I tend to be skeptical of virtue ethics, on a metaethical level, due to the implausibility of attributing moral properties to persons – for me, moral properties seem like the sort of entity that might only obtain for actions and states of affairs – but Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards seems to force me into saying that people can be morally bad (here is a review and critique of virtue ethics). After all, if someone commits all the sorts of actions that Underwood does it seems quite reasonable to posit that such a man is of evil and morally despicable character (here is my review of season two). But before rushing into this judgment about Underwood, and implicit support for virtue ethics, we should tend to whether these claims can survive an interesting objection to moral properties in general by Gilbert Harman.
Scientific vs. Moral Observations
Harman advances one of the most fascinating and challenging objections to moral realism by noting how unlike the sciences moral phenomena are. He argues that in science, observations are evidence for a theory, and that that theory explains why you had the observation that you did. By contrast, in ethics, says Harman, observation is evidence for your theory, but the theory does not explain why you had that observation.
My having the observation that Frank Underwood is a morally bad person is evidence for my theory that a person who
manipulates and murders other persons is morally bad. Nevertheless, it seems that that theory does not exhaustively explain why I had the observation I did. Rather than it just being the case, objectively, that it is morally bad to manipulate and murder persons, it just might be the case that in my culture it is morally bad to do such things, such that nothing about the brute nature of the world, which my theory attempts to describe, explains my observation. In other words, no supervenience relations between non-moral facts and moral facts of the sort required by moral realists need be posited to explain my observation, only non-moral psychological and sociological facts, thus casting doubt on moral realism, and with it, virtue ethics.
Moral Explanations and the Counterfactual Test
A spirited response to Harman comes from Nicholas Sturgeon, of the Cornell realism movement. Sturgeon proposes a counterfactual test for the explanatory power of moral facts, positing that if the moral conclusion of a conditional (the consequent) could be false and the non-moral explanation in the antecedent could still be true then the moral explanation is not needed. But if it seems to us that the moral conclusion could not be false while the explanation is true then the moral conclusion has explanatory relevance and thus fits into the best explanation of facts of the state of affairs.
So to test whether objective moral facts explain why I have the observation that Underwood is a morally bad person we must look at the counterfactual of ‘if he manipulates and murders persons for his own political gain, then Frank Underwood is a morally bad person’, which is: ‘if Frank Underwood wasn’t a morally bad person then he wouldn’t manipulate and murder persons for his own political gain’. If this counterfactual is true then moral facts do have explanatory relevance, if this counterfactual is false then moral facts do not have explanatory relevance, according to Sturgeon.
Virtue Ethics Cannot Pass the Counterfactual Test
I think Sturgeon’s theory when conjoined with virtue ethics falls short of adequately meeting Harman’s criticism of moral realism. Harman’s insight is that our moral theories must explain our observations and our observations must explain our theories in a continuous explanatory loop; Sturgeon’s proposal as applied with virtue ethics cuts off this loop. In order to meet Harman’s objection completely, the fact that Underwood is morally bad must explain why the actions he commits are morally wrong. The moral realist cannot allow this because it would entail subjectivism of moral facts due to the supervenience relations between moral facts and non-moral facts being too closely linked to individual persons.
This should lead the moral realist to jettison virtue ethics from their metaethical project as we can see that virtue ethic explanations are unpalatable. But we need not look farther than actions to meet Harman’s challenge. Consider these revisions to the virtue ethicist’s explanations of Frank Underwood: ‘If action F is such that it manipulates a person for personal political gain, then action F is morally wrong’, such that the counterfactual claim of this is: ‘if action F is not morally wrong then action F is such that it does not manipulate a person for personal political gain’. These conditionals have explanatory power because they explain the observations and theories we have as being necessarily linked due to supervenience relations between moral and non-moral properties. If an action is morally wrong if it has certain natural properties and an action that is not morally wrong does not have those properties then it seems quite plain that those properties are explanatorily relevant to why we have the observations that we do, such that a theory about the moral relevance of those properties explains our observations and our observations, again, support that theory.
What of Frank Underwood: is he of morally bad character, or may we only say that he frequently commits morally wrong actions? It follows from what I have argued, that virtue ethics has poor explanatory power and thus must be rejected on epistemological grounds, that on an ontological level we should only be confident in speaking about the morality of his actions, not his person. So, Frank Underwood is not a morally bad person, because it is not metaphysically probable that he is a morally bad person.