Friday, May 20, 2005

Virtue Ethics: A Still More Perfect Way

It's easy to get unbalanced in my study of ethics. Another tendency that I know I've become overly caught up in at times is that of casuistry: trying to figure out under what circumstances each sort of act would be moral or immoral, and trying to base my life on these calculations. For example, is file-sharing morally acceptable? Is it OK to have song files from my parents' and sister's music on my own computer? If I think it's unethical to take copyrighted music by file-sharing, must I delete all my old files or just stop adding new ones?

One problem with this is that I often end up simply skating as close to the edge as possible: if I convince myself that an act that I want to do is permissible, I end up doing it even if there are ethically better alternatives. Think of an accounting firm which is careful to understand the applicable laws as carefully as possible, but consistently looks for loopholes and tries to "push the envelope" to the edge of what is legally permitted. It seems to me that this company is not as far removed from an Arthur Andersen as they might think.

The other danger that I have experienced with casuistry is that of scrupulosity; when I analyze my actions against those nuanced standards, I become aware of a thousand ways that I violated the ethical precepts. Some part of me ends up wanting to go to Confession for the most minor things, many not even totally voluntary. Such is known as Catholic guilt. Severe scruples drove Luther to declare that every human action is so tainted with sin that we might as well stop striving to be better, and just cry out as totally depraved creatures.

So what might be a better way for me to think of the moral life? Well, what is the difficulty for me? It seems to lie at the borders rather than with the major ethical precepts: I get stuck in casuistry not in deciding whether real insults are unethical, but in figuring out the line between playful joking and the beginnings of mockery.

One thing that has intrigued me lately as a solution has been virtue ethics- focusing on cultivating the right interior disposition with regard to the ethical principles. That I often go too far in making fun of my friends is a sign that I need to work on respect and charity toward others. I ought to develop better habits, until I am concerned enough for their dignity that I would not make them uncomfortable. If I reach a better state, then I would more naturally respect the boundary between joking and insulting.

Of course, it is important here to note that the objectively immoral actions are simply not consonant with possession of the virtues, so virtue ethics is not a denial of objective moral statements, nor is it an intention-based ethics. It is a way of approaching the moral life that is, I think, more sensible than trying to reason out each case, Kant-like.

Have I made myself sufficiently unclear?

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