One of the main criticisms I hear against thinkers like Heidegger and Levinas is that they aren’t directive enough. They don’t tell us what to do. The reason for this dissatisfaction is that our world is dominated by two ethical paradigms, consequentialism and deontology.
Consequentialism is the belief that only outcomes matter. Deontology is the belief that only rules matter. If you know what outcome you’re trying to achieve, then anything can be justified. If you know what the rules are then you can bury your head in the sand and follow them without worrying about the results. Both consequentialism and deontology offer the comfort of clarity and certainty.
Consequentialism is the implicit framework for most annual reports. “These are our metrics. These are our achievements. Aren’t we great?”
Deontology is also a pretty good framework for annual reports. Instead of focusing on outputs (OKRs) you list your inputs (activities, processes).
Consequentialism and deontology both work well if you want to express your “value proposition.” Both help you make your case in a world that is “solution”-oriented.
But the core discovery of folks like Heidegger and Levinas, who are adapting Aristotle to a postmodern world, is that an over focus on solutions misses the personal (soulful) dimension. Organizational annual reports are built to prove “impact,” but often fail to measure existential growth, habit, discovery, insight, and spiritual formation.
The notion that one should do something whether or not it will work or solve something, and whether or not it is a formal duty or rule-based obligation is a hard “sell” to typical investors, funders, etc. who want to see a bottom line of one kind or another. And they aren’t wrong to want one, either, because without some accountability or objective metrics folks can (mis)use virtue ethics as a blank check to justify self-indulgence and solipsism.
Yet we need to make room for the specter of virtue in our ethical discussions and in our weighing of organizational policy decisions. How do we do this—and how do we balance it against the worldly pull of consequentialism and deontology—is itself a question best discerned by those who seek to be virtuous.
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There is also a slippery slope of trying to justify virtue-ethics arguments by translating them into "value" in consequentialist terms. Some theory that people who act in X fashion live longer, are happier, make better decisions, etc. I struggle with your last question all the time, and the feeling of foolishness that comes from being the only one asking that question.