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Virtues, Skills, and Right Action


According to Rosalind Hursthouse’s virtue based account of right action, an act is right if it is what a fully virtuous person would do in that situation. Robert Johnson has criticized the account on the grounds that the actions a non-virtuous person should take are often uncharacteristic of the virtuous person, and thus Hursthouse’s account of right action is too narrow. The non-virtuous need to take steps to improve themselves morally, and the fully virtuous person need not take these steps. So Johnson argues that any virtue based account of right action will have to find a way to ground a moral obligation to improve oneself. This paper argues that there is an account of virtue that can offer a partial solution to Johnson’s challenge, an account where virtue is a type of practical skill and in which the virtuous person is seen as having expertise. The paper references the account of skill acquisition developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus. Their research demonstrates that novices in a skill have to employ different strategies to act well than the strategies used by the experts, and so the ‘virtue as skill’ thesis provides support for Johnson’s claim that the actions of the non-virtuous will differ from the virtuous. On the other hand, their research suggests that there is no separating the commitment to improve yourself from the possession of expertise, and so the ‘virtue as skill’ thesis has the resources for grounding the obligation to improve oneself in an account of virtue.

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  1. 1.

    For the sake of brevity, and because most of the recent papers on this topic are written by just Hubert, I will refer to their view in the singular.

  2. 2.

    Although the traditional spelling is ‘phronimos’ rather than ‘phronemos’, for the sake of consistency Dreyfus’s spelling will be used throughout the remaining sections. Also, the claim that the expert “cannot” explain is too strong.

  3. 3.

    The two categories of skills hereafter will be referred to as simple and difficult.

  4. 4.

    See Stichter (2007) for the details.

  5. 5.

    My thanks to Harry Silverstein for pushing this type of objection.

  6. 6.

    My thanks to Harry Silverstein for pressing this point.


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Correspondence to Matt Stichter.

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Stichter, M. Virtues, Skills, and Right Action. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 14, 73–86 (2011).

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  • Dreyfus
  • Ethics
  • Expertise
  • Hursthouse
  • Johnson
  • Right action
  • Skill
  • Virtue