A Rhythm in Notion
Small(er) Steps Toward a Much Better World

A Return to Virtue Ethics

The Turn Against Virtue Ethics

Socrates asked how should one live, and Aristotle replied that we should try to be virtuous people, with magnificent generosity, and bold but not heedless courage. This family of answers held until the Enlightenment, more or less, but as a general rule most people avoid virtue ethics today.

Most practically, either of the two dominant moral approaches - deontology and consequentialism - will yield a fairly precise output to whatever input you feed in to it, in a way that virtue ethics does not. Aristotle stutters when faced with the trolley problem, Kant and Singer answer confidently.

In a way both of these dominant approaches inherit from Kant. Kant developed a sort of geometry of moral reasoning. You are no longer a human with quirks, fears, humor, secret regrets and terrifying longings. You are a cube on a flat landscape, an abstract agent possessed of desires and the capacity to choose between them and to act to fulfill them. Finding yourself surrounded by other cubes which also have the capacity to reason and to act to fulfill their desires, you each have reason to adopt rules to govern between you.

Morality, therefore, is objective and universal for any system of agents.

Utilitarianism, and consequentialist approaches in general, criticize Kant’s deontological approach, but bear an inherited resemblance. It is a family feud.

While virtue ethics is usually criticized for being egocentric, or for not recommending particular courses of action with enough precision, I have long disliked Aristotle’s answers with a personal animosity. Virtue ethics, I thought bitterly, reified certain habits and then placed the onus on the individual to import these reified habits into the soul. More plainly, told that courage or humility was a good thing, I wondered how to be more courageous or more humble.

As a psychological matter there are indeed practical ways to become more courageous, so this is not a particularly good example of my plaint. Still, in general, I didn’t know how to embody a virtue more. And one can always be more virtuous in a particular way. The whole thing seemed occasionally inspiring, but overall dissatisfyingly vague.

Further, the virtues didn’t help me much in dealing with shifty, backstabbing individuals, at least not the ethics I encountered. Christianity told me to forgive them and show them love, which has some tension with stopping them (despite multiple commentators to the contrary). Stoicism - Marcus Aurelius - said to ignore and rise above them. A little Old Testament wrath would have served me better.

Pluralism with Favorites

To be fair, one can break any of these three ethical systems by posing the right question. Nazis looking for the basement throw Kant for a loop, the utility monster gives Singer and Bentham nightmares of a Lovecraftian tinge, and I have already mentioned Aristotle’s incompetence on railways.

Each of them fails to give answers that satisfy our intuitions, at least some of the time, and I’m not convinced the fault always lies in our intuitions. For that reason I prefer to hedge my bets and mix my ethical systems - as most people do in daily life anyway - into an ethical pluralism.

Each of these approaches can inspire an answer and guide our approach, and there is no reason not to use all three when we can, even if they conflict. I am in good company here. Tyler Cowen in his recent Stubborn Attachments suggests that we should use human rights as a deontological backstop to our political efforts, while taking the improvement of life for our more-numerous descendants as our consequentialist lodestone.

Still, despite my philosophical promiscuity, virtue ethics remained for me a red-headed stepchild. I would have said, give me consequentialism first, deontology second, and leave virtue ethics as a vague inspiration in biographies. Utilitarianism with deontology as a corrective, or for use in personal relationships, seemed to give good answers most of the time.

You Can’t Go Home Again

The wheel turns, though, and what’s on top finds itself on the bottom. What use, I found myself demanding, is an ethical system that knows nothing of psychology, anthropology, sociology? Always Do The Right Thing, on the one hand, and Always Promote The Greatest Happiness for The Greatest Number, on the other, certainly give definite answers, but for all that are blunt instruments.

The Effective Altruist crowd, for instance, takes these definite answers and puts them to immediate practical use. Utilitarianism says to promote the greatest good for the greatest number, primitive moral feelings of kinship be damned, so we had better all find the job that will let us do the greatest good possible.

To their credit, the EA folks valiantly depict this as an opportunity, not a personal criticism or obligation, and say you should avoid burnout by taking more resources for yourself than strictly morally permissible. After all, if taking more than your fair share results in more contributions to the global good than would result otherwise, then by utilitarian calculuations you should do so. We are not deontologists after all!

Still, contrast this deliberative process with the best traditional career coaching. In reading of elite schools, one thing it seems to me they often do well is guide their young pupils to a career where they are likely to excel, and to be fairly happy. Excellence and happiness are left out of the utilitarian moral calculus except as secondary considerations, and the same goes for traditional moral obligations to one’s friends and family.

The entire point of broad moral rules is precisely to remove the doubt and confusion introduced by personal circumstances. Else we cannot perform our geometrical moral calculations. Yet when I try to figure out what I, I, should do, I am forced precisely into considering primarily those personal circumstances.

Suppose I am trying to figure out my career. Should I try to Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You? Or, Find and Follow Your Passion? Should I collect ventures to become a Full-Stack Freelancer? Should I separate my passions from my money-making ventures? Double down to get fuck-you money and then take off?

How does each of these options mesh with my own temperament and desires? With what the world needs? With my personal relationships? Can I glean any insights from my personal history?

In my deliberative process, as Bernard Williams put it, these considerations all enter in, and they aren’t handled well by moral systems.

Even more broadly, when I relate to another human being and experience them (an ethical endeavour if ever there was one) moral systems haven’t the faintest clue of the most important aspects of that experience. They lack all interiority. As Williams expressed it,

The notion of being friendly, ruthless, sensitive, fearless, devious, dependent, sullen… Moral systems cannot capture the force of such concepts by the simple duality of ‘ought’ and ‘ought not,’ however hard they may try.

Even going back to ethical pluralism, the more precise the ethical questions I reach for, the less helpful any admixture of those ethical systems becomes. I find myself relying on an ever-finer consideration of the personalities and circumstances involved, attempting to develop a moral fingerspitzengefühl.

The Situation Room and Transferability

At this point we have left ethical systems far behind and are relying in a confused, nebulous fashion on a situational ethics.

Broad rules of thumb are less helpful, as we cannot rely on ethical systems to guide us. Instead, paying due regard to conflicting ethical systems that refine and push our intuitions this way and that, we have to muddle our way on a case by case basis.

I think we are left with something approaching a virtue ethics, but not as we know it, so to speak. I will argue that a situational approach, an insistence that we can judge an ethical matter only with regard to a particular person in their particular place and time, pushes us to say that an ethical actor must develop good judgment.

First I must reference the continuing debate, worry really, about academic transferability. When all gentlemen were meant to study classics, the justification was that anyone who could survive the rigors of classical study was prepared for anything else. As the Duke of Wellington said (apocryphally) that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, so the Victorian Empire might have been said to be sustained in the halls of Oxbridge.

Much the same argument survives today, only for other fields of study, but I am pessimistic that much if anything transfers elsewhere. To speak plainly, we don’t become better reasoners across the board merely because we have played chess well or studied higher mathematics. Sadly our skills seem largely confined to the area of mastery (there may be some slight transfer with statistics).

As students and teachers, remembering that insights remain local to the field of study teaches us not to struggle too much. True, we may learn the reward of struggling through on our own, and that is valuable when there is no one to help us. Also the ‘aha!’ insight may help us to remember what we have learned, and also learning something in our own way helps us drawn unique connections.

But outside that we are not building some special muscle by struggling through obscurity. Struggling will not in itself teach us valuable insights that we can gain only that way. The moral is: always find the clearest and most intuitive way in and do not leave conclusions far out of reach.

Similarly in ethical reasoning, if we cannot rely on an ethical system, then we do not have rules that transfer well across situations. Lacking moral transferability, it seems that the judgements we make about a particular situation cannot be carried over to others, at least not easily. We must do the work over most of the time.

What then characterizes the ethical actor, the moral person? Not knowledge of rules, it seems, not even a knowledge that has been honed in many different judgments. Philosophers and ministers seem not much more moral than other people, to say the least.

Yet I think there is such a thing as a person more moral than others, one who tends to have better moral judgment, an ethically reliable person. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that some achieve excellence in similarly complex domains. After all, there are top academics and lawyers who are recognizably excellent, there are entrepreneurs who found one hit after another and plausibly would do so again starting from nil. Some leaders and ethical actors also make good judgments across a range of scenarios.

True, these are few. The compassionate person generally is too soft, the person with standards often lacks compassion. Few can act well in very different circumstances.

The Junzi, Something Like a Mensch

But in so saying I have reproduced almost word for word the characteristic Confucian lament over how few truly expert moral actors there are, and this brings me to one of the aspects of Confucian thought I find most admirable - I will criticize it elsewhere too - and how it gives us a solution here.

According to the Four Books, the moral actor, the junzi, is formed by many years of hard study. And what are we studying? Ritual, surely, which uses good manners to express respect for others and to inculcate a refined civilization, but more than ritual we are studying the right action in the right degree at the right time by the right person.

I think of the junzi - since we are not honing some widely applicable rule here, remember - as learning thousands of examples of limited transferability which in their mass nevertheless cover the mass of human behavior and provide a database to draw on. More importantly the junzi, the moral actors, organically grows a temperament most likely to make the correct choice in a variety of circumstances.

To repeat, there are two parts to my solution, and I think this is reflected in the Four Books themselves.

One is hard study, the collection of near-infinite judgments such that few situations have not been encountered before. This in itself partly overcomes the problem of non-transferability (which I remind you is itself a problem resulting from a situational ethics).

The Doctrine of Timeliness about sums up my idea of a situational ethics. If you haven’t gone far enough, you immediately go farther; if you’ve overstepped, you stop on a dime. Making a mistake isn’t dishonorable to a junzi, says Mencius, as long as it’s a reasonable mistake - and she corrects the mistake immediately.

A situational ethics allows for priorities, indeed can even insist upon them. Like the Confucians’ opponents the Mohists, utilitarians do not distinguish moral duties based on identity. If something should be done, you should do it. To neglect a starving child on the other side of the world is the same as walking by a drowning child not ten feet from you. There is no such thing as a moral emergency. The same thing goes for a deontological approach, but not so for the ethical actor who pays attention to context.

When a gentleman speaks on a matter he should not have addressed, that is appropriating what is not his to take. When he does not speak on a matter he should address, that too is appropriating what is not his to take.

These context-dependent moral judgments should take into account the totality of the circumstances and the lived experience, the interiority, of each human being.

Mencius said, “‘Humanity’ means ‘human.’ When these two are conjoined you have the Dao.”

Accumulating such deep experience takes time, of course, and Confucius thought he himself became an expert moral actor only after the age of 70. The result is a flexible and tailored response to shifting ethical demands. Mencius said of Confucius,

When speed was appropriate he was fast, when delay was appropriate he was slow. Where it was appropriate to dwell apart he dwelt apart, where it was appropriate to serve he served.

As a result, the Master

was the sage of timeliness. We call Confucius ‘the great coda.’ By this we mean that he is like the great musical climax…

An expert is simply a person who’s made all the mistakes possible to make in a limited domain; in the wide domain of moral action there will be few who have made or at least studied most of the mistakes possible.

Hence, and as the second part of a solution to a situational ethics, we have a sort of organic virtue ethics.

This quasi-virtue ethics can’t be codified, I think, into lists of virtues, perhaps lying in between the extremes and in the mean. It’s a taste for a finely measured response to the complexities of a moral quandary.

The Confucians would say the way is subtle, unseen, an invisible pattern.

Nothing is more visible than the obscure, nothing is plainer than the subtle.

Or, from The Doctrine of the Mean, we have:

The Poetry says, Over the brocaded robes, A plain dress.

She disliked displaying the patterns. Thus the Dao of the junzi is hidden dark and grows brighter every day. The Dao of the small man strikes the eye but fades every day. The Dao of the junzi is limpid, and one never tires of it; simple yet patterned, gentle yet ordered.

The manner in which the junzi surpasses others lies in what others cannot see.

A capacity to finely tailor an ethical recommendation to a person’s financial situation, professional and personal capacities, long-term desires, short-term options and happiness, with due regard to the moral obligations owed to friends and family and colleagues, cannot easily be summed up. A broad rule cannot be stated, and others cannot discern the decision-making process.

No one does not eat, but few can know the taste.

The result of a lifetime of labor and vigilance may be the development of a sensitive and powerful ethical capacity, the development of virtues which are effective in proportion to their difficulty in being apprehended.

Only the greatest sage in the world possesses the keen powers of listening and seeing, penetration and wisdom that fit him to approach men as a ruler; the magnanimity, generosity, gentleness, and flexibility that fit him to accommodate others; the vigor, strength, firmness, and resolution that fit him to take a firm grip; the focus, seriousness, balance, and uprightness that fit him to be reverent; the pattern, order, concentration, and incisiveness that fit him to discriminate among different things.

As arching vastness, as depthless springs, he brings forth all this according to the times.

A Word to Our Sponsors

I am grateful to Robert Eno of Indiana University Bloomington for his generosity in providing us all with elegant and open translations of the Four Books and other works of the Confucian and Daoist canon. All my quotations of the Four Books here are from those translations, which you may find here.


I cannot resist mentioning that the rewards of this path may go beyond the development of moral wisdom. Mencius thought he himself excelled primarily in possessing a “flood-like qi,” which I imagine as a sense of inner unity and confidence.

“It is hard to describe…

This is a qi that is as vast and firm as can be. If one nurtures it by means of straightforward action and never impairs it, then it will fill all between heaven and earth. It is a qi that is a companion to righteousness and the Dao. Without these, it will starve away.

It is generated through the long accumulation of acts of right. It is not something that can be seized through a single righteous act.

If in your actions there is any sense of inadequacy in your heart, it will starve away.”