Virtue ethics help build a new normal

I’ve enjoyed reading Roger Crisp’s and Brad Hooker’s insightful blogs about the role of utilitarianism in informing our actions in the context of the pandemic. I’ve also enjoyed reading about how our “new normal” needs to be a just and sustainable one, from the perspectives of government, society, business and the environment. It’s certainly a great opportunity to build in better and more immediate responses to the threat of climate change. How much daily commuting do we really need to do? How much of that could be done on foot or with pedal power? How many unnecessary new products do we really need to buy in shops, and why can’t we “make do and mend”? Do we really need to fly halfway across the world in order to have a “relaxing holiday”? In 2007, Dale Jamieson of New York University published a paper entitled “When Utilitarians Should be Virtue Theorists”. He argued that some moral problems are so complex that even formula-driven modern-day utilitarians have to bow to the powerful insight of Aristotle from over 2,300 years ago. Roger Crisp had also concluded something not too dissimilar some 15 years before Jamieson, a key difference being that Jamieson focussed his discussion specifically on the topic of climate change.

Everyone will have different personal circumstances and justifications (good or bad) for their current behaviours. The difficulty with taking a utilitarian formulaic approach that says you need to add up the good and bad impacts on everyone and everything, is that it’s….well, pretty much impossible to do a thorough job of it, especially not in situations that need quick decisions. Granted it might work broadly well at macro level for helping governments make policy decisions over a period of months or years, but it doesn’t much help me decide right now whether I should or shouldn’t do something. Instead, Jamieson proposes that we focus on the “virtues” of individuals, and build up from these our understanding of the rightness or wrongness of actions. Aristotle held that we’re going to live our most fulfilling, best lives if we also develop and practice our virtues, have a good character and do good things. Generic virtues include things like courage, generosity and friendliness. Ultimately we ought to feel naturally disposed to act in such ways, without needing to be prompted or forced into compliance.

Jamieson tailors the Virtues concept to the problem of climate change, by suggesting virtues such as humility and respect for the environment; self-restraint to control our consumption; mindfulness of the resources that have gone into the products we buy, and feeling a sense of responsibility for their production methods. The more transparent our society and the supply chains are, the more it is possible for us to behave in this way. Taking this approach helps better explain why it might be bad for me as an individual to go out for a regular gas-guzzling drive just for fun, or to throw some picnic litter into the bushes when no-one’s watching. Neither in themselves will have any discernible impact on either the climate or the environment, and yet clearly if everyone did this, it would be a problem. So for Jamieson, adopting virtue theory as a “moral tool” is actually something a utilitarian could usefully do in the case of climate change. I read into this that doing so would likely help bring about better outcomes than if we just rely on some formula or AI algorithm or the threat of “being caught” to tell us what is the right thing to do. Perhaps our “new normal” should be built with this in mind.


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