Leora Sung (UCL) - 2018-19 Students

A Virtue Ethics approach to Beneficence

Virtue ethics asks the question “what kind of person should I be?” rather than “what should I do?”, and differs from other normative theories in that instead of dealing with specific ethical choices, it deals with the entire life of the agent. My research would flesh out in detail what this kind of approach would imply for our moral obligations to alleviate poverty, and synthesise virtue ethics and related ideas into a single account of our duties of beneficence. Issues to address include the extent to which there should be constraints on partial love and impartial benevolence, the importance of the emotional and motivational aspect of the moral agent when giving, and the development of the agent’s psychological and moral capacity to give huge amounts without causing the self to wilt away.

This discussion is particularly relevant to the field because of the emerging philosophical and social movement of effective altruism, which aims to bring about the most good by employing cause prioritisation and cost-effectiveness as core strategies. Although the movement does not rely on act-consequentialism, the implications that arise from such an approach to poverty alleviation are the same. My research will examine whether a virtue ethical approach to beneficence is compatible with effective altruism, and whether nonconsequentialists in general should understand ethical giving in effective altruist terms. Also, does effective altruism make room for agent-centred partiality for particular charitable causes, and if so, what is the level of adequacy for partial preference for a suboptimal charity? If there are insufficient agent-relative reasons, what would virtue ethics say in regards to someone who gives to a suboptimal charity in comparison to someone who doesn’t give at all?

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