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A Humean particularist virtue ethic

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Virtue ethical theories typically follow a neo-Aristotelian or quasi-Aristotelian model, making use of various combinations of key features of the Aristotelian model including eudaimonism (the notion that virtue is a necessary component of individual flourishing), perfectionism (the idea that the truly virtuous agent achieves a sort of moral perfection), an account of practical wisdom, and the thesis of the unity of the virtues (roughly, that the virtues form a unified set and are mutually realized). In this paper I motivate what I call a Humean virtue ethic, which is a deeply particularist account of virtue that rejects all of these central tenets, at least in their traditional forms. Focusing on three factors by which Hume determines virtue, I show that this view of virtue resonates with the aims of the moral particularist, who holds that there are no general moral principles and that right action is determined only with reference to context and on a case-by-case basis. I use Hume’s texts to introduce and motivate three claims, which I find plausible, and which I will show can be read together as entailing an interesting and underappreciated picture of virtue that is also able to solve an important dilemma for particularist virtue ethics.

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  1. Thanks to Jack Bricke, Ben Eggleston, and other members of the University of Kansas Philosophy Department for this clarification.

  2. This is equivalent to the claim that a virtue can be wrong-making in some scenarios; my reason for wording it as I have above is to avoid the implication that there is a set of traits that are uniquely classed as “virtues.” My motivation will become clearer as the argument continues. The same reasoning applies to my wording of (c′), where someone else might want to translate (c) as, “there are no virtues with invariant moral valence, either absolute or contributory.”

  3. Swanton (2001, 2003), Stangl (2008).

  4. See, for example, T3.3.1.30/SBN 590-1, EPM 9.12/SBN 277. References to Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature are given with book, part, section, and paragraph numbers as found in the edition edited by Norton and Norton (2000) using the abbreviation “T”, as well as with page references to the edition edited by Selby-Bigge and Nidditch (1978) using the abbreviation “SBN”; citations from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals are given with section and paragraph numbers from the edition edited by Beauchamp (2006) using the abbreviation “EPM”, as well as with page references to the Selby-Bigge and Nidditch edition (1975) using the abbreviation “SBN”.

  5. This importantly distinguishes the Humean view I offer here from the primary aim of other “Humean” views of virtue, such as that offered by Michael Slote (2001). Nothing said here needs to be incompatible with such views, but the features of the view being highlighted here are not conceptually linked to Hume’s view being sentimentalist.

  6. In the interest of full disclosure, I find it more plausible to understand moral expectations in terms of how we respond to persons and their habits and characteristics, rather than to single actions they may perform, but what follows is also compatible with a consequentialism about virtue, along the lines of utility and agreeableness. All that I take from Hume on this point is that virtues can be understood in these terms (and vices in the contrary terms), whatever else we think about the role of virtue in ethical theory, or how it is we come to this assessment of virtues. Nevertheless, it is also compatible with a true virtue ethic, where virtue is the primary aim of moral judgment and behavior; there is some reason to think this is the most compatible with Hume’s view, but all that need be said here is that this is a view of virtue that can form the basis of a virtue ethic (even if it is also independently interesting to, say, the consequentialist virtue theorist).

  7. Hursthouse (1999).

  8. See, for example, Baier, Progress of Sentiments (1991, pp. 212–215); Dees, “Hume on the Characters of Virtue” (1997, p. 51); Abramson, “Two Portraits” (2002).

  9. T3.3.4.2/SBN 607-8.

  10. T3.3.3.2/SBN 602-3.

  11. T3.3.3.9/SBN 606.

  12. See Erin Frykholm, “Associative Virtues and Hume’s Narrow Circle,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (forthcoming).

  13. EPM 6.20/SBN 241.

  14. T3.3.4.6/SBN 610.

  15. EPM 5.38/SBN 225f.

  16. T3.3.4.14/SBN 613-4.

  17. T3.3.3.3/SBN 604.

  18. Hume (1983) 5.5.175-200.

  19. EPM “A Dialogue” 38/SBN 336.

  20. I am sensitive to the concern about reading a full-fledged virtue theory into Hume’s texts, and I do not here mean to suggest that I see a fully articulated particularist virtue ethic there. Sayre-McCord (1996) has argued that Hume is best understood as offering what he calls a “Bauhaus theory” of ethics, in which different standards of measure and evaluation are used in different contexts, and there is no single overarching theoretical framework. In this paper I am not committed to a claim about what kind of ethical theory Hume did or would endorse, though I do find some points of affinity in Sayre-McCord’s argument; he also notes that virtues are context dependent (“there is no one problem nor any single end with reference to which various virtues are all evaluated. Instead, different particular problems and different specific ends frame different contexts of evaluation and fix (for the most part) the standards of evaluation that are relevant” (18)), and that the value of traits depends on the context and design of the person possessing them (“their value ultimately turns on how well they solve a certain design problem” (ibid.)). Nevertheless, in this paper I am arguing that some of these foundational claims might be understood to ground a singular overarching ethical framework, though not one that gives generalist moral principles.

  21. Of course as with any moral practice, one can draw imperfect generalizations (e.g. “Be honest with one’s friends and colleagues”), but this is insufficient to show that morality can be codified by a set of general principles. For the latter to be true, it must be the case that there are no scenarios in which one cannot appeal to a general rule to explain right action. The generalist might attempt to keep amending rules to describe specific cases, but this goes against the general aim of generalizing principles and, more importantly, implies that any situation can be fully described as a certain type of situation (one in which rule x applies). I do not explore this further here, but this is a point on which a particularist would argue that describing actions as action types, or situations as such, fails to recognize the fundamentally complex nature of situations and actions. See, for example, Dancy (2004, pp. 107–108).

  22. “I don’t believe in Murder Ds having kids. They turn you soft: you can’t take the heat any more, and you end up making a bollix of the job and probably the kids too. You can’t have both. I’ll take the job.” French (2012, p. 114).

  23. Dancy has made a similar concession, noting that “Our overall conception of moral rationality, must be particularist, even though we should perhaps leave open a small space for invariant reasons—reasons that are invariant because of the particular reasons they are, rather than just because they are reasons” Dancy (1999, p. 146). Thanks to Eileen Nutting for helpful elaboration of this point.

  24. Dancy (2004, p. 122).

  25. Murdoch (1970).

  26. See Swanton (2001, p. 48).

  27. Swanton (2003, p. 233).

  28. Ibid. p. 234.

  29. Swanton (2001, p. 48).

  30. Swanton develops the notion of attention using Nel Nodding’s account of receptivity and appreciation; according to Swanton, the virtuous agent has a “heightened awareness, an openness which is pre-analytical and involves feeling rather than thinking, a quietness, an ability to reduce the impact of extraneous noise and racket… [an] emotional attitude [that] renders certain features salient, and others invisible or unimportant” (Swanton 2003, p. 112). Swanton (like Noddings) explicitly notes that there are further analytical stages required for practical wisdom, for example in deciding how best to meet the target of a virtue that is called for in a given context, but this initial attentiveness or receptivity is a necessary feature of being a virtuous agent.

  31. Dancy (1999, p. 151).

  32. Dancy (2004, p. 121).

  33. Ibid. pp. 184–187.

  34. Some readers might be concerned that certain traits that I treat here as virtues, such as competitiveness, are not moral virtues in the traditional sense; I remind the reader that a Humean treats any traits that are useful or agreeable to oneself or others as virtues, and makes no clear distinction between those we might call moral versus, for example, social virtues. All I mean to suggest with this example is that there are circumstances in which a trait such as competitiveness is considered praiseworthy, as well as circumstances in which it is not.

  35. Walker (2003, p. 5).

  36. Wallace (1996, pp. 32–33).


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Frykholm, E. A Humean particularist virtue ethic. Philos Stud 172, 2171–2191 (2015).

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