Virtue Ethics's Criticisms Of Prevailing Orthodoxy
A constant target of this criticism of the contemporary forms of deontology and utilitarianism was their shared conception of the task of ethical theory—that it was to come up with a set (possibly one-membered in the case of act-utilitarianism) of general rules or principles that, applied to particular cases, would provide a decision procedure for determining what the right action was. The theory would reveal what was right about the actions everyone already agreed were right, by showing them to be grounded, or justified, by the rules in question. Even more importantly, it would resolve any moral disagreements about what it would be right to do in problematic situations. The virtue ethicists' attack on the idea that moral dilemmas were best resolved by finding general principles received unexpected support from Carol Gilligan's 1982 book attacking the principles-based view of moral development espoused by the educational psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.
Closely related to the criticism of deontology and utilitarianism as obsessed with the formulation of general rules that would deliver cut-and-dried answers were trenchant objections to their use in ideal moral decision making. According to a prevailing view, a truly moral motive involved acting for the sake of duty, but in an influential 1976 paper, Michael Stocker highlighted the oddity of supposing that ideally your friend should visit you in the hospital because it was his duty rather than simply because you were his friend. Similar objections were pressed against the prevailing assumption that taking up "the moral point of view" involved being impartial—according all rational autonomous agents, or the interests of all sentient beings, equal value. The virtue ethicists stressed that impartiality or justice was but one virtue among many and that how one should act in relation to one's own children, partners, parents, friends, students, patients, and so on was a central aspect of morality that was being ignored.
Before the reemergence of virtue ethics, Anglo-American moral philosophy had accepted as gospel John Rawls's claim (in A Theory of Justice, 1971) that there are just two "main" or "basic" concepts in ethics, "the right" and "the good." It is a mark of the extent to which virtue ethics has prevailed that it is now widely (though by no means universally) accepted that the concept of virtue is as important as the other two. This has had a beneficial effect on the other two approaches. Now that the significance of virtue has been recognized, deontologists and utilitarians are seeking ways to incorporate it into their theories, to the extent that it has become necessary to distinguish between virtue theory—an account of virtue or the virtues within the framework of any ethical approach—and virtue ethics. There is thus revived interest in Kant's Doctrine of Virtue and in the new wave of character-based versions of consequentialism.
Another way in which virtue ethics has made its mark can be seen in the extent to which moral philosophers have retreated from their earlier position that a normative theory must come up with a decision procedure that will provide specific practical guidance in difficult situations. The virtue ethicists' stress on the importance of phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) eventually brought recognition that such wisdom is needed to apply rules or principles correctly (since we all know that the Devil can quote Scripture to his own purposes), and that they cannot be usefully applied in difficult situations by people who lack experience, insight, and moral sensitivity.
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