The Vicissitudes of Common-Sense Virtue Ethics, Part II: The Heuristic Use of Common Sense
In the first part of this study, I compared the ways in which Aristotle and Michael Slote utilize common sense, meaning the opinions and intuitions of the majority of people or some reference group among them. Both philosophers center their attention on human virtue and so both may be categorized in a very broad way as common-sense virtue ethicists. Aristotle uses common sense only heuristically as an aid to forming opinions of his own, which he then checks against the facts as he sees them. In contrast, Slote uses common sense probatively. When his views accord with common sense, he takes it as a confirmation and, at points, as a proof of their validity. He is thus a commonsense philosopher in a more profound sense than Aristotle. My criticisms of his views were designed to show that he is ill-advised in appealing to common sense in the way he does. Aristotle's guarded and limited use of it is the only approach that can be justified in ethical theory. I will now sketch the way in which intuitions, whether the intuitions of all people, of a select group, or of the philosopher herself, should interplay with theoretical considerations in her development of an ethical theory. The department of ethical theory that I shall discuss will continue to be that devoted to virtue, but I shall argue that virtue as a property of persons cannot be understood without adequate concepts of the right as a property of actions, and the good as a property of goals. In developing a theory of virtue from common intuitions, Slote claims to utilize a systematic procedure exploiting an interplay between theory and intuition. He observes that this is “a methodology at least partially analogous with scientific methodology.” In developing this procedure, we would expect him to improve measurably on Aristotle, since he has available a much more sophisticated form of scientific inquiry as his model. To see how far the analogy between ethics and science takes him, let me sketch a classic example of scientific procedure. This example is Lavoisier's discovery of oxygen and explanation of combustion, which precipitated a revolution in chemistry and led to the development of a body of theory recognizably continuous with that current today. The analysis will show that Slote does not go far enough with the analogy and that the analogy largely impugns the probative value of common sense as Slote uses it.
The Journal of Value Inquiry 32: 465-478, 1998.