A good tree bears good fruit

Imagine that your boss is treating you unfairly. Your workload has been increased, your hours changed, your workplace moved to a small corner, and your requests for time-off are constantly denied. Enough is enough, and you complain to senior management. You hear that the top bosses will assign one of the directors to review your situation. You know all the directors, and the reviewer will be either Benevolent Bert or Careless Colin. Bert has an impeccable reputation: well-informed, thoughtful, honest, wise, and fair. Colin couldn’t be more different: dishonest, reckless, unwise, uncaring, and self-centred. So, Benevolent Bert or Careless Colin? Who do you hope will review your situation? The answer is obvious. You want Benevolent Bert.

The logic behind that choice is that a good, fair, thoughtful person will make good, fair, thoughtful decisions. And that’s exactly the logic that underpins what philosophy calls virtue ethics. The idea aligns with an analogy of Jesus: ‘every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit’ (Matthew 7:17). Whether a tree or a person, whatever is at the core is what emerges as ‘fruit’ from its life.

Virtue ethics is not at all new. More than 300 years before Jesus, Greek philosophers like Plato and his pupil Aristotle wrote about virtue.[1] Aristotle said no-one was born either good or bad by nature. Virtue is not an accident of birth. Rather, according to Aristotle, virtues are choices. You use reason to know what’s right and to decide to do right, and the more you make that choice the more virtuous you become. Your inner nature – your disposition – becomes good, and in turn what you do is good.

Now, a tendency or a bias towards what’s good isn’t a guarantee of doing right every time. Joe exercises great control over his diet, unless, that is, someone brings cream doughnuts into the office, and that’s more than Joe’s discipline can resist. The Greeks had a word for that moment: akrasia. It means weak-willed – knowing what’s right but not doing it. Of course we can go wrong in several ways, such as making poor decisions because we’re too tired, or making a bad judgment because we hadn’t gathered all the facts of a situation.

But occasional carelessness or weakness of will doesn’t change the fundamental point: virtuous people tend to act virtuously. Someone whose character is good, kind, generous, thoughtful, will make decisions that fit with their character. Likewise, the person who is selfish, mean, careless, rash will make bad decisions.

So, that’s the moral theory called virtue ethics. It comes with several implications, including these three:

Virtuous actions are thoughtful, careful choices.  Good people are not simply wired to be good, or have a habit of being good. They choose to be good. But surely a habit of doing good would help? Mostly it wouldn’t, because habits are thoughtless – actions which are really reactions. Suppose Colin began investigating your work situation and made up his mind after speaking only to your manager, completely convinced by his side of the story. Nothing you said later could change his opinion. You would feel badly wronged. He hadn’t investigated the whole situation, and heard both cases. He just reacted to what he was told first, and that meant an injustice was done. Finding the virtuous answer requires care. Swift reactions are usually inappropriate.

On these sticks of rock, ‘Blackpool Rock’ writing is throughout Hazel Scott from Sheffield, UKCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sticks of ‘Brighton Rock’ Paul Hudson from United KingdomCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Virtue must be deeply embedded in someone’s character. That’s what makes it a consistent character trait, something deep in a person’s soul. As a child our family often vacationed at a seaside resort. As often as possible I got my parents to buy me a stick of rock. For the uninitiated, I’m not referring to a lump of stone but what is described as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’.[2] Nothing could be worse for dental health, but I enjoyed licking or biting my rock stick until it got smaller and smaller. But what never changed? Answer: the writing in the stick that had the name of the resort. The writing on one end of the stick was the same at the other end, because it ran right through its whole length. Virtue should be like that: reliable, consistent, invariable. It can’t be there only one day and not the next, or there when the situation is easy and gone when it’s tough.

Many years ago, when the Glasgow area called the Gorbals had the worst of tenement slums, I visited a young Christian worker who lived in the most troubled-area of the Gorbals. Not only were these tenements in dangerously poor condition, gangs and drugs dominated the streets. That young man’s small flat was over-run with local kids, who ate his food, watched his TV, lounged on his sofa, and sometimes stole his property. No matter how tough his life was, that Christian didn’t leave. He kept right on befriending youth, helping them and forgiving them. And because his commitment never varied, they listened to him, and some lives were changed. Real virtue is a through-and-through trait. There’s nothing superficial or temporary about it.

Real virtue is costly. That’s clear from the last example, but it’s not an isolated case. Think how tough it is to stand up for a bullied fellow-student or colleague. Or how hard it is to give generously to alleviate poverty. Or how worrying to take a phone call at 3 am from someone threatening to commit suicide. Or how difficult to tell the truth when that will hurt a friend or damage your own reputation. But virtue doesn’t take the easy road. It doesn’t shy away from hard situations or challenging decisions. Virtue faces hardship head on and doesn’t blink. It keeps on doing what’s right, whatever the cost.

So, does virtue ethics – as a moral theory – have the answer to every dilemma? Can we abandon the theories mentioned in earlier blogs like deontology (strict observance of rules) or consequentialism (defining rightness by whether outcomes are good or bad)?

Unfortunately I don’t think we can. Just as those other moral theories had weaknesses, so does virtue ethics. I’ll list three.

Understandings of virtues differ across cultures    Today we regard slavery as a terrible evil. But both Plato and Aristotle (mentioned earlier) had slaves. Aristotle had no problem saying slaves were essential to a household’s economy. Was Aristotle simply being a man of his time? Yes, he was. But that means people then had different virtues from people now. And people in the future may have different virtues to ours. Even people who live at the same time but in different places have different lists of virtues. If there’s no lasting universal understanding of virtue, that must leave a theory like virtue ethics resting on a changeable foundation. And, at any particular moment, applicable only within its own culture.

Virtue responses can vary from person to person    A deontologist will tell you what the rule is that addresses the rightness of an action. No negotiation – the right thing is predetermined. A consequentialist will calculate whether the action, on balance, gives a good result – if so, it’s right and if not, it’s wrong. These theories give precise answers about right and wrong. Virtue ethics doesn’t. Sometimes all it offers is ‘do whatever is best in the circumstances’.

But what one virtuous person thinks best may be different from what another thinks best. In previous blogs I illustrated what dirty hands means by using an imagined scenario by Michael Walzer: a terrorist has planted bombs with timers; he is arrested but won’t reveal where the bombs are planted; a politician must decide whether torture can be authorised to make the terrorist talk; torture is evil and illegal, but not torturing the terrorist may mean hundreds die. So, what is the right thing to do? That’s the challenging scenario. Now let’s adapt it by imagining the decision will be made either by Politician Maureen or Politician Nancy. Both are highly virtuous people, but they’re virtuous in different ways. Maureen is strong in care towards the needy: giving generously; visiting homeless shelters; talking with people sleeping in shop doorways. Nancy has past experience of dealing with major emergencies: she has the ability to assess priorities; courage to take hard decisions; awareness of the needs of first responders; boldness in demanding government resources. If I had to choose the right person for the ‘torture or no torture of the terrorist’, I would prefer Nancy, because she has experience of extreme situations. But I can believe others would choose Maureen because her sensitivity might win over the terrorist. And they might be right about that. But my point is this: there’s a problem when the decision made depends on the strength of the particular virtues someone has. A sensitive Maureen will choose a different action from a decisive Nancy. The dominant virtues in one are soft and caring, and the dominant virtues in the other are boldness and certainty, and their particular character traits may be yielding opposite solutions when faced with exactly the same circumstances. How can that be right or good? Are we simply to hope that the politician who shows up is strong in exactly the virtues necessary for a particular situation?

Virtue ethics doesn’t specify right actions    This follows on from my previous point. Many criticise virtue ethics because the theory may point you in a good direction but it never tells you exactly what to do. To be fair, you can’t be deemed a failure for not doing what you never claimed you could do. And this theory only claims that a virtuous person will act virtuously, but, because circumstances vary, it doesn’t spell out what exactly that would mean. But is that a flaw?

I don’t think it is for two reasons.

First, we must be reasonable. No-one is unfailingly right, and therefore the virtues of even the best person will not be unfailingly correct. Nor, of course, will rule-followers always apply their rules perfectly, or consequentialists identify the right outcome perfectly. There are problems defining exactly what is right with those systems too, so why blame virtue ethics when it can’t specify what’s provably right?

Second, all moral theories need a healthy dose of humility. If a parent thinks their child isn’t applying himself to his schoolwork, does he punish or encourage? Or a neighbour is struggling with debt, so do you give them money or let them learn their lesson the hard way? Many times we just don’t know what is right, and even afterwards we may not be certain. In the end, we do what we think best. And that’s exactly what virtue ethics does too – what’s reasonable, what seems helpful, what looks correct. After all, the outcome from someone truly trying to do the virtuous thing can’t be too bad.

Personally, in whatever the situation (the dirty hands kind or any other moral dilemma), I would want virtuous people to be the leaders and deciders. Could virtue be the sole-guide? I don’t think so. Virtue ethics should be influential, but I think rules are also an important guide, and consequences always have to be considered.

If you’ve found this blog on virtue ethics confusing, I apologise. My mind goes back to my early journalism years when I would call a professor or top scientist for details of their new breakthrough. They’d talk without pause for five minutes, and I understood nothing at all they said. When they drew breath, I’d ask them to put it more simply. Another three minutes of rapid talk would follow. I still had no idea what they were on about. I might try one more time, still get nowhere, thank them for their time and write for the paper the two sentences I’d actually grasped from their explanations. People who have been absorbed in a subject are rarely able to explain it clearly and concisely to others. I am sorry if I am one of those.

I’ll do better next time… I hope.

[1] Plato lived from around 428 to 348 BC, and Aristotle from 384 to 322 BC.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_(confectionery)#:~:text=Traditional%20seaside%20rock%20is%20made,to%20one%20part%20glucose%20syrup.

Does the end really justify the means?

It is September 1666, and the Great Fire of London has broken out in a bakery. For four days flames rage uncontrolled through thousands of wooden homes. Though few perish in the fire, enormous numbers are homeless, possessions lost, with nothing to eat and no work available. Many of them die during the winter months. Almost immediately after the fire rumours swirl that the blaze was begun by Dutch or French Catholics. Mobs roam the street demanding an arrest. The authorities fear large scale civil unrest.

Then a simple-minded man confesses. He is Robert Hubert, believed to be a French Catholic. Hubert soon retracts his confession but he is brought to trial, convicted by the jury, and the death sentence passed. It is what the crowds wanted, and they disperse. Next month Hubert is hanged.

It would seem justice was done. But it wasn’t. Hubert certainly did not start the fire. He couldn’t have because there was incontrovertible evidence he was at sea on a ship when the fire began. London had already been burning for two days before he arrived in the city. The authorities always had doubts about Hubert’s guilt, but his conviction prevented riots, and it was better that one die than many.

Why tell that story? Because it illustrates what can happen if the rightness of actions is judged by how good or useful their consequences. Philosophers have a name for that kind of moral theory: consequentialism. One kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which I will explain later.

I imagine you’re telling yourself: ‘I wouldn’t hang an innocent man under any circumstances – I’m not a consequentialist!’ But I’d be ninety-nine per cent sure you are a consequentialist, probably quite often. My mother was when it came time to remove a band-aid plaster from my knee. ‘If I do it quickly it won’t hurt so much,’ she’d say. That’s consequentialism – let’s do the hard thing now because it’ll be better later. And we’re consequentialists any time we pay a false compliment about someone’s clothes or hairstyle, or cross our fingers while saying we like their friends. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, so we tell them what they’d like to hear. That’s consequentialism – we’re focused on outcomes, especially happy ones.

If you’ve been following recent blog posts, you’ll know I’ve been studying the philosophical issues around (what’s called) dirty hands. Dirty hands refers to doing something bad, but we do it because we believe it’ll lead to a good outcome. The situations I’m looking at are usually a lot more serious than hurting someone’s feelings. Two posts back (https://occasionallywise.com/2022/08/06/would-you-torture-a-terrorist-if-that-would-save-thousands-of-lives/) I shared an often-quoted imaginary scenario, which is this:

  • a terrorist is arrested while planting a bomb
  • the authorities learn there are more bombs, all with timers to go off soon
  • the terrorist won’t say where they are
  • if they torture him to get that information they will save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives
  • but torture is evil and illegal, so only the most extreme of emergencies could possibly justify its use
  • might saving a thousand lives be such a situation?

That’s the standard imaginary story to explain the dirty hands dilemma. You could say it’s about doing wrong to do right, about doing a bad thing for a good outcome. But can really dreadful things like torture ever be allowed, no matter how good the goal? That’s what I’m studying, and I’m asking if there is any moral theory that has the answer.

Before going further, I recognise some are fascinated by subjects like this, and others are switched off. I’d encourage you to keep going. The issues are actually very important. But don’t feel bad if this subject is not for you.

In the last post I looked at one theory. It’s about rule-keeping but goes by the fancy name of deontology. (See: https://occasionallywise.com/2022/08/14/never-tell-a-lie-but-what-if-telling-the-truth-will-cost-a-life/)  A very famous 18th century philosopher called Immanuel Kant believed no act was right unless you could will that everyone behaved that way. For example, he didn’t believe the world could function if everyone lied, so, for him, lying was always wrong no matter the consequences. That might mean telling a murderer where his intended victim is hiding. But, the question I asked was: how could a lie be more important than saving someone’s life?

Consequentialism isn’t about obeying rules. What’s right is doing what gives the best outcomes / consequences. Therefore it seems exactly right for dirty hands issues, because they’re about doing bad things to achieve good outcomes. Hence, can you torture a terrorist if that’s the only way to find and diffuse bombs? Some think that, in these circumstances, it’s the right thing to do; others think torture is always wrong.

The first person to organise consequentialist thought was a strange man. Well, I think someone is strange who writes in his will that, after death, his head should be preserved and placed on his body, seated upright on his usual chair, so he could join meetings of his ‘disciples’ when they gathered together.

The philosopher was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Though his wish was extremely odd, it was granted and his auto-icon (body preserved and displayed as still living) is on display to this day in the Student Centre of University College London.[1]

Bentham was a pioneer in developing philosophical method. In the 17th century Francis Bacon had brought orderliness into scientific investigation, and Bentham wanted to do the same for philosophy. His key interests were morality and justice, so he wrote a book called ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’. It very nearly never got published. He had it ready in 1780 and, as many authors do, he let his friends read it in advance so he could make any corrections. These friends were unsparingly honest with Bentham, and pointed out so many imperfections Bentham confessed he believed the book ‘doomed to oblivion’. But he kept working at it, and it was published nine years later. But – being an odd man – Bentham wrote into the book some of his own criticisms of it. Over the years he continued to make corrections for a new edition which finally came out 34 years later.

So, what was Bentham’s moral philosophy?

He considered human beings to be governed by pain and pleasure. And his principle of ‘utility’ (usefulness) – hence the name utilitarianism – approved or disapproved of actions according to how much they increased or diminished the happiness of an individual or community. If an action produced benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, then it was right. It could also be right if it prevented mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness. He defined six circumstances which could affect the value of pleasures or pains for an individual – see the footnote below for the details.[2] Then he specified an exact way of working out whether an action tended towards good or evil when everything was taken into account. His method is amusingly or frustratingly complicated – again, see below for details.[3] He didn’t believe his process could be followed before every moral judgment, but said the more precisely his method was observed, the more the result would be exact.

You might think that’s quite enough. Not for Bentham! What follows in his book are nine pages of kinds of pleasures and pains. There are 33 different lists. I have only skim-read them, and that left me exhausted.

To be kind to Bentham, his method and lists were an attempt to stimulate legal reforms and regularise sentencing in the justice system. But he was also trying to bring a more scientific process to moral decision-making.

His attempt at a method was applauded and criticised. It was impractical, and Bentham’s focus on calculating rightness on a numerical basis left open the chance of great evils. For example, was it right that slaves and Christians were tied up in Roman arenas so large crowds could watch them torn to pieces by wild animals? Bentham’s system would seem to say ‘yes’, because for a few there was extreme pain, while for the many there was great joy and excitement. Far more had pleasure than the number who suffered pain. And that’s what Bentham said was the way to judge rightness.

Jeremy Bentham was great friends with a man called James Mill, and he tutored James’ son. That boy became an even more famous philosopher than Bentham, and sought to rescue utilitarianism from the crude versions of consequentialism. His name was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

His father decided that John Stuart would have a genius intellect. He was put through an immensely rigorous training, which John Stuart detailed in his autobiography. From Wikipedia, here’s how it began:

At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon‘s Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.[4]

Lists of his immense learning cover several more paragraphs. It’s a massive amount and range of academic knowledge. Then, aged 20, John Stuart Mill contemplated suicide. He’d realised the direction his life was taking would not bring happiness. What brought him back from the brink was the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Mill became an MP for a short time, but he made his greatest impact through his writings on several branches of philosophy. His book ‘Utilitarianism’ continues to fascinate me.

Mill was unquestionably a man of great learning. He was also shrewd, and he affirmed, adjusted and added to Bentham’s views to make them better.

Affirmed    He agreed with Bentham’s way of deciding between right and wrong. Here’s how Mill puts it: ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’.

Adjusted    Bentham had given all forms of pleasures the same value, so critics said many of them were no better than beasts would enjoy. Mill adapts the understanding of pleasure by arguing that the quality of pleasure matters as well as the quantity. In other words, there are ‘higher pleasures’ (such as those of the intellect, morality and aesthetics) and ‘lower pleasures’ (such as those of the body and senses). That allows Mill to say: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Mill’s view smacks of elitism, but allows him to elevate his utilitarianism above the crudity of consequentialism.

Added    Bentham’s system involved calculating the happiness or usefulness of each act for most people. But his formula was tedious to calculate, and allowed the Roman masses to revel in watching people mauled to death. Mill, wisely, did not reject all that, but he added something that transformed it: the idea that it is not individual acts that should be assessed for pleasure or pain, but the assessment should be made of ‘rules and precepts for human conduct’. What that means is this: if a moral rule is widely accepted as good, and an action fits within that rule, then that action is morally good. For example, if there’s a rule that says ‘It’s a good thing to assist the poor’ and you take a loaf of bread to an impoverished neighbour, you no longer need to assess the moral rightness of your gift of bread because it’s already covered by the ‘assist the poor’ rule. That makes sense.

But, surely there are times when rules can’t be kept, such as the need to lie to someone intent on murder? Mill picks up on exactly that famous case I mentioned in the previous post. Yes, lying is wrong, but Mill says that even such a sacred rule has to allow exceptions. One of his examples, unsurprisingly, is that lying would be justified to ‘preserve someone from great and unmerited evil’. There can’t be rule-exceptions for self-interest, such as to avoid embarrassment, but, to save someone else from harm, a rule could be broken. Though that is a very reasonable position, Mill was criticised that he made his rules useful when convenient, but abandoned when inconvenient.

Eventually – in the late 1950s – Bentham’s views were labelled ‘act utilitarianism’ and Mill’s views ‘rule utilitarianism’. Not many today advocate the ‘act’ version, but plenty still identify with ‘rule utilitarianism’. It’s a softer, more reasonable form of consequentialism.

My special interest, of course, is whether any moral theory helps us justify a ‘dirty hands’ action, such as torturing a terrorist to find the bombs he’s planted.

A raw version of consequentialism would simply say, ‘Of course torture is justified providing more people benefit than suffer’. That’s straightforward, but no better than justifying slaughter in a Roman arena to amuse the crowd. No moral judgment is being made about the torture, only a calculation about how many gain from it.

I think Mill’s rule utilitarianism helps, but only goes so far. Here’s what I mean. Unquestionably torture would be against any normal moral rule. So, on that basis, you should refuse torture. However, you only remove the immoral action. You don’t remove the immoral consequence of inaction. By not torturing, you allow bombs to explode and many hundreds die.

So you have to resort to claiming this dreadful scenario needs one of Mill’s rule-exceptions. You could argue for a ‘supreme emergency’ exception to the no-torture rule. But who gets to define what is a ‘supreme emergency’? It’s not hard to imagine that many situations could be claimed as a supreme emergency. After all, that’s the line of thought which authorities, faced with mobs in the street, used to convict and hang Robert Hubert for starting the Great Fire, even though he was innocent.

My final conclusion will not be that consequentialism is the moral theory that resolves all dirty hands issues.

One more major moral theory to go still. It’s not remotely a religious theory, but some words of Jesus could sum it up: ‘Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ Matthew 7:17-18). I shall explain next time.

[1] See: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/news/2020/mar/ucl-student-centre-welcomes-jeremy-bentham#:~:text=9%20March%202020,both%20in%20life%20and%20death. Understandably the head now on his shoulders is made of wax.

[2] His six are: 1. intensity 2. duration 3. certainty or uncertainty 4. propinquity or proximity, 5. fecundity (‘more of the same’ to follow), 6. purity (unlikelihood of opposite sensations following). If the issue concerned a group, Bentham had a seventh: extent (the number affected).

[3] Here’s how Bentham instructs his readers to ‘take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act’. It is to be an exact process: value each initial pleasure and each initial pain; then secondary pleasures and pains. Then total the values of the pleasures against the values of the pains. If the balance is on the side of pleasure, there is a good tendency to the act, and a bad tendency to the act if the balance shows pain. Also, consider how many people are affected by the act, and do the calculations again for each one. Then do the ‘balance sheet’ calculation again to calculate if the tendency is good on the whole or bad on the whole. Where the balance lies will show whether the act has a good tendency or an evil tendency.

[4] From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill