A student of contemporary ethics may be astonished by the variety of theories available: Egoism, Emotivism, Utilitarianism, Deontology, Subjectivism, etc.
How is one to make sense of their contrary claims? Is the right action:
- Seeking my own good (Egoism)?
- the greatest good for the greatest number (Utility)?
- Obeying rules (Deontology)?
- Determined by culture, communities, or individuals (Subjectivism)?
- Not about facts, but just a way of expressing approval or disapproval (Emotivism)
Each of these theories have their peculiar strengths and weaknesses. But what they have in common is a sense of incompleteness and insufficiency. They can be summarized in terms of a certain fragmentation of the person. This in turn creates what can only be described as a kind of pathological hyperbole.
Emotivism, for instance focuses on the emotional content of moral statements and ignores any rational content. It not only ignores rational content, but denies that ethical statements have rational meaning, that they tell us about facts!
Utility focuses on the quantity of resultant good or happiness and ignores the intention of the actor. It recognizes the communal nature of our existence and the need for a certain indifference or neutrality in our acting (justice), but so emphasizes our outward directedness that it ends up denying the goodness of any act in itself. It ends up so emphasizing results that means are of no consideration in themselves.
Deontology focuses on law to the point that it denies prudence and the significance of the particulars or circumstances of each act. In Kant’s formulation, it places an utter antithesis between freedom and any external law.
Subjectivism so emphasizes circumstances that it denies the inherent value of any moral judgment or act whatsoever. The good is simply what is accepted by a certain individual or group.
Egoism recognizes the dignity of the individual and that all acts are acts of individuals, but it does so at the price of claiming that all acts are ultimately self-centered. Egoism denies that the self can love and thus discover a good which is good because it belongs to those whom we love (not because it benefits us).
Each of these theories latch on to some partial truth of our anthropology, to an aspect of the human person, such as that we are social, rational, emotive, particular, and also contextualized by norms existence and our nature (law).
This is belied by the fact that whenever one of these theories is criticized, successive proponents attempt to recover their pet theory by defending it, but their defense often takes the form of showing that it conforms to the demands of some other theory!
For instance: an egoistic will try to show how there is room for friendship or love; a utilitarian will try to show how that theory will produce normative results (or they blend their theory with rules); a deontologist will argue for the flexibility or applicability of their rules.
This is not always the case. The hard and fast egoist may deny the value of love or serving others; the utilitarian may reject all norms as mere tradition and superstition; the Kantian may accept a merciless inflexibility of the law; a subjectivist may deny the existence of any inherent moral truth.
It is important to know that there is another way, one which has been recovered by virtue ethicists in the last decades. Such an ethic accounts for man as a rational, emotional, choosing animal, a political (communal) being, one who lives in the nearly infinite complexity of particularity, who is yet ordered toward a definite end which can be described by the boundaries of the natural law.
Such a theory is both more robust and more demanding, but in a different way. It does not demand like the utilitarian that we prophetically perceive the greatest good, or that we stalwartly cut ourselves off from others as the egoist suggests. Nor does it demand we conform ourselves to our community without due consideration, or fulfill the law with heartless, thoughtless inflexibility.
Virtue ethics calls for us to live out our humanity, to be transformed and conformed to the good within the context of our peculiar circumstances, to prudentially discern right and wrong, not apart from the law, but along side it, to discover that the heart and mind, though often in conflict, often darkened by sin and ignorance, are made for, long for, and delight in the good which is the calling of every single person–the calling to holiness, to love God and our neighbor.