Friday, November 12, 2021

A variant virtue ethic centered on virtues and not persons

I’ve been thinking a bit about the virtue ethical claim that the right (i.e., obligatory) action is one that a virtuous person would do and the wrong one is one that a virtuous person wouldn’t do. I’ve argued in my previous posts that this is a problematic claim, since given either naturalism or the Hebrew Scriptures, it is possible for a virtuous person to do something wrong.

Maybe instead of focusing on the person, the virtue ethicist can focus on the virtues. Here is an option:

  1. An action is wrong if and only if it could not properly (non-aberrantly) flow from the relevant virtues.

This principle is compatible with a virtuous person doing something wrong, as long as that wrong thing doesn’t flow from virtue.

The “properly” in (1) is an “in the right way” condition. Once we have allowed, as I think we should, that a virtuous person can do the wrong thing, we should also allow that a wrong action can flow from virtue in some aberrant way. For instance, we can imagine a wholly virtuous person falling prey to a temptation to brag about being wholly virtuous (and instantly losing the virtue, of course). The bragging flows from the virtue—but aberrantly.

A down-side of (1) is that it is a pretty strong condition on permissibility. One might think that there are some permissible morally neutral actions which can be done by a perfectly virtuous person but which do not flow from their virtue. If we accept (1), then in effect we are saying that there are no morally neutral actions. I think that is the right thing to say.

The big problem with (1) is the “properly”.


James Reilly said...

Couldn't one formulate a Christian variant of virtue ethics which uses Jesus as the model of a virtuous person (i.e. "what would Jesus do" as a normative ethical theory)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is tricky. Here are some counterexamples to "Do what Jesus would do":

- I shouldn't say "I am Jesus."

- I should say "I am a sinner."

- I should ask God for forgiveness for my sins.

- I shouldn't say I am Jewish.

- I shouldn't start a Church.