The Vicissitudes of Common-Sense Virtue Ethics, Part I: From Aristotle to Slote
In a treatise on methods of applied ethics, Abraham Edel, Elizabeth Flower, and Finbarr O'Connor distinguish between three traditional families of terms, “the family of right and wrong, duty and moral law, rights and responsibilities; the family of good and bad; and the family of virtues and vices.” They argue that “the formulation of an ethical question is choosing among ways in which it may explored. And it is turning to some rather than other of the resources that the history of ethical theory offers in its treatment of ethical concepts.” Under the inspiration of pragmatism, they recommend a pluralistic approach. “Instead of urging a choice among competing theories, we suggest building up an inventory of resources from the theoretical reservoir, with a clear understanding of which can be invoked from what kind of purposes.” They maintain that ethical theories can be utilized to resolve practical problems without unifying concepts into a single system. Unfortunately, attempts by philosophers to resolve practical issues of great concern to the public such as abortion, physician assisted suicide, our obligations to nature and future generations, and capital punishment have resulted in stalemates among members of the same schools of thought and more intractably among members of different schools. Unification of theory seems mandatory if we ever hope to break the stalemates and approach a consensus on how to solve practical problems. Suppose then, contrary to the counsel of Edel, Flower and O'Connor, we undertake to determine which of the three popular approaches to ethical theory is correct and to reduce the concepts of the others to it. We might be able to show that a theory of virtue is a department or application of a theory of the right or a theory of the good, as many modern ethical theorists have argued. We also might find virtue ethics to be fundamental and reduce the other families of concepts to it. A few contemporary moralists assert that it is time to try this route. Prominent among them is Michael Slote, who argues in two recent books that the family of virtue concepts is irreducible to either or both the other two families. He anticipates that the theory of virtue will evolve into a “free-standing” ethic rather than remain a “supplement to common-sense, Kantian, utilitarian, or other forms of ethics and moral philosophy.”
The Journal of Value Inquiry 32: 325-341, 1998.