How Aristotelians Can Make Faith a Virtue


Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics identifies the virtues with the traits the fully virtuous person possesses. Further, it depicts the fully virtuous person as having all the cognitive perfections necessary for possessing practical wisdom. This paper argues that these two theses disqualify faith as trust, as construed on contemporary accounts of faith, as a virtue. For faith’s role as a virtue depends on limitations of its possessor that are incompatible with the psychological profile of the fully virtuous person on the neo-Aristotelian picture. I argue that because of tensions internal to the standard neo-Aristotelian view and the compelling arguments in recent literature that faith is a virtue, the neo-Aristotelian has good reason to revise her account of virtue and picture of the fully virtuous person.

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  1. 1.

    I say “broadly construed” because I won’t be focused on some species of faith, like religious faith, but the more general disposition to have faith in others, commitments, or ideals discussed on various recent accounts.

  2. 2.

    Arguments about whether faith is a virtue can helpfully contribute to an existing debate regarding moral virtues and knowledge. This debate got going in the contemporary virtue ethics literature when Julia Driver raised the question of whether there could be “virtues of ignorance. See Driver (1989), 373–84. Driver maintains that neo-Aristotelians should reject the knowledge requirement on being virtuous on the grounds that there are certain virtues that ineliminably involve ignorance. The two standard, and rather persuasive, arguments neo-Aristotelians give against the view that there are virtues of ignorance are not equally available as means for dismissing the claim that there is such a virtue as faith, especially on a cognitivist account. For one thing, there is an independent existing literature on faith as a virtue, whereas before Driver’s article was published there was not such a literature on her examples—blind charity and modesty. Second, there are arguments to the effect modesty and blind charity do not require ignorance, whereas, as we shall see, accounts of faith all endorse some cognitive and affective limitations at odds with the perfections ascribed to the fully virtuous person. See Brennan (2007), Brady (2005), Flanagan (1990), Ridge (2000), and Winter (2012). This makes faith a particularly instructive case.

  3. 3.

    I am excluding from consideration alternative pictures on which faith is merely instrumental in order to forestall the objection that faith is not a real virtue anymore than the disposition to achieve some other good necessary for living well, such as a disposition to drink water, is a virtue.

  4. 4.

    This is not to say that the concept only refers to a virtue. We might use the term faith to refer to something besides the virtue, like an attitude toward a particular proposition (“she has faith that the war will end”) or regarding a person (“he has faith in his spouse”), a religious way of life (“her Christian faith”) or body of doctrine accepted by some community (“the Islamic faith”). It is perfectly acceptable to talk about misuses or distortions of the disposition as “bad faith.” But arguably, something that unifies the multitude of appropriate semantic values for the term “faith” is that they bear some relation to the conception of faith as a virtue.

  5. 5.

    Zagzebski elects to use the term faith primarily in connection with what she calls religious faith, but I focus on her more general account of faith as trust in testimony.

  6. 6.

    For the argument against epistemic egoism, see Zagzebski (2012, 58).

  7. 7.

    Hursthouse explains that “a virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has and exercises the virtues,” (1996, 19). Gary Watson (1993) similarly describes the key thesis of virtue ethics as the claim that “living a characteristically human life (functioning well as a human being) requires possessing and exemplifying certain traits, T,” (459).

  8. 8.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pressing for clarification on this point.

  9. 9.

    If a trait had to be actually exercised to be a virtue, then we might worry that virtues would be extremely fine-grained. For instance, if the fully virtuous person actually lives in an era where she only encounters people of her own ethnicity, it looks like she has a fine-grained trait: charity-towards-those-of-one’s-ethnicity. And that fine-grained trait would be a distinct virtue from other fine-grained forms of charity. This is obviously implausible, and nowhere in the literature do theorists indicate a commitment to such a view, so we shouldn’t understand the Virtue Identification Thesis as requiring that the fully virtuous person actually exercise the virtues in all possible ways or situations. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this issue to my attention.

  10. 10.

    I take this from McDowell (1979, 331–50). McDowell resists the idea that the fully virtuous person’s perception of a situation can be matched by the perception of someone who would not act virtuously on the grounds that if this were possible, “the virtuous person’s matching perception—the deliverance of his sensitivity—cannot, after all, fully account for the virtuous action which it does elicit from him,” (334). McDowell also rejects the possibility that the virtuous person weighs reasons for and against a course of action because allowing it would collapse the important distinction between the continent person and the virtuous person (335).

  11. 11.

    Hursthouse argues that the person with complete practical wisdom won’t be culpably ignorant, but she defines culpable ignorance in a curiously externalist way: a person’s ignorance is “culpable if their understanding of what is beneficial or harmful is mistaken,” (ibid., 286).

  12. 12.

    I suspect that the idealization of the fully virtuous person is as much a matter of historical accident as it is a deliberate choice on the part of virtue ethicists. The revival of virtue ethics began at a point in the twentieth century when Kantian constructivism and utilitarianism were the dominant theories, and each of these views provided accounts of right action that insured against the theories’ seeming to prescribe something that was objectively wrong. The objectivist utilitarian always endorsed the action that in fact produced the best outcome, and the Kantians said that the moral principles one had reasons to adopt were those that an ideal rational observer, free of any bias or blindspots, would endorse. (For example, see Milo 1995, 181–204.) To compete with these theories, the virtue ethicists had to provide an account of right action that would do at least as well as the alternatives, and the strategy taken by Hursthouse and others was to build in cognitive perfection to the fully virtuous person and then analyze right action in terms of what the fully virtuous person would characteristically do in the circumstances. More recently, Jason Kawall has pushed an ideal observer version of virtue theory, motivated by similar concerns.

    It’s my view that while the significance of the virtue ethicists drawing attention to character and flourishing, rather than obsessing over right action, cannot be understated, they did not make a clean break with the moral philosophies of this era, particularly in the tendency to idealize.

  13. 13.

    Hursthouse’s treatment of tragic dilemmas indicates some disagreement on this point between her account, on the one hand, and that of other neo-Aristotelians, like McDowell and Russell, on the other. Hursthouse insists that because of the existence of tragic dilemmas, a fully virtuous person may have to go through agonizing reasoning to make her decision. In a moral dilemma, the fully virtuous person “acts with immense regret and pain,” not wholeheartedly. In later work, she claims that the fully virtuous person “characteristically does what she should do without inner conflict,” (2003, sec. 3). This claim doesn’t straightforwardly contradict her claim about tragic dilemmas, but it considerably weakens the force of “characteristically”— so much so, that we might worry that she cannot maintain the tight analytic connection between right action and the fully virtuous agent she does.

  14. 14.

    Here is Swartwood’s argument: “Unlike the merely continent person, who does what she ought to after struggling with a desire to do otherwise, a virtuous person sees what to do in a way that “silences” less virtuous – or just plain vicious – alternatives. Someone who refrains from making a racist joke at a party only after suppressing a desire to tell it has worse character than someone who doesn’t even see racist joke-making as a tempting option. If this distinction between continence and virtue holds, then we have to conclude that a person with perfect wisdom will not have to overcome internal obstacles to doing what should be done,” (516).

  15. 15.

    I am grateful to Laura Callahan for suggesting that I distinguish between these three ways limitations might play in occasioning faith.

  16. 16.

    One might object that on another interpretation of the Lockean account, on which faith is just the disposition to believe on the basis of testimony, faith is in principle compatible with perfect practical knowledge. For, according to the objection, the sufficient condition for having faith could be met by being disposed to believe experts in some non-normative, non-practical domain, like theoretical physics. It isn’t clear that such a cognitive limitation is of a piece with the cognitive limits that are internal obstacles to acting well.

    But we should question the premise that a fine-grained disposition to believe expert testimony in some narrow domain like theoretical physics is sufficient for the virtue of faith. If a narrowly construed disposition like this were all the Lockean theorists had in mind, there would be no grounds for holding that faith contributes to the achievement of practical goods, like trust in relationships, in addition to epistemic goods. The objection also mistakenly supposes that we can mark off in advance which domains are and are not of relevance to our practical lives. For the concept of the fully virtuous person to play the role it is given in neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, we need to be able to imagine what she would do in circumstances in all of the possible worlds that include fully virtuous persons. And since we can imagine possible worlds in which the fully virtuous person faces situations that make all sorts of non-normative propositions relevant for practical matters, it is unlikely that we can rule out of court as non-normative, or having no normative implications, any domain of theoretical knowledge. As Jason Baehr has recently argued, “Theoretical wisdom understood as an epistemic good is distinct from practical wisdom; it nevertheless falls within the jurisdiction or purview of practical wisdom. For it is entirely reasonable to think of deep explanatory understanding of epistemically significant subject matters as among the ends about which a person of practical wisdom might deliberate and make efforts to bring about,” (Baehr 2012).


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Many thanks to Lara Buchak, Kenny Boyce, Rebecca Chan, Matthew Frise, Trent Dougherty, Dan Howard-Snyder, Frances Howard-Snyder, Yoaav Isaacs, Jonathan Kvanvig, Liz Jackson, Gideon Jeffrey, Sam Lebens, Errol Lord, Dan McKaughan, Michael Pace, Ted Poston, Bradley Rettler, Lindsay Rettler, John Schwenkler, and Allison Krile Thornton for discussion of and comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Laura Callahan for offering insightful comments on a version of the paper presented at the Nature and Value of Faith Conference in San Antonio, 2016. This project was made possible through a generous grant from the Templeton Religious Trust; the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the trust.

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Correspondence to Anne Jeffrey.

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Jeffrey, A. How Aristotelians Can Make Faith a Virtue. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 20, 393–409 (2017).

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  • Faith
  • Trust
  • Virtue
  • Practical knowledge