The touchstone for eudaimonist virtue ethicists is a flourishing human life. For agent-based virtue ethicists it is an exemplary agent’s motivations. The target-centered view developed by Christine Swanton (2003), by contrast, begins with our existing conceptions of the virtues. We already have a passable idea of which traits are virtues and what they involve. Of course, this untutored understanding can be clarified and improved, and it is one of the tasks of the virtue ethicist to help us do precisely that. But rather than stripping things back to something as basic as the motivations we want to imitate or building it up to something as elaborate as an entire flourishing life, the target-centered view begins where most ethics students find themselves, namely, with the idea that generosity, courage, self-discipline, compassion, and the like get a tick of approval. It then examines what these traits involve.
Hogarth in Context: Ten Essays and a Bibliography (Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 1996); Peter Wagner, Reading Iconotexts: From Swift to the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1995)", Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33, no.
Some virtue ethicists respond to the adequacy objection by rejecting the assumption that virtue ethics ought to be in the business of providing an account of right action in the first place. Following in the footsteps of Anscombe (1958) and MacIntyre (1985), Talbot Brewer (2009) argues that to work with the categories of rightness and wrongness is already to get off on the wrong foot. Contemporary conceptions of right and wrong action, built as they are around a notion of moral duty that presupposes a framework of divine (or moral) law or around a conception of obligation that is defined in contrast to self-interest, carry baggage the virtue ethicist is better off without. Virtue ethics can address the questions of how one should live, what kind of person one should become, and even what one should do without that committing it to providing an account of ‘right action’. One might choose, instead, to work with aretaic concepts (defined in terms of virtues and vices) and axiological concepts (defined in terms of good and bad, better and worse) and leave out deontic notions (like right/wrong action, duty, and obligation) altogether.
But the objection failed to take note of Anscombe’s hint that agreat deal of specific action guidance could be found in rulesemploying the virtue and vice terms (“v-rules”) such as“Do what is honest/charitable; do not do what isdishonest/uncharitable” (Hursthouse 1999). (It is a noteworthyfeature of our virtue and vice vocabulary that, although our list ofgenerally recognised virtue terms is comparatively short, our list ofvice terms is remarkably, and usefully, long, far exceeding anythingthat anyone who thinks in terms of standard deontological rules has evercome up with. Much invaluable action guidance comes from avoidingcourses of action that would be irresponsible, feckless, lazy,inconsiderate, uncooperative, harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary,indiscreet, tactless, arrogant, unsympathetic, cold, incautious,unenterprising, pusillanimous, feeble, presumptuous, rude,hypocritical, self-indulgent, materialistic, grasping, short-sighted,vindictive, calculating, ungrateful, grudging, brutal, profligate,disloyal, and on and on.)
Other virtue ethicists wish to retain the concept of right action but note that in the current philosophical discussion a number of distinct qualities march under that banner. In some contexts, ‘right action’ identifies the best action an agent might perform in the circumstances. In others, it designates an action that is commendable (even if not the best possible). In still others, it picks out actions that are not blameworthy (even if not commendable). A virtue ethicist might choose to define one of these—for example, the best action—in terms of virtues and vices, but appeal to other normative concepts—such as legitimate expectations—when defining other conceptions of right action.
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