In Defense of the Primacy of the Virtues

By Kawall, Jason | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, August 2009 | Go to article overview

In Defense of the Primacy of the Virtues


Kawall, Jason, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


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).

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