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Is impersonal benevolence a virtue?

by newptcai1 min read18th Jul 20218 comments

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Virtue ethicsMoral philosophy
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I am reading On Virtue Ethics by Rosalind Hursthouse. The last one 3rd of the book gives a naturalist account on what character traits is virtue.

The author suggests that, when we say a wolf is a good wolf, it must contribute to

  1. The survival of itself
  2. The continuance of its species
  3. Its own characteristic pleasure and characteristic freedom from pain
  4. The well functioning of its social groups

Similarly, when we say a human is a good human, he/she must behave in a way that contributes to these four ends. And a virtue is a character traits which makes a human a good human.

Using this standard, the author casts doubt on the

the claim that completely impersonal benevolence conceived of as, perhaps, Peter Singer would conceive of it, is a virtue.

This is because it fails end 2 and 4.

The onus is on those who recommend impersonal benevolence as a virtue to provide at least a speculation about how a species of rational animals who had brought themselves to care naught for their own children or each other's company might still be a species of social animals who, moreover, nurtured their young—and, indeed, went to the trouble of giving them a moral education and bringing them up to be impersonally benevolent in their turn.

If you think impersonal benevolence is indeed a virtue, how would you response to this skepticism?


If you are interested in the book, I have written a summary of the last part here.

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1 Answers

(Not a philosopher, this is deliberately quick and snappy)

One response is to just deny the naturalist account (why is it required that every "good wolf" or "good person" try to do all four of those things?).

Another is to deny the claim that impersonal benevolence has to contradict being "social animals" or "nurturing young". The average impersonally benevolent person who supports AMF is helping to nurture hundreds of young people, and probably making life "socially better" for entire villages (it seems good for village life when fewer children are sick or dying). If a wolf sacrifices itself for the pack, more wolves survive. Even if Viktor Zhdanov had no children (I don't know whether this is true), he helped the human species thrive. 

Another is to note that effectively zero people actually practice "impersonal benevolence" in the way Hursthouse describes it. If no one actually follows an ethical system, critiques of that system mean little. But if we look at people who try to be unusually impersonally benevolent (however imperfectly), I expect they'll tend to be good parents and good neighbors. In my experience, the habit and practice of being kind to everyone, tends to inculcate kindness toward those close to you as well.

I feel that rejecting ethical naturalism necessarily implies rejection of moral objectivity. Thus we will have to accept ethical relativism, which amounts to moral nihilism.

There is a chapter of Strangers Drowning which tells the story of an American missionary who had worked in Africa with her family, including two young children. During their time there, her children was almost kidnapped by a mob. But she persisted and kept working there. Eventually, she had to come back to American for the benefit of one of her children, who has intellectual disability... (read more)

5Aaron Gertler4dWhich of the four items on Hursthouse's list do you think are impossible to reject without embracing relativism? And why do you think those ideas are necessarily linked together? I may be confused, but I don't see why "ethical naturalism" has to be tied to virtue ethics. It seems wholly consistent to me for people to believe in objective morality, and to believe that this morality is impartial benevolence. It also seems reasonable to believe that if everyone really tried to practice impartial benevolence, we'd end up with a healthy and thriving society. Imagine a small village where all children are communally cared for by adults who love them equally — must this be impossible or unnatural? There's a chapter of Strangers Drowning which tells the story of Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to highly effective charities while raising children who seem healthy and happy (they just had their third!). This is very unusual even in rich countries, but is a perfectly reasonable strategy for people who can afford it. (I work with another family doing the same thing, and their children also seem happy and healthy.) I think this example shows that you can strive to be far more "impersonally benevolent" than most people while still providing for your family, with the result that hundreds of other families live better, happier lives.
1newptcai4dOf course Hursthouse's account of ethical naturalism could be mistaken. (I am not totally satisfied with it either). But I just don't see how morality can be seen as "objective" without appealing to human nature in some way. (I know Derek Parfit has a book On What Matters defending moral objectivity. But I have not had the guts to dive into it.) As for "impersonally benevolence", I agree that it doesn't necessary has to conflict with the well-being of one's family. For example in Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality [https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265273], Peter Railton argues that maybe to be it is may be the case that a do-gooder can do more good if he/she be a bit partial -- If you have a happy family, you may have a lot more energy to help strangers. But I do think this is not necessarily always conflict free. For example, Peter Singer was once accused of being hypocrite because he and his sister put their mum with Alzheimer's disease in a caring facility, which cost a lot of money. Did helping his mum motivated Singer to do more good later in his life? Maybe. But it would be very hard to do the calculations.
6Aaron Gertler3dThe best answer here, the one that actually lets us try to live our lives by reasonable ethical principles, seems to me like "morality isn't conflict-free and humans aren't perfectly consistent". The whole point of EA is that standard "ethical" systems often fail to provide useful advice on how to live a good life. No one can be perfectly virtuous or benevolent; all we can do is act well given our circumstances and the options in front of us. How does this interface with the question of objective morality? You can either say "morality is objective and people are bound to fall short of it", or "morality is subjective and I'm going to do what seems best to me". Either way, as a subjectivist who judges other people through the lens of my own moral opinions, I'm going to judge you by how your actions affect others, rather than by whether they all hang together in a rigorous system.
1newptcai3dI like your answer. Thanks for all the replies!
3Aaron Gertler3dThanks for the discussion! I realize that I was mostly explaining my own instincts rather than engaging with Hursthouse, but that's because I find her claims difficult to understand in the context of how to actually live one's life.
1newptcai3dShe is a virtue ethicist, so she believes the best way to live a good life to develop virtues in ourselves. The reason she gives it that being a virtuous person, on average, is the best bet to flourish, e.g., having good health, satisfying career, happy family, etc. But she rejects that "impersonal benevolence" is a virtue. Thus, for Hurshouse, a person can still be virtuous and live a good life even if she does not care at all about strangers whom she has never met. To be honest, this is the most problematic part I found in her thesis.