The Utilitarian Virtue
Posted by Michael Dickens on April 1, 2010
Many people have a whole list of virtues. This is fine with me. But according to Utilitarian morality, there is only one morality: maximizing utility. This is the one true virtue. I rather like the idea of having only one virtue, since it makes things a lot simpler. Other virtues can be seen as derivatives of this one. Compassion, empathy, and not harming others are all virtues that derive from the single supreme virtue of maximizing utility. Any list of virtues seems rather superfluous, as the only reason why they are virtuous is because they lead towards a single virtue.
In this light, the idea that there can be multiple virtues which are based on different principles — i.e. non-Utilitarian ones — seems rather absurd. If a virtue is defined as something that you must live your life by, then having multiple virtues would eventually lead to a self-contradiction. Unless, that is, these virtues have the same root, in which case they can hardly really be considered separate virtues.
If they either lead to self-contradiction or are simply redundant, why bother even having multiple virtues? Probably for the purpose of enlightenment. Having multiple virtues helps us keep straight which things are productive and which things aren’t. For example, not killing is a virtue, because we might forget that killing people does not maximize utility.
Deontology may also have different virtues. If we are talking Kantian Deontology, one of the three formulations is that you should act according to those maxims that you would universalize. By this formulation, a virtue is any maxim that can be universalized. So a list of virtues would be a list of universalized maxims. This may also explain why one might have a list of virtues.
Still, though, by Utilitarianism, a list of virtues in the conventional sense is rather superfluous. Utilitarianism has but a single virtue.