17 December 2012
Annas vs. Driver: Why We Should Never Sacrifice Knowledge
For as long as we Homo sapiens have been capable of reasoning, we have pondered how we ought to live our lives. What constitutes a “good” life? What constitutes a “bad” one? How should we treat the world, and how should we treat ourselves? What does “good” even mean? Although the answers to these questions are understandably still quite foggy, it seems safe to say that the general consensus leans toward a utilitarian stance: to be good is to live in a way that limits the suffering of others or that brings about the greatest happiness to the greatest number of individuals.
To better strive towards maximizing universal good, humankind has tried to actively distinguish between “right” and “wrong” behaviors. In doing so, many morality systems have been proposed by many different people each with the hope of best being able to accurately guide us in this process. Those who seem to best exhibit the morals we set are praised as being virtuous. However, it is obviously not universally agreed upon as to what these standards are. Thus, living virtuously has many different meanings and applications depending on whom you talk to. In her article, “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing”, philosopher Julia Annas dismisses static and impersonal accounts of moral theory in favor of a developmental, personal, and knowledge-based account of virtue ethics. Most people, she argues, near
adulthood with only a limited, parochial understanding of morality that they developed largely because of the family and/or culture they grew up in. Realizing that some of their ideas about morality and virtue are mere convention (and maybe even prejudicial), they then attempt to better themselves. One way that they may go about this, as described by Annas, is to:
. . . take the directives that we find in our unreflective ethical thought, and refine them so that they do one thing clearly and specifically, namely direct us. We look at the rules in everyday ethical discourse, notice that they are vague and may conflict, and try to refine them so that conflict is ruled out. Or we follow Sidgwick in looking for principles behind everyday rules––principles which do not suffer from the flexibility of those everyday rules. (Annas page 62) From this, they may try developing a “decision procedure”, or a practical, systematic theory that tells them how to behave correctly––something that Annas strongly discourages.
Annas insists that a moral “theory of right action”, a theory that tells us what to do, is not the method we use in determining our lives’ decisions. If we follow a computer manual-like, technical model for our moral decision-making we most certainly would face problems, she argues. For one, this would imply that anyone who has access to this “manual” could supposedly become an “expert” in moral theory. At first glance this does not seem so bad, but under further inspection there are major implications if we choose to accept this. Clever––but naïve––teenagers could become moral experts. Someone with Greavu 3
good, technical understanding of the moral-manual could have a wholly contradicting, sadist personality. Any blame or praise therefore could only be rightly attributed to the manual and not the person’s character. A method that strictly tells us what to do and completely eliminates the factor of one’s character is poor procedure as the only way we can justly evaluate someone is by taking his or her external character into consideration. Instead of a moral theory that simply tells everyone what to do, Annas advocates for a “building”, character-based model of virtue ethics. In this, one would start by identifying people who appear to be virtuously superior to him or her in some respect. At a young age, this could be parents or teachers. It is important to note that these proposed...