Matthew Goodwin, being primarily a political commentator, would not have planned this, but by its very title (Values, Voice and Virtue) his new book points up a critical weakness in virtue ethics.

The revival in virtue ethics since Elizabeth Anscombe's essay 'Modern Moral Philosophy' in 1958 was meant to shift the focus in ethics back from being solely about what we do to the kind of characters we can (and should) be. But observers of the so-called 'culture wars' like Goodwin (in Britain focused on immigration) tell us that may not be a healthy ethical direction. 

Anscombe, and even Alasdair MacIntyre later, did not allow sufficiently for the kind of relation which now holds between morality and politics. In the culture wars, a range of virtues from patriotism to thrift to compassion to charity and many others, can become enlisted as badges of controversial, antagonistic (and frequently arrogant) groups. Meanwhile, as seen at various times in the past (notably in the 1960s and 1970s) corresponding vices are sometimes adopted as an act of defiance. Trump has shown himself the master of that display.

As virtues (and vices) are felt to be part of defining a personality and inclinations at an intimate level, for them to be tied in with hostile political identities will not sit easily with open and democratic politics. If, after all, we keep our ethics focused on what people do (that is, actions), there will still be political connections but these can be held at some distance from the individual soul.

Utilitarianism, for all its many flaws, at least tries to base morality on what is good for everyone. That very attempt ought to give morality a little space from identity with sectarian classes, races, nationalities, genders, and the rest.

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