Utilitarianism and deontology are relevant moral theories that guide people’s actions. However, fewer scholars acknowledge virtue ethics as a normative rival of these traditions because it primarily focuses on the agent instead of the action. The core concept of virtue ethics is that the action that a virtuous agent does is the correct one. Hence, the primary thesis that Rosalind Hursthouse defends in the article is that virtue ethics can serve as a normative moral theory that guides people’s actions. The current paper agrees with this perspective and thoroughly examines Hursthouse’s arguments to prove this position.
The first argument that supports the paper’s thesis is that virtue ethics follows the same logical structure as utilitarianism and deontology to derive the best possible action. Hursthouse draws parallels between the three theories by examining the required premises for guidance. Namely, utilitarianism chooses the best approach by identifying the “best consequences” while the consequences are defined by happiness (Hursthouse 244). In the same sense, deontologists derive their actions from moral rules, which are further based on the concept of God, universalization, or rationality (Hursthouse 244). Hence, utilitarianism and deontology require a two-step identification to understand what action is preferable.
Hursthouse argues that virtue ethics is identical to normative moral theories since it requires two premises to guide actions. Namely, the first statement encompasses the fundamental idea of virtue ethics, “an action is right if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances” (Hursthouse 245). In turn, the second premise specifies what virtue is, similar to how deontology defines a moral rule. As a result, virtue ethics follows the same logic as normative moral theories to guide actions by postulating two dependent statements. One of the counterarguments states that this approach is insufficient to recognize virtue ethics as a normative tradition, and this perspective will be discussed later in the paper. Ultimately, Hursthouse’s first argument states that virtue ethics can guide people’s actions by clearly defining virtue and a virtuous agent.
The second argument revolves around the vagueness and evaluation of moral rules. Namely, scholars that oppose the idea of virtue ethics being a normative theory state that utilitarianism and deontology provide more defined recommendations (Hursthouse 247). Rules such as “Do not lie” and “Help others” are direct and easy to understand compared to vague generalizations, such as “Do what the virtuous agent would do” (Hursthouse 247-248). Moreover, the advocators of utilitarianism and deontology notice that the rules of virtue ethics (v-rules) might be ill-suited for teaching children since they are complicated and require additional logic chains (Hursthouse 248). They refer to v-rules as “thick” since mothers cannot educate their toddlers about morally right and wrong actions based on such complex premises (Hursthouse 248). Hence, since v-rules operate with evaluative and complicated terminology, people should not use them as guidance for actions.
To address these objections, Hursthouse presents her second argument and states that v-rules are particularly beneficial for teaching children about morality since they provide a deeper understanding of actions. For instance, when deontology states, “Do not lie,” it does not provide a sufficient explanation of what happens if one does lie and why this approach is morally wrong (Hursthouse 248). On the contrary, although v-rules are less straightforward, they educate people about the value of virtues. Namely, if a child learns to not lie due to internal motivation and an understanding that honesty is praiseworthy virtue, then it is much more substantial leverage to maintain a morally right perspective. Moreover, Hursthouse does not diminish the deontological approach but perceives deontology and virtue ethics as equal traditions that can effectively teach people about morality and guide their actions. She states, “Virtue ethicists and deontologists tend to stand shoulder to shoulder against utilitarians,” particularly in moral dilemmas (Hursthouse 249). Ultimately, Hursthouse recognizes that v-rules, albeit different from deontological rules, are effective instruments in guiding people’s actions.
Lastly, Hursthouse’s third argument presents a solution to the conflict problem of moral theories. In general, this concept implies that various values, virtues, and philosophical approaches tend to contradict each other, specifically in dilemmas (Hursthouse 249). For instance, when an individual encounters the choice of either telling another person the truth and hurting their feelings or lying, it results in a confrontation between honesty and compassion virtues. Such moral dilemmas present a significant challenge for most philosophical theories, and some scholars claim that virtue ethics does not provide a practical solution to this problem. At the same time, the hierarchy of deontology rules might effectively guide people’s actions even in such complicated scenarios (Hursthouse 250). Hence, they say that virtue ethics is not a normative moral theory.
In the article, Hursthouse defends her position by stating that virtue ethics might resolve conflicts similar to deontology by using hierarchy and addressing problems as prima facie. However, her primary point is that virtue ethics has another advantage compared to deontology and utilitarianism – a possibility of several solutions to one dilemma (Hursthouse 252). For instance, when a situation implies that both solutions A and B are acceptable, there is no reason to enforce only one of the approaches. Hursthouse (252) states in such cases, “neither decision is the right one, and hence neither is wrong.” It implies a duality of choice, which some scholars might identify as insufficient to guide people’s actions. However, according to Hursthouse, it is the opposite since options A and B present acceptable decisions according to associated virtues. Hence, virtue ethics should be recognized as a normative moral theory that can guide people’s actions.
I have greatly enjoyed Hursthouse’s discussion about normative moral theories, and I am convinced that virtue ethics can guide people’s actions. I believe that all three arguments are adequate concerning utilitarianism and deontology, providing similar justification to generally accepted normative theories. It is evident that all three methodologies differ significantly, but they all present sufficient motivation to guide people’s actions. For instance, in the context of the second argument, utilitarianism fails to teach children about morality since explaining the concept of consequences and maximum happiness is even more complicated than virtue ethics. Yet, scholars do not address this issue as utilitarianism’s disadvantage concerning the ability to guide people’s actions. In my opinion, these differences between the three theories further support Hursthouse’s position about virtue ethics. Every single one of them is different, but they are effective in educating people about morally right and wrong actions. Hence, I agree with Hursthouse’s thesis and believe that virtue ethics should be recognized as a normative moral theory.
Weakness: Seeking Advice
I would like to elaborate on one of the potential deficiencies of Hursthouse’s position. Namely, she states that the definition of a virtuous agent depends on the individual, and, in case of doubt, a person should seek advice from those people who are morally superior (Hursthouse 246). Hursthouse provides this argument as a means to define what virtue and a virtuous agent are, but this subjective perspective might be insufficient to explain why virtue ethics is a normative theory. In other words, the concepts of maximum happiness in utilitarianism and moral rules in deontology are absolute; hence, they are providing more guidance than virtue ethics.
In my understanding, seeking advice from moral superiors (virtuous agents) is an acceptable solution to guide people’s actions, but it presents a significant challenge. Namely, people’s thoughts and decisions are more complicated than absolute rules. If one seeks advice from a virtuous agent, there is no guarantee that this mentor is morally superior. Hence, their advice might even be detrimental to the person who seeks assistance. I believe it is a matter of perception since most people have distorted understandings of what other individuals feel and consider. For this reason, I think that Hursthouse’s position about seeking advice from moral superiors is the weakest argument in the article.
The current paper has demonstrated three arguments, supporting the position that virtue ethics is an eligible normative moral theory. It implies that; besides utilitarianism and deontology, virtue ethics can effectively guide people’s actions based on such values as honesty, justice, compassion, and other enduring qualities. Hursthouse elaborates on the arguments of right actions, moral rules, and conflicts based on the comparison between virtue ethics and utilitarianism/deontology. I agree with Hursthouse’s breakdown and believe that virtue ethics should be recognized as a normative moral theory.
Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Normative Virtue Ethics.” Conduct and Character: Readings in Moral Theory (6th edition), edited by Mark Timmons. Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 243-253.