The Four Ways to Learn and Practice Virtue Ethics

Figs in Winter
Mar 22 · 10 min read
[image: Socrates, bust carved by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia, Wikipedia; this is essay #283 in the Figs in Winter series]

We need virtue ethics. That’s the bottom line of an article by Martin Butler, who argues that we should teach virtue ethics to our kids and to ourselves. He observes that a lot of contemporary discussions about ethics induce, especially in young people, what he terms “a kind of paralysis of neutralism, a kind of ‘some people say this and others say that,’” which is detrimental to our moral development as individuals, as well as to social and political discourse. (See here for my handy guide to talking your friends out of moral relativism.)

Butler also points out that, while the Scylla of moral relativism seems to be receding in recent years, the Charybdis of moral absolutism has in the meantime raised its ugly head. A few minutes spent on social media, or watching television commentaries, will make clear that an increasing number of people (on both the Right and the Left) have become intransigent about their views on morality, regarding dissenting opinions — and the people who uphold them — as evil. As philosopher Cathy Mason, quoted by Butler, puts it: “Properly listening to someone involves thinking that the speaker might have something to tell us, that they may know some things that we do not.” There appears to be precious little “proper listening” out there at the moment. And here is perhaps one of the most convincing arguments by Butler for why we need virtue ethics:

There is also a deeper problem with an over emphasis on rights. A picture is created which encourages a view of individuals as isolated and threatened centers of selfhood. Rights become a buttress for the individual from the intrusions of the external world. A narrative where rights are center stage points us towards ideas of individual fulfillment through self-realization and authenticity, which have to work against the pressures we face from the social world around us. This, I think, is a very one-sided approach. … The virtue approach takes an essentially social perspective on human existence.

So what exactly is virtue ethics, how does it differ from other approaches to ethical reasoning, and — most importantly — how do we practice it?

What virtue ethics is. Virtue ethics is an approach to ethical thinking developed in the West by the Greco-Romans, though it appears in other traditions as well, for instance in Confucianism. Its focus is the proper character development of the moral agent, and the broader question asked by virtue ethicists is: what makes for a life worth living, what the Greco-Romans called a eudaimonic life?

There are many schools of virtue ethics, including Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Epicureanism. They differ in how they cash out the concept of eudaimonia. For the Epicureans, for instance, a good life is one in which pain, both physical and mental, is minimized. For the Aristotelians, one needs integrity of character, but also a number of externals, such as health, wealth, education, and good looks. For the Stoics, the eudaimonic life is one in which we use our reasoning abilities to make the world a better place for everyone (cosmopolitanism). The ultimate goal of all virtue ethical traditions — and their modern advocacy by contemporary philosophers — is to make us into the best human beings we can be.

How virtue ethics differs from other ethical frameworks. The most commonly discussed ethical framework alternatives to virtue ethics are deontology and consequentialism, though this trio by no means exhausts the number of possibilities. Like virtue ethics, both deontology and consequentialism come in a variety of forms, but usually, people focus on Kantian-style deontology and on Utilitarianism, respectively.

Deontological approaches are based on duties and rules. The source of the rules may be transcendental (e.g., the Ten Commandments) or reason (Kant). For instance, the fundamental Kantian rule, known as the categorical imperative, says: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Deontology focuses on the intentions of the moral agent.

Consequentialist approaches, as the name implies, focus instead on the consequences of the actions of the moral agent. For instance, the basic principle of Utilitarianism, in the version by Jeremy Bentham, is the principle of utility, “By [which it] is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing, in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

Deontological and consequentialist approaches aspire to be universal, that is, to apply regardless of circumstances, and focus on the question of whether a given action X is right or wrong (in terms of either intentions or consequences). By contrast, virtue ethical approaches tend to take into account the particularities of specific situations and agents, and their emphasis is on character development.

The same action — say, volunteering at the local soup kitchen — may be virtuous or not, depending on why the agent engages in it (e.g., because of genuine concern for others, or because she wants an added line on her resume). It is important to understand that virtue ethics very much cares about both duties and consequences, but neither is taken to be the ultimate arbiter of human ethical action. That arbiter is whether the action being contemplated is in line with, and contributes to develop a good character.

How to practice virtue ethics: four approaches. So, if your goal is to become a better person, and to help others do likewise, virtue ethics is the name of the game. But how, exactly, does one go about it, in practice? There are four ways, which are made explicitly clear in the writings of the Stoics, but are present in pretty much every version of virtue ethics, from Aristotelianism to Confucianism.

(i) Role models.

As Seneca puts it:

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Letter XI.10)

The two role models Seneca mentions are Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar, and Gaius Laelius Sapiens, a Roman statesman and consul from the second century BCE. There are two fundamental concepts expressed in this quote: the last sentence provides us with a reason to choose role models for our ethical improvement, that reason being, as Seneca colorfully puts it, that there is no way to tell how crooked you are unless you compare yourself to a straight ruler. The role model is the (more or less, nobody’s perfect!) ruler, and you use it to measure your own behavior in comparison to that of the role model. What Would Epictetus Do?, ask yourself whenever you face an ethical dilemma in life. Then act accordingly, as much as you are able to.

The second point is expressed at the very beginning of the quote: not everyone will do as a role model, you’ll have to pick your own, someone who genuinely inspires you and who you think you can reasonably emulate. That’s why Cato isn’t for everyone: most people might think that disemboweling yourself so that you cannot be manipulated for political purposes is going a bit too far. In that case, choose the gentler Laelius over the stern Cato.

The Stoics also thought that imaginary figures may do as role models. Two of their favorites were the demigod Heracles and the Homeric hero Odysseus. The latter, for instance, twice turned down the opportunity to become immortal and forever make love to beautiful goddesses, because he felt a sense of duty toward his comrades to bring them home safely (he failed in that), and because he wanted to come back to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.

The possibilities are vast, and we can pick from both ancient and modern potential role models. Among my favorites are my adoptive grandfather, Tino, who was one of the best and kindest people I’ve ever known; Nelson Mandela, whose reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations helped him turn away from his understandable anger during South Africa’s Apartheid; Susan Fowler, for whom the Stoics were instrumental in overcoming a series of difficulties early on in her life; and everyone’s favorite neighborhood superhero, Spider-Man, whose famous motto is “with great powers come great responsibilities.”

ii. Good counsel

Role models can only counsel you indirectly, by remembering what they have done in their lives, or by reading their memoirs or biographies. But sometimes we need direct, interactive counsel from a living human being. That’s where the concept of friendship becomes fundamental, both in Stoicism and in other approaches to virtue ethics.

As Aristotle put it, a friend of virtue — the highest level of friendship he recognized — should be a mirror to your soul, i.e., someone you can talk to about anything, and who is honest and courageous enough to give you the sort of advice you don’t wish to hear, if need be. As Seneca says:

If you consider anyone a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. (Letter III.2)

That is why Epictetus warns us to be choosy with the company we keep:

Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out. (Enchiridion 33.6)

“Non-philosophers” here doesn’t mean people without a PhD in philosophy or an academic position. It means people who do not earnestly try to improve themselves and live their life according to philosophical precepts. It sounds elitist, but, really, it’s the same sort of advice your mom probably gave you in kindergarten.

iii. Trial & error

Philosophical theory is fine, but life is lived in the field, so to speak, so there is no substitute for good old-fashioned trial and error. This is how Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’s teacher puts it:

Theory which teaches how one must act assists action and logically precedes practice, for it is not possible for something good to be accomplished unless it is accomplished in accordance with theory. But as a matter of fact, practice is more important than theory because it more effectively leads humans to actions than theory does. (Lectures 5.4)

Practice without theory is blind, but theory without practice reduces to sterile navel-gazing. This means that we all need to stumble through life the best way we can, ready to make mistakes, acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on, trying to do better the next time around. What, then, is the good of a philosophy of life? Philosophy does not, and cannot, provide you with ready-made answers to every situation (as deontology and consequentialism pretend, but fail, to do). But it does equip you with a framework to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is meaningful and important, and to evaluate your own actions. This brings me to the last way to practice virtue ethics: critical self-reflection.

iv. Critical self-reflection

One of the most important tools in the Stoic arsenal of techniques is the philosophical diary, of which the entire Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is an excellent example. Both Seneca (On Anger, III.36) and Epictetus actually give us instructions on how to do it. Here is the sage from Hierapolis:

We should have each judgement ready at the moment when it is needed: judgements on dinner at dinner-time, on the bath at bathing-time, on bed at bedtime. Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids Till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad. (Discourses III, 10)

The idea is not to indulge in an emotionally-laden reliving of your daily experiences. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, you want to write into your philosophical journal in the second person, as if you were addressing a friend, and you want to describe things and events in the most objective and detached way possible. The reason for this is that the goal is to put yourself in the position to critically analyze (and eventually improve) your own behavior, and modern psychology tells us that objective descriptions that are not couched in the first person are most efficient for this goal. Here is a classic example, from Marcus:

When you have savories and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus. (Meditations VI.13)

I know, I know, you are thinking: what kind of sociopath was this guy? Sex is just “the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus”? But what Marcus was arguably doing there was to remind himself that he was a bit too fond of certain things, like the purple (i.e., imperial power), gourmet food and wine, and sex (he did have 13 children, and took a concubine after his wife Faustina died). One way to nudge yourself toward temperance — one of the four cardinal virtues — is precise to re-describe in neutral terms things that normally trigger a strong emotional response.

So to recap: pick your role model(s) and regularly ask yourself what they would do in your position; cultivate the most virtuous friendship you can; don’t be afraid to try things out and make mistakes, so long as you keep your philosophical compass handy; and regularly write to yourself in your philosophical diary. Happy practice!

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