The title of this post is a bit overstated; what I’m really wondering is whether Virtue Ethics and Contractualism are not viable. I take it as a piece of contemporary philosophical commonsense that Divine Command Theory is not a viable ethical theory, because it succumbs, without hope of resuscitation, to the Euthyphro Dilemma. I also think that Virtue Ethics and Contractualism succumb to the same objection (mutatis mutandis). If so, and if we’re willing to say that DCT not only has problems, but also should be rejected as not even a contender because of the Euthyphro Dilemma, why don’t we say the same thing about Virtue Ethics and Contractualism?
For those not familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma, it’s often put something like this. According to Divine Command Theory, the right-making property of right acts is that God commanded that we perform such acts. But God issues her commands either (1) arbitrarily or (2) on the basis of reasons. If (1) God issues her commands arbitrarily, which is to say that God has no reasons for commanding as she does, then it could have just as easily turned out that murder, rape, and torture are all morally permissible or even obligatory, and so (1a) DCT potentially has implausible implications about which acts are right and which are wrong, (1b) morality is totally arbitrary on DCT, which seems to run counter to our intuitions about morality; and (1c) it runs counter to the usual DCT’ist conception of God as a rational chooser. If (2) God chooses on the basis of reasons, such that, say, God commands against torture because torture causes suffering, then the content of those reasons (X causes suffering), rather than the mere fact that God said so, is what makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong. That is, option (1) has unacceptable implications for morality (and theology), and option (2) implies the falsity of DCT. It seems to me that virtue ethics and contractualism also succumb to the same objection, because they too are ethics-by-authority, and ethics-by-authority is the more general feature that is open to the Euthyphro Dilemma objection.
It’s too quick to call the Euthyphro Dilemma a decisive objection to all forms of ethics-by-authority, for Relativists would embrace horn (1) of the dilemma, and grant that since ethics is established by authorities (in this case, us, rather than God), it is totally arbitrary. (Then we’re off to other usual objections to relativism.)
But virtue ethicists have not, to my knowledge, dealt with this objection sufficiently (any virtue ethicists out there should point out if I’ve missed something here). For they say an act is right when it is what the virtuous person would do. But, if (1) the virtuous person’s chosen actions are chosen arbitrarily, then morality becomes implausibly arbitrary. And, if (2) the virtuous person makes choices on the basis of reasons, such as the suffering of the potential victim, then the content of those reasons, not the mere fact of being chosen by a virtuous person, is what makes it the right choice, implying the falsity of Virtue Ethics. One might appeal to the procedure by which the virtuous agent chooses as a way of slipping through the horns of the dilemma, but then we get the problem with procedural ethics that either any moral judgment could pass through the procedure, including obviously wrong acts such as torture (problem 1), or we have to somehow constrain the procedure with substantive considerations, in which case we’re constraining the authority of the virtuous person by some prior moral reasons, in which case those reasons, rather than the fact of having been chosen by the virtuous person, will be what makes right acts right (problem 2).
Contractualism, as a view distinct from deontology and consequentialism, also seems to fall to this objection, since it too is an ethics-by-authority. On this (non-Deontological or –Consequentialist) view, right acts are right because (roughly) they comport with policies that rational agents would agree on. But, either (1) rational agents could in principle agree on any policies, even those that allow actions that are obviously immoral, or (2) the agents – being rational agents, after all – would be constrained in their agreements by prior substantive moral considerations, implying the falsity of the view that the mere fact of agreement is solely what, at the most fundamental level, imparts rightness to an action. Scanlon never resolves this Euthyphric problem in a way that I find fully conclusive, but he makes noises that sound like he’d opt for (2), such that the value of rational nature constrains the permissibility of different agreements, which (if this interpretation is correct) would mean that his view is not a non-Deontological Contractualism; put differently, this kind of view is just one form of Deontology rather than a wholly independent moral theory. I’m fine with avoiding the Euthyphro Dilemma by importing prior substantive moral considerations and embracing horn (2) as part of a rejection of pure ethics-by-authority, so that kind of move doesn’t bother me. But it can’t help a pure Contractualism, that is, a Contractualism where the contract itself really is the sole fundamental right-making property.
If this is correct, then we’re left with Deontology, Consequentialism, and Pluralism as viable ethical theories, and Particularism perhaps as an anti-theory. (I’ve actually got a paper arguing that some versions of Deontology, specifically Korsgaard’s influential argument for the value of rational choosers, also succumb to the Euthyphro Dilemma, but I think most other forms of deontology bypass that problem.)