Ethics (3/3) — Virtue ethics

Rather than rules or consequences, virtue ethics looks at the qualities that underly particular actions. If, for example, you are an honest person, you might rarely tell a lie.

As I said before, one of the favorite practices of professors of introduction to ethics is the hypothetical. One of the most famous hypothetical is this: you are harboring a Jew during WWII, and a Nazi soldier comes to your door. Do you give up the Jew to the Nazi, knowing that he will die most horribly, or do you lie to the Nazi and save the life?

A deontological view with a simple rules, like “thou shalt not lie,” says “You tell the truth. So sad, too bad.” Of course, most people espousing such moralities won’t actually say that. They either “bite the bullet” as we say in philosophy, or they find some reason that there, that rule does not apply. Neither satisfies me.

A teleologist fares a bit better: she says “Lie. Of course.” But lies often make people feel better. Should I then lie all the time? This doesn’t quite satisfy, because we have a sense that lying probably isn’t a good practice overall.

The aretologist (or Virtue Ethicist) says “I am an honest person, so I do not tend to lie. I am also a compassionate person, so I do not tend to encourage needless suffering. And furthermore, I am a just person, and the Nazis are unjust. So I lie. It’s a pity that I have to, but — well, frankly, um, duh?”

Virtue ethics isn’t about following rules or attending to the calculus of consequences, but about what you are. It’s about becoming a good person, even if that means study and practice.

Each virtue is a balancing act. For example, justice is a balance between mercy and severity. Courage is a balance between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. And each virtue requires the skill or quality of phronesis, of wisdom, to find that balance.

One of the reasons I think virtue ethics is relevant to the magician is that even the word, virtue, means power. Being a good person, developing these characteristics, makes one capable as a human being and thus more capable as a magician.

The Wiccan rede isn’t an artifact of a virtue ethic, but there are four magical virtues describes by Levi:

To Know: The virtue of knowledge, of knowing what one must do, and what one must not, and how to achieve one’s aims, as well as to know oneself as human. The balance between ignorance and intellectual pride.
To Will: The virtue of resolution, of setting one’s mind and clearing one’s thoughts of distraction, of basic discipline. This is the balance between weakness and grit-toothed grim gym-teacher pain.
To Dare: This is the virtue of courage. Whenever I see someone new to magic surprised or startled by magical success, I think of this virtue, the balance between excuses and obsession.
To Keep Silent: The virtue of circumspection. We don’t have to keep everythign in magic a secret anymore, but sometimes we must just shut up in the face of the ineffable. This is the balance between haughty obfuscation and blatherskite.

I’d love to see more attention paid to virtue ethic in magic, and while I respect the rede, I respect the witch’s pyramid a lot more, because it serves as a practical set of virtues to aim toward in my own life, even if I don’t always achieve them.

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