The Ockham Society (Wednesday - Week 4, HT21)
Is it better to die than to act unjustly? In this paper, I argue that the spectre of this question continues to haunt contemporary ethical naturalism, and that, on naturalistic assumptions, it cannot be answered. Even sophisticated forms of ethical naturalism that attempt to talk about “second-natures” and “a meaningful life” must either end in vague, non-committal ontologies or admit that some non-naturalistic source is available to ground the necessary features of reality that allow for a plausible answer to be given to the question above. The virtues are meant to benefit their possessor and are logically connected to happiness or flourishing in some way. I argue that the only logical connection between virtue and happiness that could possibly work in a naturalistic framework is one of identity. In this case, because the virtuous life is identical to happiness, virtue constitutes happiness and is an end in itself. But this logical relationship is doomed to failure. First, it cannot make sense of what we normally understand a benefit to be because benefits are things that require further explanation within a particular context. That is, they always aim at something beyond themselves. Second, the identity relationship cannot make sense of the problem of death, or what I call absolute loss. If faced with the choice to die or act according to virtue, it is far from clear what real benefit the virtuous person receives when they die for the sake of virtue. And, a fortiori, if death is an exception to virtuous action, I argue that relative losses ought to be as well because virtue cannot be said to pay intrinsically. If virtue ethics is to have any prospects, it will require a more robust ontology than we have at present.
Ockham Society Convenor: Steven Diggin | Ockham Society Webpage