… Supply-Side Virtue Ethics
Moral theorists are fond of dividing ethical theories into two varieties: consequentialisttheories, according to which the rightness of an action is a matter of its having beneficialconsequences, and deontological (“duty-centered”) theories, according to which the rightness of an action is a matter of its falling under the appropriate rule. But in recent years, many moral philosophers have begun to revive a different approach to ethical questions, one with roots in Greek antiquity. For the Greek moralists, the central question of ethics was not “What rules should I follow?” or “What consequences should I promote?” but rather “What kind of person should I be?” For the Platonists, Aristoteleans, Stoics, and their modern admirers, the rightness of an action is a matter of its expressing the virtues — that is, those attitudes and dispositions of character that best exemplify what it means to be truly human. This ethical approach is known as Virtue Ethics — and I might as well confess immediately that it represents my own ethical convictions as well.
One distinctive feature of Virtue Ethics is that, to borrow a distinction from Douglas Den Uyl, it represents a supply-side rather than a demand-side approach to ethics. According to a demand-side ethics, the way that A should treat B is determined primarily by facts about B, the patient of moral activity; but for a supply-side approach like Virtue Ethics, the way that A should treat B is determined primarily by facts about A, the agent of moral activity.
Let’s apply this distinction to the special case of justice, that virtue which determines the proper sphere for the use of violence among human beings. My having a right consists, at least primarily, in other people having an obligation to act toward me in certain ways; those others act justly insofar as they respect my rights. The rights-bearer is thus defined as the patient of just activity. A demand-side conception of justice, then, would focus on the rights-bearer; its primary concern would be to determine the features of human beings in virtue of which they possess rights.
It seems to me — though not all Virtue Ethicists agree — that a Virtue Ethics approach should reverse this direction of scrutiny. In questions of justice, the focus should be, not on the person qua moral patient, the bearer of rights, but on the person qua moral agent, the respecter of rights. In other words, from the supply-side perspective of Virtue Ethics, the moral agent’s main question in matters of justice should be, not “What it is about other people that requires me to respect their rights?” but rather “What is it about me that requires me to respect the rights of others?”
Virtue Ethicists, particularly those in the Aristotelean tradition, see the aim of the moral life as one that best expresses what it means to be truly human, as opposed to erring on the side of either the subhuman or the superhuman; for example, Aristotle counsels us to live the life of a human being, not the life of a beast or a god. The cowardly, the stingy, the sensualistically self-indulgent, pay too much respect to their animal side, their vulnerable embodiedness, and neglect the divine spark within them; the rash, the spendthrift, the ascetically self-restrained, pay too little respect to their animal side in their quest to divinize themselves. Only the courageous, the generous, the temperate find the distinctively human path, the Golden Mean between less-than-we-can-be and more-than-we-can-be. …