Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Is Virtue Ethics a basis for 21st Century Progressive Buddhist Ethics?

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I subscribe to a British podcast series called Philosophy Bites that has episodes I usually greatly enjoy. The discussions are short – bite sized – lasting about fifteen minutes each. They explore the surface of a wide variety of philosophical matters in interviews with leading philosophers of our day.

One recent topic didn’t seem of interest to me. The topic was Virtue Ethics. It’s not that I’m opposed to virtue, so long as it’s spelled in all lowercase letters and uttered sotto voce. It is just that Virtue, standing tall, reminds me of Puritans putting the heads of penitents in stockades.
Prof. Annas's
most-recent book
My interest diminished further when I inquired online about the philosopher being interviewed, Julia Annas. All her books seemed to have ancient Greek people lounging about on the book covers. I’m not much interested in the dusty words of Aristotle or Socrates. I like my philosophy fresh, hot and tasty, damn it.

But, hey. Fifteen minutes I am willing to spend on just about anything. Sexual intercourse. Flower arranging. Meditation. Super Bowl halftime shows. You name it.

As it turned out I’m turned on by Virtue Ethics and think it a proper sensibility for modern-day Buddhists like us. And it seems I’m not the first person to think so. A googling of "Virtue Ethics Buddhist Ethics" turns up a big pile of links.

So. Let's dig into it. What is Virtue Ethics? 
First, let us set the landscape. We’re told by interviewer David Edmonds that there are three normative moral theories. Consequentialists judge an action purely by its consequences (which might be, for example, maximizing happiness). Deontologists judge the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. Virtue ethics – according to Wikipedia – emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior.

Julia Annas provides a very palatable explanation of 'Virtue Ethics in practice' that makes it enticing to me.

So, let us run through this, using mostly the words [or the thinking, at least] of Prof. Annas from the podcast – which, by the way, can be heard in full from a link found here.
Annas tells us that the “central concepts” of Virtue Ethics are two ideas:
·        VIRTUE described as a disposition you acquire, to learn from experience to form reasons for actions AND to conform you emotions such that you go along with those reasons.
·        EUDAEMONIA described as living a good life that harbors a feeling of satisfaction. [Aristotle’s description of this element is “happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.” ]
Examples given of virtue (as a character trait) can be courage, or being a good parent,  or honesty, or being dependable.
In pursuing this manner of ethics, we are each left with the task of determining what virtuousness is for ourself. We learn by seeing the excellent behaviors of people we admire. And then, as a result of witnessing the actions of great, good people, we aspire to be excellent in a somewhat similar way. And then, throughout our life, we hope always to do good and to find means to best meet our aspirations to perform nobly.
One way to improve our actions can be to read self-help books, which could well include books by Buddhist teachers.
Julia Annas explains that acquiring virtuousness is rather easy; it’s second nature for us to use others as our teachers for being GOOD; of doing the right (and sometimes courageous) thing.  Annas quotes Aristotle, “In general, people act ‘for the good’ and not in doing just what their parents did.”
Basically, virtuousness becomes a skill that you acquire but you make use of it in a way that is indelibly your own. But with this learned skill, you gain appreciation and an eye to see virtue practiced in a great variety of ways across cultures. An example Annas gives is that one may see courage practiced by both samurai warriors and Quakers, yet despite the seeming diametric difference, take equal pleasure in witnessing the actions of each group.
A vital late point that Annas makes is that none of all this has anything to do with becoming sanctimonious or thinking that you’ve come to breathe a richer grade of oxygenated air than the hoi polloi.
What happens is that you rationally mold your actions toward what’s GOOD; you’re not engaged in a task of becoming ALL THAT. Annas’s example here is one of ‘wanting to be a good parent.’ You don’t aspire to be the best parent of any living in your neighborhood; you resolutely engage in just doing what’s best for your children. The action is what counts, not ego-boosting or other  hoo-ha that might surround it.



  1. Oh shoot, my previous comment here seems to have disappeared! :(

    While I agree with a lot of virtue-theory and support it as a major part of Buddhist ethics; there is still the underlying cosmic moral order that underpins Buddhist ethics and soteriology, the Dharma. This is closer to Kantian moral law than it is to an idea of finding a virtuous person and learning from him/her as a way to achieve goodness. Virtue ethics are pretty variable from society to society; and while again I think Buddhist ethics are too, to some extent - there is something transcendent in Buddhism - again the Dharma, and perhaps karma as well, that orders things regardless of the society one lives in.

    That's my two cents. On the other hand there are some great contemporary scholars, Charles Goodman and Mark Siderits, for instance, who see a sort of consequentialism underpinning Buddhist ethics.

  2. Yeah. I was waiting for that missing comment to show up.

    In the way Annas describes it, you're not seeking being GOOD yourself, in any sort of Christian way or with an awareness of "what a good boy am I." Thus, I don't see it as a purity thing in the way that Haidt sees Purity as a moral foundation. You just, sort of, become globally aware and can distinguish what's right and you act on that learned/experienced insight.

    I know very little about Kant. You're going to have to post your dissertation, Dr. Whitaker, such to enlighten us all!

    Lately, I have been engrossed with a audio podcast series, Very Bad Wizards [ http://verybadwizards.com/ ]. One of the two wizards who converse during the episodes is Philosopher Tamler Sommers at Houston University who tells us he is a reluctant Kantian. I haven't heard enough of the episodes as yet to hear him speak directly about his Kantian beliefs.

  3. The dissertation will be posted, asap! (I just need to finish it first!)

    And reluctant Kantians are the best and truest kind. I am one also. I tried to be a utilitarian, but just couldn't.

    Please keep up the great posts, too, btw. I'll try to kick-push-nudge others to post too, including me I suppose. Eesh, I've dropped the ball.

  4. I'm a utilitarian so far as driving is concerned. I consider stop signs and red lights to be unwelcomed suggestions.