Virtues for the Imperfect
A common challenge for virtue ethics is that it cannot offer a plausible account of when an action is right. Virtue ethicists have responded by offering accounts of right action in terms of ideal, i.e., fully virtuous agents. Rosalind Hursthouse, e.g., says: “An act is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e., acting in character) do in the circumstances.”1
Critics have pointed out that many right actions do not fit this account. According to this right-but-not-virtuous objection, the right action for an ordinary person is often one that a fully virtuous person wouldn’t perform in the circumstances.2 It may be right for Ulysses to have himself tied to the mast, but a fully virtuous person wouldn’t do that, since such a person wouldn’t yield to temptation. Similarly, it is right for you to break the lesser of two conflicting rash promises. But a completely virtuous agent would have taken care not to give conflicting promises in the first place.