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Virtue Ethics, Mental Illness and Discrimination


There is a type of ethics called “virtue ethics” that has become increasingly popular lately. It’s become especially popular among those who study ancient philosophy and in religious circles, especially in Catholicism. The basic idea is that actions should be judged, not according to rules, but according to the virtues or vices of those who perform them. Ultimately, for instance, what is wrong with something like mocking someone isn’t that it hurts them, but that it is cruel. This might sounds like it’s not a bad approach, but it ultimately creates a type of ethics that excludes and discriminates against people with mental illnesses, especially bipolar people.

Virtues and Vices

The Four Cardinal Virtues

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Strasbourg Cathedral. Public Domain.

Virtues and vices are what are called “stable dispositions of character.” To unpack that, it means that there are certain things people tend to enjoy or dislike, and they tend to do this consistently. So, some people enjoy pain in others; they are cruel. Others enjoy happiness in others; they are compassionate, and so forth.

In virtue ethics, when evaluating a person, we look at their virtues and vices, and see whether they are good people or not. Individual actions are evaluated based on the virtues or vices of the person doing them, while types of actions are evaluated based on the virtues or vices of the kind of person who would normally do them. On the strongest version of the theory, the only thing that makes an action right or wrong is that it is what a virtuous or vicious person would do.

Why Virtue Ethics Is Attractive (and To Whom)

Instead of simply evaluating actions, we can talk about the kind of people we want to be, and what kind of people we should be.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts. Public Domain.

There are reasons why this theory sounds attractive. For one thing, it is more holistic. Instead of simply evaluating actions, we can talk about the kind of people we want to be, and what kind of people we should be. It has the further consequence that morality and happiness get tied together; part of what makes us a good person is that we become the kind of person we want to be. Virtue is a kind of “flourishing”, or, more precisely, it is what enables us to flourish.

Paradoxically, it means that we can actually evaluate more actions. Rule-based theories usually end up saying that whatever we do is fine, so long as we don’t hurt anyone else. Virtue theory gives us reason to say that we should get off of the couch, not eat that last donut, or form a lasting friendship. Only some of our actions are going to be relevant to moral rules or impersonal utilitarian calculations. On the other hand, all of our actions are relevant to our characters.

So, ultimately, virtue ethics is attractive to two groups of people. The first are those who want to make ethics more holistic, and the second are those who want to expand the range of moral action. For this reason, we find virtue ethics most appealing to those who like ancient philosophy and to those who want to expand the sphere of ethics, especially Catholics.

Why Bipolar People Don’t Fit Into Virtue Ethics

Except in the most extreme cases, I am not dissociative during my episodes. I see no reason, then, to dissociate two thirds of my life in order to satisfy a theory.

Four-Faces Buddha

Source: MabahamoCC BY 2.0

The most obvious problem for those with mental illnesses, especially bipolar disorder, is that it our dispositions are…less than stable. I’ve written on this subject before, in which I’ve argued that I don’t need a “real me”. The basic point of this was that the entire idea of looking for a “real me” was unhelpful.

As a bipolar person, if I start looking for a stable character, I end up identifying my “real me” with my euthymic (i.e. non-episodic) self. Like most bipolar people, I exist in (at least) three states: manic/hypomanic, depressed and euthymic. Which one would be the “real me”? The obvious candidate is the euthymic state, but it’s really not that simple. Or rather, it’s simply not true. Two-thirds of my life are not an illusion, and two thirds of my emotions are not the emotions of someone else. That’s just me two-thirds of the time. Extreme, cycling moods, overstimulation, and the inability to enjoy pleasurable activities are defining symptoms of bipolar disorder. Except in the most extreme cases, I am not dissociative during my episodes. I see no reason, then, to dissociate two thirds of my life in order to satisfy a theory. So much for virtue ethics’ holism.

But if I don’t accept that my euthymic self is my real self, then I don’t really have stable dispositions. Or rather, if I do, they are certainly not emotional ones, nor ones connected to pleasure and pain. That, as far as I can tell, would rule out almost all the virtues. Virtues are stable dispositions, and my dispositions are decidedly unstable.

In other words, I simply don’t fit into virtue ethics. I become, at best, a pre-moral being, one with neither virtues nor vices, and therefore nothing to evaluate. At worst, I vicious, because I have a “disposition” to be erratic and unreliable. My actions aren’t virtuous, since they do not proceed from stable dispositions of character. Even if I act like a virtuous person, I can’t really act as a virtuous person.

Why Virtue Ethics Implies That the Mentally Ill Are Bad People

Simply put, we can’t both say that what makes people happy is what makes them good, and say that what makes people unhappy doesn’t make them bad.

Homeless Woman Being Arrested

Source: humblogCC BY 2.0

But wait, there’s more (as the infomercials say)! Virtue ethics ties together happiness and virtue. Virtue isn’t just a random collection of character traits; it is precisely those dispositions that allow a human being to flourish, i.e., to be happy. Virtues are both what allow a person to be happy, and what makes someone a good human being. This, of course, it its appeal to those who want a more holistic theory of ethics.

However, the problem here should be obvious. It would seem that mental illnesses make it more difficult to flourish. That’s a large part of makes them mental illnesses. They are hindrances to functioning, and, plus, they just cause suffering in their own right. Mental illnesses are a disposition to unhappiness. They make happiness, in the sense of flourishing, difficult or at least limited.

Simply put, we can’t both say that what makes people happy is what makes them good, and say that what makes people unhappy doesn’t make them bad. The moment we combine morality with happiness is the moment when we combine immorality with unhappiness. That makes people with mental illnesses, which directly contribute to and to some extent constitute unhappiness, worse people.

Morality Isn’t About Happiness

It is hard enough living with a mental illness without virtue ethicists running around saying that we are morally worse for it.

Mental illnesses make it harder to be happy, and therefore are a disposition to unhappiness. And, since they make it harder to be unhappy, less of us will be happy, and many of us will be less happy. That’s why mental illnesses are bad things to have. They harm us.

However, there is no shame in this. We need to abandon the idea that we are moral failures or failures as human beings because we do not live up to the standards of flourishing of mentally healthy people. It is hard enough living with a mental illness without virtue ethicists running around saying that we are morally worse for it.

Virtue ethics is inherently discriminatory against the mentally ill. It implies that mentally ill people are worse people, in so far as they are mentally ill, because we are less disposed to be happy. Virtue ethics cannot simply be “tweaked”, because its basic premises constitute discrimination.

Ethical holism and extending morality beyond harming others are both worthwhile goals. I am both a classicist and a Catholic. However, virtue ethics is the wrong way to reach these goals.

6 Responses to Virtue Ethics, Mental Illness and Discrimination

  • Most enjoyable and cogent essay. My best friend of 25 years revealed a most unpleasant deep prejudice based around this philosophy in telling me that I could not write about our friendship in my blog : woodenhenkblog.wordpress
    As he considered our friendship ‘private’ he also insisted I did not have a right to even write about our experiences in the third person (not using his name). I was astonished to be censored in this way. Clearly in his eyes I do not possess sufficient virtue to be allowed free speech.
    Clearly our dispositions are not consilient.
    I am interested that a disposition (labile or stable) can be seen as virtuous. Also that happiness is more likely without Bipolar disorder. Your recent posts have been very thought provoking. Cheers Henk

    • Thanks, Henk. That’s an odd thing for your best friend to do. I’ve heard of a lot of people with mental illness who want to hide it, but I’ve almost never heard of people wanting to hide other people’s illnesses.

  • I’m Catholic too but I keep my bi-polar secret. Now Pentacostals had cast the demons out of me,so Iflushed my medicine down the toilet. After manic high I ended in the state hospital for several months. No church memebers visit me. I carried my Bible no one hassled me. I went back to the Catholic Church.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marc. I know some people just chalk bipolar disorder up to demons, but I think that is very dangerous. Either, a) we end up not getting proper treatment, or b) are treated as somehow possessed. In either case, it is a dangerous thing to assume.

  • Quite aside from mental illness (though I know that’s the subject of this blog)… Virtue ethics grows from a long and sad tradition that, to take a single example, lionizes Robert E. Lee for his “fine character” despite his decision to kill human beings in defense of a wicked cause.

    • That’s a good point, Max. In their defense, justice is generally considered a virtue for virtue ethicists.

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Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RP (Qualifying), CCC

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and Canadian Certified Counsellor specializing in bipolar disorder, offering in-person psychotherapy in Kitchener, Ontario, and online and telephone psychotherapy within Canada.

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