Published in Mind Vol 109 Number 436 (2000).*
Character and Culture, by Lester H. Hunt. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997. Pp. xii + 302.
Numerous writers on virtue ethics have voiced skepticism about general ethical principles. These "anarchic" virtue theorists argue that adherents of general ethical principles may disregard the "particularity" of ethical experience; hence Nussbaum claims that commitment to general principles in ethical reflection may be "corrupting," and McDowell contends that virtuous people do not act by "applying universal principles" (Nussbaum, "The Discernment of Perception," in her Love's Knowledge, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 74; McDowell, "Virtue and Reason." Monist 62, 1979, p. 347). The issues are delicate, but the basic worry is plain enough. Allegedly, general principles will sometimes generate unacceptable prescriptions in particular situations; if I must dissemble to avoid betraying a friend, so much the worse for a general prohibition against lying. Anarchic virtue theorists contend that a character-based approach to ethics, especially of the sort they find in Aristotle, can best account for such particularistic intuitions. The ethics of principle and the ethics of character, the anarchic virtue theorist supposes, are diametrically opposed.
Lester Hunt rejects this dichotomy. According to Hunt, "people have a given trait of character in so far as they hold the corresponding belief and hold it as a principle" (p. 15). Accordingly, "traits of character are generated by principles; without them, there could be no such thing" (p. 18). Not all behavioral traits are character traits: the person who has the character trait of gluttony is not merely someone who eats voraciously, but someone who is committed to regarding excessive food consumption as a pursuit of central importance (see p. 11). Like a character trait, a mere behavioral trait issues in reliable patterns of behavior, but in the case of a character trait the "principle generates the pattern" of consistent behavior (p. 15). This picture would hardly shock if Hunt were advocating a Kantian approach, and in my view Hunt evinces substantial Kantian sympathies, but Hunt is anxious to distance himself from Kant (see pp. 8, 91n2 ), and on important points follows Aristotle (e.g., pp. 33-4), just as anarchic virtue theorists do. Nevertheless, Hunt's view appears quite at odds with the particularism of the anarchic virtue theorists like McDowell, and indeed, Hunt asserts in a footnote (p. 26n8) that his approach "contrasts sharply" with McDowell's account. Regrettably, Hunt does not provide more in the way of explicit discussion of such competing views, but his approach has resources that should cause his opponents some discomfort, as I'll briefly try to show.
We should take care that neither side caricatures the other's view. Hunt's emphasis on general principles does not, in any obvious way, open him to the concerns regarding alienation or lack of spontaneity that are sometimes raised about systematic ethical theory. As Hunt observes, character may serve to put conduct under control of principle without subjecting it to conscious control (p. 20); a person's commitment to principle does not necessarily result in a woodenly calculative exercise of moral agency. On the other hand, the anarchic virtue theorist does not claim that general considerations have no relevance in ethical thought; she is not committed to the view (rightly rejected by Hunt, pp. 18-19) that we should make ethical decisions on "an absolutely case-by-case basis." Then where does the battle lie, if war there be?
It depends on how general principles are construed. For Hunt, all principles are beliefs that are "general in nature" (p. 26); the "principles that produce character traits are never beliefs about particular things, and, in fact, they tend to be about very general kinds of things (such as knowledge, public esteem, pleasure and effort)" (p. 16). So far, the anarchic virtue theorist needn't demur; she need have no quarrel with "rules of thumb" such as "treat others with respect," or general axiological precepts such as "knowledge is valuable." Rather, the dispute surrounds a Kantian notion of principles as exceptionless--the notorious example being Kant's uncompromising prohibition against lying. (Both general statement and example may be found in Kant, A 8: 427-30; pp. 612-15 in Gregor's translation, Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Perhaps these passages encourage uncharitable oversimplification; for a more nuanced interpretation, see Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 132-58.)
Hunt may seem to endorse a Kantian view, since he says that to hold a belief as a principle to "believe it and act on it consistently" (p. 15). But matters are complicated, because Hunt distinguishes three sorts of principles. Limiting principles "consist in recognizing a limit on the importance of some end" (p. 27); for example, courageous actions are "ones that are done on the basis of the principle that one's own safety, in general, has no more than a certain measure of importance." (p. 25). Axiological principles, such as those governing the virtue of generosity, do "not require anybody to do any particular action," but instead direct our attention to some good considered as a "worthwhile end of action in itself" (pp. 65-6, 80). The generous person may forgo particular opportunities for generous action, but her life will be informed by a reliable concern for generosity. Thus axiological principles differ from what Hunt calls act-necessitating rules (p. 89), which do require particular performances in instances where the rule applies. For example, act-necessitating rules are the principles implicated in conscientious actions; persons possessing the character trait of conscientiousness "do what they do because it is necessary according to a rule" (p. 91). But Hunt denies that an act-necessitating rule's applicability is always a sufficient reason for action. According to Hunt, Kant was mistaken to think that act-necessitating rules are exceptionless; his own view is that the "necessity of the act is distinct from the exceptionless universality of a rule" (p. 91n2).
Whether a notion of act-necessitating but exceptive rules is sustainable is a difficult question, but Hunt makes an important contribution: his taxonomy helps us to see that while Aristotelians and Kantians have historically been opposed, an ethic of principle and an ethic of character need not be. Contra the anarchic virtue theorist, commitment to exceptionless principles is precisely what characterizes some virtues. Limiting principles, for example, are plausibly construed in this way; an unwavering commitment to the thought that she may never place undue importance on her own safety is what characterizes the courageous person. Here Hunt is avowedly Aristotelian, for he takes his limiting principles to be in the spirit of Aristotle's doctrine of the mean (p. 52); it is perhaps worth noting that the doctrine may problematize readings of Aristotle as an anarchic virtue theorist, but this is a story for another day.
Axiological principles may in a sense admit of exceptions; for instance, the principles of generosity allow that one may on occasion do the prudent rather than the generous thing. Since such principles allow flexibility in implementation, they are sensitive to the demands of ethical particularity. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which axiological principles are exceptionless: the principles of generosity do not suggest that an abiding concern for the good of others is optional. We may rightly wonder what practical help highly general limiting and axiological principles are, but the present point is that there need not be tension between virtue and principle.
Hunt's act-necessitating rules appear to admit of exceptions, since an action falling under such a rule need not be a sufficient reason for action. Here it is worth noting that Aristotle's account does not seem to much rely on a notion of exceptionless act-necessitating rules--in his discussion of truth telling, for example (Nicomachean Ethics iv 7), a Kantian-style prohibition against lying is conspicuously absent. Then the anarchic virtue theorists are right about this much: virtue ethics in the Aristotelian tradition does not employ exceptionless act-necessitating principles. These are difficult issues about which more should be said, but reflection on Hunt's account makes plausible the thought that the current dichotomy between character and principle-based ethics is overstated.
I have focused on general principles, because here Hunt's contribution has the potential to help ameliorate what seems to me an unhappy polarization of current debate. But Hunt's book includes other topics of considerable interest. For example, I have neglected Hunt's textured and compelling argument against the unity of the virtues (pp. 76-87), and some interesting, if to my mind less convincing, suggestions as to how character functions to adjudicate between incommensurable values (pp. 25-7). Nor have I discussed the book's second half, a thoughtful discussion of how social institutions may influence or inhibit the development of certain character traits. Hunt's arguments concerning an array of topics from the importance of commerce and gift-giving in character development (chapter 7) to an alleged tendency of liberalism to promote resentment (chapter 11; p. 276) may not persuade all, but they do offer welcome discussion on the effect of social context on character. Although my own tastes in this area favor close discussion of empirical work in the social sciences, Hunt's efforts are a fine example of philosophical moral psychology: shrewd, sensitive, and witty, with many richly painted examples. Character and Culture is not an easy book: its range is broad and its arguments long-running and complex. But moral philosophers who take the time to engage it will be rewarded with observant discussion of important issues.
Department of Philosophy JOHN M. DORIS
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
* My thanks to John M. Doris for sending me an electronic copy of this review. LHH