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Virtue, Vice, and Value

by Thomas Hurka
ISBN: 0195137167


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The ins and outs of Virtue and Vice
by Richard Davis

According to the nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, all human beings desire to live lives pregnant with happiness; we all long to be the recipients of liberal amounts of varied, high quality pleasures with pain making as brief an appearance in our conscious experience as possible. Happiness is the one and only thing we desire for its own sake; everything else is desirable simply as a means to securing happiness. Perhaps this is so. Mill, however, went on to argue that promoting happiness of this sort is not only desirable, it is in fact a moral obligation on our part. Suppose that on some delicious fall evening you are contemplating whether to pick up Dickens' David Copperfield and read a chapter or two. Well, given the alternatives before you, if reading Dickens would result in the greatest amount of happiness, not only for yourself but also for all those affected by your solitary, bookish reverie, then you can be sure your action is morally right and indeed obligatory.

One of the most intractable criticisms of this approach to ethics has been that it gets the moral life all wrong. Most of us are inclined to believe, I think, that being courageous is a moral virtue; it is morally virtuous, for instance, for a mother to rescue her only child from a burning building, or for an uncle, without so much as a thought for his own safety, to pluck his young nephew from the clutches of a deadly grizzly bear attack. But these acts of virtue are not intrinsically good¨good apart from their consequences¨if we adopt Mill's approach to ethics, which tests the rightness or wrongness of an action only by its consequences whether good or bad, a view (not surprisingly) called consequentialism. And this contradicts our moral intuitions. Consequentialism apparently forces us to say that a virtuous person (say, Mother Theresa) is just a person disposed to performing actions that maximize good consequences; and an act of virtue is one that ensures such results. As Mill himself said, "The multiplication of happiness [a paradigmatically good consequence] is the object of virtue." For these and other reasons, perhaps the majority of philosophers today have concluded that consequentialism can treat virtue as, at best, an instrumental good¨a good whose value derives from its promoting other more ultimate goods such as pleasure or friendship.

Thomas Hurka's Virtue, Vice, and Value is a conceptually rich and elaborate defense of the view that one can hold both a consequentialist theory of ethics and maintain that virtue is valuable in and of itself, not merely because of the good results it promotes. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this book acquires the status of a classic in virtue ethics circles. Hurka tries to do at least three things in the book: (1) motivate and develop a consequentialist account of the intrinsic goodness of virtue and the intrinsic evil of vice, (2) spell out the merits and alleged demerits of his account, and finally (3) show how the consequentialist account is decidedly superior to those found in the virtue ethics movement, thereby undercutting much of the impetus for this latter approach to ethics.

There is much to be said for the book. It contains a wealth of reflection on the role of virtue and vice in the moral life, as well as many useful explanations of the views of particular moral philosophers (both contemporary and historical). There is also an illuminating survey and development of the different categories of virtue and vice, in which specific virtues (vices) are identified and explained¨often by means of delightful literary examples. Thus the virtue of blind charity, believing of others that they are in fact better than they are, is brought to life in a passage from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennett declares to her sister, Jane, "Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes." Hurka argues that Jane's beliefs about others stem from her powerful desire for people to be virtuous and, as such, are simple expressions of virtue. I'm sure Austen would have agreed. There is also a fascinating (but ultimately, I think, unsuccessful) case made in support of the idea that virtue, as important as it is, is nonetheless a lesser good. Sometimes, Hurka argues, it is good and even virtuous to take pleasure in smallish evils (e.g., your colleague's slipping on a banana peel) but never, one is relieved to discover, those of the worst sort (e.g., your colleague's becoming paralyzed in a riding accident). The book is a challenging but rewarding read; it is written in an lucid and accessible prose, though the mathematical novice would be well advised to avoid the chapter "Degrees of Virtue and Vice," which makes considerable use of technical graphs and formulas. Fortunately, this chapter is self-contained and can be conveniently skipped without losing the main flow of the book.

Well then, what is Hurka's view of virtue and vice, and is it (as he says) consistent with consequentialist assumptions? His view is simplicity itself. It begins with a basic claim about goods and evils: pleasure, knowledge, and achievement are intrinsically good; on the other hand, pain, false belief, and failure in the pursuit of achievement are intrinsically evil. Furthermore, it is important to adopt the appropriate attitude towards goods and evils. For example, desiring an intrinsic evil (say, the pain of sadistic torture) is itself intrinsically evil; hating that evil¨the morally appropriate attitude¨is intrinsically good. Or again, resenting the professional achievement of a colleague (itself an intrinsic good) is intrinsically evil; taking pleasure in their achievement, by contrast, is a morally fitting response. So we have a stock of intrinsic goods and evils, along with a variety of attitudes which might be taken towards them. What about virtue and vice? What precisely are they supposed to be? Are virtues mere dispositions in us to promote intrinsic goods, as consequentialists maintain? Hurka is emphatic that they are not. A moral virtue, rather, is an attitude taken towards goods and evils¨an attitude that it is good in and of itself to have; and a moral vice is any intrinsically evil attitude adopted in relation to such goods and evils.

What shall we say about Hurka's account? It has, ironically enough, both virtues and vices. On the upside, a good bit of what Hurka tells us squares nicely with our firm intuitions about moral matters¨for example, that taking pleasure in the achievement of our children is good in and of itself (without reference to consequences), and that despising their achievements is morally vicious. On the downside, it will no doubt occur to some readers to question whether something like pleasure really is intrinsically good. What about sadistic pleasure? Hurka's account seems to imply not only that this sort of pleasure is good, but also that it was intrinsically good for Jeffrey Dahmer to desire the very pleasure he experienced in cannibalizing young boys. Hurka attempts to defuse objections of this sort by claiming that in cases such as these it can be appropriate to take two attitudes toward someone else's pain. The pleasure of a Dahmer "is intrinsically evil as a love of what is evil, but also intrinsically good as a pleasure"(19). Therefore, it should be both hated for itself (for having the former quality) and loved for itself (for having the latter). This sounds, however, like something wicked this way comes. For we must not lose sight of the fact that these two qualities are possessed by one and the same state. It is not clear to me, therefore, why we shouldn't conclude that Hurka's account is actually inconsistent, attributing both intrinsic goodness and intrinsic evil to the very same state. A far simpler solution here, though it would require a major revision in Hurka's account, would be to deny that pleasure is intrinsically good.

Such misgivings, however, are relatively minor. Virtue, Vice, and Value is a contribution to virtue ethics of the first order. It's development, scope, and power are, to my knowledge, unrivaled in contemporary work in this area, and it will undoubtedly receive a great deal of attention. ˛

Richard Davis teaches philosophy at Glendon College, York University.

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