Virtue Ethics & the Priority Objection
Disclaimer: I am not a proponent of Virtue Ethics. In fact, I actually heavily disagree with it. This short essay was written as a thought exercise.
One strong objection to Aristotle’s theory of Virtue Ethics is that of the priority of virtue over ethics leading to morality being arbitrary. This paper will work (1) to briefly define virtue ethics, (2) to explain the objection of priority in regard to duty and virtue that is posed against it, and (3) to present a response to this objection that will work to settle it in favor of the virtue theorist by denying the premise that rightness relying on the decisions of a virtuous individual necessitates that morality must be arbitrary.
In its most basic sense, virtue ethics is a moral system that claims an action is only morally right if it would be done by a virtuous person who is acting within their character. It posits that virtues themselves are dispositions, or character traits, and means that an individual can possess but cannot be born with. These traits of virtue can only be acquired through practice and experience, are deeply embedded within the individual possessing them, go far beyond habitual actions to the point of incorporating ways of thinking, how one perceives, and one’s motivations, and as means exhibit the morally correct middle-ground between two extreme dispositions. These virtues work to tell an individual what they ought to do, and thus necessitate that virtue hold priority over duty. A person who possesses these traits becomes a “moral exemplary,” or a truly virtuous individual and a guideline which everyone else must follow in order to be morally right. This means that all moral rules should be adopted based on the traits embodied within the truly virtuous moral exemplar and should any of the rules adopted ever conflict, the only morally right approach is to follow the lead of the virtuous individual as only they, having embodied the character traits necessary to achieve excellence, happiness, and flourishing in the fullest sense, are capable of distinguishing in that situation the correct choice of action. This excellence, happiness, and flourishing in the fullest sense is a crucial concept within virtue ethics referred to as eudaimonia and, through our pursuit of it, functions as our major drive to be moral individuals as without moral goodness, life would be unable to flourish fully.
A major objection to virtue theory is that of priority. As previously explained, virtue theory requires (1) that we can only determine what we ought to do (or our duty) based on how the virtuous person would act, (2) that virtue holds priority over and explains duty, and (3) that actions are morally right because the virtuous person does them. The objection on grounds of priority presents a dilemma that seems to contradict these points by focusing on the third to create an incoherency. It posits that if an action is morally right only because it is done by the virtuous person, then it seems that the action is performed without good reason and is instead done completely arbitrarily. If this is true, then virtue leading to what we view today as morally right is just completely reliant upon luck. It is equally possible that the virtuous person could have arbitrarily chosen to murder innocent people, in which case that would instead be a standard of correct morality. Clearly this could not be the result of a correct moral system, and thus the only other option is that the virtuous person chooses actions because the actions themselves are right and thus what they ought to do. In this case, though, the virtuous person’s choice does nothing to explain the rightness of the action but is instead made based on the virtuous person’s duty. Of course, that contradicts a primary necessity of virtue theory in which virtue must hold priority over duty. Taken at face value this objection seems to show that it is impossible for virtue to hold priority over duty without making the entirety of morality arbitrary, but I argue that it’s not that simple.
It is indeed true that if actions were necessarily chosen due to their being right then the priority of virtue over duty would be an impossibility, but the virtue theorist can argue that there is no ground for that requirement as the idea of actions being right due to their being chosen by the virtuous individual does not mean that they must be arbitrary. Saying that it does requires the objector to force themselves into an extremely narrow definition of what the virtuous individual is. A virtuous individual is an individual that possesses the character traits of virtues, not just any person who does virtuous acts as the priority objection seems to insinuate. This is a very important distinction in regard to this argument, as possessing these traits means they possess the qualities allowing them to reach eudaimonia and thus are equipped with the ability to make decisions that best lead to excellence, happiness, and flourishing in the fullest sense. With this established, it can no longer be said that their choices are made without good reasoning but instead that their reason for choosing these actions is that they will best lead to eudaimonia, and the ability of these actions when chosen by the virtuous individual to do so is what in turn makes them virtuous acts themselves and thus morally right. To say that these actions are chosen completely arbitrarily is to rely on the virtuous person as being only a person who performs virtuous actions but to ignore the character that enables them to do so. When factoring in the character traits which allow the virtuous individual to adequately weigh and determine the proper course of action to achieve this goal of eudaimonia, it becomes very clear that there is indeed a form of reason at play in how the virtuous individual chooses which actions to perform.
A plausible objection to this rebuttal could be presented by saying that while there is now reasoning for the choice of which actions are virtuous, that reasoning is still inexplicable or a mystery and thus the decisions could still be viewed as arbitrary. To this claim, the virtue theorist could then argue against that inexplicability by claiming that it is the action being done to lead to eudaimonia that makes that action virtuous, or morally right, and that the virtuous individual, possessing the ability to make decisions best leading to eudaimonia, is capable of the reasoning necessary to perform actions in that way and thus make them virtuous. Another way that this reasoning could be described is by saying that the virtues themselves, or the character traits possessed, are the base moral rights. If a virtuous individual possesses these traits, then any actions they perform in line with maintaining these overarching moral rights are thus in themselves morally right.
It seems on the surface that the objection of priority is a strong rebuttal to the virtue theory of ethics, but it relies on an overly narrow definition of what is required for one to be a virtuous individual and can be adequately replied to by the virtue theorists within the parameters of their system of ethics.
Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics.” The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 143–154.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.