, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 387-409

Seeing by Feeling: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Perception

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Abstract

Champions of virtue ethics frequently appeal to moral perception: the notion that virtuous people can “see” what to do. According to a traditional account of virtue, the cultivation of proper feeling through imitation and habituation issues in a sensitivity to reasons to act. Thus, we learn to see what to do by coming to feel the demands of courage, kindness, and the like. But virtue ethics also claims superiority over other theories that adopt a perceptual moral epistemology, such as intuitionism – which John McDowell criticizes for illicitly “borrow[ing] the epistemological credentials” of perception. In this paper, I suggest that the most promising way for virtue ethics to use perceptual metaphors innocuously is by adopting a skill model of virtue, on which the virtues are modeled on forms of practical know-how. Yet I contend that this model is double-edged for virtue ethics. The skill model belies some central ambitions and dogmas of the traditional view, especially its most idealized claims about virtue and the virtuous. While this may be a cost that its champions are unprepared to pay, I suggest that virtue ethics would do well to embrace a more realistic moral psychology and a correspondingly less sublime conception of virtue.