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Vices as Higher-level Evils1

  • Thomas Hurka (a1)


This paper sketches an account of the intrinsic goodness of virtue and intrinsic evil of vice that can fit within a consequentialist framework. This ‘recursive account’ treats the virtues and vices as higher-level intrinsic values, ones that consist in, respectively, appropriate and inappropriate attitudes to other, lower-level values. After presenting the main general features of the account, the paper illustrates its strengths by showing how it illuminates a series of particular vices. In the course of doing so, it distinguishes between the categories of what it calls pure vices (such as malice), vices of indifference (such as callousness), and vices of disproportion (such as selfishness), and shows how each category is made vicious by a different general feature of the recursive account.



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2 See Hursthouse, Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics, Oxford, 1999.

3 For an account of knowledge and achievement as intrinsic goods see Hurka, Thomas, Perfectionism, New York, 1993, chs. 8–10.

4 The cynic also often takes pleasure in seeing through illusions that others do not, and so being cleverer than they. His cynicism therefore involves a coordinate vice of pride and may in part be motivated by it.

5 A recursive account whose base-clauses include claims about desert can say there is a further evil in the combination of vice and an undeserved reputation for virtue. Hypocrisy can then also involve love of or indifference to this further evil.

6 See Stocker, Michael (with Elizabeth Hegeman), Valuing Emotions, Cambridge, 1996, p. 250.

7 In a different kind of case the proud person's false belief originates in thoughtlessness. He believes he is better than others because, while attending closely to his own achievements, he pays little or no attention to theirs. But this thoughtlessness, which involves more concern for his own than for others' good, is likewise a vice of disproportion and perhaps also of indifference.

8 Stocker, pp. 221–30.

9 Bernard Williams, ‘Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence’, in Williams, Bernard, Moral Luck, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 45, 47.

10 See , Hurka, ‘How Great a Good is Virtue?’, Journal of Philosophy, xcv (1998).

11 Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Heim, Michael Henry, New York, 1984, p. 251.

12 See Kekes, John, Facing Evil, Princeton, NJ, 1990, pp. 218–21.

13 It is probably most accurate to define envy and related vices as Nozick does, in terms of attitudes to conjunctions of goods and , evils (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York, 1974, pp. 239f.n). Then the emulatively envious person prefers a situation where both he and another have a good to one where he does not have it and the other does, but prefers the first situation by more than the difference in value between it and the second – which is just the difference between his having and not having the good – makes appropriate. The maliciously envious person prefers a situation where neither he nor the other has the good to one where he does not have it and the other does, thereby preferring a worse conjunctive situation to a better, or hating the better.

14 On envy and jealousy see Taylor, Gabriele, ‘Envy and Jealousy. Emotions and Vices’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. xiii, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, ed. French, Peter A., Uehling, Theodore E. Jr, and Wettstein, Howard K., Dame, Notre, IN, 1988. Taylor is mainly interested in how these vices are instrumentally evil, destroying other goods in an envious or jealous person's life. I am exploring the different view that they are intrinsically evil.

15 Remember that the disproportion in a vice of disproportion is exceeded by an even greater disproportion in a vice of either of the other two kinds. Someone who is indifferent to a good or, worse, hates it and loves an evil has a massive disproportion in his attitudes as a combination.

16 Schopenhauer, Arthur, On the Basis of Morality, trans. Payne, E. J., Providence, RI, 1995, p. 135.

17 Shklar, Judith N., Ordinary Vices, Cambridge, MA, 1984, p. 44; and ‘The Liberalism of Fear’, Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Rosenblum, Nancy L., Cambridge, MA, 1989, p. 29.

18 Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Harmondsworth, 1963. Eichmann was also banal because he cared more about minor goods in his own life, such as promotions in the SS, than about the suffering of millions of Jews. This was a mere vice of dispro-portion but again, given its object, an immense one.

19 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1107a9–13.

20 Ibid., 1107a25.

21 , Plato, Republic, bk. 4.

22 For a recent defence of this view see Midgley, Mary, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, London, 1983.

1 This paper extracts material from my book Virtue, Vice, and Value, New York, 2001.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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