Moral character

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007)

Kevin Timpe
Calvin College
At the heart of one major approach to ethics—an approach counting among its proponents Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas—is the conviction that ethics is fundamentally related to what kind of persons we are. Many of Plato’s dialogues, for example, focus on what kind of persons we ought to be and begin with examinations of particular virtues: What is the nature of justice? Republic) What is the nature of piety? Euthyphro) What is the nature of temperance? Charmides) What is the nature of courage? Laches) On the assumption that what kind of person one is is constituted by one’s character, the link between moral character and virtue is clear. We can think of one’s moral character as primarily a function of whether she has or lacks various moral virtues and vices. The virtues and vices that comprise one’s moral character are typically understood as dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain sorts of circumstances. For instance, an honest person is disposed to telling the truth when asked. These dispositions are typically understood as relatively stable and long-term. Further, they are also typically understood to be robust, that is, consistent across a wide-spectrum of conditions. We are unlikely, for example, to think that an individual who tells the truth to her friends but consistently lies to her parents and teachers possesses the virtue of honesty. Moral character, like most issues in moral psychology, stands at the intersection of issues in both normative ethics and empirical psychology. This suggests that there are conceivably two general approaches one could take when elucidating the nature of moral character. One could approach moral character primarily by focusing on standards set by normative ethics ; whether people can or do live up to these standards is irrelevant. Alternatively, one could approach moral character under the guideline that normative ethics ought to be constrained by psychology. On this second approach, it’s not that the normative/descriptive distinction disappears; instead, it is just that a theory of moral character ought to be appropriately constrained by what social psychology tells us moral agents are in fact like..
Keywords morals  ethics  situationism
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