Virtues as reasons structures


There is a certain kind of tension in recent accounts of the role of reasons in virtue ethics between two plausible claims that pull in different directions. First, that virtues are the central normative notion in virtue ethics; and second, that virtue is a kind of responsiveness to reasons: that reasons explain both what it is to act from virtue, and what the virtues are. I argue that this is a serious tension and necessitates a different account of the relationship between virtues and reasons; one that explains the distinctive normative contribution of virtue, central to virtue ethics, and that also captures the ways in which virtues structure practical reason itself and provide normative reasons for thinking, feeling, and acting. I develop a view, which I call virtues as reasons structure, that achieves these aims by drawing a theoretical and practical distinction between reasons from virtue and reasons for virtue. On this view, character traits explain what reasons a person has. A generous person, for example, is one who characteristically takes certain facts to be reasons for action; these are reasons from the virtue. Reasons for the virtues have a different role in theoretical and practical reflection in grounding claims with respect to which character traits to develop. I conclude by arguing that this view does not lead to a problematic kind of relativism and suggest further lines of inquiry.

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  1. 1.

    Russell (2009) seems to take a similar view, writing that “…a virtue is (among other things) a characteristic responsiveness to certain sorts of reasons, on different occasions and in different circumstances…” (p. 194).

  2. 2.

    All quotes from (Aristotle 1999).

  3. 3.

    Notice, too, that it seems quite unlikely that a generous person could convince an envious person to help a friend in need by just saying, “they’re a friend.” A truly envious person could understand that that is a reason for a generous person to give, but that it is not a reason for them to do the same.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

  5. 5.

    Thanks to Matt Benton for this way of formalizing the point.

  6. 6.

    As Hursthouse defines it: “An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances” (1999, 28).

  7. 7.

    Given that this analysis of normative reasons relies on virtue, it could be open to situationist critiques of character (see, Doris 2005; Merritt et al. 2010). It would take us too far afield to address that critique at length here, but there are some reasons for thinking the objection can be answered (see, Miller 2013; Bates and Kleingeld 2018).

  8. 8.

    Though it could be that the correct analysis of these reasons will yield important differences. For example, reasons from virtue could be analyzed according to Scanlon’s (2014) relational view of reasons, where a reason is a consideration that counts in favor of an action, for an agent, in the circumstances, though the same analysis would seem unlikely to hold for reasons for virtue.

  9. 9.

    There will be some need to further complicate this story because it seems likely that virtue comes in degrees, so there is no easy dichotomy between those who possess the virtues and those who lack it. The most likely story is that most ordinary people neither completely lack the virtue, nor completely possess the virtue (see, Miller 2017). To make clear the exposition of the view under consideration here, I will not address this complication.

  10. 10.

    Being internal to the practice is meant to borrow from MacIntyre’s use of that phrase (MacIntyre 1981), but without all of the same theoretical commitments. The notion is a useful metaphor for those reasons and practices that only make sense to those inside them.

  11. 11.

    There may be some worries here that this view will lead to some form of relativism. I will address that worry in Sect. 5.

  12. 12.

    The question of whether the reasons for virtue are objective reasons will be returned to in Sect. 5.

  13. 13.

    If these reasons fail, sometimes even strictly instrumental reasons are provided, for example, “you’ll do better on your LSATs.” This can occur in the moral case as well. For example, saying that one should be honest because it is good for business to be honest.

  14. 14.

    This is similar to what Frankfurt says here (2004, 50):

    The necessities of a person’s will guide and limit his agency. They determine what he may be willing to do, what he cannot help doing, and what he cannot bring himself to do. They determine as well what he may be willing to accept as a reason for acting, what he cannot help considering to be a reason for acting, and what he cannot bring himself to count as a reason for acting. In these ways, they set the boundaries of his practical life; and thus they fix his shape as active being.

  15. 15.

    The analysis of virtues as reasons structures requires further elucidation, particularly as it relates to practical reason. This is the subject of separate planned paper.

  16. 16.

    There are multiple ways to flesh out the nature of this dependence relation, and it’s possible to be somewhat noncommittal here. I am sympathetic to a normative constructivist view—the reasons from virtue are constructed by that virtue—but not a metaethical constructivist view. Metaethical constructivism takes it that morality itself is constructed from certain features of rational agency, whereas on my view, the reasons for virtue may very well be grounded in objective facts about human nature. For a defense of an Aristotelian account of metaethical constructivism, see LeBar (2008).

  17. 17.

    Humility is one typical example. Christian virtue ideals call for humility as a virtue, whereby Aristotle rather famously rejects it.

  18. 18.

    Propriety in the sense that Mengzi used it, as deference to elders and authority figures (Mengzi 2008).

  19. 19.

    This is an ecological view of eudaimonia. What eudaimonia amounts to is a function of the biological, social, and other factors that figure in a person’s particular environment.


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Saunders, L.F. Virtues as reasons structures. Philos Stud (2020).

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  • Practical reason
  • Virtue
  • Reasons for action
  • Virtue ethics