IN RECENT DECADES THERE HAS BEEN a great deal of interest in virtue ethics, broadly construed. There are, of course, many different such theories, and some dispute over what conditions a theory must meet to qualify as a virtue ethics. (1) In what follows, I respond to a set of basic objections to a paradigmatic set of such theories--those virtue ethics according to which moral properties such as rightness and goodness (and their corresponding concepts) are to be explained in terms of the virtues or virtuous agents (and similarly with their corresponding concepts).
The basic intuition underlying the objections is that our virtue concepts (or, indeed, the concept of a virtue, tout court) must be derivative from other, more fundamental moral concepts. Similarly, the virtues themselves--as well as their value--are thought to be best understood in terms of the right or the good. Virtue theorists have, in some way, confused cart and horse. Consequentialists will treat the virtues as character traits that serve to maximize (or produce sufficient quantities of) the good, where the good is taken as explanatorily basic. Deontologists will understand the virtues in terms of dispositions to respect and act in accordance with moral rules, or to perform morally right actions, where these moral rules or right actions are fundamental. Furthermore, the virtues will be considered valuable just insofar as they involve such tendencies to maximize the good or to perform right actions.
In contrast, the forms of virtue ethics that I wish to defend would satisfy the following four conditions:
(i) The concepts of rightness and goodness would be explained in terms of virtue concepts (or the concept of a virtuous agent). (ii) Rightness and goodness would be explained in terms of the virtues or virtuous agents.
(iii) The explanatory primacy of the virtues or virtuous agents (and virtue concepts) would reflect a metaphysical dependence of rightness and goodness upon the virtues or virtuous agents.
(iv) The virtues or virtuous agents themselves--as well as their value--could (but need not) be explained in terms of further states, such as health, eudaimonia, etc., but where these further states do not require an appeal to rightness or goodness. (2)
"Rightness" in the above can be taken as standing in for all deontic statuses (that is, for example, wrongness is also to be treated in terms of the virtues or perhaps the vices); similarly, "goodness" can be taken as standing in for badness, and other such axiological statuses. One qualification is in order with respect to states such as eudaimonia or health. These might appear to be instances of goodness; however here we can draw a distinction between the goodness of a kind (particularly as a good agent or good creature of some kind) as reflected in health or flourishing (one is a healthy human, or is leading a good human life), versus goodness tout court. Only the latter instances of goodness are to be taken to be dependent upon the virtuous or virtuous agents for present purposes. (3)
It is worth stressing that not all theories that could plausibly be understood as forms of virtue ethics would satisfy the above conditions; the current goal is not to defend all possible virtue ethics. Rather, we are examining what might be taken to be among the more radical possible forms of virtue ethics, particularly in treating the virtues as explanatorily prior both to rightness and to goodness tout court. Why focus on these more radical forms? First, several prominent virtue ethics can be understood as satisfying the above conditions, including those of Michael Slote, Linda Zagzebski, and, perhaps (if controversially), Aristotle's paradigmatic virtue ethics. (4) Beyond this, many of the arguments presented here could be taken on board by those defending more moderate forms of virtue ethics, such as Rosalind Hursthouse or Christine Swanton (against those who would attempt to argue for the explanatory primacy of the right or of the good, for example). (5) Thus the range of interest for most of these arguments will extend beyond those focusing on the more radical approaches.
The paper consists of four main sections, each dealing in depth with particular variations of the underlying worry that our virtue concepts must be derivative from other, more fundamental moral concepts (and similarly with the virtues themselves and other moral properties):
(i) That the virtues can be properly explained as simple dispositions to perform right actions or promote the good (as reflected in our ability to pick out agents as virtuous by the acts they perform), where rightness or goodness are thus explanatorily primary;
(ii) That we can identify certain actions as morally right without appeal to virtuous agents--suggesting a primacy of the right, where right actions are not properly understood in terms of the virtues or virtuous agents (contrary to claims that the virtues would be explanatorily primary);
(iii) That we can identify certain states of affairs as good (or not), without appeal to virtuous agents and, furthermore, that appeal to virtuous agents to explain such value seems implausible (and not merely redundant) --suggesting a primacy of the good; and
(iv) That virtue ethics face a dilemma--either virtuous agents are consistent in their actions and valuations--in which case the best explanation of this is that they are reacting to antecedently right actions or good states of affairs (and thus the virtues or virtuous agents would not be explanatorily primary), or they are not guided by prior right actions or good states of affairs. If so, the virtuous would be arbitrary and potentially inconsistent in their actions and valuations (thus rendering virtue ethics implausible).
In the concluding section I acknowledge final, broader issues that will ultimately need to be addressed in arriving at a viable virtue ethics (of the radical kind defended here). I do not attempt to fully answer these final questions in this paper; my goal is instead to address the prominent, fundamental objections to virtue ethics discussed in sections I--IV.
A simple version of the first objection is grounded in moral epistemology. When we identify honest people, benevolent people, and so on, we typically pick them out by the very fact that they perform honest or benevolent actions. Thus, we identify virtuous persons (or their possession of given virtues) through their performance of certain kinds of actions; as such, these right actions are explanatorily basic or primary, and the virtues are derivative and best understood as dispositions to perform these actions. Or so the objection would run.
Still, even if it were true that we identified the possession of various virtues primarily through agents performing certain characteristic kinds of actions, this would not demonstrate that benevolent actions are explanatorily prior to benevolence. To see this, compare the case of a disease and its symptoms. Clearly, we often identify the presence of a disease through its symptoms, yet we would not claim that these symptoms cause or explain the presence of the disease. And when we examine our concepts of disease and symptom, we best explain the notion of a symptom in terms of the more basic concept of a disease--even if we have better epistemic access to the presence of actual symptoms than to the presence of the more fundamental disease.
Similarly, in the case of the virtues, while we might use certain kinds of actions to pick out those who possess the virtues, we can readily hold that these sorts of actions are seen as honest or benevolent simply insofar as they are actions that would be characteristic of virtuous agents. Put another way, we can use virtuous actions as a heuristic in identifying virtuous agents, but we can use these actions in this way precisely because they are the sorts of actions that virtuous agents would perform. Furthermore, and crucially, we must distinguish between how we identify those who possess the virtues, and how we are to understand the relationships between rightness and virtue (and also the relationships among our various moral concepts). The epistemic methods we use to identify virtuous agents do not necessarily reflect the structure of our moral conceptual framework or the most plausible explanatory relationships between virtues and actions or states of affairs.
The objection could be modified now to the claim that virtues could not ultimately be anything more than dispositions to perform certain sorts of actions. If so, the analogy with diseases and symptoms would break down, as (unlike a disease that is more complex than a mere disposition to produce certain symptoms) there would be nothing more to a virtue than its production of right actions. We might call this "reductive deontologism." One could insist that benevolence simply is a disposition to perform actions which improve the well-being of others (and perhaps oneself); there would be no "remainder" to benevolence beyond this. (6) And similar claims could be made concerning other virtues--honesty, justice, and so on.
In response, consider a case in which a person loves another, perhaps a romantic love. And now consider how we should understand the actions of this person, or those who love in this way. An understanding analogous to that of reductive deontologists with respect to the virtues would have us hold that loving people are simply those who are disposed to perform independently grounded loving actions. To be in love would be a matter of performing (or being disposed to perform, under appropriate circumstances) such actions as sending flowers or what-have-you. Or perhaps there could be rules of love, such that being in love is simply a matter of acting in accordance with these rules.... But surely this sort of approach cannot be …