Tyrannical Virtue

A moral theory is tyrannical when it entails that every value instantiating action an agent engages in or avoids is morally relevant. When an agent is morally evaluable because she acted or refrained from acting, that action or omission is morally relevant.[1] In a previous post, I explored how hedonistic act utilitarianism is tyrannical. In this post, I will explore eudaemonist virtue ethics.

Eudaemonist virtue ethics is a tyrannical moral theory. Every aspect of an agent’s life is moralized on this view because they are all relevant to her flourishing as an agent. If an action can contribute to the cultivation of a virtue, or avoidance of a vice, then that action is morally relevant. It would be morally better if an agent engaged in exercise every morning than if she didn’t, because she would be cultivating various virtues if she formed a habit of exercising in the mornings. So, she has a moral reason to exercise in the morning.

While some may feel comfortable with moralizing personal health choices like exercise routines, many will not. However, there are even more counter-intuitive consequences of such a virtue theory. For example, if we grant that being sociable is essential to flourishing, then we have a moral reason to cultivate a sense of humor, among other traits that lend themselves to being a likable person. But it seems like being sociable, while relevant to enjoying life, is not a moral imperative.

Another example is Henry Bemis from the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough at Last. Henry finds himself safe in a bank vault during a nuclear attack. He emerges to see that there are no more people around, so he now has all the time he wants to devote to reading books. He no longer has anybody he is responsible to, like his wife or boss. It seems like he can do whatever he wants, given that there aren’t any survivors he could help. But the eudaemonist virtue ethicist will say that Henry should cultivate his virtues that are not related to social interaction. So, perhaps Henry needs to exercise regularly, find healthy food to eat, and read a variety of books so he develops his intellectual virtues broadly, rather than narrowing in on a particular topic of study. Henry has moral reasons to do things like this because they would contribute to his virtues, and help him avoid vice. However, it does not seem like Henry has moral reasons to engage in those kinds of actions. Rather, Henry has prudential reasons that are not moral. It could be that Henry’s desires are non-moral reasons to engage in those actions. Or, Henry could see value in those actions and their consequences, which gives him reasons to do them, but that value is not moral.

The reason that this version of virtue ethics is tyrannical is because eudaimonia is a property of a person’s life. A person’s life is affected by, arguably, all of her actions. The ways in which a person’s life is affected by her actions will usually contribute to or detract from her flourishing. Any of the actions that are relevant to flourishing are thereby morally relevant, because she can be morally evaluated in light of them. So, most if not all of her life is moralized, because all of her decisions contribute to or detract from her flourishing, which is the measure of her moral success or failure as an agent.

For those who are fine with one’s life being suffused with moral relevance, this may be a welcome conclusion. For those who see this as a tyrannical moral theory that denies the non-moral dimensions of life as an agent with a will, this is not a welcome conclusion; it is a reason not to accept this virtue theory.

Endnotes

[1] Acts can also be evaluated morally, but virtue ethicists typically evaluate agents.

  • Anon

    Surely for a person trying to up their eudaimonia, everything they do doesn’t have to have moral value or promote a virtue. Some actions done to promote flourishing will be intellectual, some will be prudential, but are these *morally* assessable? It seems better to talk about everything the agent does being assessable according to some metric, but not necessarily according to a moral metric: perhaps epistemic/prudential/aesthetic. The tyranny is not purely moral. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.