Virtue ethics and why the rationalist community might care about it.

This post introduces “virtue ethics” and explains why you might find it worth pursuing.

Virtue ethics is meant to be of practical help

The two main forks of the rationalist endeavor are clear thinking and effective action. Virtue ethics addresses both of these: Clear thinking is the result of honing the “intellectual virtues” and effective action typically involves the skillful use of various other virtues.

Ethics, said Aristotle, “differs from the other [philosophical subjects] in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good, for this alone gives the study its practical value.”

Where virtue ethics fits alongside its alternatives

Since Aristotle’s time, however, ethical philosophy took a turn for the “meta” — arguing interminably about fascinating things like the nature of good and evil and the plausibility of free will — and losing much of its practical focus along the way. The two main families of ethical approaches that developed from all of that wrangling are usually called deontological and consequentialist. Deontologists hope that we can discern — whether by logical necessity or via revelation — some articulable rules of behavior by which everyone ought to govern their lives. Consequentialists urge us instead to carefully anticipate the likely results of our possible choices and to make decisions such that those results are optimal by some metric or other.

(One branch of the consequentialist family tree leads to the effective altruism movement in which the rationalist community has done much fruitful work, and which adds a welcome dose of the practical to what had become a very theoretical discipline.)

These approaches to ethics are not rigidly exclusive. They tend to inform each other, and as a practical matter most of us tend to mix and match from them rather than dogmatically sticking to one or another. Virtue ethics also can be a complement to either a deontological or consequentialist ethics. If you’re a deontologist, you need wisdom and insight to discover the rules, and self-control to resist the temptations to break them — and those are virtues that virtue ethics can help you with. If you’re a consequentialist you need discernment to understand the situation you are in, imagination to come up with the full range of alternative courses of action, foresight to anticipate their likely effects, and empathy and perspective to understand those effects most broadly — and these are also things in the virtue realm. (See also: “Virtue Ethics for Consequentialists” Will_Newsome, LW, 4 June 2010)

It always seems to end up back at Aristotle

I led off with Aristotle because he’s considered the granddaddy of the virtue ethics approach, and because his Nicomachean Ethics (from which I took his quote) is still an inspiring read. One thing I like about it is its attention to how we go astray: Why do we sometimes make bad choices even when we have enough information to make good ones? Why even when we make good choices do we sometimes fail to follow-through on them? Are there steps we can take to resist the allure of bad decisions? Can we make our good intentions more reliable guides to our behavior?

Another thing I like about it is that it considers a broad view of a human life. Much of what we think about when we think about “ethics” restricts itself to questions of good and evil: preventing or causing suffering; pleasure and pain; justice and injustice. Aristotelian ethics is about optimizing your life on a broader set of dimensions than those. It’s not morally wrong to be a dull conversationalist, to be incurious, to be lazy, to be a braggart… but such traits suggest that you’re in some ways leading a stunted life, and that’s a shame. Aristotle means to hold you to a higher standard than just “don’t be evil”: rather, “be excellent!”

Virtue ethics is also appealing because it’s not a scold. Deontological ethics says: follow the rules! Consequentialist ethics says: sacrifice for the greater good! Virtue ethics says: become the best person you can by taking pleasure in being marvelous.

“The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning,” said Simone de Beauvoir. The virtue ethics approach is that the human game is a complex one that, to be won, requires that you exercise a multitude of skills — or, in this context, “virtues” — each of which, though it may be analyzed theoretically, can only be mastered practically, that is by practice. The virtue ethicist is skeptical that you can win the game by memorizing the rulebook or by developing rapid-deployment clairvoyance about the consequences of your set of possible actions.

What are these virtues, then?

One way to think about a virtue is as a region on a character trait axis continuum. A virtue differs from a more neutral or merely descriptive personality trait (like the “big five personality traits”) in that a virtue is a region on some particular trait continuum that has been identified as being characteristic of a flourishing, thriving human.

What counts as flourishing/​thriving for a human being is a point of controversy and is difficult to define precisely. You probably have some intuitive sense of what a thriving human life is like — think of whom you admire or envy, or which characters in a story you instinctively identify as the heroes and why. Those aren’t ideal tests, but you can use them as a starting place.

People are complex; the virtues are a way of trying to make our characters more tractable by isolating particular characteristics and considering them separately. The virtues are not, I think, naturally isolatable facts about us; they’re more labels of convenience for these more-or-less identifiable and isolatable character trait axes.

The Golden Mean

In Aristotle’s approach, the best place to be on each character trait axis he identified was in a sweet spot somewhere in the middle: the golden mean. So for example, if you allow yourself to be overcome by fear you exhibit the vice of cowardice; if you have no regard for fear, you may be stupidly rash or shameless. The golden mean of courage is between those two extremes: to respect well-founded fear but not to let it govern you.

Aristotle’s golden mean approach was important to his theoretical framework, but I think it is probably best not to be too rigid about it. Sometimes we label our character trait axes with a label that itself implies the sweet spot. For example, “fitness” might be the name we give to a virtue about health. Certainly we don’t want to be physically unfit, but do we also not want to be too fit? That doesn’t really make sense, but that’s just a function of how we chose to label our virtue. If we had chosen “strong” instead of “fit”, it would have made more sense to say you could err both by being a weakling or by being so muscle-bound that you need help to get dressed in the morning, in which case you’d have overshot the mark.

Lists of virtues across times and cultures

There are many possible ways of dividing up the human character into sets of virtues. Different people at different times, and different cultures in different places, have come up with their favorite sets. Virtue ethics does not require that you discover or accept the One True Set of virtues; in fact I think it’s probably a healthy exercise to try to come up with your own set, and to be prepared to adjust it as you grow and learn. (See also: “An attempt to list out my core values and virtues” Ruby, LW, 9 June 2019).

That said, I’ve spent some time looking at different virtue traditions: from Aristotle’s Greece to Cicero’s Rome to feudal Japan, from West Point’s military virtues to Christian virtues of the meek, from Ayn Rand to Henry David Thoreau to Shannon Vallor to the boy scouts to the Rationalist Virtues. I have found hundreds of distinct virtues in traditions like these.

Some that appear most frequently are: courage, honesty, compassion, loyalty, justice, respect for others, self-control, duty, industry, wisdom, sincerity, reverence, fitness, and temperance. But a tally like that one can be deceptive. Some traditions divide their virtues up more finely than others: For example, are “fairness,” “impartiality,” and “mercy” components of “justice” or are they distinct virtues? Or a tradition might never mention “honor” as a virtue, for example, but might value “dignity” and “rectitude” and describe them in a way that ends up covering pretty much the same territory.

Virtue ethics suggests a practical approach to becoming a more effective actor

A virtue is a sort of character trait. Human character is malleable: We are creatures of habit. If I change my habits, my character changes to match. A virtue is not a sort of knowledge that is acquired through theoretical understanding, but is a sort of skill that is acquired through practice.

This means that for each virtue, we have a handle on how to develop it. We look closely at our own behavior and habits, compare it against the sweet spot as best as we are able, and then put in the work to change our habits so that our characters better conform to what they would be if we were firing on all cylinders.

There are a variety of techniques (such as WOOP, CBT, etc.) that you can use to adjust your habitual behavior.

If you do this wisely, you can probably expect accelerating returns, at least at first. Much of what holds you back from developing virtues more rapidly is a deficiency in other virtues: perseverance, maybe, or industriousness; insight or curiosity into your own character perhaps; the courage to try something new or difficult; the flexibility to adapt to change. If you choose one of those virtues to try to improve, you can make it easier to improve on the next one on your list.

Want to know more?

If there is interest in this topic, I’ll post some follow-ups. If you have questions about virtue ethics or something in that ballpark, drop me a line or add a comment below.