Here I start a short series on ethics, in particular virtue ethics. It expands on an earlier discussion of Kantian duty ethics (item 38) and Aristotelian virtue ethics (item 39).
Kantian duty ethics looks at proper motives for actions. Utilitarian ethics looks at outcomes of actions, in terms of wellbeing or utility. Both yield universal rules of obligation or duty, overriding other good things in life. This yields problems that compel us to adopt a third brand of ethics: virtue ethics.
The first problem with rule ethics is that the meaning of the rule can be ambiguous. Athanassoulis took the example of the rule not to lie. Strictly, lying is knowingly telling an untruth. But how about omitting a relevant truth, or telling irrelevant truths. That may be just as bad as lying, or worse.
Second, there are exceptions. White lies, such as complimenting a host on a bad meal, in order not to offend him/her, may be good.
Third, there may be conflicting obligations. Athanassoulis took the example of having to choose between saving one’s own drowning baby and someone else’s. Here the obligation of a parent may trump a more general obligation to try and save people.
Fourth, the fulfilment of an obligation may be blocked by circumstances, by bad luck. One may be hindered (restrained to jump into the water), or one may lack the competence (inability to swim). ‘Good’ can mean ‘morally good’ but also ‘competent’. Competence matters, next to intentions.
Fifth, one may do good unintentionally, and does that count?
Sixth, Bernard Williams showed that moral judgement may be conducted in retrospect and may then be subject to scenarios.  He gave the example of being unfaithful to one’s partner. In retrospect it is bad in the scenario of resolving differences and staying together, but perhaps it is good, as an inevitable move, forcing the issue, in the scenario of breaking up an unworkable relationship.
Seventh, and above all, perhaps, actions also have other than moral values. Next to duties there are values of self-realization, bringing one’s talents to flourishing. Next to extrinsic value, such as the instrumental value or obligation of an action, the action may have intrinsic value, in wanting to conduct it. Athanassoulis took the example of visiting a friend in hospital. The friend thanks you for it, and you say ‘I was just doing my duy’. The friend will not like that, and may even have preferred you to stay away, if that was your motive. As a friend you are supposed to want to visit.
In virtue ethics the prime question is not ‘what should I do’ but ‘how should I live’. Virtues are ‘excellences of character, which are internalized dispositions of action, desire and feeling’. Examples are courage, sincerity, truthfulness, openness, reason, empathy, benevolence, striving for excellence, creativity, … For Aristotle, the central, overarching virtue is reason.
The virtue of virtue ethics is that it allows for the problems found for duty ethics. Moral principles become clear only in context, conformance depends on conditions, different rules or principles can be in conflict with each other, and other values and virtues are at stake, such as intrinsic value.
Some philosophers conclude from all this that virtue ethics should abandon duties and obligations, in an ethics without morality. I think that is a mistake. ‘How I should I live’ has implications for ‘what I should do’. The point, I propose, is not that all forms of morality disable the good life, but that morality should not take the form of absolute, strict and universal rules. There can be moral principles or ‘guidelines’, of virtues, that do not allow for a-priori judgement regardless of context, but provide a logic or language for arguing good or bad, depending on conditions and other values of the good life.
That is what I called ‘debatable ethics’ (in item 118). Moral judgement entails debate on intentions, motives, competences, outcomes, conditions, and different dimensions of virtue, including intrinsic next to extrinsic value, depending on the context at hand.