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.