An Attempted Assault on Virtue Ethics With an Accusation of Egoism

Virtue Ethics commonly becomes the subject of attack on grounds that it is indeed egoistic. Julia Annas, in her article “Virtue Ethics and the Charge of Egoism,” combats this objection to virtue ethics and, in particular, the objections of Tom Hurka. In this paper, I will layout a complete understanding of virtue ethics, discuss objections, both common and those made specifically from Hurka, look at how Annas rebuts these objections, and then analyze the soundness of the argument as a whole. In conclusion, I will compare and contrast the virtue ethics of Annas and the flourishing egoism of Lester Hunt.

Virtue ethics is a moral theory that purports that one is to aim towards the cultivation of certain valuable character traits or dispositions deemed virtues. These virtues have both excesses and deficiencies. For example, courage is a virtue with the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice. A virtue ethicist is to aim in between these excesses and deficiencies for the virtue, i.e. the mean. The virtue ethicist advocates that through habituation an agent will develop a more precise aim, cultivate virtuous character, and, in turn, flourish. It is also important to understand virtue ethics as a theory that has ultimate aims towards communal flourishing. The importance of this fact will become more relevant as this piece continues.

The first objection raised against virtue ethics is that it seems egoistic to act in such a way as to cultivate virtuous character, i.e. with the ultimate end of one’s own flourishing. If I only act virtuously because it brings me closer to my goal of flourishing, then it appears I am acting from an egoistic motivation. The objection takes root in the fact that, as per moral theories, a theory should provide reasons for acting, which contribute to the flourishing of others.

Annas rebuts this by asserting that if the agent’s reason for having virtues is for personal gain then they will not yield correct answers as to how to act. For if one were to utilize the virtue of courage solely for their own gain, not only would this not be courageous in a virtuous sense because courage is standing strongly for others, but that it is not how virtue ethics tells a virtue ethicist to act. Virtues are dispositions to act in the mean of an excess and deficiency. Annas argues that these dispositions cannot be simply shut off. Therefore, the argument that an agent could use them solely for the furthering of their own flourishing would not be possible, nor would it be virtuous. Furthermore, Annas makes a valid point when stating that virtues cannot be changed, but must be accepted as they are and even in some instances, contribute to losses on the virtuous agent’s part, which therefore rebuts the objection that virtues are only of benefit to those who possess them.

The second objection is one on the grounds of motivation. This objection takes form around the idea that one can act courageously, justly, generously, etc., but only have self-interest as a motivation for their actions. Annas and other virtue ethicists can and do rebut these objections by simply explaining that if an agent is acting for others from self-interest, or in order to promote their own flourishing, that agent is not a virtue ethicist. Virtues are dispositions to be valued because they promote a sort of life, i.e. flourishing, these dispositions cannot be changed, or motivated from self-interest.

These two objections discussed are more formalized by Hurka, which we will see in this next section. Hurka claims the existence of two dilemmas with virtue ethics. First, Hurka claims that virtue ethics either has an egoistic end or falls into being a two-level theory. The objection of an egoistic end states that virtue ethics aims and works towards an end that only benefits the agent’s self-interest. Annas counters this objection too. The objection calls into question the end goal of virtue ethics. The end goal of virtue ethics is to flourish. To flourish one must act virtuously, which would be to act justly, generously, fairly, etc. Now, from this knowledge, in what way does cultivating a person who is fair, just, and generous, egoistic? Annas makes the point that Hurka is here making an assumption, the assumption that flourishing is egoistic. Hurka claims that to focus on one’s self is “self-indulgent,” however Annas draws the rightful conclusion that it is indeed the self-indulgent man who cares too little about others and is then, not virtuous.

The second objection Annas gives some credit to on the grounds that it lends itself to help better understand virtue ethics. The two-level objection is dense and long-winded. The basic notion attacked is that a moral theory should tell its agents not to be motivated from their own aims, but rather they must be motivated from something external to themselves. Hurka makes this objection in connection with egoism on the grounds that either virtue ethics has an egoistic end, or it needs to deter/detract the virtue ethicist from acting in accordance with their own aim. This claim is more suited for and comes into discussion with consequentialism, as Annas brings up. In consequentialism, the agent is told not to aim directly at the consequence they desire. This piece of consequentialism seems to be an appeal to the psychological realities of human function. For, it states that an agent is less likely to attain the consequences they desire is they are aimed at directly. Therefore, Hurka and Parfit come into the discussion to appeal to the notion of self-effacement. Both Hurka and Parfit assert that one cannot achieve flourishing without motivation towards virtuous activity. However, Annas rebuts this object as well, by appealing the notion that virtuous dispositions are not susceptible to substitution of motivation. Ergo, these dispositions cannot aim at flourishing and still be virtuous, because then the agent is not acting from virtue, i.e. generosity, courage, or any other virtue. To be virtuous, one must act virtuously, that is the foundational idea of virtue ethics, for how could one be virtuous or flourish without aiming at virtuous activity?

Annas does accept that virtue ethics does efface something, and that is in relation to habituation. However, Annas asserts that this effacing causes no need for concern, due to the fact that through habituation, an agent develops such a great wealth of virtuous understanding that their aim for virtue is no longer active, but somewhat subconscious. That being said, Annas does say that the habituated virtuous agent is able to reveal the reasons behind this habituation with ease and explain the decision/aiming process whenever needed. Therefore, virtue ethics is neither egoistic or a two-level theory.

As for Hurka’s second dilemma, he states that virtue ethics defines flourishing in a “substantive way” or a “formal way” The substantive way objection states that the virtue ethicist has to find a state, i.e. flourishing, and delineate the virtues needed to achieve this state. This objection defines these states independently of virtue. The state chosen by Annas is success, she argues that success is subjective in a sense and it is near impossible to find a list of virtues that achieve it. Annas concedes the fact that a “substantive way” of thinking about flourishing within virtue ethics is unfeasible. Annas does make clear the fact that this does not mean that the virtue ethicist will not succeed, she just makes it clear they might not succeed in the traditional ways discussed. The virtuous person will rise up and fight for the underrepresented or discriminated from courage and justice, but in contemporary society the virtuous person might be struck down due to political and societal realities. She deems these somewhat of a disadvantage in these contexts, but the virtue ethicist would still be virtuous and morally just. If this concept of substantive flourishing is adopted by a virtue ethics, Annas makes clear the fact that they will be committing themselves to an unrealistic world for virtue ethics, for virtues do not work in that manner.

The formal way of defining flourishing within virtue ethics removes the independent necessitation of defining flourishing outside of the virtue. Apparently, Hurka feels inclined to say that virtue has a burden of proof to explain how flourishing unifies the virtues as a good. Hurka asserts that virtue fails under his new formal way of defining flourishing. Annas completely objects, stating that there is no reason behind why virtue ethics is burdened with this.

It is here that Annas discusses the fact that eudaimonism, or the theory that aims towards happiness can be egoistic. Though virtue ethics in some instances refers to eudaimonism, Annas draws a distinction. Annas discusses the hedonistic account of eudaimonism by Epicurus and others. These ideas of eudaimonia are subject to egoistic tendencies because not only are their definitions of eudaimonia vague, but in their vagueness there lays a lot of subjective interpretations of success and what it means to lead a good life.

Finally, Annas concludes by delineating the seemingly evident, but untouched point that virtues are the best way to achieve the already defined idea of flourishing, that being to cultivate virtuous character. Therefore, virtues and acting in the mean will not attain the flourishing, which is defined independent of virtue, for that is not virtue ethics.

This final point made by Annas rings true. Hurka’s second dilemma for virtue ethics is extremely faulty and places virtue ethics into positions of no escape by painting it there, not by objecting to existing issues within the theory. One cannot redefine the very essence of what a moral theory is centered around and then condemn it as a failure. Hurka’s first objection, that being that virtue ethics is either a two-level theory or has egoistic end, is an objection Annas handled effectively. Hurka made assumptions on behalf of virtue ethics, which were unfounded and unsubstantiated. Those assumptions including the fact that flourishing was egoistic and that self-effacement could only occur in negative instances. Flourishing, as per virtue ethics, is not egoistic, but rather communal in a sense that everyone aims for it theoretically and the community thrives through virtuous cultivation of character on the whole. As for effacement, the objection Hurka made was about one more grounded in the ideals of consequentialism, given that they state not to aim directly for the agent’s desired consequence because the agent’s will never yields as much as they do when they aim indirectly. In relation to virtue ethics, Annas directly explains how virtue ethics is centered on the aiming towards virtue and to turn from that would not be virtue ethics.

Now that Annas has defended and flushed out a better understanding of virtue ethics, let us look and juxtapose Lester Hunt’s flourishing egoism. For ethical egoism, the correct action is the action that promotes the agent’s self-interest. This notion of self-interest is open for attack. Within ethical egoism, the idea of self-interest, as Hunt discusses, is objected to on grounds that it negates the existence of altruism, and that it advocates the manipulation and using of others for personal gain. Within virtue ethics, this notion of self-interest can be understood, or translated rather, into the idea of flourishing. One must aim towards the mean of a virtue to cultivate virtuous character and, in turn, flourish. As was discussed in this essay, it seems the motivation towards flourishing is open for attack to those who fail to understand what flourishing truly is, as per virtue ethics. Flourishing is the living of a virtuous life, a complete and happy life, cultivating one’s person to the best of their ability and perfection. Hunt uses the Randian Objectivist Egoism notion of aiming towards reason, purpose, and self-esteem to attempt to define self-interest in a broader sense, rather than simply personal and immediate gain for the agent of ethical egoism. This seems oddly familiar. It does so because Hunt is loosely formulating an idea of virtue ethics’ flourishing to self-interest. There are more important things morally than simply one’s own self-interest and furthermore, one’s self-interest does not lie directly in the immediate relation to the agent. One’s self-interest is a collective of all the relevant factors in the agent’s life. Therefore, true altruism does exist in a “flourishing egoism” as delineated by Hunt.

The views of Annas and Hunt do not differ all that much in the realm of notions about flourishing. Hunt simply seems to have taken hold of the egoistic objection to virtue ethics and adapted it. However, if one were to be forced into selecting one of the views as their own, the more plausible of the theories would be virtue ethics. There are very powerful societal sentiments against egoism as a whole. Even if one was to define it in a flourishing manner, it would still be met with disdain and condemnation. With virtue ethics, one is able to have the notion of flourishing, the idea of a communal and personal betterment/perfection. It is more accessible to the agent as well. It is quite intuitive to understand excesses and deficiencies in relation to actions when discussing virtues rather than assessing self-interest for every action. Do not be cowardice. Do not be rash. In time, one will cultivate a virtuous aim and know just how to act in the mean. Rather than adopting a theory that has adopted a notion from another theory, it seems more logical to adopt the initial theory with the desirable notion to begin with, that is only if the notion is seemingly impervious to attack and without obvious flaws, which Annas has shown within this essay.

One Response to “An Attempted Assault on Virtue Ethics With an Accusation of Egoism”
  1. stephen says:

    Great reflection on Annas’ article! Nice to see others out there who have read it.

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