A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good

A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good

A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good

A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good


The distinguished philosopher Robert M. Adams presents a major work on virtue, which is once again a central topic in ethical thought. A Theory of Virtue is a systematic, comprehensive framework for thinking about the moral evaluation of character. Many recent attempts to stake out a place in moral philosophy for this concern define virtue in terms of its benefits for the virtuous person or for human society more generally. In Part One Adams presents and defends a conception of virtue as intrinsic excellence of character, worth prizing for its own sake and not only for its benefits. In the other two parts he addresses two challenges to the ancient idea of excellence of character.

One challenge arises from the importance of altruism in modern ethical thought, and the question of what altruism has to do with intrinsic excellence. Part Two argues that altruistic benevolence does indeed have a crucial place in excellence of character, but that moral virtue should also be expected to involve excellence in being for other goods besides the well-being (and the rights) of other persons. It explores relations among cultural goods, personal relationships, one's own good, and the good of others, as objects of excellent motives.

The other challenge, the subject of Part Three of the book, is typified by doubts about the reality of moral virtue, arising from experiments and conclusions in social psychology. Adams explores in detail the prospects for an empirically realistic conception of excellence of character as an object of moral aspiration, endeavor, and education. He argues that such a conception will involve renunciation of the ancient thesis of the unity or mutual implication of all virtues, and acknowledgment of sufficient 'moral luck' in the development of any individual's character to make virtue very largely a gift, rather than an individual achievement, though nonetheless excellent and admirable for that.


This is a book about the moral life. It is not a book about moral decision-making. the moral life involves much more than right and wrong decisions and actions. For example, it involves good and bad motives. Suppose you managed yesterday to do many morally right actions, and nothing at all that was wrong. Even on that assumption, your day will have gone better morally if your morally correct actions were motivated by concern for other people’s well-being than if they sprang from fear of other people’s disapproval.

Some motivational states don’t last very long. Perhaps you are in a better mood today than yesterday, and your operative motives will be better today. Some motivational states are quite enduring, however. Perhaps you have had for many years a deep and strong commitment to do what you believe you morally ought to do. That would count as a trait of character, and a good one, a virtue. It would be a form of conscientiousness. Some traits of character are much worse than conscientiousness. One might have had for years a deep, strong, and controlling desire to accumulate as much wealth as possible. That would count as a trait of character too. If the desire is sufficiently overriding, it would be a bad trait, a vice, called avarice. Such good and bad traits are a major factor in how well your life (and not just your day) is going morally. Indeed, they constitute what is called moral character, and are commonly seen as determining the extent to which one is a morally good person.

A couple of points of terminology should be noted at the outset. (1) Despite the somewhat old-fashioned flavor that the word virtue has for many people, I use it to signify good moral character, or a good trait of character. It is so used in virtually all philosophical discussion of the ethics of character because such discussion is strongly connected with classic texts where that use of the word has a central role. (2) When I speak of “moral character” or a “morally good person,” the words moral and morally signify only that evaluation is made with respect to faculties, states, and acts of will and motivation. Some moral evaluation in this broad sense may also be aesthetic or religious evaluation. It is no part of my project to draw sharp lines between moral, aesthetic, and religious value.

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