Virtues and “Virtue Ethics”

Concern, Respect and Cooperation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Chapter 7.

When we use virtue-terms to make moral evaluations of persons, attitudes and actions, we are evaluating the quality of their responsiveness to the reasons morality gives us. A convincing vindication of that claim needs to provide a detailed account of which virtues respond to which reasons. Chapter 7 tackles this task, offering a taxonomy of moral virtues that draws on the previous chapters’ explanation of the routes by which different reasons derive from the foundations of morality. It also gives an account of the relationship between the different uses of aretaic terms: those that are virtue-attributing and those that are not.

“Aretaic Cognitivism”, American Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1995), pp. 395-406.

This paper defends the claim that there is deontic knowledge – knowledge of rightness and wrongness – which can be inferred from aretaic knowledge – knowledge of the possession of virtue-attributes. In doing so, it seeks to address two forceful objections, identified at the outset. The first is that the only way of making the claim appear plausible is by assuming a practice of virtue-ascription which actually makes the reverse inference. The second objection is that there is that “aretaic cognitivism” will face a familiar non-cognitivist challenge – that the cognitivist must choose between an “intuitionism” and a “naturalism”, against both of which there are well-known attacks – and that there is no reason to believe that this challenge can be met any more readily than by a direct deontic cognitivism. After a first section in which I outline a certain weak sense of the term “norm” in which our actions are often normatively guided, the defence of aretaic cognitivism begins with a schematic expression of the practical norms which are central to a number of important moral virtues. Guidance by any one of the schematized norms is not sufficient to guarantee the virtuousness of an action, because there may be countervailing applications of competing practical norms. However, aretaic knowledge does not require knowledge that there are no such countervailing considerations – and what it does require can apparently be satisfied. Therefore, I argue, both objections can be met: there are at least some circumstances in which our possession of aretaic knowledge does not depend on the possession of deontic knowledge, and since it does not, there is a way between the horns of the non-cognitivist’s dilemma.

“Virtue Ethics, Theory, and Warrant”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (1999), pp. 277-94 , BSET Special Issue.

Are there good grounds for thinking that the moral values of action are to be derived from those of character? This “virtue ethical” claim is sometimes thought of as a kind of normative ethical theory; sometimes as form of opposition to any such theory. However, the best case to be made for it supports neither of these claims. Rather, it leads us to a distinctive view in moral epistemology: the view that my warrant for a particular moral judgement derives from my warrant for believing that I am a good moral judge. This view seems to confront a regress-problem. For the belief that I am a good moral judge is itself a particular moral judgement. So it seems that, on this view, I need to derive my warrant for believing that I am a good moral judge from my warrant for believing that I am a good judge of moral judges; and so on.  I show how this worry can be met, and trace the implications of the resulting view for warranted moral judgement.

“Moral Virtues and Responsiveness for Reasons”, in Stewart Braun and Noell Birondo (eds), Virtue’s Reasons: New Essays on Virtue, Character, and Reasons (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 11-31.

Moral discourse contains judgements of two prominent kinds. It contains deontic judgements about rightness and wrongness, obligation and duty, and what a person ought to do. As I understand them, these deontic judgements are normative: they express conclusions about the bearing of normative reasons on the actions and other responses that are available to us. And it contains evaluative judgements about goodness and badness. Prominent among these are the judgements that evaluate the quality of our responsiveness to morally relevant reasons. We have a rich vocabulary for making such evaluations – our vocabulary of aretaic terms. Aretaic terms are those which can be used to attribute virtues: terms such as “kind”, “honest”, “fair”, “tolerant” and “reliable”. However, while they can be used to attribute virtues, they have other uses too; and they can be applied not only to persons but also to various states of persons, to actions and other responses, and to patterns of response. In this paper, I offer an account of the relationship between some of the principal uses of aretaic terms; and I show how a useful taxonomy of moral virtues can be generated from the thought that these are ways of being well oriented to morally relevant reasons.

“Moral Character and the Iteration Problem”, Utilitas 7 (1995), pp.280-289.

If “virtue ethics” claims that the moral value of character is explanatorily prior to that of action, two important objections to it are these. (1) I can perform an F action “out of character” — without being an F person. (2) Even if this could be answered, what would compel us to explain an F action as the sort performed by an F person, rather than explaining an F person as the sort who performs F actions? What licenses the claim of priority? Addressing these objections, this paper discusses a case of callous action that sustains the virtue ethical claim.

Book Reviews

“Nancy Sherman, Making a Necessity of Virtue”, European Journal of Philosophy 6 (1998), pp. 234-8.

“Robert Merrihew Adams, A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (2008), pp. 695-6.


Work in Progress

“Discriminate Virtue”, forthcoming in Australasian Philosophical Review 4.2 

“Narrative  Virtues and Second-Order Reasons”, forthcoming in Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl (eds), Virtue, Narrative, and the Self:Explorations of Character in Philosophy of Mind and Action (New York: Routledge, 2021).