In an attempt to revive the ideas of virtue ethics, many philosophers have expressed their criticisms of so-called “modern ethical theories.” Some examples are as follows. Pincoffs presents his idea that modern ethical theory (MET) reduces ethics to resolution of quandaries. Williams explains his idea that MET focuses on only a particular, peculiar variety of ethical thought called “morality.” Stocker claims that MET lead to “moral schizophrenia.” And Wolf claims MET embodies the idea of a moral saint. Among these critics, I believe that Pincoffs presents the strongest criticism of MET. According to Pincoffs, ethics today is concerned with finding rational grounds, often concieved of as moral rules and the principles from which they can be derived, for problematic situations.
He refers to this type of ethics as Quandary Ethics (QE) and raises some questions in criticisms of it. Pincoffs begins his piece by establishing a foundation and clarifying QE as opposed to classical ethics. Quandary ethics is defined as an attempt to provide rational grounds for difficult decisions to resolve perplexities that arise in problematic situations; “the ultimate relevance of ethics is to the resolution of problematic situations in which we fall,” (191).
QE is a newcomer because it does not deal with moral enlightenment, education, or the good for man as classic philosophies do; QE is based upon practicality and applicability and is less concerned with general rules or guidelines for moral behavior. He illustrates his point by comparing QE to Aristotle. Pincoffs claims this is a radical departure from virtue ethics that centers around the question “how should we resolve the perplexities” rather than “how should we live.” Pincoffs claims that this radical departure from virtue or classical ethics is unnecessary.
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He says that philosophers go along with MET because of scholarly convention. The moder theorist would say that METs are needed since nature dictates ethics and the time we live in is problem-plagued, quite possibly from problems created by technology and social change, we need new ways of solving problems. Pincoffs claims this argument fails for two reasons; one, many classical theories have been taught and adopted during tumultuous times in history and two, this objection would also be an attack of QE because the rules and principles it tries to provide will be forced to change as circumstances change. Pincoffs states, “Men can be perplexed because they are sensitive and conscientious people; because they do not have the sense to avoid perplexity; or because they are pathologically immobilized by moral questions. A well-founded ethics would encourage the development of moral sensitivity, but discourage moral quandaries which arise out of moral ineptness or pathological fixation.” (189).
The quandarist claims that when deciding the right thing to do (resolving a perplexity), QE is analogous to the law. One must realize, “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, but only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me is right for everyone,” (193).
Pincoffs claims this analogy with the law, with respect to the impersonality of the decision, whether an action is correct or not, is widely accepted. It lets the quandarist know what a problematic situation is.
According to this conception, the person in the situation is irrelevant. What is relevant is what “tacit or explicit agreement” he has made. The conflict of rules / duties are conflicts into which anyone can fall and the resolution to the conflict must be right for anyone who falls into them. QE fails to see the dis analogy between moral and legal correctness-decisions. Some personal considerations that are irrelevant in legal cases are relevant in moral ones. These personal considerations deal with, “what the agent will allow himself to do and suffer in accordance with the conception that he has his own moral character,” (194).
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Therefore, what is right for anyone in the same circumstances is not necessarily right for me because what I have to take into account as well as the situation is the question, “what is worthy of me.” Pincoffs states that the quandarist cannot ignore these personal considerations but by acknowledging them, the quandarist is forced to “shift the focus of ethics away from problematic and towards character: away from Hobbes and towards Aristotle,” (194).
Pincoffs proves character is crucial in his analysis of rule based ethical theories. A modern ethical theorist would say that when deciding the correct thing to do, people look to find a rule set of rules or a rule and exception because most people are “tied by some kind of logical necessity to the concept of rule abiding in thinking what is and is not correct,” (196) but Pincoffs claims even if this was so, “we would still have to let considerations or character in the back door.” (196).
In order to do this you have to understand the different ways in which a rule might come to infringe upon a person. He makes an analogy to orders and commands. Commands tell us what to do or refrain from doing in such explicit terms that there is no or very little room for variation in which it is obeyed or disobeyed.
Orders do not specifically tell us what to do as what to accomplish or at what we should aim for. General Commands and Orders apply to everyone and General Standing Commands and Orders apply to everyone in recurrent situations. Rules are like general and standing commands and orders. They may allow no leeway in compliance or they may allow a great deal of leeway. Some moral rules are more like general standing orders than general standing commands. (i.
e. “love they neighbor”) They say what is wanted but not a way to do it. Some moral rules are like commands (i. e. “never break promises”) consist of largely “specific injunctions and directions” (197).
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However, if we think of them as orders they allow more discretion; “they do not tell us exactly what to do so much as indicate what to struggle for in our own way,” (197).
Pincoffs notes that “since we are already moral beings with characters formed, they way in which I will abide by an order-rule is not they same as the way in which you will,” One has to decide not only what rule governs the case but how to go about regarding it. Therefore considerations of character, “do enter in by the back door,” (197) even if “being moral is nothing but following a set of moral rules.” (197) Moral decisions need not be merely personal; it is often not relevance to the correctness of moral decision to take into account “what I am”, myself as a moral being. Understanding these consideration of worthiness leads us away from the typical examples of Quandary Ethics. One exhibits his character in doing such things as turning the other cheek and welcome the second mile to show the kind of man he is. Quandary Ethics “conceives of a quandary which arises because I fall into a certain situation.” (198) The situation is in general terms, not referring to an individual with personal conceptions of what are and are not worthy deeds and attitudes and feelings worthy of him. One may fall into this situation in virtue of falling under a rule which would apply to any person or any person in a particular role.
“The general situation is what gives rise to the quandary; and it is only by reference to the features of the situation that I may deliberate concerning what I should do, or justify my action.” (199) Pincoffs states reference to standards and ideals is essential and not an accidental feature of moral deliberation. What is not judged morally is the extent to which one abides by the rules (those which are like general standing commands) which sets the minimal limits which anyone should observe in his conducts, even though it may be a necessary condition of his having any degree of moral worth that one should abide by such rules. Another problem with QE is that it identifies morality with conscientiousness. By starting from problems and their resolutions, and by confining the description of problematic situations to those features which a general description can be given, the whole question of morality of character is restricted to judgments concerning the conscientiousness of the agent. Contemporary moral philosopher make this claim to conscientiousness on the basis that there is a need for more complex rules and the consequent demand for some kind of individual. That is not just rule-abiding but rule-responsible, so that he doesn’t panic when rules conflict.
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Pincoffs claims that though it may be socially necessary that people are rule responsible, it doesn’t mean we must confine our assessments of moral character to judgments of the extent to which the individual. Is rule responsible. QE assumes that being moral can be reduced to being rule-responsible (essence of morality).
Pincoffs claims that the essence of morality is confused with the idea that some moral rules (rule-responsibility) are socially essential. But to grant that rule-responsibility is socially essential does not grant that it is the essence of morality. QE is flawed as it reduces the topic of moral character to the topic of conscientiousness or rule-responsibility, but it gives no account of the role of the character as a whole in moral deliberation and it excludes questions of character that are not directly concerned with the resolution of problems.
Taking into account the criticisms of modern ethical theory I have discussed, it is clearly evident that an ethical theory shaped in light of these criticisms would be very similar to virtue ethics, emphasizing character and centering around the question, “how should I live.”.