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Ethics, Character, and Action

  • George Sher (a1)


According to one long-standing tradition, the organizing question of ethics is “What are we morally obligated to do?” However, many philosophers, inspired by an even older tradition, now urge a return to the question “What kind of person is it best to be?” According to these philosophers, the proper locus of evaluation is character rather than action, and the basic evaluative concept is virtue rather than duty. Following what has become common usage, I shall refer to the first approach as “duty ethics” and to the second as “virtue ethics.”



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1 Louden, Robert B., “On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3 (07 1984), pp. 228–29.

2 Solomon, David, “Internal Objections to Virtue Ethics,” in French, Peter A., Uehling, Theodore E. Jr, and Wettstein, Howard K., eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIII, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 428–29.

3 Conly, Sarah, “Flourishing and the Failure of the Ethics of Virtue,” in French, et al. , eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIII, p. 94.

4 Slote, Michael, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. xiv. The word “aretaic” means, roughly, “pertaining to excellence or virtue,” while “deontic” means “pertaining to duty.”

5 Taylor, Richard, Virtue Ethics (Interlaken, NY: Linden Books, 1991), pp. 23. For an influential earlier statement of the view that the idea of duty without a lawgiver is unintelligible, see Anscombe, G. E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy,” in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, vol. 3, Ethics, Religion, and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 2642.

6 Pincoffs, Edmund L., Quandaries and Virtues (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986), p. 5.

7 This is the interpretation that seems to underlie Conly's critical discussion in “Flourishing and the Failure of the Ethics of Virtue.” Significantly, I have found no defender of virtue ethics who interprets character this narrowly.

8 See, for example, Slote's discussion in From Morality to Virtue. My distinction between moral and nonmoral virtues reflects what I take to be the common view that morality seeks primarily to regulate our dealings with others. However, nothing of substance rests on this way of making the distinction.

9 See, for example, Pincoffs's extensive list of relevant traits in Quandaries and Virtues, pp. 76–77. This list includes such entries as “bilious,” “cantankerous,” “silly,” and “zany.”

10 Along these lines, Richard Taylor has remarked that “[v]irtue to the ancients meant personal excellence, that is, individual strength or superiority” (Taylor, Richard, “Ancient Wisdom and Modern Folly,” in French, et al. , eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIII, p. 55).

11 This claim may seem overstated in that many virtues are habits of thought rather than action. Judiciousness and intellectual honesty are two obvious examples. Similarly but more subtly, Phillip Montague has observed that

someone with a settled inclination to view situations from the standpoints of others involved in those situations evidently possesses a morally good character trait. And at least some virtues incorporate beliefs about the worth of others, concern for their welfare, etc. … [S]uch beliefs, inclinations, and concerns are not themselves dispositions to perform or refrain from performing any sort of action. … (Montague, Phillip, “Virtue Ethics: A Qualified Success Story,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 [01 1992], p. 57)

Although these objections raise more issues than I can discuss, one obvious rejoinder is that mental activity can itself be considered a form of action. In addition, because judiciousness, intellectual honesty, and an inclination to view situations from the standpoint of others or to be concerned with their welfare can all influence practical reasoning, it seems inevitable that they will often affect physical behavior.

12 A vexed question about conjunct (2) is whether the notion of initiating a movement is best understood as primitive and unanalyzable, or whether it can itself be further analyzed — say, in terms of causation by the agent's desires and beliefs. A related question about (3) is whether, when we explain what someone has done by citing his purposes, intentions, or reasons, we are offering a causal explanation or an explanation of some other sort. For pertinent discussion, see Davis, Lawrence H., Theory of Action (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), and many of the essays in Care, Norman H. and Landesman, Charles, eds., Readings in the Theory of Action (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968).

13 In the preceding discussion, I assumed that we can specify what someone does exclusively in terms of his movements, intentions, and other facts about him which do not commit us to any view of his character. Against this, it could be argued that a full specification of any given action requires reference to feelings and thoughts that do have implications about the agent's character. However, as long as a bare-bones description of someone's action which makes no reference to his character is possible, while a bare-bones description of his character which makes no reference to his actions is not, a version of the claim that action is conceptually prior will remain intact.

14 Nagel, Thomas, “Moral Luck,” in Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 25.

15 Ibid., p. 33.

16 Ibid., p. 25.

17 Ibid., p. 35.

18 Moody-Adams, Michele, “On the Old Saw That Character Is Destiny,” in Flanagan, Owen and Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, eds., Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Bradford, 1990), p. 117.

19 Kupperman, Joel, Character (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 54.

20 Although I shall not argue the point, I suspect that some who want to understand epistemic justification in terms of good belief-forming habits have similarly overestimated our control over how we acquire beliefs.

21 For discussion, see Kupperman, , Character, appendix A, pp. 159–72.

22 “Soft determinism” is the view that determinism and freedom are compatible—that a person can be free, in the sense that is required by responsibility, even though his actions are caused.

23 Hobart, R. E., “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable without It,” in Berofsky, Bernard, ed., Free Will and Determinism (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 84.

24 Ibid., pp. 68–69.

25 Compare Hume, David, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 98:

Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and when they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.

26 Hobart, , “Free Will as Involving Determination,” p. 83.

27 Ibid., p. 67.

28 Part of my reason for using the hedged phrase “something like a reductio” is that, as Michael Slote has pointed out in discussion, there may be room for assessments of the moral status of actions which do not carry implications of blame or responsibility. For example, we may wish to evaluate the acts of “moral monsters” who are vicious but out of control. For an attempt to recast morality in terms of such assessments, see Pereboom, Derk, “Determinism Al Dente,” Nous, vol. 29, no. 1 (03 1995), pp. 2145.

29 Hobart, , “Free Will as Involving Determination,” p. 90.

30 Even among those who take personal identity to depend entirely on the continuity of a person's character, beliefs, and memories, I know of no one who takes it to require continuity down to the last detail. A fortiori, that view is rejected by those who take personal identity to depend on some further fact such as the continued existence of a thinking subject. Even Eterek Parfit, who rejects any form of strict transtemporal identity in favor of a looser notion that admits of degrees, would presumably concede that someone's relation to his earlier self can be almost maximally close despite a small but significant change that would prevent him from repeating an earlier act. Parfit's discussion appears in his Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), part 3.

31 There might be a rationale for a more stringent requirement if praise, blame, and the rest could only be directed at acts that were concurrent with them. In that case, the point of the more stringent requirement would be to supply a contemporary act, albeit one in another possible world, at which our praise, blame, etc., might now be directed. However, in fact, what must now exist is not some doppelganger of the original act, but only a suitable continuation of the agent who performed it; and to provide this, a more relaxed form of continuity seems sufficient.

32 Wooldridge, Dean, The Machinery of the Brain (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 82, quoted in Dennett, D. C., Elbow Room (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), p. 11. The Wooldridge book is a discussion of (then) recent work in brain research. I also cite Dennett because he first appreciated the example's philosophical resonance.

33 Indeed, this view seems if anything to be more common among philosophers whose views fall nearer the “virtue” end of the spectrum. It is, for example, clearly expressed in both Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 1; and Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 27.

34 Korsgaard, Christine, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Reply to Parfit,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 18, no. 2 (Spring 1989), p. 132.


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