by E. John Winner
Virtue ethics is an attempt to find a code of behavior within one’s self. This may, as with the Stoa or the Tao, be a living through of some logic or being of the natural order of the universe, but it is not an attempt to find a moral reality outside one’s self. (The natural order is not moral, it just is.) There is something fundamentally contingent about virtue ethics, and so it has stronger links with situational ethics than with Moral Realism. For instance, Existentialism develops both a situation-ethic and a virtue ethic that (with certain thinkers anyway) doesn’t look anything like Moral Realism
A while ago, I dropped a comment here to the effect that one could not be both a Moral Realist (one assuming that there is a “mind-independent” morality) and a Virtue Ethicist. In reply, a number of commenters asked why. I could not answer at the time, and when I got back to the comment thread, after having formulated a concise reply, the comments had closed. So, I find it necessary to broaden my vistas and contribute a larger, more encompassing reply, which also links to what some would say are “prudential ethics”; that is, ethics responsive to one’s history, one’s society, one’s family, etc., regarding immediate decisions of an ethical nature. It also seems linked, albeit indirectly, to what I think is commonly understood as “situational ethics,” whereby the pressures and urgencies of situations guide us to decisions of an ethical nature, even if they might not appear ethical in other situations.
Let us consider this through the lens of a novel by a former soldier, private detective, and avowed socialist, who later spent time in prison for refusing to cooperate with a court concerning his contacts in the Communist Party. Dashiell Hammett could write very rapidly, and his first three novels and a handful of short stories appeared almost in a single year. Yet across his career, he was not prolific. The evidence indicates that while he could take the art of writing very seriously, he viewed the commercial profession of writing somewhat disdainfully, and the culture of America’s literati of the time with skeptical irony. In short, he doesn’t seem to have been committed to the lifestyle of a professional writer. This is actually supported, rather than disproved, by his occasional forays into pure hack work, like the “Secret Agent X-9” comic strip, which were clearly undertaken as throwaway time-fillers; something to do when he didn’t have anything better to do. However, even these proved not enough to keep him busy. The problem was his worsening alcoholism which, by the mid- 1930’s, was weakening his writing skills, and finally, distracted him from writing entirely. So, his writing career only persisted for slightly more than a decade, through various short-stories, screenplays, novellas, and five novels, all recognized examples – indeed, exemplars – of crime fiction of one kind or another. Two of his novel length fictions are undoubtedly interesting, impressive, but somewhat flawed. Three, however – The Maltese Falcon (1930), Red Harvest (1929), and The Glass Key (1931) are as fine examples of American literature as one might find. They are complexly structured inquiries into a dark underside of American existence in the 1920’s and early 1930’s; highly compact character studies with a polished vernacular prose. An interesting thing about these three novels is that while they use much the same language, they are not just “more of the same.” Each novel has its own particular characterizations, its own themes, its own insights, even its own sense of humor. The disappointed romanticism of The Glass Key contrasts starkly with the bitter nihilism of Red Harvest. The hero of the first finds he must betray a friend in order to save him and then truly betrays him by seducing his fiancée. The hero of the second has no friends, and the only woman he is truly interested in he finds stabbed to death beside him, after awaking from an alcoholic stupor.
One can read The Maltese Falcon, as a number of critics have invited readers to do, as a romantic quest adventure disguised as a hard-boiled noir mystery.  The story concerns a gang of jewel thieves who have exhausted much of the resources they acquired during their criminal careers in a determined effort to gain possession of a fabulous, jewel-encrusted statuette crafted by the Knights of Malta at the height of the Crusades. Surely, even a hunt for the Holy Grail could hardly be more romantic an adventure. And the principle members of this gang – Kaspar Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Bridget O’Shaughnessy – each in different ways presents mannerisms reminiscent of behaviors and speech found in 19th Century literature and fin de siecle melodrama; sometimes subtly, sometimes quite overtly. Could this quest be their sublimated effort at achieving redemption from their lives of sin? Nope. Beneath their romantic mannerisms they really are cold-blooded killers and greedy thieves. Take Gutman, the fat man, who maintains an air of sophistication, cultivation, irony and wit and who, as a character, is tasked with expounding the almost mystical narrative of the Falcon’s creation; the story of the seemingly adventurous efforts to travel the globe in search of it; and the pretentious heroism involved in risking all in to acquire it. But he also tells us (through our hero Sam Spade), that his ultimate intent is to take the Falcon to New York, where he can auction it off to the highest bidder (probably in the underground of art-collectors specializing in illicit acquisitions). In other words, for all the show of grandiosity in the Falcon’s origins and the almost equally grand efforts made to acquire it, Gutman’s ultimate intent is to acquire profit. He is a businessman, and his business is stolen jewels and objects d’art. He will sell to the highest bidder in the New York underground, because he already knows such buyers, probably having had business dealings with them in the past. (Such an underground was already somewhat notorious before the end of the 19th Century: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has quite a number of such questionably gotten gains in their collection, including known fakes still preserved as genuine.)  The Falcon represents Gutman’s biggest commercial “score.” (In the end, it is revealed to be a fake, a deceit on the part of the Russian General it was stolen from.) The Maltese Falcon is not a romantic quest disguised as hard-boil noir. It is hard-boil noir disguised as romantic quest. Or, to be more precise, it is exactly what it presents itself as being: a novel about crime and criminals, where virtually no one is to be trusted, and no hands are clean. Knowing this, the reader can be excused for coming away from the novel feeling slightly sullied, like having brushed against something in the dark, and then, with the light on, discovering a rat coated in sewage, fangs bared defensively. That’s exactly the reader response Hammett reaches for in his novels. Even the comedically tinged Thin Man ends with the recognition that the troubled Wynant family at the heart of the mystery is really just a group of money hungry “cannibals” disguised as New York City’s nuevo riche upper crust.
Thank heavens we have a hero to rely on: the brave, righteous, virtuous Samuel Spade, private detective and partner to Miles Archer, the first person murdered in the novel. Surely Spade is himself on a romantic quest of a darker variety, seeking revenge for his fallen comrade. Well, not quite. Having discovered his dislike for the man, Spade was planning to give Archer the boot. (Which didn’t prevent Spade from having an affair with hist partner’s wife.) Indeed, Spade’s attitude toward relationships with others is one of studied casualness. He doesn’t really have friends, although he tries to remain in good stead with the police – on whom he must depend to hold onto his license – and w ith his lawyer, whom he pays a good dollar on retainer. Are we getting the general tenor here? Spade’s strongest relationships depend on commercial and financial necessities or efficacies. Consequently, the person he trusts the most is the employee he pays, stalwart secretary Effie, and the person he trusts the least is his freely available sex-partner of the moment, Iva Archer. ‘Trust’, however, may be too strong a word. Spade doesn’t really trust anybody, in the sense that he feels comfortable enough to engage in revealing conversation. What Spade does is work with people as needed, in order to get a job done. Given that the other major players with whom he must deal are professional criminals, it is necessary not to reveal to any of them what he sees as the job to be done in working with them, which means that much of what he says and does will involve deceit and dissimulation. And as they inevitably demonstrate, they cannot, in fact, be trusted. They lie to him, lead him down false trails, drug him, beat him, and then, because these are businesspeople after all, they continue to try to make deals with him. So what’s Spade to do? Sell them the Falcon as if a petty criminal himself, and then, have them all arrested so that he can keep his private detective’s license and do the whole thing over again with other clients. This is the job, and the job defines Spade’s understanding of himself. It identifies his character; his ethos, in the Greek.
In her presentations to Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s romantic-melodramatic schtick is that of soiled innocence; of a woman led astray, seeking redemption through love. Actually, she was formerly in Gutman’s employ, when she recruited an American mob hitman (Floyd Thursby) on the run in Europe, with whom she stole the Falcon from a former general of the Tzarist army living in exile in Turkey. She then betrays Gutman and flees with the Falcon to America. To avoid difficulties with customs, she seduced another man, the captain of a freighter out of Hong Kong, to smuggle the Falcon into San Francisco for her. Meanwhile, to tighten the screws on Thursby, she decided to frame him for the murder of a private detective, only to discover later that night that Gutman had gotten to America before her, bringing along his own gunman, Wilmer, who kills Thursby, leaving O’Shaughnessy without protection. So she seduces (she thinks) the partner of the man she killed, Sam Spade. Unfortunately, she underestimates his intelligence, fails to recognize his ruthlessness (although he doesn’t try to hide it), and, most importantly, misunderstands the integrity of his ethos. He has known she killed Archer probably from the very night (the revealing clue is one of those obvious-in-hindsight tip-offs mystery readers love) and has spent the narrative trying to discover, not Who? or How? but Why? Had the affair of the Falcon not proven so convoluted, it is likely he could have solved it all by the third chapter. But the murder of Archer seems senseless, unless one discovers the key to O’Shaughnessy’s character: that she is cold-blooded, manipulative, deceitful and murderous. She hired Archer to kill him, just to put the frame on Thursby and thereby have something to hold over him so he didn’t take the Falcon himself, or possibly re-align with Gutman. Although Hammett lets her continue her soiled-innocence-seeking-redemption act to the very last, the murder is an act of calculation; a move in a chess game; queen takes pawn, puts knight in check. Except that Gutman is playing his own game, and has brought his own “knight,” who take’s O’Shaughnessy’s off the board, leaving her to turn to Sam Spade. But Spade is no knight, and he’s not playing the same game.
But O’Shaughnessy plays out her game to the end, so she’s shocked when Spade tells her that he intends to have her arrested, tried and convicted for Archer’s murder. Her final move she believes to be her strongest: insist that the sexual relationship she’s had with Spade has seduced his heart as well as his body; that he can’t go through with the arrest because he most certainly loves her, and, as the common romantic cliché assures us, “love conquers all.” And, as it happens, Spade is not without emotional attachment to her and clearly has considered the possibility that he might love her. But it is this possibility itself that triggers the deepest ethical commitments within him. From Chapter 20, “If They Hang You”:
“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around–bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing. The only way I could have let you go was by letting Gutman and Cairo and the kid go. That’s–“
“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the–“
“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth–but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”
“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before–when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights–but that’ll pass. Listen.” He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it–and because–God damn you–you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.
Spade’s speech here indicates the way variant ethical approaches to life can weave into each other, in ways that ‘thought-experiments’ never reach.  After all, accepting the fiction of the novel as real for the sake of reading, we can see that Hammett has given adequate weight to real-life problems involving relationships that might involve matters of life and death. First, we note that Spade is responding to a situation, and the situation compels certain actions that may not appear ethical in themselves but ground other actions that are undeniably ethical. He is dealing with a gang of criminals, thieves and murderers, all well-practiced in deceit, and to survive among them, he needs to be as cleverly deceitful as they are; perhaps even more so. After all, they at least are honest about their final objective: acquisition of the Falcon. He has to persuade them that his only interest is whatever money can be made off the Falcon. He has even seduced O’Shaughnessy (or allowed her to seduce him) in order to gain not merely her trust, but in order to get her to believe that she can manipulate him as easily as she had her previous lovers. Given that these criminals are murderers, this behavior, while rather tawdry taken by itself, is in fact prudent. Spade has to keep his real objective always in mind, which is ultimately exposure of the criminals and validation of his work as a detective. This is the demand of his job and of what is expected of him professionally, in light of it. But it is also is more than that. It is his very identity. We see this in his greatest betrayal – that of O’Shaughnessy – which is also his greatest personal sacrifice.
This reveals the essentially virtuous person that Sam Spade really is; beneath his casual relationships with the law; his murdered partner; and even with his murdered partner’s wife. Such indiscretions are typically the result of minor character flaws that many people have. As human beings, we feel lust, get bored with one another, resist laws and regulations as impeding on our freedoms (really our egos), fly off the handle, cheat on our taxes, etc., etc. We like to think of ourselves as saints, but in many ways we are the devil’s children; a legacy of the animal nature that evolution has failed to free us from. The question is, who are we, when we really have to be who we are? Sam Spade is a detective, and this isn’t simply the job that he has, but is who he is. For him to behave any other way, with any other motivation or response, would not be “the natural thing.” It would not be to follow the Tao of Sam Spade.
 See: Michael Gross; Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Crown; 2010
 A good fiction writer can ask us to imagine ourselves living through the experience of a narrative (which is really what suspension of disbelief involves) by weaving a context out of contingencies that may only be latent or implicit; something academic theorists cannot do, since they demand that all contingencies be explicit and that context be limited to only those explicit contingencies.