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.


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

Rights Absolutism and the Justice System

Rights absolutism is the view that rights violations are never morally permissible. There is no circumstance in which an agent can be morally justified in violating another agent’s rights. Rights absolutism contrasts with any view that allows for rights that can be overridden by other considerations. For example, we might have prima facie rights that can be outweighed by extreme consequences. On such a view it is permissible to steal my neighbor’s car to get my dying friend to a hospital to save her life if an ambulance cannot reach us in time. In doing so, I have violated my neighbor’s property rights over his car, but my action was permissible because my friend’s life is more important than my neighbor’s property rights over his car.

Rights absolutists cannot allow for such car theft to ever be morally permissible. So, there are no circumstances in which it is morally permissible to violate the rights of another agent. There is a problem with this view, though. If we grant rights absolutism, how do we justify the justice system? We are flawed, finite creatures who are not particularly good at figuring out the truth. That fact is reflected by our justice system. The innocence project has freed many innocent people. These people had their rights violated by our justice system. They were wrongfully imprisoned. However, this is an inevitability given our epistemic capabilities and the nature of institutionalized justice-seeking. So, a justice system run by us is going to inevitably violate some people’s rights. There is no way around it.

But it seems like we need a justice system. We cannot do without institutionalized justice-seeking. How does the rights absolutist reconcile this with the fact that any justice system we come up with will violate some people’s rights? The obvious way out is to argue that the benefits of our justice system outweigh the costs of the inevitable rights violations. But to claim that is to abandon rights absolutism. It seems like the absolutist must either explain how we could have a justice system in which nobody’s rights are violated, or argue that we do not need institutionalized justice-seeking. I’m unsure about the plausibility of either move.

The Tyranny of Morality

There are values, and they come in morally relevant and morally irrelevant varieties. The value of the tastiness of my espresso seems to be morally irrelevant. Promoting such a value is not to do something moral. Otherwise, sipping my coffee in the morning constitutes a moral act. However, some moral theories do not allow for this natural line of reasoning.

Any theory that takes the maximization of value to be a moral imperative will deny that there are morally irrelevant values. For example, a hedonistic act utilitarian will take the only intrinsic value to be pleasure. Everything else is valuable insofar as it promotes pleasure. Since the only duty we have on this form of utilitarianism is to maximize pleasure, that means that sipping my coffee this morning constituted a moral act. It was morally good that I drank coffee instead of water this morning, because the coffee was more pleasurable. In fact, I had a duty to drink coffee instead of water, as long as I was in a position to know that the former would be more pleasurable.

The problem I have with such a view is that it moralizes everything. We act in relation to perceived value or disvalue. When I engage in an action, I do it because I have some reason to, and that reason is typically because the action or consequence is valuable in some way. The same goes for avoiding actions because of their disvalue. But if our one moral duty is to maximize value then all of our actions are moralized. Nearly every action we engage in can be criticized on moral grounds because it could have promoted more value than it did. Call this the tyranny of morality.

A moral theory is tyrannical when it moralizes everything. All of our actions ought to be in the service of the good, despite any of our plans, interests, or desires. So our actions are all morally relevant, because they are all related to value in some way. I take this to be the real source of the common objection to forms of consequentialism that require value maximization. Such theories are far too demanding, as the objection goes. But the reason they are too demanding isn’t usually articulated, besides attempts at eliciting intuitions about demandingness. The reason these theories are too demanding is because they are tyrannical. They moralize all of our actions, because we are the sorts of creatures who act for reasons, and reasons are intimately related to values.

A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism. The theory was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. A hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty: maximize pleasure. But such a view is highly counter-intuitive.  For example, if  I made a promise to go to my fiance’s birthday party, it seems like I have a duty to go. But then I find out that there is a new club drug that, if I took and attended a rave, would give me more pleasure than I would get from going to her party. The pleasure I will get by getting high at this rave will outweigh the displeasure that my fiance experiences because I broke my promise, so the net pleasure will be higher if I break my promise. So I ought to get high instead. But that seems like really bad moral advice. Hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong, then, because I have a duty to keep my promise to my fiance regardless of the more pleasurable alternatives. 

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem because it defers to how those concepts are used by a society at a given time period. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which will preserve our intuitions about particular cases. Take the classic case of the utilitarian surgeon seeing a drifter in the waiting area of the emergency room: Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic position to rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients on the organ recipient list, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this result because a typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of the concept of duty covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false. In other words, she must give a debunking explanation of our intuitions about the wrongness of puppy torture. 

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. Non-deontic consequentialism entails that the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The extensions of our deontic concepts track deontic properties, because our society’s deontic concept use determines the instantiation of deontic properties. The consequentialism part comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions. It provides a standard by which we can judge conventions to be better or worse than other potential arrangements, which allows for the possibility of moral progress.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. It used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for money. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the convention that said that we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important issues like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790’s Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790’s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790’s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790’s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counter-intuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790’s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counter-intuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counter-intuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counter-intuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790’s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?