Duty Ethics vs. Virtue Ethics

Doing as one is supposed to do (obeying rules or duties) is a substantially different thing from doing as one ought to do (acting virtuously). The former type of action is suitable for dependent children, the mentally deficient, or in general those who for some reason have either opted or been forced to relinquish their authority to decide for themselves, whether universally or within a narrow hierarchical context. The latter type of action, meanwhile — the virtuous — is suitable for those living fully in the status, moral conditions, and basic liberty of an adult individual.

Almost every rule admits of legitimate exceptions, however rare — these exceptions being determined by context or extenuating circumstances. In contrast, good character, by definition, admits of no reasonable exceptions. Let us take two simple examples: Plato teaches that there are unusual but rationally identifiable situations in which telling a lie or refusing to return a man’s rightful property might be the most just course of action; similarly, most of us would probably feel nothing but empathy and compassion for a woman who sold her body to save her brother or her child, though we would condemn such behavior in normal circumstances. Thus, in extreme or peculiar cases, the properly virtuous choice might entail violating the rules, i.e., disregarding duty. On the other hand, we could never say, in any context, “This would be a good situation to act like a coward.” For being a coward (exhibiting poor character regarding the response to dangers) is an unqualified evil, regardless of circumstances — though exactly what the courageous man should do will vary in different contexts, precisely because virtue is not a set of rules, but rather a disposition to react in the rationally appropriate manner, taking into account all the situational factors. 

In sum, virtue is never to be abandoned, although which specific action constitutes the virtuous choice will be determined by the given context, thereby encompassing the exceptional cases. Duty, by contrast, if never abandoned, would necessarily override the exceptional cases, as Kant, the great god of duty ethics, demands. But the exceptions may sometimes be the definitive cases of human action, i.e., the highest cases. Thus Kantianism, as late modernity’s dominant ethical theory, has effectively entrenched a new commandment: “Thou shalt not rise above thy circumstances.” We may designate this the universal slavery commandment.

If a man were to become profoundly alone — and that includes, perhaps, alone at the top — he would in effect have no duties, i.e., be subject to no rules. On the other hand, whether alone or in a crowd, this same man will retain his long-developed character (for better or worse). This means that in practical terms, the merely dutiful man, when in solitude — when isolated from the crowd or residing above it — is essentially a different man than he was in a social context, when he had the eyes of others upon him, and his eyes upon them. By contrast, the virtuous man — the man with good dispositions of the soul — is, in solitude, fundamentally the same man that he was in society. The altered context may alter what it is appropriate for him to do — such contextual flexibility being of the essence of virtue — but “appropriateness in doing” will remain the governing concern in his heart.

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