From guest blogger, William.
How would a virtue ethicist approach capital punishment? It is a question that is more complicated than it seems. The two other philosophical views that were discussed in class hold clear views on capital punishment. Strict deontologists would support capital punishment. The readings for this class show this. Shafer-Landau spends a lot of time discussing how Kant determined how punishment should be morally speaking. Kant and other deontologists believe that criminals should be treated the same way they treated their victims. Capital punishment to them is morally okay. Consequentialism as well believes that capital punishment is morally okay. Consequentialists would mainly look at the positive consequences of capital punishment, such as criminal deterrence and prevention of further crimes committed by the criminal upon their release from prison. To a consequentialist the death of one person is fine, because it generates greater overall happiness in the community.
Thought experiments help show how much virtue ethics struggles with morality and capital punishment. A man on death row for murder. The man in question lived a virtuous life before committing his crime. Is he still a virtuous man even though he committed a heinous crime? Virtue ethics struggles to come to a concrete decision in this case. This is because virtue ethics does not look at just at a person’s action, but the person’s life as well. Taking the man’s life into consideration, a virtue ethicist must consider the death penalty as punishment for this man’s crime to be unjust and immoral. This example also shows another issue with virtue ethics. It does not explicitly state what makes a virtue a virtue. Is capital punishment in this case justice or revenge? Virtue ethics does not answer this question, because virtue ethics only states being morally right comes from being virtuous. It does not answer conflicts about what actions are virtuous.
There is a group of people that I have neglected in this post so far: the executioners. That is because virtue ethics does not cover the moral dilemma faced by executioners. If executioners killed those who were actively hurting innocent people, there would be no moral quandary. But, executioners kill powerless people. A prisoner on death row is completely helpless. This creates two questions. Are the actions of an executioner virtuous? Does executing prisoners make an executioner a virtuous person? To a virtue ethicist the answer to both of these questions is no. The job of an executioner is to murder a helpless individual. A virtuous person would not kill a handcuffed person, regardless of who they are. This allows us to answer the second question. The actions of an executioner cannot make the executioner a more virtuous person, because the actions undertaken by the executioner are not virtuous.
I personally believe that virtue ethics is quite weak when it comes to these situations. The criticisms of virtue ethics can be seen quite clearly when applying it to something like the death penalty and capital punishment. While consequentialism and deontology have quick answers to this moral question, virtue ethics flounders. This is because virtue ethics mainly describes and does not prescribe. In the end a proper virtue ethicist would be against capital punishment, but their argument would be quite weak.