Virtue, Narrative, and the Moral Identity

Virtue ethics and narrative ethics (or, more accurately, narrative approaches to ethics) have both made something of a comeback in modern moral philosophy, with many ethicists and moral philosophers claiming that virtue ethics simply make more sense in the modern than, say, ethical theories built on laws and duties. Narrative ethics, with its more psychological approach to understanding the self and moral action, also seems to make a good deal of sense with its grammar of self-actualization and elevation of the history of the self as constitutive of the whole person.

Both approaches tend to focus on character and dispositions as being of prime importance. Narrative ethics see the unfolding of the moral life as coherent only within a narrative framework – that is, only within a framework where a history is seen as an account of a series of temporally connected events. The immediate result of this is, as noted above, a kind of psycholog-ization of ethics. The narrative concept of the self is fundamentally subjective – the self is seen as constituted primarily by this history, a history constructed in the form of personal narrative.

Virtue ethics tends towards the less psychological, focusing more on ‘how to be’, which though at first glance also seems to invite psychologism is a more objective approach, since the virtues that the person seems to acquire are, generally and broadly speaking, objective kinds of things. Honesty, justice, courage are all things that we, as virtuous people, should strive to acquire regardless of our personal narratives – our disposition, habits and desires should be educated so that we desire and acquire the virtues.

These are rough sketches but serve well enough for me to note the strengths and weaknesses of each before attempting a synthesis of the two. Narrative approaches to ethics highlight the very important role that narrative plays in our thinking and in our life – our actions, habits and dispositions are all temporally connected and when viewed in this light our moral lives acquire a kind of meaning that cannot be had by thinking of moral actions as isolated, atomistic things. We can trace the developments of virtues, vices and character in a narrative framework and can easily see the impact of our choices and actions. The weakness here lies in the conception of the self as constituted by a narrative history when it can be strongly argued that our narratives selves are far more often than not smokescreen of self deception.

Virtue ethics showcase strongly how we should be – we should strive to be virtuous. However, the theory can falter in a few telling ways one of which is as follows – how do we prioritise the virtues? Suppose we have to choose between A and B where A is honest but unkind and B is kind but dishonest – both actions are virtuous, but to simply assert that we must act virtuous gives us no answer and leads to either infinite regress or appealing to something outside the framework of virtues. Thus, a pure or radical virtue ethic cannot be the whole story – we need something outside the virtue framework to really give it coherence.

Here I would offer a possible theory that may be a step forward: consider virtue ethics and narrative ethics as ethics of action and ethics of identity, respectively. Virtue ethics tells us how we should be, and we achieve that through action, through habit and actually doing whatever virtuous thing is at hand. Narrative ethics gives a framework for articulating the unfolding of our actions and their consequences. Virtue ethics, then, shows us how we should be and how we can achieve that, while narrative ethics gives us a grammar for articulating it.

Put another way, the essence of the moral identity is fundamentally found in action which unfolds and is primarily understood in a narrative form.

What this ‘theory’ avoids is the psychologism of normal narrative approaches by focusing not on the narrative of the inner life as constitutive of the self and determinative of the moral identity but rather focusing on the actions as constituting the self. Character is shaped and developed by action and is therefore primarily (but not exclusively) public. The inner narrative can be checked, as it were, against the character displayed in the moral actions constituting the essence of the moral identity.

By locating the essence of the moral identity in our public actions, we have de-psychologized the narrative approach while retaining its fundamental insight, and by retaining this fundamental insight have given a grammar to the ethics of virtue.

Do the Right Thing?

When someone says ‘do the right thing’ what exactly is meant by that?

Do the right thing.

First thought: there right-ness, and some things fall under that umbrella. Do those things. So: perform those actions which have the property of being right.

Perform those actions which have the property of being right. What is this property called ‘right’? How does an action acquire right-ness? Well, a possible answer would be that it is the appropriate action for the situation at hand. Then it would be the ‘right’ thing to do.

Perform those actions which are appropriate in any given situation.

Well, duh. But generally speaking, ‘do the right thing’ is meant in a moral sens. So let’s try again. In this context, ‘right’ means, more or less, the appropriate moral action. So we could still basically say, ‘Perform the appropriate moral action in the situation at hand.’

Now, that I’m after here isn’t necessarily how to determine the right action per se but to determine how it is that we can say any action is moral in any sense. In virtue of what are actions moral? There are a good number of ideas to choose from: perhaps classical natural law theory, perhaps evolutionary ethics, perhaps divine command theory, perhaps a kind of common sense ethical theory, perhaps utilitarianism.

My own ethical position has been spelled out and argued for in some detail here – simply click the ‘ethics’ category tab to your right to see where I ‘m coming from. But this post is more to start a conversation than spell out what I think (again).

So, to any interested readers, here’s my 2-part question:

(1) What is your personal moral and ethical theory/stance?

(2) Having read the above ramblings, how would you translate, ‘Do the right thing’?