appropriately. And so on for other virtues. We are virtuous when we have a broad range of ethical considerations and respond to them as part of who we are.

Socrates would have us believe that the only virtue is “good judgement”. This isn’t the case, but applying good judgement to our range of ethical considerations is what the virtuous person does. It is the range of our ethical considerations that determines what virtues we are capable of embodying when doing so.

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