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I am writing an essay for the question 'Critically evaluate the view that ethics should be more concerned with who you are than what you do'.

I have done some of Kant's ethics and some virtue ethics, which I plan to tackle in answering this question. While the two are drastically contrasting ethical systems, I was thinking about if ultimately it isn't a massive issue of which system 'ethics should be more concerned with' when looking at the purpose of ethics having some sort of 'end goal' for both virtue ethicists and deontological ethicists - eg. eudaimonia/the 'Good' for Artistotle, and the 'summumm bonum' and his postulate of an afterlife + God for Kant.

I'd like to have an interesting overall argument for this essay and I was wondering if what I mentioned above could be a valid one. I have only been doing philosophy for 2-3 months so it would be helpful to keep it relatively simple!

Thanks!

  • cf. pp. 9-18 of the 2007 ed. of Health Care Ethics by Ashley & O'Rourke for a good overview – Geremia Dec 5 '18 at 18:36
  • There are no 'end goals' that we're capable of establishing with perfect certainty. What we have to rely on is our limited predictive capacity in establishing the chance that some goals are likely to be impossible or will just cease to exist in the future. If a behavior/ideology ceases to exist in the future, then it will necessarily cease to be moral. Neither Kant nor Virtuism tackle end-goals, the future; they focus on the present. – EternalPropagation Dec 5 '18 at 18:38
  • @EternalPropagation Yes but do they not both mention an ultimate goal that humans aim for? ie. humans' actions ultimately leading to human flourishing, and the idea of a state of the 'highest good' or summum bonum, postuluating the afterlife? I get that Kant nor Virtuism as means of determining morality do not focus on the future and instead on the present, but in terms of a wider picture of what the point of ethics is, is that not true to some extent? – Julian Cheng Dec 5 '18 at 19:08
  • @Geremia I can't seem to open that file! – Julian Cheng Dec 5 '18 at 19:14
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    You might take a look at this post this post from a previous Q&A. – transitionsynthesis Dec 5 '18 at 22:20
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Kant is widely regarded as as "deontology personified" (Louden 1986, p. 473.) But if we widen our attention from the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason to include his "virtue theory" (Tugendlehre) we find the clear and firm elements of a virtue ethics. The Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason are vital elements of Kant's ethical theory but they are not the whole story.

The deontological element in Kant's ethical theory

...Kant's ethics is often portrayed as overly formalistic, devoid of substantial content, and without regard for the consequences of actions or questions of character ... (Claus Dierksmeier, 'Kant on Virtue', Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 113, No. 4, Special Issue on Putting Virtues Into Practice (April 2013), pp. 597-609: 597.)

There are prima facie grounds for this view in Kant's texts :

[I]n his Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals, he did write, for example, (a) that the pure idea of duty was the touchstone of all ethicality, (b) that ethical action must come from reverence for moral law, (c) that for the validity of moral actions considerations of their probable outcomes would be irrelevant, and (d) that hence a lofty disregard for "results" was the hallmark of a good conscience (AA IV, 393—39. (Dierksmeier: 599.)

The character of the agent, central to virtue ethics, seems to have no place. All that matters is whether an agent's intentional actions fulfil the requirements of duty and proceed from respect for the moral law.

This appears to reckon Kant among the deontologists. Very roughly indeed, a deontological ethical theory is concerned exclusively the requirement to do one's duty, to fulfil one's moral obligations. The demands of duty are independent of one's character, moral sentiments or feelings; duty is done, or not done, according to one's motivation and that motivation derives from one's rational nature, a nature which (unlike your or my character) is universal among human agents.

Kant and virtue ethics

The view outlined above is not a caricature but it is also not a complete picture.

Kant ... wrote a "virtue theory" (Tugendlehre), wherein he discussed the questions of character as well as the teleological nature of human action. Numerous Kant scholars argue that Kant already erected precisely the kind of integrative moral architecture that' [virtue ethics desiderates]. (Dierksmeier: 597.)

Once the possibility of valid ethical assessments has been established (as first explored in the Groundwork and then demonstrated in the Critique of Practical Reason), Kant turns to the next project: reconstructing the phenomenology of our moral experiences. This project is advanced in his conceptually rich Metaphysics of Morals, which consists of two major parts: a legal doctrine (Rechtslehre) and a doctrine of virtue (Tugendlehre). In the latter, we find Kant's mature moral philosophy (Timmons 2002). Here he discusses his ethical teachings in depth and detail. Here, too, he argues in favor of many subjects (such as virtue, character, and moral sentiments) for the alleged oversight of which contemporary critics criticize him. So, in the genealogy of his studies, Kant moves from initially predominantly abstract concerns of validity (at the foundational level of this theory) to the questions about the genesis of concrete moral actions (at the application level). His theory changes accordingly from reflections on the conceptual possibility and moral necessity of categorical imperatives to investigations into the practical reality of their objects and objectives (Höffe 1983).

In his Tugendlehre, Kant wishes no less but to elucidate what constitutes virtuous living in daily practice. In this context, emotions and intuitions find Kant's acute attention. Wherever the phenomenal correlates with the noumenal directives of practical reason, moral sentiments play an eminent role in his theory (Ameriks 2000). For instance, Kant affirms that our intuitions often provide us with important introspective and situational insight (Audi 2001). Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kant's ethics is thus neither bereft of an emotional side, nor of contextual sensitivity (Baxley 2003). On the contrary, his Metaphysics of Morals proceeds as the very analysis of such dimensions of kind of motivation or moral feeling, albeit through universal conceptual standards (Speight 1997). The latter are not meant to eliminate, but to elucidate the former; they relate to one another, as matter does to form. Far from trying to derive ethics out of logical inferences alone (Powell 2006), Kant's concern is not at all — as some of his critics still profess — to avoid particular and sensual motives from entering into the process of our will formation, but solely to determine whether they make us violate moral commitments. (Dierksmeier: 601-2.)

Appendix

Philip Klöcking has kindly allowed me to add the following material:

I would like to add that if it is the notion of character and how it is formed one is interested in - a concept central to any virtue ethics - one is well-advised to have a look into his Anthropology and Religion as well. His views on this aspect of his "virtue ethics" are much more pointedly described there. Even prolific Kant scholars have the tendency to pretend these two books would not exist or have any meaningful content, although Kant himself states how important this part of his philosophy is in the introduction to the Anthropology.

Maybe to bolster the point: Central statements in the Anthropology are in Ak. 7:285 and 291-295 where he speaks of (moral) character as a way of thinking [Denkungsart] and in the Religion 6:26-28 where he speaks of different predispositions to good, especially in the guise of "predisposition to personality". Also, the essay On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials discusses good character, especially in 8:269-271.

Addendum: In Religion, 6:46-49, he contrasts virtue understood as legally good (habitual/empirical good character) with virtue understood as morally good (intellectual/noumenal good character). The latter is tied to "mode of thought" [Denkungsart] which has to guide the habitual "mode of sense" [Sinnesart]. Essentially, all later works are concerned with how we can become habitually virtuous without ceasing to become morally virtuous, i.e. how we can be moral without having to actively reject inclinations via the CI every time - his answer is character understood as mode of thought.

Terminology

On 'phenomenal' and 'noumenal' see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noumenon.

Reading - date order:

  • Claus Dierksmeier, 'Kant on Virtue', Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 113, No. 4, Special Issue on Putting Virtues Into Practice (April 2013), pp. 597-609.

  • B.K. Powell, (2006). Kant and Kantians on "the normative question". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 9(5), 535-544.

  • A.M. Baxley, (2003). Does Kantian virtue amount to more than continence? The Review of Metaphysics, 56(3), 559-586.

  • M. Timmons, (2002). Kant's metaphysics of morals: Interpretative essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • O. Höffe, O. (1983). Immanuel Kant. München: C.H. Beck; (Trans.). (1994). Immanuel Kant. Albany: State University of New York Press,

  • C.A. Speight, (1997). The "metaphysics" of morals and Hegel's critique of Kantian ethics. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 14(4), 379-402.

  • Good and well-sourced answer. Only thing I would like to add is that if it is the notion of character and how it is formed one is interested in - a concept central to any virtue ethics - one is well-advised to have a look into his Anthropology and Religion as well. His views on this aspect of his "virtue ethics" are much more pointedly described there. Even prolific Kant scholars have the tendency to pretend these two books would not exist or have any meaningful content, although Kant himself states how important this part of his philosophy is in the introduction to the Anthropology. – Philip Klöcking Dec 8 '18 at 13:54
  • @ Philip Klöcking. I was hoping you would take a look. May I add your comment, duly acknowledged ? Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 8 '18 at 14:05
  • Sure. Maybe to bolster the point: Central statements in the Anthropology are in Ak. 7:285 and 291-295 where he speaks of (moral) character as a way of thinking [Denkungsart] and in the Religion 6:26-28 where he speaks of different predispositions to good, especially in the guise of "predisposition to personality". Also, the essay On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials discusses good character, especially in 8:269-271. – Philip Klöcking Dec 8 '18 at 14:30
  • Addendum: In Religion, 6:46-49, he contrasts virtue understood as legally good (habitual/empirical good character) with virtue understood as morally good (intellectual/noumenal good character). The latter is tied to "mode of thought" [Denkungsart] which has to guide the habitual "mode of sense" [Sinnesart]. Essentially, all later works are concerned with how we can become habitually virtuous without seizing to become morally virtuous, i.e. how we can be moral without having to actively reject inclinations via the CI every time - his answer is character understood as mode of thought. – Philip Klöcking Dec 8 '18 at 14:41

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