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Ethical Theory Final Paper (A).docx

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PHIL 334
Daniel Silvermint

Virtue Ethics and Action Guidance The Case Against Decision Algorithms and for Real Life Tiger Zheng PHIL 334 – Ethical Theory Professor Daniel Silvermint TA: Joseph Van Weelden April 16, 2012 Zheng 1 When it comes to forming normative evaluations, two different schools of ethical theories arise: monism and pluralism. The former posits that there is one fundamental property of actions that make it right, while the latter deems this insufficient to making proper judgments. While expedient, however, monism tends to oversimplify moral issues, rendering pluralism a better general framework. Principles in monist theories are deontic principles. That is, they oblige actions on moral actors involved (Slote 177). Specific conceptions of the good in consequentialism differ between various theories, but ultimately, the principle is to promote the net good. Standard consequentialism, in particular, focuses these obligations on the goal of maximizing the good. A right act, then, is a member of the set of actions that maximize expected good (Shaw 5), and any non-maximizing action is considered wrong. This conception of normative ethics derives from the notion that what is right is dependent on what is good. What is good is desirable, and thus, the maximizing of the good is the only right act. Still, such a principle presents issues when presented with ethical dilemmas – for instance, because standard consequentialism is agent-neutral, it misses out on certain aspects of human flourishing that are seemingly significant (Railton 100). This is illustrated by the example of John, who expresses his love for his spouse in a "consequentialist cast" (Railton 94). Railton accurately suggests that the spouse may even feel sad, contrary to John's claims, as John's love for her results from an impersonal principle. An alternative to the alienation produced by the agent-neutral maximizing principle a satisficing principle - that we are obligated to perform actions that are "good enough" (Timmons 153). The satisficing principle contrasts with the maximizing principle in that it allows for all actions above a certain threshold of good to be right. Railton describes this in the case of Juan, a sophisticated consequentialist - one who takes into account both the subjective and objective values in consequences. Juan, like John, recognizes that he would be able to do more good were he to spend time bettering the world instead of spending time with his spouse, but justifies his love for his spouse via rule- consequentialist principles, that the best possible state of affairs is one where love amongst partners is possible (Railton 112). In effect, Juan may not be maximizing the good per se, but it's easy to see how his care for his spouse surpasses the threshold minimum insofar as he does keep in mind that there may be instances where other obligations may force him act against what his love demands. Zheng 2 Conversely, pluralistic theories shift the focus from deontic principles to aretaic goods based on excellence as opposed to obligations. Virtue ethics shifts the discussion of normative ethics from good actions to good agents. For the virtue ethicist, the question of what virtues are precedes questions of conduct and rightness. That is, to know whether an action is right or wrong, we must first know how a virtuous agent would conduct itself (Timmons 278), leading to the general rule: "an action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances" (Hursthouse, "Normative Virtue Ethics," 3). Such a shift of focus also marks a disjunction in the aims of the moral theories. Where consequentialism ascribes intrinsic good to states of affairs, and offers these states as what is to be compared (Williams 21), virtue ethics places the value on the existence of virtues in the moral agents. In place of asking what we should do, virtue ethics asks, "what kind of person we should be" (Timmons 269). This means that while consequentialists focus their judgments on acts, the virtue ethicists examines the actor involved. Furthermore, as opposed to setting a method of decision making of speculative future moral dilemmas, and how one should formulate decisions, virtue ethics examines past actions and seeks to find traits that we identify with virtuous agents (Silvermint, April 11). Through this view, virtue ethicists identify what factors are important to note in how we conduct ourselves and judge accordingly. Virtue ethics derives its justification from common features in agents we considered good throughout the past. But still, the greatest result of the change from consequentialism to virtue ethics point is the shift of focus from actions to the moral agents themselves. Instead of examining what would result from an action, the virtue ethicist asks what type of person they would be. Through this focus on agents, our judgments on an act cannot be reduced, as the consequentialist posits, to its consequences. Virtue ethics, being pluralist, is able to take into account the motives for an act, the consequences, and the act in of itself in terms of how they reflect on the agent. The need for a broader scope of consideration was shown by the grid examined in class illustrating three potential areas of concern for moral judgment: character, conduct and consequences (Silvermint, January 10). For the consequentialist, only the consequences give the final judgment of Zheng 3 whether an act was good or bad - as Shaw notes, "what distinguishes consequentialist is that nothing matters but the results of our actions" (Shaw 5). In assuming a pluralist stance, we extend our consideration to other factors that may be involved in a moral dilemma – for virtue ethics, because none of the features alone seem sufficient in determining whether the actor was acting virtuously in context. For instance, in general (as virtues are typically identified through past trends), though admittedly not always, a virtuous person will bring about good consequences or conduct themselves in good ways. Furthermore, compared to monist theories, virtue ethics does not provide an exact algorithm for how we should formulate our decisions in specific moral dilemmas. When presented with an issue virtue ethicist must ask what how a virtuous agent would conduct themselves in the dilemma at hand, and behave accordingly. Consequentialism, as a monist theory, reduces the consideration to one, albeit far- reaching and pervasive, question: what will maximize the good? The shift to pluralism offers many advantages over monism. Where monist theories remain obstinately focused on finding the one property that makes an act good or bad, pluralism opens the scope of consideration much further, accepting that there does not exist a lone overriding principle that dictates how we should behave or how we should judge actions. Although, this broader breadth of consideration invites criticisms of practical applicability (which I will deal with in the last section of my paper), pluralism still offers great advantages over monist conceptions of normative ethics. Firstly, pluralism is afforded it greater intuitive appeal in that it allows for the consideration of multiple factors in the evaluation or decision of actions. That the staunch deontologists may face problems when dealing with the case of torturing and murdering an innocent to save the lives of a large number of people illustrates that there is still some weight given to the consequences of our actions, and that the unyielding consequentialist may be at odds when confronted with mal-intentioned acts with good results, or the converse, illustrates that there is something beyond the consequences that matter in formulating moral judgments (Silvermint, January 15). Intuitively then, the response of a dogmatic zealot to a monist theory notwithstanding, pluralism represents our inner workings to a greater degree of accuracy than monism. Zheng 4 Moreover, for each monist theory, one can present a dilemma where the principles of the theory seem to conflict with our intuitions. For instance, Kagan proposes a scenario where there is a rich businessperson who is happy, falsely believing he had a great marriage and job, and was well respected, (Kagan 34). A dilemma arises, however, when we ask, “Should he be told the truth?” According to monist theories, there will always be a clear-cut answer on how we should act, and it can be found via a quick application of the principles. The consequentialist mental state approach, for instance, will suggest that say nothing because he feels happy. Regardless of the decision, however, there is still something intuitively off about a simple consideration of one decisive property (Kagan 35). Moreover there also seems to be a difference between a whistleblower motivated by compassion and one who simply wishes to see the businessperson dejected that cannot be explained by consequentialism. Not restricted by the single axis evaluation of a monism, pluralism is able to take into account more relevant factors - including the motives, consequences, or character of the actors, to name a few. In the same vein, there are problems concerning the ambiguity of deontic principles. Standard consequentialism for instance, faces an issue of where we draw the line of how far consequences go, and disparities between expected and actual results. Regarding causality, the controversial nature of the Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Road Company legal case, in which a woman was injured as a result of a long causal chain of necessary conditions, if nothing else, illustrates the problematic nature of causality when applied to a real world decisions (McCall 244-250). As Kagan notes, all consequences "matter as well, and they matter just as much as the *…+ immediate consequences" (Kagan 26). This problem of accuracy of expected values gets infinitely more nebulous as the moral agent looks further into the future. Regarding the later ambiguity, Shaw contends that it is the expected results that count so long as the agent formulate his projections "by what a reasonable and conscientious" person would suggest (Shaw 8) - but this still calls into question of what "reasonable" and "conscientious” mean. If there can be varying calculations formulated by the "reasonable" and "conscientious," then what makes the decision right seems ascribed to the virtues of rationality and conscientiousness, as opposed to only the consequences - thus deviating from consequentialism entirely. If, however, in all similar cases, the Zheng 5 "reasonable" and "conscientious" arrive at the same conclusions, then it is the only right act - in which case, given our imperfect knowledge of outcomes, we can only commit right acts by accident. Pluralist theories, and virtue ethics in particular, offers a resolution to both these problems in that it provides a de facto point of comparison between alternatives (the character of the moral agents) and allows us to formulate our judgments analogously to how we operate. For instance, since expected consequences certainly matter to some extent may imply that foresight and reason to be virtues, while making decisions based on unrealistic or unreasonable projections is a vice. Lastly, monist theories fall short when attempting to balance the agent-relative and agent- neutral reasons for action required to achieve impersonal values associated with commonsense human flourishing. As outlined by Stocker, if we examine interpersonal values such as love or friendship, "motive and reason must be in harmony for the values to be realized" (Stocker 455). If one seeks to love from an agent-relative egoist view, for instance, it would be impossible for the agent to "embody their reason in their motives," as if they followed their reasons (for the egoistical pursuit of the pleasure it brings), they would not be able to love properly, and if they were to follow their motives (to love properly and selflessly), they would not be able to follow their egoist motives in acting selflessly (Stocker 458). Stocker then extends this argument towards all monist theories and values that require a target, internal or external - that t
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