Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics and Right Action: A Reassessment
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- Svensson, F. J Ethics (2011) 15: 321. doi:10.1007/s10892-011-9108-0
My question in this paper concerns what eudaimonist virtue ethics (EVE) might have to say about what makes right actions right. This is obviously an important question if we want to know what (if anything) distinguishes EVE from various forms of consequentialism and deontology in ethical theorizing. The answer most commonly given is that according to EVE, an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. However, understood as a claim about what makes particular actions right, this is not especially plausible. What makes a virtuous person’s actions right must reasonably be a matter of the feature, or features, which she, via her practical wisdom, appreciates as ethically relevant in the circumstances, and not the fact that someone such as herself would perform those actions. I argue that EVE instead should be understood as a more radical alternative in ethical philosophy, an alternative that relies on the background assumption that no general account or criterion for what makes right actions right is available to us: right action is simply too complex to be captured in a ‘finite and manageable set of…moral principles’ (McKeever and Ridge, Principled ethics, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 139). This does not rule out the possibility that there might be some generalizations about how we should act which hold true without exception. Perhaps there are some things which we must never do, as well as some features of the world which always carry normative weight (even though their exact weight may vary from one context to another). Still, these things are arguably few and far between, and what we must do to ensure that we reliably recognize what is right in particular situations is to acquire practical wisdom. Nothing short of that could do the job.