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The Return of Virtue Ethics: What is the good life? How can we know?

January 20, 2012

Mark Vernon in Big Questions Online:

The Enlightenment was a revolution in the way we think about morality. Two ethical models, in particular, have come to dominate ever since. One can be traced back to Immanuel Kant, and is based upon the notion of duty (and hence is called deontological, from the Greek deon, meaning duty.) The second is hedonist and can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham, and his principle of utility: an action can be called good if it increases pleasure or decreases pain.

Put them together and you have the liberal approach to asking what’s the right thing to do. It’s liberal not in the sense of being pro-gay or pro-abortion. Rather, it’s liberal in the deeper sense of focusing on the individual and the choices an individual makes. It’s ethics conceived of in terms of rights and responsibilities, or in terms of what makes you happy or sad. The philosopher John Stuart Mill summed it up when he wrote: “Neither one person, nor any number of persons is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it.”

You can understand why Mill wrote what he did. He lived in a period of history in which many people were not free to do as they chose. They were ruled by monarchs and chastised by prelates. The result was the subjugation of women and the owning of slaves. But we don’t live in such a world now. Most enjoy a degree of freedom that would have been unimaginable for most of human history, in the West at least. As a result, the liberal approaches to ethics are increasingly being questioned. Can they tell us what this freedom is for? Is it for more than just more consumption, more accumulation? What is the good life? [More]

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