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The virtue of practice

In Moral Philosophy there are four main strands:

• Utilitarianism: i.e. 'the greatest good for the greatest number'
• Egoism: i.e. 'I know what's best for me, and that's all that matters'
• Kantianism: i.e. 'there are certain things that are right, and that's that'
and
• Virtue ethics: i.e. 'learn to live the right life, and you will be good'

From what I have learnt of ethics, I find virtue ethics to be the most satisfying. It is inclusive, allowing one to pick and choose from the other three methods of determining morality, and it is practical - emphasising the difficulty of living morally, the ability to improve oneself and to learn from mistakes.

In the 'Western' tradition, Aristotle (a great man in most ways, though unfortunately also the root of much of EuroChristian sexist dogma) introduced this ethical method via his famous 'Golden Mean' (see e.g. MacKinnon 90). For example, you are walking down the street and you see a starving beggar: you would be miserly ('illiberal') not to spare a bit of the excess money you have, but stupid ('prodigal') to immediately sign over your bank account and house to him. What would be the virtuous thing to do would be to give him what you can spare.

In other words, adopt the 'Middle Path': which brings us to Buddhism and Confucianism. These religions/philosophies emphasise the ability of the individual to choose to act morally, and the need to learn to do so through actions.

From what I understand of Buddhism, it basically advises people to understand that suffering (a consequence of immoral action one might say) comes from desire, and one can avoid this by learning to reject the impulses that come from desire. This can be done through a slow process of meditation and practice (e.g. physically getting rid of all possessions to avoid getting attached to them).

Confucianism focuses less on the individual I would say, but again there is a strong emphasis on practice: with a famous passage stating (basically) that in order for a ruler to enable a virtuous kingdom, he (for women weren't involved here either...) has to start by practicing virtue himself (“The Great Learning” qtd. in Velasquez 161).

And a note on gender: Gilligan's famous approach argued that women tend to have a different way of making moral judgements. Key words are 'concrete', 'relational': i.e. placing moral dilemmas in their practical environment and judging from there (Rachels 163-4). Which, perhaps incidentally, ties in with the feminist insight of making the personal political.

In anthropology the importance of understanding human behaviour as 'practice', promoted by Bourdieu and others has come to dominate; and the fundamental method of anthropology - participant observation - seems to be gaining converts in all kinds of disciplines and areas (cultural studies, market research, ...). As a method, it promotes understanding through living - i.e. practice. A parallel necessary understanding is that researchers need to understand how they too affect the ongoing practices of what they are seeking to understand: known as being 'reflexive'.

So, to conclude this somewhat rambling post: morality is developed through practice, and honest reflection upon one's own position. Practice, as a method and as a theoretical standpoint, is emerging as a paradigm in many disciplines. Reflexivity is also central to ethnographic practice.

Therefore, I suppose, one can argue that social science methodologies have mostly shed the idealistic modern/scientific notion that neutrality and objectivity are attainable, and instead moving to an ethical stance that has its roots in virtue ethics.

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Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. UK: Polity Press, 1993.
MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics. Theory and Contemporary Issues. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2001.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy. A Text with Readings. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 2005.