It’s possible that virtue ethics is the first western philosophical ethical theory… that doesn’t make it good or bad, just that people have been thinking about what makes a good person good for a long darned time.
So far the theories have looked at pretty specific formulas to determine what is or is not ethical… is it permitted by the categorical imperative (see Kant), is it for the greatest overall good (utilitarianism), or is it part of the social contract (Hobbes and Rawls) — the tricky thing about virtue ethics is that it isn’t a one-time thing, it’s a lifelong pursuit..
So — the problem with virtue ethics is that it’s kind of circular. A good person acts like a good person.. huh?
W.D. Ross has a more modern look at virtue ethics.. he says: (from here…)
Ross gives a list of seven prima facie duties, which he does not claim is all-inclusive: fidelity; reparation; gratitude; non-maleficence; justice; beneficence; and self-improvement. In any given situation, any number of these prima facie duties may apply. In the case of ethical dilemmas, they may even contradict one another. Someone could have a prima facie duty of reparation, say, a duty to help people who helped you shift house, shift house themselves, and a prima facie duty of fidelity, say, taking your children on a promised trip to the park, and these could conflict. Nonetheless, there can never be a true ethical dilemma, Ross would argue, because one of the prima facie duties in a given situation is always the weightiest, and overrules all the others. This is thus the absolute obligation or absolute duty, the action that the person ought to perform.
Let’s unpack this for a minute…
The general idea, according to Ross, is that moral problems are situations in which two or more of your duties are in conflict — so, you don’t know what to do.. Ross’ idea is that people who want to be good and find themselves in a quandary, consider these factors and then decide that one takes precedence over the other.
The thing is — the one that doesn’t get chosen doesn’t go away — instead, a good person will try to act in accordance with both — but give the chosen one preference. The overridden value leaves a “residue” — and that residue guides actions.
This theory is the basis for my dissertation on the ethics of warfare.. The general idea is that when fighting a war, we must choose one of the duties over another — and then we should fight while trying to also support the other duty. In war, the duty that generally gets overridden is the duty of non-injury (duh!!) — BUT, we ought to fight wars so that we minimize injury.
Ross also thinks that, as thinking beings, we reflect on our actions and use those reflections to guide future decisions as to which duty to prioritize.