Tag Archives: utilitarianism

Why Be Virtuous?

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

As part of the Music and Ethics class, I post something on the course blog each week for the students to read, consider, and then comment on. This is the first of the blog assignments, and I thought it would be interesting to post it here as well, for you folks to interact with:

Blog Assignment #1: Why Be Virtuous?
In class today, I gave you Plato’s view on the interaction between virtue and the human soul, and how a life lived excellently must mean a life lived with virtue. Plato’s is not the only view on the matter, of course. There are other views, by other smart people, on the meaning and purpose of virtue.

Let’s start off the blog assignments by reacting to a few of those perspectives. Here are four statements on reasons to be virtuous. They aren’t quotes, they are my own paraphrases of the views held by different philosophers:

  1. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of the nature of the human soul – we were created to be virtuous, and we do damage to our own nature, our own souls, if we deceive others and act with cruelty.” (Plato)
  2. “The best reason to be virtuous is because of God’s decree – He commands us to do certain things and not to do certain other things, and out of either love or fear, we ought to obey his commands.” (William of Ockham)
  3. “The best reason to be virtuous is the force of social pressure – if you are dishonest and cruel to others, society will shun you, and your capacity to enjoy life will be diminished.” (Ayn Rand)
  4. “The best reason to be virtuous is for the cause of greater social good – society as a whole is better off when people are honest and compassionate toward one another.” (Peter Singer)

There are certainly more options than the ones I’ve presented (include the option to say we shouldn’t be virtuous!), but let’s start with these. Which of the four statements above seems the most true to you? This isn’t a survey, don’t just jot down your answer; give us a little insight into why you think your option is the best choice.

Next in series: Ayana and the Sacred Song

Moral Theory: Introduction

Posts in the Moral Theory series

  1. Moral Theory: Introduction
  2. Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics
  3. Moral Theory: Natural Law

An Introduction

Well, now that the Music and Ethics course has been approved here at APU, I have to get serious about actually teaching it. That means brushing up on some of that good old philosophicating. Good practice for me, fun for you, and safe for the whole family. Unless Uncle Jimmy is a nihilist, in which case, probably not safe for him.

I’m going to write a series of posts, each trying to answer the question “What makes an action right?” Each post will look at how different schools of thought, different moral theories, answer this question. My goal is to discuss these theories with a minimum of technical philosophical language, in a way that invites everybody to be part of the conversation. I can’t promise that it won’t involve some heavy lifting, but I will try to make sure that the ideas are presented clearly.

the property of ought

This question, “What makes an action right,” the starting place for thinking about ethics, requires a little bit of explanation before we can understand what it’s really asking. There are a few assumptions buried in the question that we need to tease out before we can really ask it.

The most basic assumption of the question is that actions can have properties, features about them that can be talked about in the abstract. If I’m holding a red apple, it has the property of “redness”, and I can talk about the redness in the abstract, without having to talk about the apple itself.

What does it mean to say that actions have properties? Well, think about someone who steals candy from a child. In addition to talking about the facts of the event (at a certain time and place, this person caused this series of events that affected this person, blah blah blah), we can also say, “That act was selfish.” It identifies something about that act, some quality or group of qualities that can be identified, and discussed in the abstract. “Selfish acts cause one to become embittered” is a statement about abstract properties, not about any one act.

So, the first assumption in the question “What makes an action right” is that an act has properties (not all philosophical systems will agree with this point – more later!).

The second assumption is that some property, or set of properties, about an act can together cause that act to be ethical, or unethical. In other words, we can evaluate an action for abstract qualities, and those qualities will determine if we have an obligation to perform that act, or to not perform it.

Let’s assume we determine that selfishness = unethical. We can then look at an act, and ask whether or not it contains the property of selfishness. If it does, then it’s unethical. We establish a standard for measuring actions that is separate from any one action, which all actions can be evaluated against.

If this works, we can then say that the act has an additional property: call it the property of ought. Action that have it, we are obligated to do. Actions that contain it in the negative (ought not), we are prohibited from doing.

So, the conversation in ethics centers around this question:

What property of an action determines that we ought to do it?

In the series of posts to follow, I’ll try to show how that question is answered by Divine Command Theory, Natural Law Theory, Utilitarianism, Kant (how awesome do you have to be to get on this list with just your last name? Pretty awesome), Moral Relativism, Moral Pluralism, and (my favorite, which is why I put it last) Virtue Ethics.

Hang on to your protractors – it’s about to get nerdy up ins!

Next in series: Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics