Bernie (and virtue ethics)


Last night my girlfriend and I watched Bernie, the story of a virtuous man, played by Jack Black, who murders a close friend, and is sentenced to life in prison. The narrative is not much more expansive than that, the first half of the movie focuses on how virtuous a person Bernie is: among other things he is a funeral director who takes a personal interest in those persons who survive the deceased. This leads to his meeting Ms. Nugent, who despite being a widowed curmudgeon, takes a liking to him and through her wealth invites him along on her travels. Eventually she becomes possessive and he is not able to spend his time giving back to his community through his directorial contributions to a local theater. He is visibly distressed during this time, and ultimately shoots her in the back with a rifle, but immediately feels great remorse about what he has done. As he has been given power of attorney over her accounts, he uses her wealth to help out the people of his town, while he hides her murder by claiming that she has had a stroke and cannot be seen. Eventually he is discovered, but the town adores him so much that they attempt to convince the district attorney to drop the case, or at least press for lesser charges. The case is heard by a court in a different town, such that there is no bias, and he is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

I want to use Bernie to discuss moral philosophy, but before I do, I want to note that I greatly enjoyed the movie for its humorous depiction of life in small southern town, and for how realistic the storyline was. There were no surprises, which I found refreshing, and this allowed the audience to focus on the character of Bernie.


One of the major schools of normative ethics is virtue ethics, whose most famous proponent is Aristotle. The basic formula for morally good actions, on this view, is that an action is morally good if and only if a morally virtuous person would perform that action. A virtuous person is someone whose actions are appropriately moderated in that they are neither excessive nor deficient in certain respects. This latter notion is “the doctrine of the mean”, attributed to Aristotle, which suggests that the virtuous action is somewhere in the middle of the scale of possible actions.

As an example, suppose you witness a young child trying to cross a busy street (let’s stipulate they are not lost so we don’t run into the complication that it would be bad for them to cross the street and move farther away from the place they were last seen). You might think you need not help them across the street, or you might be so concerned for their safety that you implore them not to cross the street at all. The virtuous action is somewhere in between these options of deficient and excessive beneficence, respectively. It seems the action in the middle of this spectrum is helping the child to cross the street. In moral philosophy we are often working with moral intuitions, which are the prescriptions of right actions for a situation that are prior to moral principles such as ‘x is morally good if x maximizes happiness’, where x is an action. As such, we test moral principles and theories against our moral intuitions, because our moral principles are supposed to explain the moral intuitions we have. Examples, like this one about the child, are called “thought experiments” because they generate intuitions that our theories must explain. In the case of this thought experiment, I think we can agree that our moral intuitions tell us that the right thing to do is to help the child across the street. As virtue ethics entails that we should help the child across the street, and our moral intuitions tell us we ought to help the child across the street, this is a thought experiment that confirms virtue ethics.

Notice that virtue ethics is a moral theory that identifies a good action with what a moral exemplar would do in that situation. WWJD, or ‘what would Jesus do?’ is a moral exemplar theory tailored to Christianity. Using Jesus for a moral exemplar theory works because he is dead and as it is impossible for him to perform more actions, assuming, as Christians do, that all of the actions that he took in life were good, he is a reliable guide. In cases where we look to virtuous persons now alive we run the possibility that they will commit an immoral action in the future, according to our moral intuitions, such that at that time in the future a theory of virtue would tell us that that immoral action is moral. This possibility serves as a counter example to virtue ethics.

The virtue ethicist has a way around this, of course, and that is by specifying their theory thusly, “an act is morally right just because it is one that a virtuous person, acting in character, would do in that situation” (Russ Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, page 253). What this qualification does is rigidify what constitutes virtuous actions by idealizing the virtuous person. The idealized virtuous person always acts in accord with his virtuous character, so in following him we will never be led astray.

But what about Bernie?


The virtue ethicist posits that the virtues are character traits and not just behavioral tendencies. Bernie was, before the murder, on all accounts an incredibly virtuous person, such that we would be inclined to say that indeed he did exhibit the virtues as character traits and not just behavioral tendencies. He was an instantiation of the idealized virtuous agent! If virtue ethics is correct then it seems that he should have the character traits necessary to guard against doing something so immoral as murdering someone. I’ll allow that a virtuous person can do minor wrongs on occasion, but a virtuous person could not possibly murder someone. It seems that if virtue ethics is right, then either it is possible for a truly virtuous person to murder someone, or Bernie did not have the virtues as character traits, but rather acted morally good out of habit, such that he hadn’t internalized the practical wisdom of virtuousness. The proponent of virtue ethics will reasonably take the latter stance, and I think it is within their means to do so, but I take the entire first half of the movie to evidence that if there is such a thing as virtuosity, then Bernie is virtuous. In other words, if there is such a thing as morally good character then Bernie has it. So considering Bernie as a thought experiment, it seems that either a person with a virtuous character is capable of murder, or there is no such thing as virtuosity, at least insofar as is relevant to moral principles. That’s quite a dilemma for the virtue ethicist. I, on the other hand, gladly accept the latter option.


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  1. #1 by jmeqvist on November 24, 2013 - 8:19 pm

    This is a great entry.

    While I would not consider myself a virtue ethicist, as I endorse a pluralistic account of ethics that combines virtues, duties and rights without necessarily making one fundamental, I don’t see why this needs to be such a dilemma for the virtue ethicist.

    I think that virtue ethicists tend to have a questionable commitment that makes virtue a more secure source of goodness but nonetheless lend less plausibility to the theory. The commitment I am thinking of is the idea that virtues do not conflict with one another.

    If virtues can conflict with one another than while it may be the case that under ideal conditions the truly virtuous person could be incapable of doing wrong, the incapability would be due to a combination of virtue and the nature of the situation the virtuous agent find him or herself in. This would mean that virtue would not guarantee goodness because if virtues began to conflict because of unfortunate circumstance wrongdoing could result.

    I don’t know why some feel such a need to make goodness utterly immune from fortune. While I am certainly less well-read in analytic moral philosophy than yourself I don’t see what would be wrong with a virtue ethicist endorsing conflict between the virtues and moral luck.

    I am just trying to better understand your post, and trying to propose a third option which retains the notion of virtuosity while also admitting that virtuous people are capable of wrongdoing even when they are acting in character.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on November 24, 2013 - 9:19 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and the excellent insight!

      I want to quote your last line as a starting point, because I agree, “virtuous people are capable of wrongdoing even when they are acting in character”. I think we can coherently talk about people who are virtuous, because on the whole, they normally perform good actions. But notice, what I have said identifies virtuosity with the tendency one has to perform good actions, not character traits. Using such a rigid thing as personality identity as the locus of morality is troubling, for just the reason posed by Bernie. He is virtuous, in that he performs many good actions, and that is the extent that we can predicate someone as being virtuous. To go deeper and posit that virtuosity is tied up with moral character, needlessly commits the virtue ethicist to saying that a virtuous person is determined by their character not to do bad. I think this is excessive and superfluous; all that need be said is that a person is virtuous if they frequently do good actions.

      As for your excellent points on moral luck, I agree that if a person is in a dire situation, wherein they must choose between two very repulsive actions, it is not a failure of their moral character to do one of those bad acts. This is certainly true if we imagine it really being a matter of luck that they are in that situation. But if they are faced with this decision because of some bad choices they made then the use of virtue ethics might break down. Recall that virtue ethics is what I have called a moral exemplar theory and consider: I need money to pay off my gambling debts and the loan sharks will hurt me if I don’t pay up. The only person who I can get money from is my friend, and though I have no intention of repaying him, I promise to repay him if he loans me money. Thus, I have a choice between lying and sparing myself some suffering. I want to do the morally right thing here, so I take the virtue ethic approach. I deliberate: What would a virtuous person, acting in character, do in this situation? A virtuous person would never end up in such a position, so how am I to imagine what they would do in this situation? My point is that luck gets us in tricky spaces, wherein virtue ethics might not function optimally, but this seems to be where we need it the most!

      But your point is well taken. If through no fault of my own I am in a position to choose between two awful actions, then it is not a violation of the virtuous person’s character to do an awful action. This is true. But my point in using Bernie is that he wasn’t in a dire position when he killed a helpless old woman. It wasn’t the case that he chose the lesser of two evils, such that, it would be unfair to say that he went against his virtuous character. He did go against his virtuous character, assuming he had one, because his choice was between killing her and having lunch with her. There were no conflicting virtues here. That’s why I think Bernie serves as a hard case for the virtue ethicist to accommodate.

      Thanks again for your comments, I think they clarified what I was trying to say.

      • #3 by jmeqvist on December 1, 2013 - 6:43 pm

        Thanks for the excellent response.

        The other easy answer for a Virtue Ethicist with relation to Bernie is the problem of akrasia, which I think perhaps you are gesturing to with the response that Bernie was not virtuous in the first place. If Bernie had weakness of will we can certainly explain his actions despite the fact that he seemed virtuous. But I would be interested to know what you thought of this problem.

        Likewise, one other thought that I had was that for virtue ethics the virtues are not something that can be fully assessed from a third person perspective, as what makes a person virtuous partially lies in their desires, which are not necessarily evident in action. If someone always has acted generously, but has very selfish desires that they have been able to avoid acting from because they want to appear generous than they are not really virtuous. Perhaps Bernie seemed far more virtuous than he was ?

        The other thought that I had was to what degree a virtue ethicist needs to be committed to the unity of the virtues. Now certainly we still are left with the notion that the perfectly virtuous person cannot do evil acts, but Bernie might be more plausibly seen as possessing some virtues but lacking in others. Even though I am very interested in and influenced by Aristotle and ancient moral philosophy in general, I have always found the notion of the unity of virtues peculiar and something that creates more problems that it solves.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on December 2, 2013 - 12:12 am

        Akrasia is a very interesting subject, and I thank you for pointing to it, but I don’t think it offers much of a way out for the virtue ethicist in regards to seeing Bernie as a hard case. I say this because akrasia is a character trait that is not a virtue nor a vice. Persons who are akratic do not have mastery of the practical wisdom of moral knowledge, and virtuous persons do have mastery of the practical wisdom of moral knowledge, and as my argument has been that Bernie is virtuous, it follows that he is not akratic, and thus, it is not possible to explain his murdering the old woman by positing that he experienced weakness of the will. I think weakness of the will is possible, as I accept ‘motivational judgment externalism’ and deny ‘motivational judgment internalism’.

        I agree with your second point about observing virtues. I suppose the virtue ethicist can allow for this in order to avoid saying that virtuous persons can commit murder, but if we take virtue ethics as a moral exemplar theory, such that our decision procedure for moral considerations is based in what a virtuous person would do, then it seems we lose ground in having justified moral knowledge. So the dilemma seems to be, here, between saying that we don’t know who is really virtuous, but we need to know who is really virtuous to have moral knowledge. That doesn’t sound like a great solution to accounting for Bernie.

        I must admit that I don’t know much of the ‘unity of the virtues’, but I can’t foresee it being a way out for the virtue ethicist.

        Thanks for your great comments. I’m learning more about virtue ethics through this conversation.

  2. #5 by gaurarader on November 24, 2013 - 8:45 pm

    Virtue ethics never made any sense to me as a normative ethical theory. Trying to make it into one always seemed like a round peg in a square hole.

    • #6 by ausomeawestin on November 24, 2013 - 9:21 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, gaurarader! Virtue ethics definitely has many shortcomings.

  3. #7 by Sir Song II on November 27, 2013 - 11:11 am

    I want to ask about:

    “The basic formula for morally good actions, on this view, is that an action is morally good if and only if a morally virtuous person would perform that action.”

    How can we determine that a morally virtuous person would perform an action? But in general even, how can determine that any person would perform an action?

    • #8 by ausomeawestin on December 1, 2013 - 1:52 pm

      Good question, I’m not pleased with the virtue ethicist’s theory here, but my understanding of it is that through moral education youths develop the practical wisdom of moral action, such that they are instilled with virtues as character traits. The idea is that these character traits become deeply engrained in the personality of the agent, such that they determine the actions that the person will take. That gets to your second question.

      Your first question is tricky, because it’s a chicken or the egg scenario. We know the personalities of some people quite well, such that if we consider them virtuous, we know how they would act in the situation. The question is how can we be justified in thinking they are virtuous? I think the virtue ethicist has to rely on some pre-theoretic intuitions on morality in order to get their theory off the ground. We use our moral intuitions to test our moral theories, but moral intuitions also provide us the starting point for moral theories. It seems virtue ethics explains why we have these intuitions, (that action is right because a morally virtuous person would do it), but it doesn’t go much further in building on these intuitions. It seems that virtue ethics provides us with a way to check that our moral intuitions are correct, but doesn’t go much further in providing a decision procedure when we are faced with moral dilemmas. So an interesting question in contemporary moral philosophy is whether we should expect a decision procedure, from virtue ethicists, or any other moral theorist.

      An interesting view that is gaining traction is ‘ethical particularism’, which denies that we can expect a decision procedure for moral dilemmas. Utilitarianism and Kantianism are examples of ‘ethical generalism’; they provide moral principles, or general definitions for the necessary and sufficient conditions for morally right actions. Particularism denies that these are possible, it holds that there is an objectively right action for each scenario but that it is foolish to rely on principles that try to locate the moral status of an action as due to having the property ‘maximizes utility’ or ‘does not treat a person as a mere means’, because a reason for taking an action in one situation might be a reason not to take that action in another situation. The interesting thing is that virtue ethics for a long time has been stated as a generalist thesis, a moral principle stated as you quoted with an ‘if and only if’. Recently though, it has been posited that virtue ethics is a particularist thesis, such that the reason why this definition fails is because it is not meant to be a definition. It is only meant to provide justification for there being morally good actions in different scenarios, not a decision procedure. Taken in this way, we shouldn’t read virtue ethics as saying ‘act like a virtuous person would’, but rather, ‘the right action depends on the situation, and the virtuous person knows that different situations call for different actions, and you should keep this in mind’. This is an interesting reading of virtue ethics, but I don’t want to suggest that it is obvious that this is what Aristotle meant. There is still a good deal of disagreement on how to read Aristotelian virtue ethics.

      In conclusion, I am not certain that the virtue ethicist has a good answer to your first question, but the jury is out as to whether the virtue ethicist wants to answer it.

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