Yes, that is the traditional complaint about virtue ethics,isn’t it? But while I agree, I think the problem is worse/more fundamental than that. 45 minutes of Aristotle will get you the golden mean. But then other people talking about different virtues will get you Voltaire on free speech and Barry Goldwater on “extremism in defense of liberty,” and why should someone assume Aristotle’s model is better? I mean, it is, but why?
Sounding meaningful is just an extremely poor signal when it comes to advice. I can’t find the original page where I first saw this quote, and I don’t know if the attribution is right, but I like it:
The tautological emptiness of a Master’s Wisdom is exemplified in the inherent stupidity of proverbs. Let us engage in a mental experiment by way of trying to construct proverbial wisdom out of the relationship between terrestrial life, its pleasures, and its Beyond. If ones says, “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air - think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep. If one combines the two sides (“Bring Eternity into your everyday life, live your life on this earth as if it is already permeated by Eternity!”), we get another profound thought. Needless to add, the same goes for it’s inversion: “Do not try in vain to bring together Eternity and your terrestrial life, accept humbly that you are forever split between Heaven and Earth!” If, finally, one simply gets perplexed by all these reversals and claims: “Life is an enigma, do not try to penetrate its secrets, accept the beauty of its unfathomable mystery!” the result is, again, no less profound than its reversal: “Do not allow yourself to be distracted by false mysteries that just dissimulate the fact that, ultimately, life is very simple - it is what it is, it is simply here without reason and rhyme!” Needless to add that, by uniting mystery and simplicity, one again obtains a wisdom: “The ultimate, unfathomable mystery of life resides in its very simplicity, in the simple fact that there is life.”
At some level I wonder if having a system of values, (almost) any system, is better than not having one. But that doesn’t seem to work either until you somehow account for which systems will work for which people, which is basically only knowable by trying them out and seeing, which society really doesn’t want anyone to get away with.