Imagine you hit the EuroMillions. Your numbers came up! You are now the proud owner of £70 million.

You tell a few people – your mum, your dad, and your best friend. Fifteen minutes later, you get a call from your aunt. You haven’t spoken to her in years! You didn’t even realise you had her saved in your phone! You tell yourself it’s just a coincidence. Maybe someone’s died? Someone’s probably died.




She asks you a few preliminary questions, draping the very thinnest of veils over the real purpose of her call.

‘You know, you really ought to give some of that money to charity.’

You try to agree enthusiastically. Really you just agree. There’s a world of difference between ‘Yes I definitely will!’ and ‘Yes I will! Definitely.’

Trust your aunt to ruin even this. This should have been the sweetest moment of your life! She couldn’t go fifteen minutes without foisting a moral dilemma upon you.

You think about what she said.

‘You really ought to give some of that money to charity.’

 You were never particularly philosophical before but there’s a house in the Bahamas at stake here.

‘I ought to give money to charity? What does she mean ‘ought’?’

You grab your phone and tap in ‘ought definition’, telling yourself this is the last bit of work you’ll ever do. Soon you’ll have people to do this kind of thing.

Ought: (used to express duty or moral obligation): Every citizen ought to help.

‘Duty? Moral obligation? What is moral obligation? In virtue of whom, or what, am I obliged?’


Once you set out on this line of thinking, you’d do well to consult a 1958 paper by Elizabeth Anscombe. Titled ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, it begins with a quick dismissal of almost every famous ethicist since Aristotle. The theories of Butler, Kant, Bentham and Mill are all considered and rejected within a matter of paragraphs.

Not one to mess around.

Anscombe’s real issue, though, is with the way these ethicists use the word ‘ought.’ She takes every one of them to be using it in the dictionary-approved way: ‘You ought to do X’ means ‘You are obliged to do X.’ And the question then is, ‘Obliged by what?’

‘Obliged by nothing!’ says Anscombe. Moral obligations are not like legal obligations. There is no moral police to arrest you if you don’t donate to charity, but many ethicists continue to think and write as if there were. Anscombe suggests this is a hangover from Christianity and its law conception of ethics, in which you are obliged to behave in a certain way under threat of eternal damnation. Kant, Bentham and Mill all dispense with God in their ethical theories but retain the notion of ought-as-obligation, even though such obligations make no sense without God! Think of their theories as trees whose roots have withered away and Anscombe as the person running through the forest pushing them over.

Anscombe concludes that the moral ‘ought’ has become “a word of mere mesmeric force” and so has no place in a decent ethical theory. Instead, she says, a decent ethical theory should begin with concepts like ‘action’, ‘intention’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘wanting.’ Out of these concepts, she suggests, we’ll be able to move towards the concept of ‘virtue’. Anscombe herself doesn’t say how this can be done, but plenty of people have taken up her challenge of basing an ethical theory on virtues rather than obligations. Some of the most famous are Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum. Their approach has come to be known as virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is currently a very fashionable position, but it got its start with Aristotle way back in the fourth-century BCE. Aristotle began his ethical theory not with talk of obligations but of the highest good. This highest good is supposed to be the one thing that is desirable for its own sake and not as a means to anything else. Aristotle is basically asking, ‘What, deep down, does everyone want?’

He decides that what we all really want is eudaimonia. This is a Greek word, often translated as ‘flourishing.’ We all want to flourish! Flourishing means living well. It means living a happy and fulfilled life.
In order to flourish, we need to be the right kind of person and that means possessing the right kind of virtues. These virtues are – if we’re being technical – dispositions to think, feel and act in certain beneficial ways. If we’re being more straightforward, they’re basically just good traits of character. Examples of virtues include honesty, courage, kindness, generosity and – maybe – awesomeness.

Kanye, very much a believer in the old-‘You can’t love someone else until you love yourself’-adage, sings here about his and Kim’s awesomeness.

Honestly, I think this song is so beautiful it really surprised me to learn that a lot of people dislike it. Both the lyrics and the sound of Kanye’s voice through the autotune project a real vulnerability. It’s as if he’s a bit afraid of his own love, as if he’s scared he’s not worthy. This means that when he sings ‘Baby I’m awesome, also’ it sounds like a resolution rather than conceit, as if he’s made peace with his feelings.

If Kanye and Kim really are awesome, the virtue ethicist will hold them as role models to try and emulate in our day-to-day lives. When we’re not sure how to act they say we should ask ourselves, ‘What would an awesome person do? What would an honest person do? What would a courageous person do? etc.’ and then try to do that thing. If we do this enough, we will ourselves become awesome, honest, courageous. Aristotle’s great insight is that “We are what we repeatedly do.” We become virtuous by repeatedly doing virtuous things.

What would a virtue ethicist say about your lottery dilemma? Well, they wouldn’t say ‘You really ought to give some of that money to charity.’ At least not in those bare terms. This is exactly the kind of unsupported obligation that Anscombe thought was ruining moral philosophy.

They’d say, ‘If you want to flourish, you should do the virtuous thing. You should do the thing that is honest, courageous, kind, generous, awesome, etc.’ But, unfortunately for your house in the Bahamas, this amounts to the same thing. It’s pretty obvious that the kind and generous thing to do is to give some of your new-found wealth to charity. Your aunt and the virtue ethicist both tell you to cough up.

Now if you’re really serious about this house, there are a few ways you could respond to the virtue ethicist. The first is to question their claim that we need virtues to flourish. You could claim that you’ll flourish more if you don’t act generously in this instance. After all, it’s just one little selfish action right? And you’ll get a beachfront property out of it! Owning a beachfront property has got to be flourishing, right?

At this point, the virtue ethicist will hold their ground. Aristotle would say that you’ve misunderstood what flourishing is. He writes in his Nichomachean Ethics that flourishing is “the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” You just can’t flourish if you’re not virtuous, no matter how many beachfront properties you own.

But things aren’t over yet, because now flourishing sounds kind of sucky, doesn’t it? You have to be kind and generous? Uhhhh, boring! Over it! I don’t even want to flourish.

This move is more difficult for the virtue ethicist to respond to. They’ll want to say that your life will be worse if you choose to be selfish and unkind – that you’ll regret it and wish you listened – but this puts them on shaky ground because the discussion is no longer in conceptual territory. Whether or not you’ll feel regret in the future is an empirical question – it’s about the world rather than words – and so the philosopher is playing away from home, so to speak.

Will you regret not donating? Tough to say. We want to believe that selfish people ultimately get their just deserts, but I think in reality that often doesn’t happen. Maybe your conscience will flare up sometimes late at night. Maybe you’ll see ads for charities on your big-screen TV and feel pangs of guilt. But will it be worse than forgoing all the luxuries? I’m not so sure.

In any case, though, we can now trap the virtue ethicist in a dilemma. Because what if they’re right? What if your life would be better if you gave the money to charity? Wouldn’t it then be selfish to give the money away? After all, you’d be doing something to make your life better. That doesn’t sound virtuous at all!

Now it seems as if we’ve got the pesky virtue ethicist caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, if they admit that donating to charity will make your life worse, then they seem wrong about flourishing. On the other side, if they maintain that donating to charity will make your life better, then donating doesn’t actually seem virtuous. And if you aren’t going to be virtuous either way, you might as well get that house.

But the virtue ethicist isn’t going to give up just yet! They'll say that giving to charity can be virtuous. It all depends on the reason why you give. If you only give because you want to flourish, that’s selfish. But if you give because you’re a generous person, that’s virtuous. The truly virtuous person is motivated by their own virtues and not by self-interest.

The major problem with this response is that it won’t convince anyone who’s not already virtuous. You can’t give ‘because you’re a generous person’ if you’re not already a generous person! And if you are already a generous person, you probably don’t need convincing! Notice how the demands of our virtue ethic have shifted as we’ve discussed these objections. We’ve gone from ‘Act virtuously because it makes your life go best!’ (easy) to ‘Just act virtuously!’ (more difficult) to ‘Act virtuously because you’re already a virtuous person!’ (but what if we're not?).

In this way, we can see that virtue ethics is blighted by the same old problem that Anscombe identified in her paper. Either acting virtuously is in our self-interest or it isn’t. If it is, then it doesn’t really seem virtuous. And if it isn’t, how do we convince the lottery-winner they ought to act virtuously?

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