It may sometimes be quite difficult to follow my train of thought without me making the basis of that thought explicit. However, if I have to spell out the basis of my ethical thought every time I write about it I’ll have very little time or space to write about anything else.
When I write about whether we should have allowed Cassandra Callendar to die, or whether we should allow transgender people to compete in the Olympics I refer to traits such as cruelty, kindness and other forms of being fit for purpose. It might not immediately be clear that I am basing my case on anything other than feelings, or gut instinct. It might look like I think that the doctors should not have allowed Cassandra Callendar to die because the thought of it makes me feel bad. I actually have a specific concept of a person in mind and a specific set of criteria which we ought to follow when making these sorts of judgements.
The general ethical theory that I use is virtue ethics. The simplest possible way to explain it is that good actions are those done by good people and a good person is someone who is good at being a person. This looks hopelessly circular at first glance, if good actions are defined in terms of what good people do and good people are simply defined as those who perform good actions then we are terribly lost! The thing is, there is a definition of a good person, based on a concept of what it is to be a person at all which prevents this from happening.
This might be unclear. I think it might help if we try to forget that we frequently use “good” in a special way when we refer to actions. In virtue ethics, there is no special moral meaning of good (some virtue ethicists might dispute this). When we refer to anything else as good we understand it in terms of good for X or good at Y, in other words, there is a purpose to the object we are judging and we will judge that object as good if it is effective at achieving, or acting in accordance with that purpose. So, the old example of a chocolate teapot might be a useful illustration of a BAD TEAPOT (but possibly a GOOD SNACK). A good guitarist can bust out a wicked solo while a bad one can barely keep in time. Virtue ethics is the same idea. The only difference is that rather than playing the guitar, or being a teapot, a good person is someone who lives a worthwhile life. In Aristotle’s terms this is eudaimonia, or flourishing. The virtues are those character traits that are necessary for, or compatible with a person’s flourishing, and virtues in combination with practical wisdom, or phronesis in Aristotle’s terms, produce good actions.
Rosalind Hursthouse has come up with what she calls “Plato’s requirements on the virtues” which helps to illustrate what this really means.
“1. The virtues benefit their possessor. (They enable her to flourish, to be, and live a life that is, eudaimon.)
2. The virtues makes their possessor a good human being. (Human beings need the virtues in order to live well, to flourish as human beings, to live a characteristically good, eudaimon, human life.)
3. The above two features of the virtues are interrelated.”
(Rosalind Hursthouse “On Virtue Ethics” Oxford University Press 1999 pg 167)
There are a few further points to make about this. It could be easy to mistake virtue ethics for egoism, where actions are taken because they will promote the virtues that a person needs in order to live well. This is not exactly the case, a good action is an action from virtue, not for virtue. So, if I treat someone kindly then, if it is a good action, the motivation is simply that the action is kind, not that I want to develop kindness in myself for my own reasons. The action also needs sufficient phronesis or understanding of the situation to ensure that the action actually is kind. Taking a fish out of water because I am concerned that it is going to drown might be motivated by kindness in the right way but demonstrates a lack of understanding about the nature of fish and so fails to be good.
The next point is that the same thinking can be extended to consider the requirements for various roles. We might modify the above requirements on the virtues to come up with medical ethics based on the role virtues of doctors so that the second requirement becomes
The role virtues of a doctor make their possessor a good doctor (Doctors need the role virtues in order to perform their function well, to flourish as doctors).
This may seem overly formal to some people but I think it can be extremely useful when we start to consider the overlapping nature of the roles we occupy, human, citizen, friend, parent etc.
It should also be pointed out that this means a person can be wrong about what is good for them. A specific person with specific tastes and capabilities in a specific environment will have specific things they can do, or capabilities that they can develop, which will help them flourish. There may be a range for each person and there may be a common core of virtues for every person but there are similarly a range of vices which will only serve to make a person’s life worse. An obvious virtue might be a sense of kindness/sociability which leads a person to deal with other people in a way which means that they can be at least tolerated by others. Humans are social animals and we are in a social environment. So, in order to flourish, we need to deal with each other with a certain level of respect. This is, I think, a plausible candidate for a universal virtue. Cowardice might be a plausible candidate for a universal vice, although caution and even fear can be extremely useful traits extreme fear to the point that it harms you by preventing you from acting can only contribute to a life being poorly lived.
There is, of course, a great deal more to say but I think this is sufficient as at least a general primer. Individual differences make a big enough difference that it is often foolish and potentially cruel to try to dictate how other people live. However, this should be enough to understand why I argue against some cases of letting a person die and for other cases of letting people live in ways that might be very difficult for others to understand.