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Why Virtue Ethics is Probably Correct

Die Römische Ruine in Schönbrunn (1832) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

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Nota bene 2: Brandon Van Dyck has volunteered to host a 2-hour writing session every weekday morning at 9am Central for the next 2 weeks in the community. I strongly recommend if you're trying to get your habits/output up; totally open and free to members, just RSVP in the events channel.

Ethics is not about looking at the world and making judgments.

Ethics is about answering the question of how one should live.

I want to figure out the correct way to live. I'm not interested in what other people should or should not do. Why would I be interested in that? Why should I be interested in that?

The question of how to live is ineluctable. The Trolley Problem is generally avoidable.

Of course, there are times when a person has to answer some variant of the Trolley Problem. When I encounter such a situation, I just do whatever seems best. Ethics is about living correctly on a daily basis such that, when I do encounter a Trolley Problem, I will have the habits and virtues to act in a way that I will later be at peace with.

If there is a judge, I suspect that this is how he would ultimately judge me. I don't see any other legitimate, external criterion.

I don't see any shared social balance sheet. I see different ways of life and different types of creatures with different natures.

Utilitarianism is possibly a good ethical system for machines. Tesla must arrive at a definitive answer for the Trolley Problem, with an explicit algorithm, because Tesla produces machines that will encounter Trolley Problems and machines don't have the evolved luxury of relying on their habits and virtues (at least not yet). The Trolley Problem is an interesting and important question if you're attempting to make intelligent machines. I just want to pursue an excellent life, and I have the privilege of learning habits and virtues, so utilitarianism is probably not—and virtue ethics probably is—the correct ethical philosophy for the type of creature I am.

Utilitarianism feels correct to many people today, but that's partially because modern technology has gradually pre-formatted human being into machinic compatibility over the past 500 years. As Heidegger says in The Question Concerning Technology, modern technology is a kind of enframing that makes us see ourselves as standing reserve. It is only thanks to an essentially non-human invasion that an algorithm fit for machines feels like a decision framework fit for ourselves.

Utilitarianism feels correct to the machinic part of ourselves, that part of ourselves that we treat as an object commensurate with other objects, calculable on the same grid as all other objects. If you see yourself this way, and you see others this way, then perhaps utilitarianism is the correct framework for you. I doubt it, but I'm not concerned to judge or meddle. Perhaps you're a different kind of creature.

I can admit that I have a certain machine-formatted aspect no less than anyone else nowadays, but I also feel that I contain something else, something that is irreducibly incommensurate with the system of objects, something that is mysteriously other and somehow absolutely free, despite the seeming impossibility of such a proposition.

Virtue ethics seems like the only framework for living at once freely and correctly.

These observations were inspired by last week's Aristotle seminar, especially excellent suggestions from Stephen Pimentel, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose (some of my words above might paraphrase some of their original observations, it's hard to distinguish such things after any good conversation.) Many thanks to them, and all the others who came out.

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  • Seminar on Charles Petzold's Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software. Monday, March 6 at 12pm Central. Free for members, $25 for the public. RSVP here.

  • The next cohort of the René Girard course with Geoff Shullenberger is starting on March 20. Register at GirardCourse.com