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Virtue Ethics and Environs

  • James Griffin (a1)


My aim is to map some ethical ground. Many people who reject consequentialism and deontology adopt virtue ethics. Contemporary forms of virtue ethics occupy quite a variety of positions (as did ancient forms), and we do not yet have any satisfactory view of the whole territory that we call “virtue ethics.” Also, I think that there is a lot of logical space outside consequentialism and deontology not occupied by virtue ethics. In fact, I am myself rather more attracted to the environs of virtue ethics than to virtue ethics itself, which particular environs I shall come to later. But, first, we have roughly to locate virtue ethics.



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1 I should place consequentialism and deontology on the map I am using. Consequentialism is the view that whether an act is morally right or wrong is determined solely by how good or bad its consequences are. Deontology is the view that whether an act is morally right or wrong can at least sometimes be determined not by its consequences but by the kind of act it is.

2 E.g., Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 153, 193–94, 196–97.

3 E.g., Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), pp. 134–35. See also Kant's distinction between, and integration of, the doctrine of right (Rechtslehre) and the doctrine of virtue (Tugendlehre) in his Metaphysics of Morals; O'Neill, Onora, “Kant's Virtues,” in How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues, ed. Crisp, Roger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 7797; and Herman, Barbara, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,” Philosophical Review, vol. 90, no. 3 (1981), pp. 359–82.

4 See, e.g., Hursthouse, Rosalind, Beginning Lives (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 245, and “Applying Virtue Ethics,” in Hursthouse, Rosalind, Lawrence, Gavin, and Quinn, Warren, eds., Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 62; Schneewind, J. B., “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” Ethics, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), p. 43; Slote, Michael, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 89; and Garcia, Jorge, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Audi, Robert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 840.

5 See, e.g., Hursthouse, , Beginning Lives, p. 220; Trianosky, Gregory, “What Is Virtue Ethics All About?American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 4 (1990), p. 336; and Slote, Michael, “Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, and Symmetry,” in Crisp, , ed., How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues, p. 106.

6 See, e.g., Garcia, Jorge, “The Primacy of the Virtuous,” Philosophia, vol. 20, nos. 1–2 (1990), p. 69; Schneewind, , “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” p. 43; and Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 91.

7 See, e.g., Solomon, David, “Internal Objections to Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 13 (1988), p. 429; and Crisp, Roger, “Modern Moral Philosophy and the Virtues,” in Crisp, , ed., How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues, p. 7.

8 See, e.g., Baier, Kurt, “Radical Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 13 (1988), p. 127; and Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, p. 110 (but Annas plausibly suggests that the virtues cannot be determined independently of judgments about right and wrong either; see ibid., p. 114).

9 Crisp, , “Modern Moral Philosophy and the Virtues,” p. 7.

10 See Dent, N. J. H., The Moral Psychology of the Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), ch. 1, section 4.

11 See, e.g., Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 89, 111–13.

12 This seems to be Annas's view in ibid., pp. 111–14.

13 My remarks will be very summary; I say more in Value Judgement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), chs. 2, 5, 6, and 8.

14 For fuller discussion, see ibid., ch. 6, sections 2 and 4; ch. 7, section 5.

15 Again, for a less summary account, see ibid., ch. 7, section 6.

16 There are honorable exceptions: e.g., Hare, Moral Thinking; see the index entries in Hare's book under the subject “Education.”

17 This is not to say that supporters of virtue ethics have denied this; see, e.g., Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 113–14. There are also thoughtful applications of the virtues to actual cases: see, e.g., Foot, Philippa, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” and “Euthanasia,” in her Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); Hursthouse, , Beginning Lives (supra note 4), passim, and “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3 (1991). But these pieces do leave us uncertain about how the virtues cited become endowed with the determinate form they display there.

18 These cases have been discussed, e.g., in Foot, , “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect”; and in Thomson, Judith Jarvis, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), esp. chs. 5–7. I develop my line of argument here more fully in my Value Judgement, ch. 7.

19 Martha Nussbaum speaks of “the priority of perceptions,” where perception means “the ability to discern … the salient features of one's particular situation.” This ability, she suggests, “is at the core of what practical wisdom is.… It is very clear, in both Aristotle and James, that one point of the emphasis on perception is to show the ethical crudeness of moralities based exclusively on general rules, and to demand for ethics a much finer responsiveness to the concrete.…” See Nussbaum, , Love's Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 37. What she says seems to me right, but distortion enters if one does not also acknowledge the limits to this “finer responsiveness.”

20 The precise formulation of the doctrine of double effect is contentious, but the doctrine states, roughly, that when a certain action has both good and bad effects, it is permissible only if it is not wrong in itself and if it does not require that one directly intend the evil result. (For a good brief discussion, see Solomon, David, “Double Effect,” in Becker, L. C. and Becker, C. B., Encyclopedia of Ethics [Chicago: St. James Press, 1992]; I have followed his definition here.) The principle of respect for persons, for all of its influence, suffers from great vagueness. It is associated primarily with Kant, especially with his second formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, , Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 429, standard Academy pagination).

21 See, e.g., Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 290; and Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 110, 113–14.

22 See Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 83, 91.

23 I discuss the question of unattainable ideals in my Value Judgement, ch. 6, section 2.

24 See references in note 21.

25 See my Value Judgement, ch. 7, sections 8 and 9.

Virtue Ethics and Environs

  • James Griffin (a1)


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