Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism: An Approach by Appearances

One of the fundamental differences between human beings and other animals lies in the possibility of sophisticating thought in order to achieve moral greatness. For Aristotle, habits that direct man towards the good are virtues. On the other hand, practices that degenerate man are called vices. Because of this, an ethical basis becomes necessary for human beings to develop virtues that elevate them individually. Consequently, there will be collective progress since a society founded on morally correct principles enables human development.

The study of ethics is complex and ancient and subject to different approaches. From the late 19th century to the 1930s, ethical issues in business studies were practically nonexistent. Still, from the 1970s onwards, administrative ethics emerged as a field of research involving discussions on moral dimensions, ethics in the organizational context, and the relationship between public and private morality. Some authors have focused on the study of ethics. Valls (2017) sees ethics as the scientific or philosophical study of the customs and actions of human beings. Siau and Wang (2020) understand that ethics is the subject of multidisciplinary studies and consists of a system of principles, rules, or guidelines that contribute to defining what is good and correct.

It is worth highlighting the importance of Virtue Ethics for Public Administration. Ames (2020) argues that this philosophical current is capable of offering a perspective for reflection on the relationships between stakeholders, governance networks, and the co-production of public goods in the sense of opening up a range of possibilities for observations on the various roles that social and political actors can play in the social fabric and the extent to which their practices can contribute, or not, to the improvement of public spaces, the achievement of happiness and the common good.

The utilitarian field, perpetuated by authors such as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), determines that valid actions can provide maximum happiness and pleasure to the most significant number of people. In other words, a valid moral action is only one that benefits the greatest number of people to the detriment of others (BENTHAM, 1979). Its main premise is utility and maximization, and according to authors such as Foot (1985), its most notable vulnerability is consequentialism. Utilitarianism proves incapable of foreseeing all of the major consequences of human actions as long as they correspond to good results for human beings. This means that all actions aimed at technological progress, for example, are valid because they increase the quality of life of human beings, even if this requires environmental sacrifices.

While Virtue Ethics is characterized by norms, goods, and virtues in constant dynamism, utilitarianism emphasizes goods, detaching itself from norms and virtues. In light of this, it can be seen that reductionism in man’s motivation characterizes utilitarianism, as authors such as Philippa Foot (1985) maintain that both ethics are incompatible. However, Zappellini (2020) points out certain similarities between the Utilitarian and Virtue Ethics currents: (i) both focus on reason, rather than emotions and feelings, to define moral behavior; (ii) both place happiness as the ultimate goal of humanity, although the two currents understand differently what is meant by human happiness; (iii) the consequences of actions define moral action. Despite the similarities at first glance, it is more possible to draw Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics closer together by distinction than by similarity. Or rather, even if there is an approximation, it is characterized by appearances. Their foundations and focuses are distinct, and their integration is of little significance.


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