Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor – with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith – by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

 

Some of the Mysteries of Good Character, by Christian B. Miller

The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.

We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.

To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.

1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?

To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.

But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.

Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.

Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).

So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.

2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:

There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.

Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.

To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.

By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.

My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog.

~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Philippa Foot!

‘Philippa Foot [, born on October 3rd, 1920, was] a philosopher who argued that moral judgments have a rational basis, and who introduced the renowned ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem…’ William Grime’s New York Times obituary of this philosopher, far less widely known than she is influential, is an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of the brilliant Foot.

You can also learn more about Philippa Foot at

Philippa Foot – by Martin L. White for Encyclopædia Britannica

Philippa Foot ~ Interview by Rick Lewis for Philosophy Now, conducted in the autumn of 2001

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) ~ by Lawrence Solum for Legal Theory Blog

Philippa Foot Obituary: A ‘Grande Dame of Philosophy’, She Pioneered Virtue Ethics – by Jane O’Grady for The Guardian, October 5th, 2010

Philippa Foot: Trolleys and Natural Goodness ~ by Edward Harcourt for Prospect magazine, Oct 7, 2010

Professor Philippa Foot: Philosopher Regarded as Being Among the Finest Moral Thinkers of the Age ~ by Peter J Conradi and Gavin Lawrence for The Independent, Oct 18th, 2010

and a multitude of citations in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Virtue Ethics: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem, by Peter D.O. Smith

Aristotle

I recently discovered this piece by Peter D.O. Smith in Scientia Salon, a favorite ‘webzine about philosophy and science‘ of mine.

I’m especially interested in philosophy’s attempt to unify ethics, to help bring the various particular ethical systems and local moralities into some sort of accord, or at least to bridge the gaps between them to whatever extent possible. Great harm often results when adherents of different ethical / moral systems come into conflict (religious wars, political gridlock), where instead of seeking common ground in the pursuit of the good, conflicting parties seek to dominate by force and inflammatory rhetoric. Blinded by self-righteousness, these conflicting parties can bring about a situation where at best, no progress is made as each side expends all of their efforts undermining the other, or at worst, inflict death and destruction on each other and on innocent bystanders.
This piece addresses this problem, and offers virtue ethics as an excellent candidate for its resolution.
What do you think? 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Introduction

This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities [3]. We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens [4] or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying [5], sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace [6].

Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause [7]. One in five women are sexually assaulted at university [8]. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.

The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.

What then is the problem?

The problem quite simply is that, in comparative terms, we do not give moral problems much attention at all and that we give it the wrong kind of attention, by creating a growing thicket of rules and regulations [9].

Modern society rewards material progress while neglecting moral progress. We have huge budgets for science research and we give large rewards to outstanding achievers in science. But society allocates far smaller amounts to advance moral interests or to reward moral achievers. As a simple example, of the six Nobel awards, only one (Peace) has a moral dimension [10]. Of the other 21 high-honour prizes, only seven have a moral component [11]. School education has a strong science bias but gives little attention to moral education [12]. Our criminal justice system spends a great deal on addressing the outcome of moral problems but little on addressing the causes of moral problems, with the result we have a recidivism rate of 66% [2]. We punish moral offenses but we do not prevent them. We have resorted to a form of legislated morality with our criminal justice and human rights systems. This is a framework with large gaps that does not address or give guidance to private morality.

We are becoming a rules based society, but the rules have only a weak hold because they lack intrinsic motivation [13]. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the collapse of the banking system. Banking is one of the most highly regulated parts of the economy, and yet that does not prevent abuse and exploitation [14]. Without intrinsic motivation the rules become a challenge to find means of evasion. We have reacted by adding more rules but it is only a matter of time before more means are found to evade them too. There has been an explosive growth in criminal laws. For the past twenty-five years, a period over which the growth of the federal criminal law has come under increasing scrutiny, Congress has created over 500 new crimes per decade [9]. Adding to this, the Administration is increasingly relying on mandates and directives.

A modern problem

Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion. Indeed religion can be seen, in sociological terms, as society’s way of promoting cohesion through moral consensus [15]. Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold. Modernity introduced a spirit of utilitarianism [16] and this has shaped present day society’s concept of morality. But it was not merely the concept that changed, but also the authority of moral systems. Religious moral systems derived their authority from their concept of God and this helped to provide intrinsic motivation. With the new utilitarian morality a new authority was introduced, the individual. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakened and diffuse moral sensibility that contains many contradictions. This new concept of morality has been accompanied by a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, by its very nature, less effective.

With this new concept of morality came a changed approach to society’s problems. The spirit of utilitarianism has created a tacit assumption that alleviating material need reduces the impetus for moral wrongs. There is a belief that moral wrongs are largely the outcome of material conditions. Thus effort has been directed to solving material problems, which have in any case been shown to have easy solutions, while true moral problems remain intractable and so are neglected. We have been picking the low hanging fruit.

We are divided by differing concepts of morality

With the weakening of religious morality and the widespread adoption of utilitarian approaches a sharp moral divide has opened up in society.

The secular world has adopted a tacit, inchoate form of moral consequentialism. It believes there is no absolute good or bad, only that acts should be judged by their consequences. It rejects the absolute lawgiver and the laws of religious deontology. It makes the individual the final arbiter of his acts.

The religious world, by contrast, believes in absolute good and bad and that acts can themselves be inherently good or bad. It believes there is an absolute lawgiver that has handed down a set of rules for a good life. The religious world rejects moral consequentialism on the grounds that it is a shifting and dangerous moral system that is easily tailored to suit the needs and desires of the moment.

As consequentialism or utilitarianism rose to the fore, reflecting the material and mechanical spirit of the times, challenging long held moral conceptions, Protestant Christianity (and Islam) retreated into a form of hardline deontology. The result is the strong ethical divide we see today.

There is thus a yawning chasm between the moral concepts of the religious and secular worlds. This chasm weakens the ability of society to address common moral problems since it lacks consensus. Society has reacted to this problem with a growing thicket of laws with no end in sight [17]. This has proven to be a poor solution, since adding rules merely invites further evasion if they are not reinforced or accompanied by some form of intrinsic motivation.

The need for a middle ground

We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept. For example, schools are a place where we should also give our youth moral preparation for adult life, and schools serve both world-views. This is one example of why it is necessary that we find common ground. Deontology and moral consequentialism are not acceptable to both sides of the divide and so cannot fulfill this need.

Which raises the question: is there a middle moral ground where the secular and religious worlds can meet and agree? Today’s society places a strong emphasis on the concepts of justice and rights. These can be seen as instances of what are known as ‘virtues’ and it is in virtue ethics, the third major branch of ethical philosophy, that I see an important opportunity for finding common ground between the secular and the religious worlds. Virtue ethics shows promise as the means of filling in the gaps of legislated morality. One can think of it as being the soft flesh on the hard skeleton of legislated morality, making a healthy, functioning body that is directed to the purpose of flourishing. Virtue ethics can be seen as an important form of intrinsic motivation that makes the regulated rules of society more effective while providing strong guidance to unregulated, private conduct. It is not accidental that here has been a sharp increase in academic interest in virtue ethics lately [18].

The appeal of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is an enduring idea with ancient roots. Aristotle, some 2,300 years ago, clearly articulated the ethical philosophy known today as virtue ethics [19, 20]. Cicero, close to the time of Christ, wrote of it as being one of the three main contending moral systems of the day [21]. Catholicism, early on, incorporated it into its teachings where it continues to this day to be a major influence [22]. The last 50 years have seen a marked revival of academic interest in virtue ethics [18, 23], and Alisdair McIntyre’s publication of After Virtue was a landmark in this revival [24].
Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement. In my mind, the appeal of virtue ethics is fivefold.

First, the generally accepted list of virtues is free of religious terminology or implications. This makes the virtues acceptable to the secular world. At the same time the religious world finds them a natural extension of its beliefs. For example, Catholicism has embraced virtue ethics, and both secularists and theists would readily agree on the list of 52 virtues given by the Virtue Project [25]. Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference. The differences that the many belief systems bring to this are largely ones of terminology and emphasis. It is an ethical system that is neutral about belief systems and can therefore be accepted by all belief systems.

Second, supplying an internal motivation is a better way of obtaining a good outcome, whether of act or consequence. It is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome[13]).

Third, by supplying intrinsic principles, rather than rules, it is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.

Fourth, virtue ethics supplies a means of internalizing and integrating rules into a person’s behavior, making them more effective. It is a powerful way of reinforcing the rules and regulations of society by translating them into intrinsic motivation.

Fifth, virtue ethics can supply a new source of meaning, independent of but complementary to religious belief. It can be an antidote to the angst of modernity. This is a large field that is only touched on here.

In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.

A practical solution

The attraction of virtue ethics is its practicality and simplicity. It can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people. It is independent of belief systems and yet most belief systems can accept it, with only changes in terminology. It can easily be taught at an elementary level while still be challenging at a philosophical level. It is easily incorporated into codes of conduct for organizations.

But it is not just a solution to individual moral concerns. It can also be expanded to any domain of activity as an example discussed by Bruni and Sugden shows in the case of market economics [26]. They describe the market as a practice having a telos of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. They explain: “On the supposition that the telos of the market is mutual benefit, a market virtue in the sense of virtue ethics is an acquired character trait with two properties: possession of the trait makes an individual better able to play a part in the creation of mutual benefit through market transactions; and the trait expresses an intentional orientation towards and a respect for mutual benefit. In this section, we present a catalog of traits with these properties, without claiming that our catalog is exhaustive.” Their catalogue of traits, or virtues, include universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.

Another example is the Character Counts! Coalition for moral education in schools, which uses a virtue ethics framework centered on respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue and citizenship [27].

These examples are intended to show that a virtue ethics framework can readily be adapted to any domain of activity or ‘practice.’ This makes virtue ethics a very flexible approach that can be tailored to all parts of our culture.

The role of secularism

Secularism has defined itself in opposition to theism. Its great achievement was the separation of religion from public life. Going beyond that, some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism [28] and to harden the stance of Christian fundamentalism. Religion is a deep seated sociological phenomenon and is not going away. It has been part of human history for at least 40,000 years and remains an important part of all societies. It is far too durable a phenomenon and there is no realistic prospect that it will be ended [29]. The criticisms directed at religion by secularism have prompted strong reforms in religion and so have been useful for that end. The so-called war between secularism and religion is now becoming counterproductive as it obscures the major issue facing society, that of moral suffering. Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce. This does not mean religion should not be criticized when the occasion demands it, and indeed criticism can be a healthy impetus for reform. But attention should be shifted to the real enemy, moral suffering. To overcome this enemy the secular world should make common cause with the religious world. It can do this by embracing virtue ethics and making it the central plank of a morally committed secularism.

A solution to future problems

Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword. Virtue ethics is our best hope of navigating this challenging new world. As Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue [31], explains, the virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the eudaimonia of the virtues. This is a radical move away from the idea of happiness that depends on circumstances or goods, a necessary move in the resource constrained world that lies in our future.

That this goal is not so elusive can readily be appreciated when we compare the levels of positive emotions of some poor countries with those of some rich countries [32]:
Panama 85%, Singapore 46%;
Lesotho 77%, United Kingdom 77%;
Swaziland 76%, Germany, 74%.
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Peter D.O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] US incarceration rate.
[2] Recidivism in the United Sates.
[3] Academic cheating fact sheet.
[4] The Snowden Files.
[5] 44% of children report having been bullied.
[6] Stalking.
[7] Causes of divorce.
[8] Sexual assaults at university.
[9] Revisiting the explosive growth of new crimes.
[10 Nobel prizes, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.
[11] Other high honor prizes.
[12] How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools.
[13] Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.
[14] Why only One Banker Went to Jail.
[15] Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.
[16] Trends in utilitarianism – Google books Ngram.
[17] Business Ethics: The Law of Rules.
[18] Trends in virtue ethics – Google books Ngram.
[19] Nichomacaen Ethics.
[20] Notes on Nichomachean Ethics.
[21] On Moral Ends, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julia Annas.
[22] The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages: A Study in Moral Thought from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century.
[23] Contemporary virtue ethics.
[24] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.
[25] The Virtues Project.
[26] Reclaiming virtue ethics for economics.
[27] The Six Pillars of Character.
[28] Net rating of religious belief systems.
[29] Growth of Religion.
[30] Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption.
[31] Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue.
[32] Gallup poll, Positive emotions worldwide.

This piece was originally published on Sept 25th, 2014 at 
http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/virtue-ethics-an-ancient-solution-to-a-modern-problem/