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Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Indirection: A Pluralistic Value-Centred Approach

  • Christine Swanton (a1)

Many forms of virtue ethics, like certain forms of utilitarianism, suffer from the problem of indirection. In those forms, the criterion for status of a trait as a virtue is not the same as the criterion for the status of an act as right. Furthermore, if the virtues for example are meant to promote the nourishing of the agent, the virtuous agent is not standardly supposed to be motivated by concern for her own flourishing in her activity. In this paper, I propose a virtue ethics which does not suffer from the problem. Traits are not virtues because their cultivation and manifestation promote a value such as agent flourishing. They are virtues in so far as they are habits of appropriate response (which may be of various types) to various relevant values (valuable things, etc.). This means that there is a direct connection between the rationale of a virtue and what makes an action virtuous or right.

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1 The term ‘value-centred’ is Philip Pettit's: see The Common Mind: An Essay on Psychology, Society and Politics, New York (1993), esp. pp. 303–6. A value-centred theory of virtue status claims that what makes a trait a virtue are kinds of relation between the trait and value (or valuable things or states of affairs).

2 For criticism of indirection in some types of virtue ethics, see Slote Michael in Baron Marcia, Pettit Philip and Slote Michael, Three Methods of Ethics, Oxford(forthcoming).

3 Philosophy and Public Affairs, XX (1991), 223–46.

4 The Good Life and the Good Lives of Others’, Social Philosophy and Policy, ix (1992), 133–48.

5 On the prevalence of this kind of view of the virtues, see Trianosky Gregory, ‘What is Virtue Ethics All About?’, American Philosophical Quarterly, xxvii (1990), 335–44. He cites as a ‘representative’ view that of von Wright: ‘Virtues … are needed in the service of the good of man. This usefulness of theirs is their meaning and [natural] purpose’ (339) (von Wright G. H., The Varieties of Goodness, London, 1963, p. 140).

6 Philippa Foot finds this view in Plato's Republic. See ‘Moral Beliefs’, repr. in P. Foot, Virtue and Vices, Oxford, 1978, pp. 110–31. In fa. 6 of ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ in Virtues and Vices, pp. 157–73, Foot retracts the claim made in ‘Moral Beliefs’ that ‘virtue must benefit the agent’. However, I am not convinced that she is retracting the claim that agent benefit is the reason for cultivating the virtue of justice as opposed to the claim that her reason for acting justly, e.g., must connect with the agent's interests or desires (i.e. virtuous action must ‘benefit’ the agent). For the discussion on pp. 126–8 of ‘Moral Beliefs’ is concerned with reasons for acting – the reason for practising justice – and not with reasons for cultivating the virtue of justice. Furthermore the claim which she thinks is a retraction concerns reasons for action: ‘When we say that a man should do something and intend a moral judgment we do not have to back up what we say by considerations about his interests or his desires; if no such connexion can be found the “should” need not be withdrawn. It follows that the agent cannot rebut an assertion about what, morally speaking, he should do by showing that the action is not ancillary to his interests or desires’ (p. 159).

7 See Hursthouse Rosalind, ‘Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics’, Philosophers Ancient and Modern, ed. Vesey G., Cambridge, 1986, pp. 3353.

8 In ‘The Good Life and the Good Lives of Others’.

9 Nicomachean Ethics, 1153b19–21, 1169a32.

10 Ibid., 1169a28–9.

11 See Rosati Connie S., ‘Internalism and the Good for a Person’, Ethics, cvi (1996), 297326.

12 The terms ‘calculatively elusive’ and ‘calculatively vulnerable’ are introduced and denned in Pettit Philip and Brennan Geoffrey, ‘Restrictive Consequentialism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, lxiv (1986), 438–55.

13 Ibid., 442.

14 Ibid., 440.

16 A fanciful and dastardly example of such an emergency is Bishop's John Brain-Wiper case outlined in ‘Theism, Morality and the “Why Should I Be Moral” Question’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, xvii (1985), 36.

17 See Co-operation and Human Values: A Study of Moral Reasoning, New York, 1981, esp. pp. 160–5.

18 Rational Agent, Rational Act’, Philosophical Topics, xiv (1986), 41.

20 Profiles of the Virtues’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, lxxvi (1995), 4772.

21 The term ‘honouring’ was introduced by Pettit Philip in ‘Consequentialism and Respect for Persons’, Ethics, c (1989), 116–26, and further elaborated in ‘Consequentialism’, A Companion to Ethics, ed. Singer Peter, Oxford, 1991, pp. 230–40.

22 ‘Promoting’ is sometimes ambiguous between aiming to promote, and successfully promoting. A virtuous response of promoting, as I understand it here, is one in which the agent aims to promote, and that aim is appropriate in the circumstances – i.e. is informed by practical wisdom. A right act of promoting is one in which the aim to promote is successful on some criterion of success. The details of this account lie beyond the scope of this paper.

23 Daybreak, sect. 134, in Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Cambridge, 1982.

24 See Nussbaum Martha C., ‘Pity and Mercy: Nietzsche's Stoicism’, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, ed. Schacht Richard, Berkeley, 1994, pp. 139–67.

25 Daybreak, sect. 133.

26 Smart J. J. C. and Williams Bernard, Utilitarianism For and Against, Cambridge, 1973, pp. 98f.

27 I am grateful to Michael Slote and Michael Smith for conversation on topics of this paper, to Rosalind Hursthouse for comments on a recent draft, and to the anonymous referees of Utilitas for their very helpful editorial suggestions.

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