The title of this post is a bit overstated; what I’m really wondering is whether Virtue Ethics and Contractualism are not viable. I take it as a piece of contemporary philosophical commonsense that Divine Command Theory is not a viable ethical theory, because it succumbs, without hope of resuscitation, to the Euthyphro Dilemma. I also think that Virtue Ethics and Contractualism succumb to the same objection (mutatis mutandis). If so, and if we’re willing to say that DCT not only has problems, but also should be rejected as not even a contender because of the Euthyphro Dilemma, why don’t we say the same thing about Virtue Ethics and Contractualism?

For those not familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma, it’s often put something like this. According to Divine Command Theory, the right-making property of right acts is that God commanded that we perform such acts. But God issues her commands either (1) arbitrarily or (2) on the basis of reasons. If (1) God issues her commands arbitrarily, which is to say that God has no reasons for commanding as she does, then it could have just as easily turned out that murder, rape, and torture are all morally permissible or even obligatory, and so (1a) DCT potentially has implausible implications about which acts are right and which are wrong, (1b) morality is totally arbitrary on DCT, which seems to run counter to our intuitions about morality; and (1c) it runs counter to the usual DCT’ist conception of God as a rational chooser. If (2) God chooses on the basis of reasons, such that, say, God commands against torture because torture causes suffering, then the content of those reasons (X causes suffering), rather than the mere fact that God said so, is what makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong. That is, option (1) has unacceptable implications for morality (and theology), and option (2) implies the falsity of DCT. It seems to me that virtue ethics and contractualism also succumb to the same objection, because they too are ethics-by-authority, and ethics-by-authority is the more general feature that is open to the Euthyphro Dilemma objection.

It’s too quick to call the Euthyphro Dilemma a decisive objection to all forms of ethics-by-authority, for Relativists would embrace horn (1) of the dilemma, and grant that since ethics is established by authorities (in this case, us, rather than God), it is totally arbitrary. (Then we’re off to other usual objections to relativism.)

But virtue ethicists have not, to my knowledge, dealt with this objection sufficiently (any virtue ethicists out there should point out if I’ve missed something here). For they say an act is right when it is what the virtuous person would do. But, if (1) the virtuous person’s chosen actions are chosen arbitrarily, then morality becomes implausibly arbitrary. And, if (2) the virtuous person makes choices on the basis of reasons, such as the suffering of the potential victim, then the content of those reasons, not the mere fact of being chosen by a virtuous person, is what makes it the right choice, implying the falsity of Virtue Ethics. One might appeal to the procedure by which the virtuous agent chooses as a way of slipping through the horns of the dilemma, but then we get the problem with procedural ethics that either any moral judgment could pass through the procedure, including obviously wrong acts such as torture (problem 1), or we have to somehow constrain the procedure with substantive considerations, in which case we’re constraining the authority of the virtuous person by some prior moral reasons, in which case those reasons, rather than the fact of having been chosen by the virtuous person, will be what makes right acts right (problem 2).

Contractualism, as a view distinct from deontology and consequentialism, also seems to fall to this objection, since it too is an ethics-by-authority. On this (non-Deontological or –Consequentialist) view, right acts are right because (roughly) they comport with policies that rational agents would agree on. But, either (1) rational agents could in principle agree on any policies, even those that allow actions that are obviously immoral, or (2) the agents – being rational agents, after all – would be constrained in their agreements by prior substantive moral considerations, implying the falsity of the view that the mere fact of agreement is solely what, at the most fundamental level, imparts rightness to an action. Scanlon never resolves this Euthyphric problem in a way that I find fully conclusive, but he makes noises that sound like he’d opt for (2), such that the value of rational nature constrains the permissibility of different agreements, which (if this interpretation is correct) would mean that his view is not a non-Deontological Contractualism; put differently, this kind of view is just one form of Deontology rather than a wholly independent moral theory. I’m fine with avoiding the Euthyphro Dilemma by importing prior substantive moral considerations and embracing horn (2) as part of a rejection of pure ethics-by-authority, so that kind of move doesn’t bother me. But it can’t help a pure Contractualism, that is, a Contractualism where the contract itself really is the sole fundamental right-making property.

If this is correct, then we’re left with Deontology, Consequentialism, and Pluralism as viable ethical theories, and Particularism perhaps as an anti-theory. (I’ve actually got a paper arguing that some versions of Deontology, specifically Korsgaard’s influential argument for the value of rational choosers, also succumb to the Euthyphro Dilemma, but I think most other forms of deontology bypass that problem.)

35 Replies to “Are Deontology, Consequentialism, and Pluralism the only viable theories of ethics?

  1. Good post.
    Re: contractualism. I don’t have access to my ‘What We Owe to Each Other’ now, but I gather that Scanlon might reply to your Euthyphro dilemma by adopting the second horn, but with this twist: Scanlon sees the notion of ‘a reason’ as sui generis, with morality being simply a subset of particular kinds of reasons, namely, those whose adoption as principles no one could reasonably reject as a … blah blah blah. In other words, agreement is constrained not by indepedent ‘moral’ considerations, but by reasons themselves, from which morality is then built. His contractualism is thus not “pure” in your, because it’s not agreement alone, but ‘reasonableness’ or ‘non-rejectability’, that serve as right-making properties. This may not seem like an entirely satisfying answer to the dilemma though: Assuming that reasonable rejectability is not arbitrary, then horn (1) is met. But horn (2) is addressed by sidestepping it with something that gives off a tautological whiff: The reason X is right is beacuse its supported by non-rejectable reasons.
    Have I got Scanlon right?

  2. Some might remember at one time certain kinds of people were running around wearing ‘WWJD?’ bracelets and hats and legwarmers and headbands. This stood for ‘What Would Jesus Do?’
    I once commented on a paper that advocated some kind of Christian divine command theory. I entitled my comments ‘*W*WJDWJWD?’, which stood for ‘*WHY* Would Jesus Do What Jesus Would Do??” I argued that since there’s an answer, the DCT is false.
    I think I still have some shirts and hats with ‘*W*WJDWJWD?’ printed on them, if anyone would like one.

  3. Oh dear, sorry about that.
    I recall that Jason Kawall has a paper, something on putting carts before horses, that addresses these issues. He’s fond of virtue ethics.

  4. Michael, it’s been awhile since I’ve read Scanlon too, but that sounds familiar. In any case, while you’re right that I was mainly concerned with what I was calling ‘pure’ contractualism, it’s worth examining that kind of ‘impure’ contractualist move. I think you’re right to point out the potential tautology. I’d add that while the move to reasonableness does push the Euthyphro Dilemma out of the moral realm, in placing the burden on nonmoral reasons, in so doing it also just pushes back the Dilemma to the space of nonmoral reasons: out of the frying pan and into the fire. For now we’d want to ask (as your comment anticipates): what makes choice X reasonable? Either its reasonableness is simply due to the fact that it’s been put to the test of being chosen by agents who consider reasons, i.e., it’s arbitrary, or its reasonableness is due to the substantive reasons that the agent used, and the dilemma is off and running. If there’s a move to stop this stage of the dilemma by holding, “X is reasonable iff X is supported by non-rejectable reasons,” this again just pushes the issue back one more step: why are those reasons non-rejectable? Either the non-rejectability is up to the arbitrary whims of the chooser or it’s determined by the chooser’s substantive reasons…and off to the races once again.

  5. I’m not a fan of divine command theories, but I suspect that this dismissal of all versions on the basis of the euthyphro problem is a bit quick. I’m not as up on the literature as I’m sure you guys are, but work by Adams, Quinn, and Alston was geared toward showing how to do DCT without succumbing to the problem. Even if they are wrong, I don’t know how to weight the problem as being more significant than the intro-level remarks many of us are inclined to make that consequentialism can’t handle the demands of justice.

  6. Josh,
    I concur that Scanlon looks to walk into a different and ‘nonmoral’ fire. I think that in the end, Scanlon believes there is a kind of non-deductive, anti-foundationalist epistemology of practical reason according to which we know that certain reasons are better, stronger, etc., than others, (and hence which reasons are the basis for non-rejectability) without being able to demonstrate why. So I imagine Scanlon would adopt the second horn but deny that there’s something viciously regressive about doing so.
    (Incidentally, I’ve been writing in defense of a non-deductive, acquaintance-based epistemology of practical reason, if anyone’s interested.)

  7. Yeah, I too think he’s not a foundationalist, though I wasn’t trying to pin him on a regress (be it virtuous or vicious). What I was thinking was that whether we’re talking about rightness, reasonableness, or anything, it either will be or won’t be up to an authority. If it is, then it’s arbitrary; if not, then that’s fine, but it seems to leave us with a form of deontology, consequentialism, or pluralism.

  8. I’m glad I discovered this site, but I also feel the way I did on a few occasions when I entered the wrong bar. I’m deeply interested in what is sometimes called ethics or morality or ethical behavior, so much so that when I realized (in 1950) why it is that humans have this notion of “right” and “wrong”, I figuratively shouted Eureka.
    It appears to me that most of the contributors to this site believe that there is a correct answer to most of the questions that they ask, and that ethical questions can be resolved by philosophical debate. I have seen what looks like a poll, “Do you think it is morally permissible to ….?” The way the question is phrased suggests that correct moral behavior can be determined by vote, with the obvious alternative being that the answer lies in the “Book of Right and Wrong: A Million and One Ethical Questions and their Answers.”
    This all may sound like the negativism of an amateur sneering at the Cloud Cuckoo Land of academic philosophy. Actually, a few questions sound to me very good, like “What Would Jesus Do, and Why?” I would really like to see everyone’s answer to that question.

  9. Tom,
    If I may speak for the other Soupsters, I’d say that this blog is primarily directed towards those doing “professional” philosophy, and most of us in the profession (I think) do think that there are better and worse answers to many of these questions, and that arguments for and against candidate answers will be evaluated by other arguments. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that the answers will be easy to evaluate, or that we’ll end up identifying the right ones very quickly.) Relatedly, because we believe in arguments, that is, in the importance of giving reasons for one’s positions, I doubt that you’ll ever see any of us trying to answer an ethical question merely by appeal to what someone else said.
    At the same time, we’re also glad to see interest from those outside the profession. Regarding your question on answering-by-polling, my guess is that the contributors who’ve been soliciting the views of others on ethical questions have been doing so not because they think that the answer with the most votes wins, but because they want to examine how different responses might go as a way of weeding through different arguments for different positions.

  10. I agree with Michael that attacking the second horn of the dilemma is the way to go. Contractors agree to abide by certain norms (moral norms) because it serves their (self- and other-regarding) interests to do so. So they agree to a set of moral norms because it is reasonable to do so, but this reasonableness is prudential reasonableness; moral reasonableness need not enter into it. (Of course, the notion of a set of morally-neutral interests or desires which we could use to justify a set of moral norms is probably a myth, but I argue elsewhere, and at too great a length for a blog comment, that circularity in moral justification is not a problem for the contractualist.)
    As for Joshua’s response to Michael, I’m afraid I don’t see the force of it. We can ask why certain reasons are fundamental, as it were; but if that’s a problem for the contractualist, it is a problem for everyone: we can ask why the principle of utility provides us with a fundamental reason for action, or why we should treat humanity as an end, etc.; and then it is “off to the races once again,” as Joshua puts it. As for why these reasons are basic, the contractualist can borrow from the essentialism of someone like Nussbaum and say “These basic interests define human nature; they are the fundamental desires which constitute our appetitive nature.” Working then with a means-end conception of rationality, it will be rational to promote these desires, in part via a cooperative strategy which helps maximize our mutual satisfaction of these desires, etc. After all, on a means-end conception of rationality, that’s what it is for something to be rational–for it to promote our desires. (Crudely put, but hopefully the gist is clear.) And if we possess certain fundamental desires–desires that persist through all acculturation–these desires are always present to be satisfied, and so a satisfactory (instrumentally) rational strategy will seek to satisfy them–cooperatively, in many cases. This is where moral norms arise.
    I often find it hard to summarize, in brief comment form, views that I have thought hard (and written) about, but that’s my best shot.

  11. Jeremy-
    I like the spirit of your approach, since it does strike me that perhaps the demand to show how a certain consideration counts as a basic reason for action is often a demand motivated by groundless skepticism. I.e., the demand amounts to saying “so I can see how that might count as a fundamental reason, but why is it such a reason?” I’d be interested to hear more about how you think contractualist views avoid circularity.
    That being said, the sort of contractualism you outline would be one that Scanlon would be ambivalent about. He would affirm your suspicion that the notion of a pre- or non-moral considerations, interests, reasons, etc.. is a myth. But he of course does not view reasonableness in terms of prudential reasonableness. As I mentioned earlier, I think he’s a kind of anti-foundationalist (or perhaps even an anti-theorist) about practical reason, so there is not, for him, a single class of reasosn that constitute moral reasons, so he could not draw upon self-interest or Nussbaum’s Aristotelianism to explain what moral reasons are. (Not of course that we should confine our discussion of contractualism to Scanlon’s version of it.) Yet if he’s right then don’t we face an interesting dilemma: There is no class of reasons that are inherently suited to serve as moral reasons. So how are we to justify moral claims if they will involve pluralities of reason kinds?

  12. Jeremy –
    I think I agree with Josh on this. While it’s true that we can ask anyone why the reasons she takes to be fundamental really are, the contractualist seems to have a special problem here, because of the nature of her answer: she says ‘they are fundamental because rational people would take them to be fundamental’ or something like that. That does seem circular. Now maybe circularity isn’t a problem here, but I want to see an argument for that before granting anything of the sort . . .
    I’m also highly skeptical toward the ‘fundamental desire’ view you suggest. That’s partly because I’m very skeptical about means-ends conceptions of rationality. There certainly isn’t space to launch a full criticism here (but see Jean Hampton’s interesting book, The Authority of Reason, for a good start.) But I suppose my hesitation about your version is partly this: if a desire’s being ‘basic’ merely means that it is persistent through all acculturation (and thus, part of our human nature), I don’t see why the fact that a desire is basic should give it any special normative status. Some perfectly trivial desires might be basic in that sense, just because of the way we are built (evolution is a funny and unpredictable process.)
    A lot of people seem to think that, if it turns out that there are certain things that are desired by all humans, that would somehow justify (some form of) morality. But this doesn’t seem to follow – we would still need to ask whether the desired thing is good. (And we also need to ask, of course, whether some things that are not desired by everyone might be good anyway.) And this shows that it isn’t the desire that’s doing the justifying. So I’m not sure that ‘x would be desired by everyone’ is any more helpful or compelling than ‘x would be chosen by rational choosers.’

  13. Michael-
    It may be the case that Scanlon can’t avail himself of the approach I am pushing; but the original post by Josh was an attempt to show that contractualism of any variety faces a Euthyphro dilemma. But in any case, Josh may have succeeded in showing that Scanlon’s version cannot work, given Scanlon’s other commitments. That would be no small result.

  14. Troy-
    I want to say more than that fundamental desires are the ones that survive through acculturation (although they certainly do that). I am influenced by Nussbaum’s arguments for the capability approach. In Women and Human Development (and elsewhere), she grounds the notion of a basic human capability in the notion of human nature, and (I think) the desires that constitute human nature. She is not afraid of embracing essentialism! Her point is that these desires are a part of the fundamental makeup of the human frame, and that no amount of cultural conditioning can eradicate them. Given that these desires are basic, it seems to me a basic tenet of practical reason that prima facie that we ought rationally to attempt to fulfill them. The fact that a desire is basic doesn’t give it special normative status–aside from its status as a particularly powerful desire which is shared by all (normal) humans (thereby making it ideally suited to serve as a basis for a contractual moral agreement) and that since it can’t be eliminated, failure to try to satisfy it seems clearly irrational by the tenets of practical reason (as given a means-end reading).
    Of course, given your skepticism about means-end reasoning, you won’t find any of this remotely plausible. But there does seem to me to be a non-ad hoc way of identifying the fundamental desires that ought to be pursued.
    I have more views about this than will fit here–I think that every desire falls under one or more interest, where interests are the basic categories of desires constituting our human nature. But I am trying not to use this blog as a forum for posting, at tiresome length, my personal views. I think in many cases, we are reaching points of basic disagreement, and further argument requires, in fact, article- or book-length development, so that the overall picture emerges (and hopefully thereby looks more appealing!)

  15. Wow – it’s great to see all the healthy discussion on this. Let me add two points of clarification that might speak to Jeremy’s concerns. First, apologies if my “off to the races” comment seemed to imply that I was pushing a vicious regress argument. I didn’t intend to push any sort of argument here. Rather, I meant to say that whatever the pure contractualist, or the impure-reasonableness contractualist, wants to point to as the fundamental right-making property of an act, it will either be a function of the agent’s mere choice (and therefore arbitrary) or it won’t be (in which case those two kinds of contractualism would end up being denied.)
    Second, it strikes me that Jeremy’s brand of contractualism (Scanlonian or not) does grasp that second horn of the dilemma, since the choice won’t be arbitrary but instead will be based on self-interest. This kind of impure contractualism, then, actually deals with the dilemma in a way that agrees with my conclusion: pure contractualism isn’t viable. As I said initially, I’m willing to grant that some “contractualist” views may be sub-versions of deontology or consequentialism. Jeremy’s view is that “Contractors agree to abide by certain norms (moral norms) because it serves their (self- and other-regarding) interests to do so.” This strikes me as stating that *ultimately* what makes right acts right is that they serve our self-interest, i.e., this is an egoist view. I take that to be a form of consequentialism, insofar as the ultimate right-making property is that the act brings about a good state of affairs (in this egoist version of consequentialism, a good state of affairs for the agent herself). So whether or not the “fundamental desire view” is accurate, the point would remain that to keep “contractualism” viable, we have to eliminate its distinctiveness and subsume it under consequentialism (or deontology). That is, “pure” contractualism is not viable.

  16. I promise this is my last post on the topic!
    Re: “it will either be a function of the agent’s mere choice (and therefore arbitrary).”
    I guess this is where I want to argue that the contractualist is in a position dissimilar from that of the divine command theorist. Presumably, the contractor’s choice is *not* arbitrary–the contractor chooses for some reason. And, on a (say) Hobbesian account, the *reason* the contractors choose as they do is that it is in their self-interest to do so. So morality is given a non-moral but non-arbitrary foundation. (Incidentally, I don’t think the contractarian must concede that the reasons have to be egoistic–we have other- as well as self-regarding interests, and the contractors will presumably want an agreement that satisfies these other-regarding interests as well.) I don’t see why conceding that the contractors have prudential reasons for contracting as they do makes the theory no longer contractualist. Presumably, contractualists always thought the contractors had *some* reason for choosing as they do. What better reason than that the choices the contractors make serve their interests?
    Of course, this raises the question of which desires one ought to satisfy (which is a point previous posters have pushed as being a weak spot of the contractualist’s). But again, someone working with a means-end conception of rationality will say that it is always prima facie rational to satisfy a given desire. Of course, there must be trade-offs, etc., and we must try to think of a coherent strategy for balancing satisfaction of conflicting desires (the sort of stuff Nozick addresses at the end of *The Nature of Rationality*). But given a commitment to the existence of instrumental rationality, I don’t see why attempting to satisfy our existing desires is an any way arbitrary; that’s just what rationality *is*, for the instrumentalist. (But then I haven’t read the Jean Hampton book cited above, either. One more bit of the literature I haven’t been able to keep up with!)
    If I am misunderstanding something, please do let me know. I don’t think the contractualist I have described needs to concede defeat–nor must he concede that he is not a contractualist. But I stand willing to be corrected!

  17. Jeremy,
    Well, right, I agree that your version of contractualism, again, grasps the second horn of the dilemma and has the contractors choosing for reasons, rather than arbitrarily (rather than the first horn, which you quoted). And if you want to call it “contractualism”, I think that is a fine and not historically inaccurate way of using the term. But I do think it is inappropriate to call it a *pure or distinctive* kind of contractualism, that is, a kind of contractualism that isn’t consequentialist at bottom.
    Imagine a DCT’ist who said “God’s commands aren’t arbitrary; instead, God bases her commands on reasons, particularly the reason that they promote the interests of humans.” This would avoid the arbitrariness horn of the dilemma, and grasp the second horn, just as you have done with contractualism. But it means giving up “pure” DCT (hence the dilemmatic nature of the Dilemma). For now the reason that right acts are right isn’t, *ultimately*, because God commanded them, but because they promote humans’ interests. This is, on conventional ways of thinking, a consequentialist view of rightness, with the wrinkle that God agrees with consequentialism. Similarly for your version of contractualism. What makes an act morally right isn’t, *ultimately*, that the contractors agree to it, but the fact that it promotes our self-interest. This, again, is normally thought of as a consequentialist view, since the right-making property is that the act produces the nonmoral good of satisfying self-interest, though it has a wrinkle that contractors agree.

  18. Josh,
    It seems to me that the way you formulate the Euthyphro Dilemma is not quite right. As you formulate it, the dilemma is as follows: “God issues her commands either (1) arbitrarily or (2) on the basis of reasons.” But now imagine someone who holds that God issues His commands on the basis of self-interested (i.e., non-moral) reasons, specifically, that His commanding X fulfills His desire to command X. Now, according to you, Josh, this person is grasping the second horn and must now claim that the content of those self-interested reasons (i.e., that God’s commanding X causes His desires to be fulfilled), rather than the mere fact that God commanded X, is what makes X right. But why? Can’t the divine command theorist stick to her guns and say it’s not God’s reasons for commanding X that makes X right; it’s the fact the God has commanded X that makes X right. There’s nothing incoherent in this position, is there?
    Now I would formulate the Euthyphro Dilemma a bit differently: either (1) God’s commands are *morally* arbitrary or (2) God commands what He does on the basis of *moral* reasons. The advantage of formulating it this way is that it does seem incoherent to claim that God commands X for moral reasons while also claiming that it’s not the content of those moral reasons that makes X right but the fact that God commands X that makes X right.
    We can apply this to contractualism? Either the contractors’ choices are (1) morally arbitrary or (2) they are made on the basis of moral reasons. If (1), then it could have just as easily turned out that murder, rape, and torture are all morally permissible (for it is a contingent fact that these behaviors are contrary to our mutual benefit). If (2), then the content of those moral reasons, and not the contractors’ choices, are what make right acts right. So you should claim that, on Jeremy’s view, the contractors’ choices are not arbitrary, but are morally arbitrary.

  19. Okay, I lied. One more comment.
    If one thinks (as I do) that the *point* of morality is to help advance our interests, then it is not arbitrary to make our interests the starting point for contractual deliberations. Thus, to say (as Doug does) that on my view, “the contractors’ choices are not arbitrary, but are morally arbitrary” is technically true but somewhat off the point (I think). The choices are morally arbitrary in the sense that we have a set of *non-moral* reasons for agreeing to a set of moral rules. But why not regard this as a strength of the position, not a weakness–we can give morality a non-moral (and hence non-circular) grounding? (Although as I noted above I think, for reasons too lengthy to explain here, that such circularity is not necessarily a problem in grounding morality.)
    Having said this, I will concede, however, that Josh has pretty much convinced me that contractualism, understood this way, is really a form of consequentialism. So a viable contractualism turns out to be consequentialism, and so contractualism is out of the running, as a viable but distinct theory (which, I take it, is part of what Josh was trying to prove in the first place).

  20. I very much agree with Doug Portmore’s approach to DCT. I’d like to suggest a supplementary formulation, which takes into account the fact that “divine command” might be different from the ordinary sense of “command.”
    According to the latter, one commands based on an underlying reason or set of reasons.
    However, the theist’s view is that God tries to take into account, in some way, the entire structure of the world, that is, all subsets of reasons and consequences (a sort of “possible worlds” God). So: when God commands, it would be a reduction of God’s premised complexity to assume that His decisions are based on one reason, or even set of reasons, alone. Rather, God’s decisions are based on God’s control over the entire structure of the world, so that the decisions are not reason-based but rather “All”-based. Since God is, according to the theist view, identifiable with control over the “All,” it is misleading, or rather, anti-theist, to identify God’s decisions as “reason-based.”
    I suppose, trying to phrase my thoughts more clearly, that the theist would have difficulty with the simple identification of God as a rational decision-maker, with the idea being that God’s decisions are different from the human variety.

  21. Hi, Josh. It’s been a long time…. Just read about this site in Newsweek. You’re famous!
    I can’t say that I’ve read any recent thinker on virtue, but I know Aristotle’s ethics aren’t reduced merely to the choice of the phronemos (practically-wise one). While it’s true that the virtuous act is one that the virtuous person does, Aristotle would be the first to admit that to leave it there would be tautological.
    Moral virtue or excellence (arete), as we all know, is the mean between extremes of excess and defect. From what I remember, Aristotle claims to get to this point by induction, i.e., excellence in all things, not just human action, is achieved in the balance between extremes. So, the excellent action with respect to fear avoids having too much fear (cowardice) and not enough (rashness).
    It has been quite some time since I’ve examined the various contemporary ethical categories– procedural, consequential, etc.– so it’s hard for me to get a good feel for where virtue ethics fits in. I don’t think this is strict consequentialism– for the excellence of the act doesn’t depend upon the results (E.G., whether your courageous act actually saved anyone). Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the other categories….
    Perhaps there are counterexamples that I haven’t considered that render Aristotle’s ethics ridiculous. I’ve been out of the contemporary loop for quite some time now….

  22. Will,
    Good to hear from you. I’m not sure that Aristotle would fall under my classification of virtue ethics, since he might be read as a perfectionist (and so, more broadly, a consequentialist), rather than as a devotee of virtue ethics as I’ve characterized in line with (much) more recent work, considered as a distinctive ethical doctrine.

  23. Hi Folks,
    I wonder what you might think of the following: that moral realisms are just as subject to the Euthyphro dilemma as DCT, contractualisms, virtue theories, etc.
    Take the ‘morally arbitrary’ horn of the dilemma. Notice that the moral realist seems equally subject to this problem. For example, Shafer-Landau, in his recent book defending his non-naturalist realism stresses that the moral realist will not have any explanation for why the moral facts (or supervenience relations, etc.) that obtain in the actual world do so – anymore than a physicist will have an explanation for why the laws of physics that obtain here do so.
    It seems to me that with DCT, we’re left with God’s brute preferences (at least in simple versions of it) as being foundational; with moral realism we’re left with brute moral facts and supervenience relations. It’s not as if the universe ‘chooses’ the moral facts that obtain on the basis of some further considerations. The moral facts simply are; just as god simply prefers.
    If this is right, it could be that moral realisms and DCTs will sink or float together on this score. If it is deemed a fatal flaw to have no further basis or explanation for God’s preferences or commands, then it seems a similar flaw to have no further basis or explanation for the moral facts that happen to obtain in the world. On the other hand, if it is acceptable to simply come to rest with brute moral supervenience relations, etc., without further explanation, then why would it not be acceptable to rest with god’s brute preferences?

  24. Jason,
    Interesting suggestion. There may be a significant point of disanalogy between the arguments against DCT and moral realism. The problem with the arbitrariness of God’s commands, as I see it, is a justificatory problem. If God’s commands are brute, this leaves open the problems that “anything goes” (or “anything might have gone”), morally speaking, and that there is no justification for why God chose, say, torture to be wrong rather than obligatory. By contrast, the arbitrariness of morally real facts, like physical facts on Shafer-Landau’s view, does not call out for a justification. If anything, it calls out for more explanation. This might be a problem, but I’m not sure that it’s the same problem. I think I’m actually going to enter a brand new post on this second topic (Shafer-Landau’s moral realism, supervenience, and the bruteness of moral facts) soon, which might shed some more light on what I have in mind on this other problem.

  25. Gentlemen:
    Fascinating Discussion.
    I have pondered many of the points brought out in Mr. Glasgow’s original posting and am curious as to why Natural Law Theory has not been discussed, or is it already assumed to be the foundation of Virtue Ethics in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense of the definition. Human nature is an undeniable reality which I believe contains objective truths (Laws), but whether or not these truths about human nature are the outcome of some divine teleological plan or some sort of meaningless biological accident does not, I believe, negate the objectivity that Euthyphro seems to so easily undermine when it comes to other moral theories.
    One can obviously subscribe to a moral theory based on Natural Law without falling into the problems provided by divine command theory. I see Utilitariansim and Deontology as both falling victim to the Euthyphro Dilemma, because ultimately we are making subjective value judgements about either “the greatest good for the majority” or “the universalizability of a maxim.” I think that only Natural Law can escape subjectivism based on empirical observation.
    Does Euthyphro apply to our feelings about Auschwitz? Do We hate Auschwitz because it is Evil, or Is it Evil because we hate it? If we can’t answer this question, then why bother philosophizing about anything else, or searching for the basis for an ethics which we do not deserve.
    Bob O’Brien

  26. Hi,
    Josh – thanks for your response! I’ll tty not to write too much here, as it sounds like you might be adding a related post soon.
    I think you’re quite right about there being something of a disanalogy in the cases of moral realism vs. dct, where the former lacks explanation while the latter lacks justification.
    But I’m not sure if this ultimately helps the moral realist. Notice that there would be a lack of justification for the realist facts here too, not just a lack of explanation. God wouldn’t be able to provide reasons (at least on many versions of dct) for why he chooses as he does, and thus there is a lack of justification. But on the realist picture there’s not even an agent whose actions or preferences would be candidates for justification! I suppose one could claim that this shows that the question of justification doesn’t even apply; but it seems more appropriate here to see this as simply another way of lacking justification. God can’t give reasons for his preferences (and the resulting moral facts), but in the realist case we can’t even ask the universe (as it were) for a justification. Or we’d get silence. This doesn’t seem better than the dc theorist’s position.
    On the other hand, if it is acceptable for the realist to rest without explanations for why the moral rules that obtain do so, why must the dct go further and provide a justification for the moral facts that obtain? That is, while there is a god (ex hypothesi) and we could consider the question of whether there is some sort of justification for his choices, why must the dct provide such justification? It seems being able to do so would be something over and above what is being demanded of the realist.

  27. Jason,
    I’ve posted a new entry on Shafer-Landau’s moral realism, so that might help explain what I’m thinking. Regarding your last comment, I’d say that it’s a bit odd to ask for a justification for (rather than an explanation of) the existence of moral facts. If the task of moral metaphysics is to provide an account of the metaphysical status of the moral, then the point wouldn’t be to justify putative moral facts, but to explain how they could exist in a natural world that seems to have no location for such moral facts.
    Regarding theories of normative ethics, when it comes to rightness, the question is what makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong. As this is a different, normative question, it explains why the DCT’ist must come up with a justification for saying “action A is wrong.” Now the DCT’ist doesn’t have to come up with God’s answer to that question. Rather the point of the Euthyphro Dilemma, as I understand it, is that either God does have a (moral) answer or God doesn’t. If God does, then DCT is false; if God doesn’t, then morality is arbitrary. But I agree with you that this is something more than what’s being demanded of the realist; at the same time, though, I think that difference is based in the fact that the realist is doing metaethics while the DCT’ist is doing normative ethics, and so the two of them will have different tasks at hand.

  28. Hi Josh,
    A couple of parting thoughts:
    1) I do agree that it’s perhaps strange to ask for a justification for the existence of moral facts on the realist view (rather than mere explanation) – but I still think we can ask the question, even if it is odd. It’s just that the realist won’t really have much of an answer. [Are you suggesting that the question makes no sense or is somehow incoherent? Makes sense but is in some other way inappropriate?]
    2) You suggest that the dc theorist is doing normative ethics, rather than metaethics. But many – I think most – dc theorists take the position to be a metaethical one (e.g., Adams’ papers include “Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again”). So I’m not sure that the metaethics vs normative ethics distinction that you draw here will work against all dcts [or rather – would you allow that a dc theorist who is doing metaethics could also put aside questions of justification?].

  29. Whoops – meant to include the following, concerning the question of justification for the realist:
    I’m thinking of this as perhaps analogous to looking at the pattern of some sand left by strong winds and rain, and then asking “What is the reason (justification) for this pattern being left?”. Some theists might give some justification for this, but for the rest of us we’d say that there simply isn’t a justification of this sort – there isn’t a reason for this pattern. But the question itself still seems to make sense, even if we hold that there is no justification of the kind being sought by those asking.

  30. Jason,
    Thanks for the discussion. Regarding the question of whether DCT is a metaethical or normative ethical theory, I’ve certainly been treating it as the latter. Somewhere on a past post here, Doug Portmore noted your point here that it is sometimes treated as a metaethical theory. I don’t dispute that, of course, and if it’s being presented as such, then, yes, DCT’ists wouldn’t have to tackle the tasks of a normative ethical theory. But often it’s discussed as a normative theory, too (though, as I said in the original post, I take it that it’s not taken very seriously as such, in large part because of the Euthyphro Dilemma…so, given the force of the dilemma, it’s worth exploring whether it also rules out contractualism and virtue ethics).
    Regarding the question of whether we should justify facts, I must admit that in this (if I may) post-teleological world, the question just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But when I initially wrote the “inappropriate” comment, I meant that it’s inappropriate in a different sense: justifying, rather than accounting for or explaining, is not one of the tasks of a metaphysical theory (as presently conceived), so it’s inappropriate to ask one to do that justificatory work.

  31. From: Rosalind Hursthouse
    Josh’s ascription of the Euthyphro dilemma to virtue ethics and contractarianism is very elegant. I suspect he will be unmoved by my response because it just introduces inelegant messiness. (Maybe he will reclassify me as a pluralist.)
    It seems to me that the ascription of the ED requires reading the contractarian and the ve account of right action as offering a reductive definition. Either can then escape the problem by denying that this is what they are doing. I am, and always have been, more than happy to do this, not in order to escape the dilemma but because I’m against foundationalism and reductive definitions in general. Gary Watson (On the Primacy of Character, reprinted in Statman’s Virtrue Ethics says “[A}n ethics of virtyue is not a code or a general moral claim but a set of abstract theses about how certain concepts are best fitted together for the purposes of understanding morality’ (p.57) and that is just how I understand it. According to my version of VE, we understand morality better if we link the concept of right action with the concept of a v. agent than if we link it to, say the concept of best consequences, or to that of a corect moral rule. And we understand morality better if we link the concept of a v. agent with the concept of the virtues as character traits a human being needs for eudaimonia than if we link it with the concept of a dispopsition to perform right acts independently specified. And so on.
    I think I would also deny that that first linkage amounts to a claim about ‘the right-making property of right acts.’ I can’t remember who first introduced this phrase into the discourse, but it just seems to me to make for obscurity except in the case of the crudest act-utilitarianism. I can make sense of the claim ‘According to basic act-utilitarianism all there is to the rightness of acts is the fact that they maxmise happiness (or what have you)’ and also understand them as claiming that, when an agent does something ‘because she thinks it’s right’ she believes (or ought to believe) that the act will indeed maxmise happiness. But I wouldn’t myself want to insist that deontologists claim that ‘all there is to the rightness of acts is accordance with a correct moral rule.’ It sounds so bizarre. I would have thought that deontologists would be rather foxed by the demand that they specify the right-making characteristics of right acts. And they are currently very divided about just what it is that an agent believes (or should believe) when he does something’because he thinks it is right.’
    In some cases, a virtue ethicist might be willing and able to answer ‘What is the right-making characteristic of this act.’ She could say, e.g. ‘It’s honest or generous or just….’ But no virtue ethicist I know of makes the implausible assumption that such an answer is always available; why should they? As for what is involved in the VE account of acting ‘because one thinks it is right’, I found this such a difficult question that it took me two whole chapters to sort it out.
    So, all just messy details I’m afraid. We are a slippery lot.

  32. Rosalind,
    Thanks so much for the comment; it’s always great hearing directly from the source. You were right to predict that I’d want to classify a view according to which there are multiple right-making properties as a pluralist view, though I confess that I had read Part I of your On Virtue Ethics (and some of your earlier work) as defending VE as offering a distinctive theory of rightness in a way that was close to how I presented it in the original post. I suppose I was focusing there on your point that while all theories of rightness can agree that “an action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do”, only VE can have that as its basic principle [p. 30] – or, as you put it above, “we understand morality better if we link the concept of right action with the concept of a v. agent than if we link it to, say the concept of best consequences, or to that of a corect moral rule” – and that this makes the VE understanding of rightness distinct from that of deontology or consequentialism.
    I should, however, clarify that I meant only to focus on theories of what makes right acts right, rather than theories of moral motivation or good character, so I wholeheartedly agree with your point about why the agent acts in the right way (i.e., moral motivation).
    As for deontology, I also agree that we deontologists have trouble formulating a principle of “what makes right acts right is that…” in a way that can adequately cover all of the different deontological views; in this respect, consequentialists seem to have a much easier time with their basic principle. (Rather than focusing on rules, which I too think sounds a bit bizarre, I’d put it in terms of properly responding to the relationships one is in, but that’s a topic for another day.)
    Again, thanks for your post. Some of us at PEA Soup are also in the Southern California Reading Group on Ethics, and we are discussing your book right now. Your contribution here will surely improve our appreciation of your view.

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