Merritt’s Humean Approach to Situationalist Ethics

            The study aims to introduce an ethical theory that is completely independent from situations that give rise to the occurrence of different inconsistencies of virtue and/or ethics. What Merritt proposes in the study is a virtue ethic that does not entirely depend on situationalist parameters in order to develop certain kind of virtue that leads to the formation of a stable virtue and ethical practice. The nature of the work is primarily focused on social dependence while maintaining a stable virtue ethic. Merritt mentions in her conclusions the two positions on the approach of Humean ethics contrary to the use of Aristotle’s view on living a virtuous life.

Aristotle and Hume in relation to Virtue

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            Aristotle’s work on moral philosophy culminates in his work in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s moral philosophy, in a nutshell, is living life in balance or appropriating virtue through the golden mean. For Aristotle, virtue has polar opposites that need to mediate in balance in order to acquire true virtue. “Moral qualities are so constituted as to be destroyed by excess and by deficiency. Strength is destroyed both by excessive and by deficient exercises” (Aristotle, 35).

            On the other hand, Hume’s approach to ethics is based on empirical factors. According to Hume, “since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions, affections, it follows that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence” (Hume, 325). Moral actions are not derived from reason and therefore reason alone cannot satisfy. Hume’s moral theory is based from an empirical approach – virtue separated by the spectator, receiver, and the agent. An action of good by the agent on the receiver may be construed as virtuous or ‘good’ if the receiver benefits from the act and experience a sense of agreeability. The spectator may also view this action morally good by sympathizing toward the receiver, who in some way experiences the same moral approval as the receiver. Hume separates virtue through the natural or instinctive (benevolence) and the artificial (justice) artificial virtue is acquired from experience.

            The distinction between the two approaches to virtue ethics lies primarily on the point of existentialist ideology. Both theories approach the centeredness of man’s actions and its moral implications toward the receiver or the other. For Aristotle however, the notion of virtue entirely lies on the self living a life of virtue and balance. There is no consideration however, for the aspiration of others as Aristotelian virtues remain universal in the sense that all human beings who aspire leading a good life is by being virtuous. For Hume however, the results of moral action are dependent on the receiver and an observer. In addition, moral actions are reinforced or motivated by either vice or virtue.

Merritt’s view on Virtue

            Merritt however, presents an alternative view to a situationalist view of ethics that is solely dependent on societal norms rather than a subjective dependence of personal morality standards. Merritt presents two positions on her approach to virtue ethics in response to Humean moral philosophy:

             “One position would be to agree that instances like these set the standards of stability for genuine virtue. So we should withdraw the general principle for Humean ethics, that it doesn’t matter how stability in the possession of virtuous qualities come about” (Merritt 381).

            “The other position would be to point the statistical rarity of individuals who, absent social support, remain capable of that impressive degree of stability, while allowing that despite its rarity and difficulty it stands for something desirable in the possession of virtue. But what it stands for is, simply, the importance of stability, however that may be secured” (Merritt 381).

            Merritt supports the second proposition, that ethical behavior and virtue should be based from social dependence without having to sustain virtuous behavior that is alien to societal norms. This supports Humean ethics as virtue is solely based on the reception of not only the receiver but also the observer.  “The fact that some extreme situations make the highest degree of MSC (Motivational Self-Sufficiency of Character) necessary for the stability in virtuous qualities does not by itself, give us a good reason to resist dependence on social support in the greater part of our lives” (Merritt, 381).

            Virtue and moral behavior, though not to be considered as entirely dependent of social norms, should then be aligned toward the contribution of the greater good, which is the inception of virtue aimed toward the betterment of society. Though stability in terms of testing times is enough proof to attribute moral or virtuous behavior through the parameters of society. “Then what remains is to pay attention to the way in which climates of social expectation can engage deeply enough with individual character to produce effects approaching incontrovertible stability: as for instance when they engage with normatively charged emotions like pride, shame, guilt, and the sense of integrity” (Merritt, 381). However, virtuous behavior should influence the good in a societal structure, not what the normative ideologies of society influencing individual behavior. Therefore, the situationalist view on virtue and ethics is downplayed through the use of virtue that deeply influences moral behavior from the individual to society. Even with stability maintaining virtuous character, there is no immediate need for a relative measure of stability in a societal aspect and therefore should be utilized in achieving morally good and ethically accepted behavior.

Works Cited

Watt. Aristotle.;Â H. The Nicomachean Ethics. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Mineola, N.Y. Dover Publications, 2003.

Merritt, Maria. “Virtue Ethics and Situationist Personality Psychology.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Kluwer Academic Publishers. (2000) pp. 365-383.



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