Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
From Morality to Virtue$

Michael Slote

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780195093926

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195093925.001.0001

The Main Issue Between Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics

(p.227) 14 The Main Issue Between Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics
From Morality to Virtue

Michael Slote (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The main issue between utilitarianism and commonsense virtue ethics is whether what is admirable is a function of the overall benefit a trait brings to sentient beings generally or whether there can be sources of admirability and virtue status somewhat independent of such overall consequences. It is argued by example that many kinds of admirability seem possible and that some of these do not grow out of overall likely benefits to sentient beings. This favors commonsense virtue ethics over utilitarianism.

Keywords:   admirability, benefits, commonsense virtue ethics, utilitarianism, virtue status

In the last chapter, I spent a good deal of time discussing the intuitively implausible implications of Stoic and other, more catholic or permissive forms of monistic virtue ethics, where, if you remember, the monism in question is one relating to the categories of personal good and of admirability/virtue. I also mentioned the implausible aspects of monistically reductive generalized utilitarianism, but I spent less time on that issue, making only a fairly brief reference to the way in which the admirability of certain individual traits of character seems to involve something more than or different from a tendency to contribute to overall human well‐being. In the present chapter, however, I spend more time discussing the implausibilities that follow from an acceptance of utilitarianism, and because it helps bring to a head the conflict between virtue ethics and utilitarianism, I chiefly focus on their respective views about what makes individual traits and what makes people or total lives admirable or excellent. The people and personal characteristics for which utilitarianism has the highest regard are very different from those a commonsense non‐moralistic virtue ethics thinks best of, and we will see in particular that the differing comparative value judgments that the two approaches make in this area are also so different in fundamental plausibility as to call utilitarianism further into question and give us another positive reason for preferring virtue ethics.

What Makes Lives Admirable?

Both utilitarianism and commonsense virtue ethics allow us to distinguish between the desirable and the admirable. For virtue ethics there are (p.228) desirable but non‐admirable things in life and some lives, as we have seen, it will allow us to consider more admirable than desirable. Of course, a larger commonsense ethics that included moral and morality‐related judgments would recognize two kinds of desirability: of states of affairs and of what we call personal goods, but the virtue‐ethical abandonment of morality as such has also simplified its conception of the desirable—personal good(s) is/are the only thing it calls desirable—though, of course, it allows that what is admirable can also count as personally good and thus as desirable.

Utilitarianism also distinguishes two fundamental kinds of evaluation that correspond well enough for our purposes—though not in regard to every nuance or aspect—to the distinction between the admirable and the desirable. It distinguishes intrinsic from instrumental evaluation, and (making some allowances for the idea of an instrumentally good state of affairs) intrinsic evaluation corresponds, for utilitarianism, to the desirable and instrumental evaluation to the admirable. Utilitarianism allows for both intrinsically good states of affairs and intrinsic personal goods, but the former notion reduces in ways we have seen, on utilitarian assumptions, to the latter, and the latter is therefore—and for purposes of useful comparison with virtue ethics—utilitarianism's idea of the desirable. In an important sense, both utilitarianism and virtue ethics treat personal good as the (sole or ultimate) desirable (thing)—though we must also recognize their potentially large differences about what counts as a personal good.

In regard to the admirable, utilitarianism views obligatory and morally right actions as instrumental goods corresponding or amounting to examples of admirability, whereas our virtue ethics rules out moral categories and leaves no place for moral (as opposed to other‐regarding) admirability. Helping another may count, for virtue ethics, as admirable on other‐regarding grounds, but that does not allow us to regard such help as morally good or morally admirable.

We have also seen that virtue ethics allows for non‐instrumental virtues, in a way that utilitarianism clearly does not. Whatever counts as a virtue for utilitarianism or for virtue ethics will thereby count as an excellent or admirable trait for the one or for the other, but this agreement should not be allowed to obscure the fact that for utilitarianism there is only instrumental virtue and admirability, whereas for virtue ethics there are both instrumental and intrinsic forms of virtue and admirability. In addition, most utilitarians, following Hume, do not distinguish between virtues and other admirable traits or between acts/achievements that are ethically admirable and those that are (merely) (p.229) aesthetically or intellectually admirable;1 and in order, therefore, to permit a general critical comparison between utilitarianism and commonsense views about what is admirable in human life, I will have to treat commonsense virtue ethics as including intuitive judgments about traits that may ultimately not count as virtues/character traits and about acts/achievements that might turn out to be admirable for other than ethical reasons.

Our previous chapter focused mainly on the differing judgments utilitarianism and virtue ethics make concerning the relation(s) between the admirable, on the one hand, and the desirable understood as the personally good, on the other. And the disagreement between these two approaches came down to two questions: whether the admirable and personally good are fundamentally distinct and whether, if they are not, they should be identified reductively or elevatively. I am now assuming that elevationism won't work for commonsense virtue ethics and that the latter must assume a fundamental dualism between admirability and desirability/personal good. But utilitarianism is irrecusably reductive of the admirable to the desirable/personally good, and it is in these forms that our critical comparison of the two approaches will proceed.

We must not, however, assume that the radical differences between what utilitarianism and what virtue ethics say about what makes lives or traits admirable are a matter simply of the above difference between reductive monism, regarding the admirable and the desirable, and a dualistic conception of their relationship. After all, egoism is also capable of a dualistic conception of the desirable and the admirable, yet egoism yields judgments about what makes lives/traits admirable and about which particular lives/traits are more admirable than which others that are not only at variance with monistic utilitarianism, but differ importantly from the deliverances of a self‐other symmetric conception of virtue ethics of the sort defended here.

Moreover, and this is a point easily missed, the differences regarding admirable traits, people, and lives between even non‐egoistic virtue ethics and utilitarianism are not simply attributable to their disagreement as to whether the admirable can be reduced to the personally good or must remain a separate category. For the differences are also in part attributable to the different ways in which utilitarianism and virtue ethics avoid egoism, or, to put matters more perspicuously, to the differing standards of self‐other symmetry each conforms to. Utilitarianism evaluates via a standard that gives equal weight to every individual; it is self‐other symmetric in sensu diviso. But virtue ethics is self‐other symmetric in sensu composito, and this means that it gives equal weight to the self/agent/trait‐possessor (p.230) and to other people taken as a class or category. Both differences as to the reducibility of the admirable to the desirable and differences concerning the proper form of self‐other asymmetry to adopt help to create disagreements between utilitarianism and virtue ethics with respect to admirability in lives as well as in other sorts of things. And though I will not harp upon these matters, it will turn out that the differing judgments about admirable lives we are about to unearth turn on differences both about self‐other asymmetry and about reducibility—as well as on a fundamental disagreement between the two views about whether there can be non‐instrumental virtue or admirability.

For the utilitarian, what makes some traits, lives, or people more excellent or admirable than others are the differing effects they have on overall human or sentient happiness.2 (We are sticking with comparative judgments because we have tentatively concluded that utilitarianism is best stated in scalar form; but the comparative judgments of virtue ethics clearly conflict, in any event, even with the comparative judgments utilitarianism is committed to.) In effect, utilitarianism instrumentally evaluates lives or people by means of some scalar variant of the principle of utility, but no such single, clearly statable principle is capable of expressing the basis or the grounds of our commonsense virtue‐ethical judgments about which lives or people are more admirable than which others.

Thus for utilitarianism it would seem to be possible to compare both different lives and people, as well as different possible lives of the same person, via the principle that one life or person is more admirable (or less deplorable) if its or his overall effect on human happiness is more favorable to such happiness, and I think it can also be assumed here that the effects overall of a person are simply the effects overall of (the events and other relevant aspects of) her life.3

By contrast, once again, our commonsense evaluations of greater or lesser admirability in lives or people seem to rely on considerations that cannot easily be unified. Even the principles—perfect and imperfect—that emerged in Chapter 6 as the overarching standard or credo of virtue ethical thinking cannot give us everything that one might wish to have in the way of unifying principles. Since those principles recommend that we improve others and ourselves with regard to admirability or the possession of various virtues (and not corrupt others or allow ourselves to be corrupted in the relevant ways) and say nothing explicitly about what considerations make for admirability and how they combine into overall judgments of admirability, they give us neither a unified standard of admirability nor anything as explicit about the bases of admirability, say, as Ross's hexalogue of prima facie obligations.4

(p.231) I don't want to underestimate the capacities of commonsense virtue ethics for self‐systematicization in the manner of Ross's list of prima facie moral principles or in casuistry about actual and possible acts or constellations of character. But I don't think that it is necessary for us here, and given present concerns, to make an attempt in that direction. We have seen examples, earlier on, of the ways in which what counts as admirable or as a virtue for commonsense thinking is not rigidly tied to the well‐being or good of the agent who acts admirably or the possessor of a given virtue—much less to the well‐being, happiness, or personal good of all mankind (or sentient beings), and we have also seen that certain kinds of personal strength and personal self‐sufficiency represent commonplace, but, none the less for that, deeply held ideals of human admirability or excellence. Clearly, and as far as we are proposing to go at the moment, a host of different factors seem relevant to commonsense or intuitive evaluations of admirability, seem capable of making a difference to how highly or well we think of personal traits and of people themselves and/or their lives, and, indeed, the specific examples now to be mentioned clearly are based on a whole variety of considerations, though the complexity seems in no way to prejudice the firmness of our views in this area. And what is perhaps most relevant at this point to the comparison with utilitarianism is the large role self‐regarding considerations can play in our intuitive assessments of greater or lesser admirability.

For example, we greatly admire Alexander's single‐mindedness, organizing power, and self‐confidence, Disraeli's energy, verve, and composure (or forbearance) in the face of anti‐Semitism, Talleyrand's far‐sightedness and delicacy in diplomacy—and we admire these people themselves—largely apart from any consideration of the benefits mankind generally reaped from the traits or people just mentioned. (Of course, we don't suppose them, any of them, to be monsters of cruelty or totally selfish or self‐centered when we admire them thus.) Even assuming, as we may do, that mankind was no better off or possibly even somewhat worse off as a result of their brilliant careers, we tend to think more highly of these people and be more impressed by their total lives than anything we are likely to find ourselves thinking or feeling about people who are decent and do a positive amount of good within a limited circle of acquaintanceship, but whose personal qualities—whether other‐regarding or self‐regarding—seem less out of the ordinary and admirable than what can be attributed to the three historical figures just mentioned.

Such examples show us, I believe, that a high regard for people can be largely based on non‐altruistic character or personality traits and to a great extent, therefore, be independent of the sorts of considerations that (p.232) utilitarianism treats as the basis of attributions of excellence or admirability. The utilitarian must regard (likely) total contribution to human or sentient happiness as the sole determinant of greater or lesser personal admirability, and so for the utilitarian, the comparative judgment respecting the admirability of the above historical figures and that of the more private persons we also mentioned will turn on how much overall net happiness each created and will be the opposite of what many or most of us are inclined to say about such cases, given only that one or another of the historical figures did slightly less overall for net human happiness.

The same point can be brought out in a slightly different way by considering some of our counterfactual judgments of admirability as compared with those utilitarianism would have to be committed to. Socrates, we know, has had a large and, we hope, beneficial influence on mankind over the millennia, an influence largely resulting from the way Plato depicted him in his Dialogues. But in the light of what we believe we know about Socrates, most of us would say that Socrates would have been more admirable than almost everyone else, even if he had never been written about and his life had therefore had consequences less favorable to overall human happiness (remember the family and friends his self‐chosen death may have made unhappy) than the lives of many less extraordinary people who are reasonably kind and charitable.

Moreover, direct utilitarianism evaluates not only overall lives and people, but also the particular traits of given individuals by the criterion of overall effect on human/sentient happiness or well‐being; so it is committed to evaluating Alexander's single‐mindedness and Disraeli's verve and energy, for example, solely in terms of the effect each had on total human happiness. But from a commonsense point of view, such a basis for assessing admirability in a trait or virtue status seems totally one‐sided and absurd: indeed, even more one‐sided and absurd than evaluating total lives or human beings on such a basis.

Let us move next to the differences between utilitarianism and our ordinary thought that arise in connection with self‐regarding and other‐regarding virtues considered together.

Our admiration for people with (outstanding) other‐regarding and other‐benefiting virtues is not necessarily higher than what we feel for people whose virtues are largely of a self‐regarding or less other‐benefiting kind, and speaking of ordinary intuition now, it is by no means obvious that we tend to have a higher opinion of mankind's various benefactors than of those whose excellence, as we may say, doesn't express itself along those precise lines. Do we necessarily have a higher opinion of Saint Francis, Jonas Salk, or Mother Theresa, who rank (p.233) among those who have done most for mankind and whose efforts in that direction we so greatly admire, than of the Alexanders, Samuel Johnsons, Albert Einsteins, Martha Grahams, or Socrateses of this world, whose admirable traits and activities, however extraordinary, didn't mainly or exclusively flow in the direction of efforts to help, and success in helping, mankind? In the case, of Einstein, indeed, we believe that the effect of his theories on mankind may well, through their influence on the development of the atom bomb and atomic power generally, be deleterious or harmful overall and in the long run, but if this stops the utilitarian from regarding Einstein as more admirable than people who simply mind their own business, it doesn't stop most of us from thinking him more admirable and having a greater admiration for his thoughts and deeds, his life, than for lives far less harmful or more beneficial to mankind. And so here as before, our intuitive evaluations are totally out of keeping with those utilitarianism is committed to.5

And my own tendency, at this point, is to agree with commonsense virtue‐ethical judgment in these matters and disagree, therefore, with utilitarianism. The theoretical benefits of utilitarianism's systematic unifying tendencies should not be underestimated or lightly renounced, but in this area, as in some others already mentioned, I find myself unable to go along with the utilitarian view of things. The gulf between deep‐seated intuitions and the deliverances of utilitarianism is enormous and not readily bridged or diminished. And that in fact leaves me at least with a preference for the combination of lesser unification and greater intuitiveness that our virtue ethics embodies over a conceptually and ethically more unified utilitarianism that offers us theoretical and methodological reasons for renouncing our (seemingly coherent and paradox‐free) intuitions about a wide range of value matters that includes not only moral issues, but also questions about personal admirability. (Not to mention matters of aesthetic judgment, where, as I have argued elsewhere,6 the total consistent direct utilitarian seems committed to treating benefits conferred on mankind as the sole criterion of aesthetic excellence.)

Moreover, in the light of what we have been saying in this section, it should be fairly clear how the particular divergence between ordinary and utilitarian judgments about comparative admirability stems at least in part from the different ways in which the two ethical theories interpret and apply the idea of self‐other symmetry. Our virtue ethics assents to two principles—representing the virtue‐theoretic analogues of imperfect duties—that claim fundamental positive significance for helping others and helping oneself—whether in terms of admirable qualities and attainments or of mere benefits. And as we stated them, those principles (p.234) expressed an ideal of balance in sensu composito between the self and other people. Just above, we explored some of the particular judgments of comparative admirability that a reliance on intuitions can give rise to, and some of those judgments not only are accounted for and partly justified by the way they fit in with the two principles just mentioned, but also serve as some sort of confirmation for those principles. The latter embody the ethical commitments of our virtue ethics very abstractly—in a way so general and overarching as to leave open a wide range of further issues for (intuitive) virtue‐ethical specification. But even so, the principles clearly express, as I have said, an ideal of (some degree of) balance as between the self‐regarding and the other‐regarding, where because of the way the principles are stated and juxtaposed, that balance is clearly to be understood in sensu composito. And when we then turn to the particular judgments of comparative admirability that seem plausible to many of us, we find that we are inclined to honor, to admire, both the great benefactors of mankind and individuals who, while not falling into this first category, encompass and exemplify attributes we admire, even marvel at. And it is by no means obvious that our untampered‐with judgments of comparative admirability always tend to favor the benefactors over the others. It seems fairer to say, rather, that there is no obvious or generalized direction of preference here, and that our particular beliefs about such matters reflect an emphasis on both self‐regarding and other‐regarding forms/embodiments of human excellence. And, of course, such a (relative) balance or absence of clearcut universal favoritism toward a particular form of admirability fits in well with the general perspective of virtue ethics as expressed by the above two principles.

Moreover, this particular form of reflective equilibrium favors the admirability judgments of commonsense virtue ethics over those of utilitarianism. For the latter balances the interests of self and other in an in sensu diviso fashion that clearly puts a premium on acts and character traits that do a great deal to help large numbers of people. If (for any given assignment) the self counts no more than any single other person, then self‐regarding interests and ideals may fairly easily be overwhelmed or outweighed by considerations about the effects one's acts or character will have on the rest of humanity, and on such an ideal vision, the Florence Nightingales and the Mother Theresas—assuming appropriate facts—will rank higher than the Samuel Johnsons, Martha Grahams or Albert Einsteins.

Let us at this point, however, switch over to a brief consideration of negative cases, that is, of how differently utilitarianism and virtue ethics would treat the criticizability or deplorability of various lives, careers, (p.235) people. Of course, we tend to think worse or less well of people to the extent they deliberately, or negligently, or even perhaps merely accidentally harm other people and themselves, but a number of other considerations enter into our thinking here, and in some cases we would have lower esteem for someone who did no overall harm to people than for someone who knowingly did more harm than good.

Consider, for example, a family where the father is a hardened criminal involved in extortion, robbery, even murder, and where there are two sons. The first gets himself better educated than his father through hard work and an intense effort of will; he becomes a teller in a bank and at that point starts feeling, for the first time, an inordinate temptation to steal. Although he knows this is wrong, wishes he weren't assailed by such desires, and is in fact horrified by the resemblance to his own despised father, he does steal a small amount. He has his own family, and when he is caught, he is for some reason let off lightly. He is simply fired, but, filled with guilt and anxiety, he finds it hard to find another job. His family suffers, but no one knows what to do. He does, however, find another job. He steals in a petty way again, but this time he is prosecuted and sent to jail. His family suffers worse than before. He eventually gets out, but by this time his wife has decided to raise the children on her own and obliterate him from her life and that of her children. They all suffer as a result, but they keep to this resolution.

Imagine further scenarios of this kind involving petty wrongdoing, more punishment, more guilt and anxiety. The man struggles with his own hated tendencies, comes to realize the effect his father's example has had upon him, tries to free himself from his weakness/compulsion, and finally, despairing of self‐help, puts himself in the hands of a social worker who figures out a way of keeping him out of the path of temptation long enough for him to arrive at a better understanding of his problems through intense counseling. Let us imagine the counseling really works, and that he emerges able to overcome any temptation to steal; eventually he leads a fairly normal life, marries again, and is able to maintain a stable relationship with his wife. Overall we can assume the man has done more harm than good, but he has indeed stopped being a destructive and self‐destructive person through an extraordinary persistence and effort of will, and a certain luck in finding someone to help him.

Compare this man to his brother. The latter is also traumatized by the criminal father; he develops psychosomatic invalidism and is never put in the way of any temptations to copy his father. He lives with his mother, does some piece work at home to make ends meet, but never goes out, (p.236) never has any social or emotional life, any life at all, outside his home, where he remains an invalid throughout his life.

The second brother probably does less overall net harm than the first. But because he never gets into life at all, because he, in effect flees life as a way of avoiding his problems, I think I have a lower opinion of him than of his imagined brother, who goes out in to the world, has a life, wrestles with his problems, and in large measure learns to overcome them. I have some admiration for the man we first described, but none for the second, and even if my admiration in the first case is also mingled with criticism, most of us would, I think, have a lower overall estimation of the life led by the invalid brother, a life that seems almost unrelievedly pathetic and redeemed by no really admirable features. Here, then, with lives that make no positive overall contribution to human happiness we can once more see a difference between the utilitarian and the commonsense evaluation of lives or individuals. Most of us, I think, would tend to have a (much) higher opinion of the first brother and his life, but utilitarians will treat as superior or (morally) better the life that does more overall for or less overall against human happiness, and so will disagree with the commonsense or intuitive response many or most of us would have to these two cases.

Utilitarianism therefore both in cases of positive admirability and in cases where there is much to be criticized and/or deplored treats the evaluation of lives and people as a function of net overall resultant (human) happiness. But our common opinions depend on other factors and allow great admiration to exist independently of actual or likely effects on overall happiness. The result is that utilitarianism's judgments about comparative admirability strain our sense of plausibility in a number of directions, and as I have said, I think the unintuitive character of many of its particular judgments gives us reason—some reason—to prefer the virtue‐ethical approach in this and other areas of ethics.

But there is another point to be made. As we acknowledged earlier, scalar direct utilitarianism cannot be said to demand too much sacrifice from individuals, since it actually makes no demands, sets no conditions on right action. So this particular route to the charge that utilitarianism downgrades or devalues the moral individual now seems well blocked, but that doesn't mean that there is no other way in which, in the light, for example, of what we have just been saying, a charge of devaluation can be validly brought against utilitarianism. For even scalar utilitarianism puts a premium on what serves mankind as well and as widely as possible, and it allows no other considerations to play a role in its judgments of comparative excellence or admirability. In other words, it (p.237) consistently idealizes what is instrumentally (most) useful to mankind's happiness, and treats the idea of comparative individual virtue or admirability as having no substance or validity apart from such an instrumental role. By contrast, commonsense thinking about the admirability of people, traits, and lives doesn't so nearly exclusively force us to look to effects upon others as a source of an individual's excellence—some forms of individual excellence will hinge on such extraindividual matters, but others will depend on certain kinds of self‐cultivation or individualistic flowering, and to the extent, therefore, that commonsense virtue ethics allows for factors of individual excellence that are largely independent of an individual's (likely) contribution to the larger whole, to mankind generally, it seems to place a greater value on the individual, to show a greater appreciation of genuinely individual merit, than utilitarianism does. In some sense, utilitarianism allows each and every individual to be evaluationally submerged in or engulfed by the sea of larger humanity, whereas virtue ethics, while giving considerable weight, in evaluating any given person, to the larger concerns of mankind, also accepts and encourages and values more individualistic forms of excellence. As a result, it precisely doesn't depreciate or deprecate individuals in the way utilitarianism does, and this criticism, along with the wide disparity we have found between utilitarianism's particular judgments and those that seem most intuitive and initially plausible, gives us reason to prefer virtue ethics over utilitarianism.

However, as I suggested at the end of Part III, there is another sort of consideration that looms or can be made to loom large in our critical comparison of these two approaches to ethics. In addition to its implausible implications over a wide range and at differing levels of generality and particularity as well, utilitarianism is multiply underdetermined relative to its own methods and motivations. And even if we go scalar for reasons having to do with the underdetermination of more familiar versions of utilitarianism, two forms of indeterminacy remain that cast doubt on the viability or validity even of the scalar form of utilitarianism we have been working with. It is time to say more about these problems.



(1.) On this point see my “Object‐Utilitarianism,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66, 1985, pp. 111–24.

(2.) I am assuming here that utilitarians would wish to model judgments of admirability on their judgments of instrumental goodness, rather than on their (p.238) judgments of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. Doing the latter would mean treating the admirability of a thing as a matter of whether it was instrumentally good, that is, morally right, to admire the thing, as a matter, therefore, of whether admiring the thing—as opposed to the thing itself—has good effects, and we could certainly accommodate our discussion to the possibility that admirability should be understood by utilitarians on analogy with praiseworthiness.

Note, however, that utilitarians typically (e.g., Sidgwick in Methods) treat desirability in a thing as the (instrumental or intrinsic) goodness of that thing, rather than as the (instrumental) goodness/rightness of desiring the thing, which is a quite different matter. In that case, it would seem most natural for admirability to be understood in similar fashion, and that is how I have understood it here. Since the other potential reading could in any case be accommodated, it needn't concern us further. But cf. Methods, pp. 492f., for what seems to amount to inconsistency on this point.

(3.) For utilitarian evaluation of persons see R. M. Adams, “Motive Utilitarianism,” Journal of Philosophy 73, 1976, pp. 467–81; J. J. C. Smart, “Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics” in Smart and Williams, Utilitarianism: for and against, Cambridge University Press, 1973; and S. Darwall, “Agent‐Centered Restrictions from the Inside Out,” Philosophical Topics 50, 1986, esp. pp. 309, 313. On the utilitarian evaluation of objects see my “Object‐Utilitarianism.”

(4.) See W. D. Ross, The Foundations of Ethics, Oxford, 1929, and The Right and the Good, Oxford, 1930.

(5.) For such claims and further argument in their favor, see Susan Wolf's important article, “Moral Saints,” Journal of Philosophy 79, 1982, pp. 419–39.

(6.) See my “Object‐Utilitarianism,” passim.