Epic battles in practical ethics: Virtue ethics vs Consequentialism

(Aristotle, right, and John Stuart Mill, left)

(For two previous examples of "epic battles in practical ethics," see here and here.)

There are three great philosophical frameworks to think about ethics (and a number of minor ones and variations thereof): deontology (i.e., rule-based), consequentialism, and virtue ethics. In this essay I will not consider the first one, the most famous examples of which are the Ten Commandments and Kant's categorical imperative ("Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law"). Consequentialism is often brought up in discussions of virtue ethics, usually as the "obviously" better alternative. Yet, many people seem to be very confused about what both consequentialism and virtue ethics actually entail, so let me attempt to clear some of this confusion.

Let me begin with a very basic point about consequentialism: it is not the same thing as utilitarianism. To be precise, utilitarianism is one type of consequentialist philosophy. There are others. The term "consequentialism" was introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot, within the context of her criticism of modern ethical approaches like deontology and utilitarianism, and her support for a new virtue ethics.

In fact, consequentialism is an umbrella term that includes utilitarianism, egoism (e.g., Ayn Rand's Objectivism), and altruism (as in the contemporary movement known as Effective Altruism). Which means that the first mistake is to contrast virtue ethics with consequentialism: which consequential philosophy is one referring to? Because utilitarianism, egoism, and altruism are very, very different from each other. In the rest of this post I will therefore restrict my focus to utilitarianism.

The first, most fundamental, and arguably most misunderstood difference between virtue ethics and utilitarianism is that the latter asks the typical question framing modern moral philosophical approaches: what is the right thing to do? Virtue ethics, by contrast, asks a very different question: how do I become a better person?

Another way to understand this is that utilitarianism (and all forms of consequentialism, and deontology) aspires to be a universalist moral philosophy, adopting a view from nowhere, so to speak, and treating all moral agents in the same fashion. Virtue ethics, instead, focuses on the individual, the goal being to make him or her the best human being possible ("virtue," in Greek, is arete, which really means excellence).

Given this very different focus, it really doesn't make much sense to compare utilitarianism and virtue ethics, as it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. But people do make the comparison, and it usually hinges on the notion that utilitarians look at the consequences of actions. It is then inferred that either virtue ethicists don't care about consequences, or that if they do then virtue ethics is just a type of utilitarianism. Both inferences are grossly inaccurate.

To help make some sense of this consider the following points points:

(i)  All ethical systems are concerned with consequences, at some level. This includes deontological systems. When the 6th commandment of the Judeo-Christian tradition says "You shall not murder," it's because killing is wrong. But why is it wrong? Because it has the consequence of (unjustly) taking a human life. When Kantians derive from the categorical imperative that lying is unacceptable it is because of the consequences: it would be impossible to run a society where everyone lies. So, utilitarianism is not the only framework concerning itself with consequences. All of them do, and the difference lies elsewhere.

(ii) That difference is to be found in the above mentioned contrast between the goals of utilitarianism and virtue ethics: the first one is concerned only with right and wrong actions, while the second one is concerned primarily with the agent's character. Presumably, argue the virtue ethicist, if one develops a good character than one will be more likely to engage in right actions. So, while "right actions" are indeed defined by their consequences, broadly construed, they are not the sole focus of the virtue ethical approach.

(iii) Utilitarians are concerned with a specific kind of consequences, depending on which version of utilitarianism one considers (and there are many). For instance, act utilitarianism deals with the likely results of one's actions, while rule utilitarianism attempts to maximize the ethical utility function by applying certain predetermined rules. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described the utility function as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action. This is a very particular conception of "consequences," as for instance does not take into account any notion of justice. Sometimes we ought to do the right thing despite the fact that the majority of people do not get pleasure out of it, or find it painful (e.g., extend rights to minorities).

(iv) There are many sensible objections to utilitarian approaches, which do not apply to virtue ethics (and vice versa), something that ought to tell us that the two are, in fact, different approaches. One such objection is that it is impossible to actually enact the hedonic calculus: events can take too many courses depending on too many factors, and besides, we need to agree on a specific time horizon. Are we talking about the consequences of action X today, tomorrow, in a month, in a year, in a century, in a millennium? That is why both deontological and virtue ethical systems focus instead on the intentions of the agent, which can be expressed clearly and unambiguously. As Epictetus would surely remind us, whether our intentions will come to fruition is not entirely up to us, only the formulation of said intentions is.

(v) While virtue ethics gets criticized because it does not provide specific recommendations for action (the answer is always "it depends"), utilitarianism gets criticized because it leaves awfully vague the definition of what counts as happiness, a rather crucial point for a philosophy the sole aim of which is to increase people's happiness. Indeed, John Stuart Mill was keenly aware of this objection against Bentham, and proposed his famous distinction between "high" and 'low" pleasures, in order to safeguard utilitarianism from descending into straightforward quantitative hedonism. As he famously put it: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." This difference between Bentham-style and Mill-style utilitarianism has deep roots, harking back to the difference between two of the Hellenistic hedonic schools: the Cyreanics and the Epicureans, with Mill clearly influenced by Epicurus (just like Kant's concept of duty was influenced by the Stoics). The problem with Mill's distinction between types of pleasure is that we are not given a principled way to sort specific pleasures into the two categories, thus rendering any sort of utilitarian calculus of consequences hopeless.

There are many other criticisms of utilitarianism (just like there are of virtue ethics), but they don't need to concern us here. You may feel like some version of utilitarianism is the preferred way to go, or you may pick Kantian or religious deontology, or even embrace a selfish type of consequentialism. Whatever you do, just don't think that "ah! You are concerned with consequences, after all!" is any kind of objection to virtue ethics.

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