Friday, January 22, 2010

Swanton - A Virtue Theoretic Account of Right Action

There's too little philosophy on here at the moment, despite the fact that what keeps me from updating this blog is all the philosophy I'm doing out there in meat space. Here's a small something I did in the course of the programme I'm in: a summary of one of my favourite ethical articles, Christine Swanton's 'A Virtue Theoretical Account of Right Action' (Ethics 112 (October 2001): 32–52, ).

During my time as a philosophy undergraduate at Auckland I came to understand that the normal textbook portrayals of virtue ethics are terribly insufficient. On most accounts, virtue ethics is supposed to be not about what you do but what kind of person you are. That's complete nonsense, of course. To paraphrase Mary Midgley: to do something based not on what the situation demands but merely in order to not sully your own character is far from admirable, but frivolous and narcissistic. If virtue ethics really were about being and not doing, it would make its adherents all be guilty of crass inconsiderateness. And the theory is certainly better than that. The mistake the common 'being not doing' characterisation of virtue ethics makes is that it makes the virtues to be about a person, whereas they obviously should concern people's relationship to their situations: honest people respond to questions with earnestness, to deceipt with distaste, and so on.

What I like about Swanton's paper is how clearly and powerfully it addresses that relationship between the person and the situation, and what the virtue- and vice-terms say about that situations. Swanton isn't the only virtue ethicists to get this right, of course, but I like the way she addresses it.

She tries to give us criteria for acting rightly as follows: “(1) an action is virtuous in respect V (e.g., benevolent, generous) if and only if it hits the target of (realizes the end of) virtue V (e.g., benevolence, generosity); (2) an action is right if and only if it is overall virtuous.” She presents this 'target-centred' approach as an alternative and in contrast to Rosalind Hursthouse's 'qualified agent' approach (which is what Timmons discusses), wherein we can identify right actions by considering whether a virtuous person acting in character would do them, and Michael Slote's 'motive centred' approach, where an act is right if it comes from virtuous motives. How her approach differs from the other two is that she teases apart 'acting from virtue', where you act with the same motivations, emotions and perspective as somebody with the virtue would, and 'virtuous acts', which are when you do what the virtue demands of you (hit the target of the virtue). For her the right acts are the ones that manage to do the just, honest, benevolent, etc, thing, whereas the good ones are those you do out of justice, honesty, benevolence, etc.

Even if we don't end up agreeing with Swanton, the article is interesting and worthwhile in a few ways. Most importantly, the distinction between acting from virtue and virtuous acts helps us to understand exactly what virtues are and how they're supposed to help us make the right decisions. Virtues are dispositions of character – the way somebody might characteristically respond to their circumstances – which includes what they see in a situation, how they feel about what they see, what they are motivated to do and what they aim for in those situations. Acting from virtue is to act based on all of these internal states, that is, to have that virtue during acting. However, you can do something with the same effect as someone who has a virtue without really having it: for instance, I can do something kind even if I am not by following the prompts a kind person gives me. This example of kindness would be a virtuous action, but it wouldn't be acting from virtue. A virtuous act, like the example, would be one which hits the target of the virtue: nurturing the well-being of the person I'm tending to, or however you want to put it. It is worth noting that the distinction between acting from virtue and acting virtuously isn't one of getting everything internal to yourself right versus getting everything external right, since the target of a virtue might sometimes be internal to yourself, like courage where you need to control your own fear and confidence.

The example of somebody doing the right thing by imitating somebody virtuous is an example where you act virtuously without acting from virtue. You could also act from virtue without hitting the target of the virtue. For instance, I can have all the relevant internal states but not the necessary knowledge about the circumstances to do what is appropriate, and thus my actions in such a situation won't be virtuous. This is a problem to both the qualified agent and motive centred approaches, since they concern themselves only, in some way, with acting from virtue. So, if we think that an action having the appropriate effect is important to it being a right action, we need to consider the targets of the virtues if we are to make use of them in action guidance.

Swanton's paper gives an admirably clear and comprehensive discussion of what a target-centred approach to virtue ethics is and why we should pursue it. We don't need to decide now whether the other virtue ethical approaches can take up Swanton's challenge: that would be a very involved discussion which goes somewhat further into the detail of virtue ethics than we need. For our purposes, though, it is very worthwhile to see how the virtue ethical approach is different from the others we've studied. As Swanton shows, using Pettit's distinction between promoting and honouring goods, we can see that virtue ethics isn't consequentialist, not even a target-centred version. This is because an act must hit the target of every virtue in play in a situation, thus you can't rightly do something vicious but must keep your hands clean. Swanton mentions that deontology typically doesn't distinguish between right and good acts like she does, where it is possible to do every good thing you can and still not do what is right. For a deontologist to say this would be to say that you can follow every rule and law and still miss the right action, which isn't something they could admit. There are other differences as well, but this will do us for now.