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Right action and the ideally virtuous agent


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Right action and the ideally virtuous agent
Date: 15 February 2008 13:27

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 4 February, with your University of London essay for Ethics Contemporary Perspectives, in response to the question, 'Can one best understand the notion of right action in terms of a conception of an ideally virtuous agent?'

I can see that you have done a lot of work for this essay, and that you have tried hard to stick to the question, in fact you refer back to the question more than once in the course of the essay.

You are right to take the phrase 'best understand' as implicitly referring to a range of alternatives for understanding the notion of right action, with the main rivals to virtue ethics being deontology and consequentialism.

What I thought you were going on to do was explain how the deontologist and consequentialist define 'the right action' and THEN show how the defects in these two accounts are (allegedly) put right by the virtue ethics approach. At least, that would make the most sense from a dialectical point of view.

Instead, you launch into a survey of discussions of virtue ethics, picking salient features as they reflect on the question.

I'm not saying this is wrong, but it does give the impression that you have forgotten what question you were answering, although you do return to it later.

There is a big issue here, alluded to by Hursthouse, concerning whether a virtue ethicist is, or ought to be so concerned with the question of defining 'right action'. You go on to mention Anscombe who argues that moral judgements are more about recognizing virtues and vices than with defining 'the right action' in the manner of the deontologist or consequentialist.

In other words, what the question is intended to bring out is that there are two radically different ways of contrasting virtue ethics with deontology and consequentialism:

1. as offering an alternative definition of 'the right action'

2. as putting the case for a change of emphasis in ethics, away from individual actions and towards agents

One way to argue for 2. against 1. would be to show how virtue theory is emasculated when the attempt is made to define the conception of 'ideally virtuous agent'. Is it just, as Anscombe says, the person with a full set of virtuous teeth? But this is just the normal or 'natural' state. A person who has a full set of virtues will still struggle with difficult ethical choices. That is just the human predicament. What the advocate of option 1. is looking for, however, is something analogous to the 'ideal observer' theory of truth.

According to the ideal observer theory, a statement is true if and only if it would be verified by an ideally placed observer who had unlimited powers of perception, and time to form a judgement. (The latter implies some notion of asymptotic limit, as there is no finite period of time sufficiently long to be absolutely sure that one will not need to withdraw one's judgement.) Similarly, when ordinary people, despite having all the virtues, fail to discover the 'right action' in a particular case, we nevertheless have the conception of what an 'ideally virtuous agent' would choose. This is what allows us to think in terms of the truth of ethical judgements, as something which transcends, or has the potential to transcend, human ethical knowledge.

But now one might begin to suspect that we are on the wrong tack here. We are interested in 'right action', in the sense in which a person with all the virtues, who judges carefully and accurately will by and large 'do right'. But why should this interest lead us to posit an 'ultimately right action', as an ideal unattainable by all except the exceptionally wise and virtuous, if then? Given the cases of moral dilemmas which deontologists and consequentialists grapple with, who is to say that there 'exists' an answer in these cases?

As the question of ethical dilemmas sometimes comes up, it is worth stressing that there is a debate over whether we should regard all ethical dilemmas as merely implying our lack of knowledge/ wisdom, or, on the contrary, as casting doubt on the very notion of an 'ultimately right action'. My view, for what it is worth, is that in genuine ethical dilemmas, there is no 'right answer'. -- And, no, I don't think this is a cop out!

(For more on this see my article in 'Philosophy for Business' Issue 40, 'Varieties of Ethical Dilemma'

In an exam, my view would be that an ideal answer (from a not necessarily ideal examiner's point of view) would be one which attempted to define and clarify the 'ideally virtuous agent' definition of 'right action', as an alternative to deontology and consequentialism, but also considered the question whether we should be doing this at all, or whether on the contrary virtue ethics should be seen as posing an alternative to the view of ethics which attempts to define 'the' right action.

The answer the examiner would be looking for is potentially there, in your essay. It just has to be teased out.

All the best,