Philosopher (and friend) Massimo Pigliucci has now published the fourth in a series of essays on the foundations of ethics over at his blog, Rationally Speaking. The first article proposed grounding meta-ethics somewhere between objective and relativist approaches. The second article explored the ethical theory consequentialism. The third article discussed deontological ethics (think: Immanuel Kant).

The fourth article, published Sunday, outlines Pigliucci’s preferred approach to moral theory: virtue ethics. Here’s a taste:

The first, and perhaps more fundamental, thing to understand about virtue ethics is that it is concerned with a radically different sort of question from consequentialism and deontology, so much so that perhaps it is misleading to compare the three directly. While much modern moral philosophy regards the question of what is right as defining the field, virtue ethicists are interested in the question of how is one to live. Indeed, the suggestion has been made that Aristotle and most of the ancient Greeks would simply be puzzled by our way of thinking about ethics. Of course what is the best way to live, in the Greek-virtue ethicist sense, is not entirely decoupled from doing what is right and wrong, as the latter stems from the former.

[Elisabeth] Anscombe and other modern virtue ethicists (principally Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre), point out that one of the major consequences of shifting the question in ethics is that one is no longer forced to seek rigid, universal answers to “what’s the right thing to do?” but can instead appreciate the variety of ethical dilemmas and approach them from a more flexible perspective. Another way to put the difference is that while standard modern ethics is about laws (duties, rights), virtue ethics is about an individual’s character. If the individual has managed to develop a good character she will also tend to do the right thing.

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