Morality is a Muscle. Get to the Gym.

Published January 18, 2016

The Week

Every once in a while, I read the news and I think “Damn. If only more people knew about virtue ethics.”

What am I talking about? When we talk about morality, we talk about what’s right and what’s wrong (and what those words mean), but before we get to those questions, there are even broader questions of how we think about morality and how we should approach it. Philosophers call this meta-ethics, and there are three major schools of thought.

There’s deontological ethics, or the idea that the way we should form moral judgments is according to rules, which say which things are right and which things are wrong. An action is wrong if it breaks some universal rule or law, against things like stealing or adultery.

Then there’s consequentialist ethics, which says that we should form moral judgments on the basis of the consequences of an action. An action is wrong because of its adverse impact on the world.

Then there’s something called virtue ethics, which is the third and most interesting school.

Virtue ethics is based on a simple and intuitive concept: Morality is essentially like a muscle and you should work it out to become a better person. The goal of the moral life is simply to keep improving your morality. Unlike other schools of morality, which get completely abstract, virtue is practical. It doesn’t ask what you should do in some hypothetical situation, it asks you to get better all the time in daily life. You should work on being kinder, and more empathetic, and wiser.

Aristotle believed that morality was essentially like a craft. You should learn morality from a master and then keep practicing to keep getting better. In his famous work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, he advises to find a moral example and simply follow him around to learn.

But the world today is hyper-deontological. The most deontological philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is also the one who most strongly influenced modernity. Kant believed that people should follow universal moral laws that can be derived from reason. Even if few people read Kant, most of our moral debates are influenced deeply by this view.

Take the furor over “trigger warnings” in college classes and textbooks. One side believes that in order to protect the sensitivities of some students, professors or writers should warn readers or students about some at the beginning of an article or course about controversial topics. Another side says that if someone can’t handle rough material, then he can stop reading or step out of the room, and that trigger warnings are an unconscionable affront to freedom of thought. Interestingly, both schools clearly believe that there is one moral stance which takes the form of a rule that should be obeyed always and everywhere. Always and everywhere we should have trigger warnings to protect people’s sensibilities, or always and everywhere we should not.

Both sides need a lecture in virtue ethics.

If I try to stretch my virtue of empathy, it doesn’t seem at all absurd to me to imagine that, say, a young woman who has been raped might be made quite uncomfortable by a class discussion of rape in literature, and that this is something to which we should be sensitive. But the trigger warning people maybe should think more about the moral imperative to develop the virtue of courage, including intellectual courage. Then it seems to me that if you just put aside grand moral questions about freedom of inquiry, simple basic human courtesy would mean a professor would try to take account a trauma victim’s sensibilities while teaching sensitive material, and students would understand that part of the goal of a college class is to challenge them. We don’t need to debate universal moral values, we just need to be reminded to exercise virtue more.

Or take another issue, religious liberty. Where do you draw the precise line between the moral imperative to not discriminate, and the moral imperative to respect the free exercise of religion in the public square? I don’t really know, but I do know that if we go about it in a deontological way, we’re going to fail. If a same-sex couple needs to make more than one phone call to book a wedding photographer, is that really “Justice denied anywhere, justice denied everywhere,” or is that an occasion to exercise the virtue of magnanimity in the wake of one of the most stunning culture war victories in living memory?

So many of our mind-boggling discussions of morality all of a sudden become clearer and easier if you stop asking “What’s right? What’s wrong?” and start asking “Who should exercise what virtue?”

More importantly, virtue ethics isn’t just the way to solving a lot of our political dilemmas — it’s also the road to happiness. Since Aristotle, a lot of neurological evidence has backed up his basic insight: The more we use a certain neurological pathway, the more “worked out” it becomes, and the easier it is to use it, and the more inclined we are to so. If you practice loving-kindness, you will become a more loving and kind person. When you ask yourself if you love your spouse or your children, don’t gauge your feelings for them; ask yourself what you are doing to choose to be more loving towards them.

Virtue ethics also challenges another very deeply held assumption about morality that is endemic across the moral world. The other most influential moral philosopher for the modern world, probably more even than Kant, was David Hume. Hume believed that morality is a feeling, not a faculty of our rational minds. We believe some things are right and some things are wrong because they feel that way, and we feel compelled to do what we believe is right because morality is a strong feeling.

To Aristotle, and to pretty much all moral philosophers until Hume, and many of them since, morality and reason are essentially indistinguishable, since reason is precisely the capacity to deliberate between different courses of action — to determine which possible choices are good or bad. Any choice we make is a choice we make toward some end, or goal, which we have in mind, and if someone who makes bad choices can be described as irrational, then someone who makes good choices is rational. Rationality and morality are essentially synonymous, since they both mean making good choices.

But making good choices is something that is very hard and requires lifelong apprenticeship, learning, and practice — hence the importance of virtue ethics. If rationality and morality are indistinguishable, they are also the path to enlightenment and happiness. To Aristotle, doing good wasn’t just about obeying some celestial law or bringing about some positive change in the world — although those are important — they are about becoming the best version of yourself you can be.

I’m not a very good person, but virtue ethics at least promises I can get better. More importantly, always striving to get better at morality is the path to happiness and fulfillment. That’s pretty sweet.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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