Varieties of Ethics

Particularly in the analytic tradition, writers on ethics since the early 20th century have debated about the right high-level view of the subject. Aristotle is identified with what is now called “virtue ethics”. Kant is said to embody a conflicting approach based on deontology, or rules and duty. Others have advocated an alternative based on axiology, or a general theory of values that could also include aesthetics. These are sometimes presented as the three main competing views. Still other writers have stressed the importance of situations, which might be taken as a fourth alternative.

Worthwhile things have been said from all these perspectives, but I don’t like this sort of division and narrowing of discourses. What is actually most essential in ethics — and could be taken as a sort of common denominator to charitable readings of all four of the approaches mentioned above — is the role of reasonable interpretation and processes of judgment. (See also Choice, Deliberation; Reasonableness.)

Aristotle’s emphasis on what modern people might call emotional intelligence, acquired over time, as a basis for ethical skills (see also Ethos; Ethos, Hexis) always made a lot of sense to me, but I take those skills to be embodied in practical doings revolving around interpretive judgment and follow-through, and want to emphasize the details of the doing, rather some achieved state. For Aristotle, a person’s virtue can only be assessed in terms of a complete life. Virtue is certainly a goal, but applying it as a criterion requires conversion to a subjunctive form, as in what particular doings would be consistent with virtuous life. People after Aristotle have too often found it too easy to substitute a double presumption that whatever is done by people we presume to be virtuous is right. Aristotle himself avoids this, and does not use the subjunctive form, either. Instead, he suggests we should deliberate directly about what is the right thing to do.

The rules-and-duty approach, or deontology, I find generally unappealing because rules and duty are often taken in a dogmatic or traditionalist sense that seems to deny the need for interpretive work, and tacitly or overtly to substitute for it one-sided appeals to authority. But this need not be the case. Notably, Kant and Brandom emphasize higher-order rules that require interpretive judgment in the application of very abstract principles to concrete situations, and Kant sublimated duty for duty’s sake into a meta-commitment to unity of apperception.

Talk about values goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In the analytic tradition, this is associated with what is called axiology. Modern presentations of this have often had a subjectivist slant, reducing values to valuations, but there is nothing essential in this. Importantly, it seems to me that everything Brandom says about the objective but not pre-given status of norms can be easily applied to values. In discussing Brandom’s contributions, I sometimes prefer to substitute “values” for “norms”, because it seems to me the term “norms” often carries an unwanted connotation that we are talking about norms that empirically exist or that are in fact accepted, which is not what Brandom means. It also seems to me that higher-order rules function more like values than like first-order rules, so I think it is not inappropriate to translate Kant and Brandom’s talk about rules into talk about values. Serious engagement with values again involves a commitment to interpretive work.

Talk about the interpretation of situations also goes back to Aristotle. Some modern presentations have stressed a sort of common-sense or immediate assessment of situations that downplays the role of interpretation, but again there is nothing essential about this.

In any case, an open-ended work of reasonable interpretation and judgment (along with follow-through) seems to me like the most fundamental thing in ethics.