Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Against Virtue Ethics

We are machines. As reflective machines we want to be well-honed, highly skilled and knowledgeable. We want to live in strong families and strong societies, ones that help us build things and explore more things, and that help us have more pleasures, probably both base and more refined.

There is no reason to call the capacities we arrive at virtuous. The definition and connotation of the word simply means it needs to be abandoned. We understand the well-honed nature of the machines we can be. What it means to be skillful or not skillful. What it means for a machine to be able to perform an activity to a greater or lesser extent. Why we would take machine-like activity and describe its functioning, and then tack on the idea that a certain threshold performance of the machine is virtuous, just seems flat out unnecessary.

I am also a strong moral anti-realist, meaning there is no such things as morality (and hence ethics in many configurations). The language of morality or ethics is not the best descriptive language in the end, and I argue that it will not help us achieve the best societies and worlds, mainly because of its descriptive muddling. We want to build robust selves and a robust social world, probably because it will lead to even more robust selves and burgeoning worlds.

It is not a “moral good” to the world that the evolutionary machines that are Homo sapiens arrive at highly functioning selves and highly functioning societies. Our best description of those societies and selves is not helped one iota from describing that society as moral, or those individuals' lives as virtuous. Arriving at our best understanding about what we are requires the best description about what we are. In the end, using clear language that does not cause endless philosophical (or descriptive) debates, whether “morality,” “intentionality,” or “consciousness,” is going to give us the best descriptions. As we arrive at our best understanding, mostly through science and some conceptual refinement, such descriptions should encompass most of the stupidities that so much ink and terabytes have been spilled. Though, like trying to map every phylogenetic turn of the entire history of life's tree, such mapping of why there was so much argument over semantics and social descriptions may be an unnecessary enterprise, even if the historical philosophers demand there is some hidden virtue in just that.

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