Virtue Ethics Must be Self-Effacing to be Normatively Significant

Journal of Value Inquiry 56 (3):451-468 (2022)
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If an ethical theory sometimes requires that agents be motivated by features other than those it advances as justifications for the rightness or wrongness of actions, some consider this type of self-effacement to be a defeater from which no theory can recover. Most famously, Michael Stocker argues that requiring a divided moral psychology in which reasons are partitioned from motives would trigger a “malady of the spirit” for any agent attempting to live according to the prescriptions of modern ethical theories. Stocker’s argument is tremendously influential, and the fact that he specifically links modern ethical theories to self-effacement leads advocates of virtue ethics to presume that their view is immune to the problem of self-effacement and that this immunity gives virtue ethics an advantage over its contemporary rivals. This immunity has been challenged by Thomas Hurka and Simon Keller, who maintain that virtue ethics is equally as vulnerable to the charge of self-effacement as its modern counterparts. I argue in this paper that recent attempts to reply to Hurka and Keller are not successful. Specifically, I argue that recent attempts to immunize virtue ethics from self-effacement do not adequately address the challenge from Keller that virtue ethics can only escape from self-effacement via measures that are also available to modern theories. Thus, even if virtue ethics can avoid self-effacement, one must give up the claim that virtue ethics is uniquely immune to self-effacement compared to its modern rivals. I close by noting that my aim is not to argue that virtue ethics is deficient in this respect. Instead, I suggest that advocates of virtue ethics ought to consider the possibility that self-effacement is a tolerable psychological challenge for any ethical theory that requires agents to reflect on the substantive normative guidance it provides.

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Scott Woodcock
University of Victoria

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References found in this work

Persons, Character, and Morality.Bernard Williams - 1976 - In James Rachels (ed.), Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980. Cambridge University Press.
The schizophrenia of modern ethical theories.Michael Stocker - 1976 - Journal of Philosophy 73 (14):453-466.
Virtue ethics and the charge of egoism.Julia Annas - 2007 - In Paul Bloomfield (ed.), Morality and Self-Interest. Oxford University Press.
Virtue ethics is self-effacing.Simon Keller - 2007 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85 (2):221 – 231.

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