February 23, 1998
Volume 50, No. 22
Philosopher Hall looks closer
Virtue ethics has held-even in its historical roots in ancient Greek philosophy-that there is a necessary link between the acquisition of excellent character and human happiness. In other words, human beings cannot flourish without virtue.
"But virtue ethics has also often contended that part of human happiness is outside the province of character, and that certain sorts of 'goods' important to our happiness are not susceptible, at least not fully, to our control," said Pam Hall, an associate professor with a joint appointment to the Department of Philosophy and the Institute of Women's Studies. Examples include health, financial prosperity, friends, the fate of those we love and even our own fates.
The very conditions for acquiring good character, such as proper education by family and community, might be seen to be a kind of luck, explained Hall. "Thus virtue ethics has been compelled to address tragedy and its significance and the ways in which misfortune may test, inform, rebuke or warp character." Hall is writing the book Ethics and Tragedy to explore the significance of tragedy within contemporary virtue ethics. She has taken a semester's leave with the help of a University Research Committee grant to work on it.
"It's ironic that an ethic that wants to think about human happiness and what produces human happiness has found itself, more and more, thinking about tragedy," Hall observed.
Hall's book project pursues two ends. First, she will be examining and clarifying what the most influential contemporary ethicists have said about tragedy. "Part of this involves determining what tragedy is for each, since there is considerable debate among them," she said. "Contemporary virtue ethics-which includes the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum-argues for the crucial importance of character for ethics," said Hall, who trained with MacIntyre as a graduate student. "Thus it stresses character formation and the role of the community in this formation, and examines the nature and function of the virtues in the moral life."
The book also will offer Hall's own account of tragedy in relation to an ethics of virtue, in part by considering in more detail how privation and disorientation may function in relation to character. She will also address how love-often taken as a primary virtue within this tradition-is crucial in response to tragedy. She looks at several novels in her research, including Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Virtue ethics only recently has received renewed interest in the academic community. More dominant approaches have included deontological ethics, which places primary value on moral obligation and the demands of duty, and utilitarianism, which evaluates actions on the basis of the consequences produced. Rule-based utilitarianism views certain kinds of actions as prohibited because they tend to lead to negative consequences. Act-based utilitarianism judges the consequences of acts on a case-by-case basis.
Virtue ethics is distinguished from these other schools of thought because it emphasizes character and sees action as flowing out of character, not as primary in itself, Hall said.
Even in contemporary political life there's a renewed interest in virtues and character, Hall said, noting that "contemporary virtue ethics has partially initiated that renewed interest."
Hall's first book, Narrative and the Natural Law, considered the ethics of medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. "I've always been drawn to issues that have to do with virtues and what I would broadly call 'moral psychology,'" she said.