Can virtue ethics be criticized for failing to provide us with specific action-guiding principles?

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Nov 22, 2022


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Part I
The charge is sometimes made that virtue ethics is impractical because it does not provide us with rules for making moral decisions in complex situations. But in this respect is the theory any worse off than competing ethical theories? Even if we follow the rules of the utilitarian or the Kantian, are rules alone enough to guide us? Is acting in complex moral situations simply an exercise in logic in which the rules tell us what to do? Or does the application of moral rules require the sensitive judgment of a virtuous person? Daniel Statman points out that even for rule-based ethics, “the virtuous person is not the person who has excellent knowledge of some set of principles, meta-principles and metameta-principles, but the person who has right perception as to which rules should apply here and now. And this person must be, among other things, sensitive, compassionate and perceptive—the same features so praised in VE [virtue ethics].”74 Does Statman’s comment suggest that a virtuous character is more fundamental to ethics than rules are?
Part II
Can virtue ethics be criticized for failing to provide us with specific action-guiding principles? Let’s take as an example an ethical question that is in the news these days: Is it morally permissible to clone humans? In other words, should someone be allowed to create a cloned child who is the genetic replica of the DNA donor? Although this question has no clear-cut answer, at least utilitarians and Kantians have some definite principles in terms of which the issue can be debated. The utilitarian would assess the pluses and minuses of the likely social, psychological, and biological consequences for all who would be affected by the procedure. The Kantian would ask if the cloned child was being created merely as a means to the parent’s egotistical ends, and so on. But if we ask, “What would a virtuous person say about cloning?” either no answer is forthcoming or the answer would be based on utilitarian or Kantian considerations. Similarly, isn’t it hard to imagine what moral exemplars such as Buddha, Jesus, or Gandhi would do with cases in medical ethics that they never encountered? Does this problem imply that virtue ethics is not as helpful as the other theories are?


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