What can virtue ethics tell us about living the good life?12 min read

Throw away the rulebook, stop calculating the consequences, and just choose to live the good life!

How we choose to live will be shaped by many things, but ethics will play a key role – whether you’re aware of it or not.  If you want to transform your life, the question is:  what kind of ethics will bring out the best in you? The type that demands dutiful obedience? The ethics whose only concern is consequence? Or the one that’s about you, your values, and how you choose to live your life?  Let’s find out.

The dead weight of old men’s rules
Ever find yourself thinking, I ought to do this, when really you want to do something else?  If so, it’s likely you’ve been hooked by an internalised rule about how you should conduct yourself.  Rules surround us.  They’re everywhere.  The Biblical Ten Commandments are an obvious source.  So too are the laws in force wherever you’re reading this.  And what about the more subtle (and often unspoken) social rules that structure our everyday lives?

The supremacy of external laws, rules that define what we should and shouldn’t do, comes from a branch of ethics called deontological ethics.  As well as rules (and the punishments for breaking them), deontological ethics also emphasises the idea of duty.  So, if you find yourself thinking, I don’t want to do this, but I really feel I should, then – you’ve guessed it – you’ve probably been hooked again.

Our families are probably the most potent crucible for instilling obedience to rules – and this instilled obedience can become the biggest constraint on our personal freedom and wellbeing.  As Erich Fromm has argued, acts of disobedience can actually be constructive in rejecting external rules in order to affirm something more personally meaningful.

Now rules aren’t all bad, but….

Rules aren’t problematic in themselves.  Human rights are based on deontological ethics, and rules help us set boundaries in our personal and professional relationships.  Can you imagine the chaos if we didn’t share a common understanding of what’s okay and what’s not?  But that doesn’t mean all rules are okay just because they’re there.  And just because you’ve been told to obey the rules, it doesn’t mean you should.

Have you ever felt paralysed by a decision facing you?  Should I do this, or perhaps that?  What will she think if I break that rule?  Will he forgive me or will I be punished?  External rules can undermine our own authority to determine what’s right (or wrong) for us.  This limits our freedom and constrains our wellbeing.  And what about this situation I’m facing right now, a moral dilemma where there’s no clear-cut solution?  Rules can’t fully grasp the messy complexity of the real world.  They might offer useful general guidelines, but can never tell us exactly what to do in every possible situation.  Life’s just too messy for that.

So if rules aren’t the best guide to life, how about consequences?

The moral calculus of consequences

Utilitarian ethics, popular in Victorian Britain, evaluates our conduct according to the maxim the greatest good for the greatest number.  If 52% of a given group benefit from a course of action, then this can be considered a good thing, regardless of the impact on the remaining 48%.  You might find yourself mulling over a decision or something you’ve done, trying to calculate the impact of your actions.  If so, this will be utilitarian ethics at play.  But is it helpful?

Novelist Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas provides a powerful argument against utilitarianism.  The people of Omelas are happy and prosperous.  But their happiness depends on the wilful neglect of a child, imprisoned in a cellar, unloved and mistreated in lieu of the Omelan’s happiness.  Although an extreme example, Omelas highlights the inherent injustice in privileging the needs of the majority over the minority.

In the early twentieth century, utilitarianism morphed into consequentialism.  Rather than focusing on percentages and proportionality, consequentialism concerned itself with – you’ve guessed it – consequences.  If I can justify my actions in terms of outcomes and consequences, then I can consider my actions ethical.  But is this really possible?  Who can foresee every possible eventuality of every single action?  It seems unlikely.  And that’s because it is.

Chaos theory and non-linear dynamics tell us that any action can have unforeseeable effects and consequences.  This principle is perfectly described by the butterfly effect, where a butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings and sets off a hurricane in the Indian ocean.  Small action, unforeseeable effect.  This principle is as true in our social world as it is in the natural world.  And that means it’s likely that anything you or I do may have unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Do we just ignore consequences?

Now these unforeseen consequences aren’t necessarily good or bad or big or dramatic.  But they’re unforeseen, nevertheless.  So, if that’s the case, is a focus on consequences a good guide to action?  Of course, we consider the consequences of our actions every day.  Whether choosing to leave a job or dodge between oncoming traffic to cross the road, it’d be foolish to jump without looking.  But does a consideration of consequences give us enough to work with?  Or does it leave us in thrall to the randomly unexpected?  I’m going with the latter.

If authoritative rules and the weight of numbers and consequence don’t provide a good basis for living, what are we left with?

Looking for the good life

Three hundred-and-fifty years before the common era began, ancient Greece was a thriving hotbed of ideas on how to live the good life.  The Stoics pursued the joyful life, nothing like the cold and stony ’stoicism’ we’ve come to associate them with.  The Cynics – the original punks – pulled pranks and stunts to shock people out of obedience to social conventions.  Meanwhile, Aristotle developed or invented pretty much everything, from logic, physics, aesthetics, biology, poetry, and ethics.  Aristotle also taught Alexander the Great, who would grow up to become the tyrannical conqueror of the known world.  So, despite his clear genius, Aristotle CV’s was not without the odd blemish.  All in all, it was a quite extraordinary time to be alive – although we shouldn’t forget this was only possible thanks to slavery.  And it wasn’t such an extraordinary time for the slaves of ancient Greece.

Unlike our more recent ancestors, the ancient Greeks weren’t interested in living by external rules or calculating the consequences of their every move. Instead, ancient Greek ethics focused on character and how character traits guide our conduct.  This is the basis of virtue ethics.

Now, character traits can be either virtuous and good (the Virtues) or vicious and bad (the Vices).  Aristotle, who had a penchant for categorising everything, argued that each virtue is positioned between two respective vices.  And the vices are either an excess or an insufficiency of that particular virtue.  Let’s take bravery as an example.

Bravery, as you’d expect, is a virtue, while insufficient bravery is the vice Cowardice and excessive bravery is the vice Rashness.  Along the same lines, the virtue Benevolence is bounded by Mean-spiritedness (too little) and Self-Sacrifice (too much) benevolence.  Aristotle called the middle-ground occupied by the virtues the Golden Mean, referring to the mean average.  I prefer to think of it as the golden sweet spot.

Here are a few more examples.

Vice (Deficiency)        Virtue (Mean)         Vice (Excess)
Indulgent                          Temperate                         Ascetic
Stingy                                   Generous               Extravagant
Self-deprecating              Truthful                        Boastful
Boorish                                     Witty                     Buffoonish
Quarrelsome                       Friendly                  Obsequious
Depraved                        Conscientious              Deferential
Lazy                                       Energetic                            Manic
Insecure                          Self-confident                 Arrogant

The list isn’t exhaustive, and it’s not without criticism either.  For starters, virtues aren’t universal and will vary across time and across cultures.  Virtues that were meaningful to Spartans will be different to those favoured by Quakers.  There’s also a question of definition.  A trained firefighter rushing into a burning building to rescue a child is of course an act of bravery.  But how about opening a door and walking out into the sunshine?  For me, it’s a thing of no significance.  But the simple act of opening a door and stepping out into the world can be an act of immense bravery for someone overwhelmed by social anxiety.  Or how about people living under oppressive regimes who don’t speak out because their families would be harmed?  Is that cowardice?  I think not.  That’s probably prudence, which is – incidentally – another virtue.

Despite these objections, virtue ethics still has much to offer us.

Virtue and the good life

If we embody virtuous character traits and thereby live a virtuous life, we can trust that the outcomes of our actions will be good, because our intentions are virtuous.  This means we don’t need to burden ourselves with rulebooks or moral calculators.  Living a virtuous life also seems to have a positive effect on our sense of wellbeing.  Aristotle argued that human beings flourish when we live in accord with the virtues.  Aristotle called this flourishing Eudaemonia, and it’s a tricky word to translate (I’ve written something on it here).

Some conflate Eudaemonia with happiness, although that seems somehow mistaken, just as wellbeing isn’t exactly the same thing as happiness.  If I demonstrate the virtue bravery by speaking out against oppression, I’m not exactly feeling happy, although that doesn’t mean I won’t feel happy in other virtuous situations.  The idea of the fully-functioning person is perhaps a better way of thinking about Eudaemonia.  She’s not necessarily a constantly happy person, but someone who is living at the fullest extent of her capabilities.

So, what does this look like in real life?  Picture yourself as an archer.  Every decision you make and every action you take is akin to shooting an arrow at a target.  If you act in accord with the relevant virtue, you’ll hit the bulls-eye.  If your aim strays from the centre, your conduct has strayed away from the golden sweet spot and into the territory of the vices.  Aristotle said we should always hit the target – and if we don’t hit the target, we’ve failed to be virtuous.  But this seems far too strict – and unrealistic as well.  Philosopher Mary Anscombe puts it like this:  if we judged a firefighter’s courage by the number of lives saved from house fires, we’d see her as lacking courage every time somebody died, despite her best efforts.  This is clearly absurd.

Good news!  The good life isn’t the perfect life.
Happily, Anscombe and the Stoics are far more relaxed than Aristotle.  Like Aristotle, the Stoics were concerned with individual actions and events. But they were more concerned with a person’s conduct over the course of his life.  Too many chance variables, bad luck, or factors beyond our control could prevent us from acting virtuously on a specific occasion.  This doesn’t mean we’re not typically virtuous, but it simply reflects the reality of living in a messy world.  So, the Stoics accept that our aim sometimes strays but we remain virtuous so long as our intentions are good.  Similarly, philosopher Julia Annas identifies our commitment to living a virtuous life as the foundation of a life well lived.

A brief detour to Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs – human sacrifice notwithstanding – had a rather different and compelling approach to virtue ethics.   Rather than placing full responsiblity for ethical conduct upon the individual, the Aztecs acknowledged our human fallibility.  They described life as a slippery path – anyone can potentially slip-up, and it’s incumbent on anyone nearby to help the person back to their feet and back on the path of the good life.

Virtue ethics as the foundation of your good life

If you want to transform your life, to enjoy a life of freedom and wellbeing, you might want to think about cultivating the virtues.  Virtue ethicists, Aristotle included, agree that we develop our virtues through learning, reflection, and emulating role models.  In more recent times, the development economist Amartya Sen has re-booted Aristotle in his Capabilities Approach.  Sen argues that we all – whether at the level of nations, communities, or individuals – need a certain set of capabilities in order to flourish.  People aren’t born ready-made, and we continue to grow and develop throughout our lives.  This means it’s never too late to cultivate capabilities – the qualities, skills, attitudes, dispositions, and things you’re able to do – that will help you live well.   In fact, the Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University has developed a programme in virtue education that’s helping people do just that.

What about the rules that have framed your decisions up until now?  Some of them will be benign and some will even be helpful.  But is it time to run an inventory and cast out the rules that only get in your way?  And what of consequences?  Unless you’re a fortune-teller, is this really your best guide to action?

We can think of virtue ethics in terms of practices of the self – the things we do that give our lives meaning and purpose.  With its focus on personal development, virtue ethics offers us a golden path towards the good life. Free of rule books and moral calculators, it emphasises us taking responsibility for the lives we want to lead.  With the ability to develop whatever you need to get yourself there, why not throw away the rulebook, stop calculating the consequences, and just choose to live the good life?

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