Utilitarian Moral Virtue, Admiration, and Luck


Every tenable ethical theory must have an account of moral virtue and vice. Julia Driver has performed a great service for utilitarians by developing a utilitarian account of moral virtue that complements a broader act-based utilitarian ethical theory. In her view, a moral virtue is a psychological disposition that systematically produces good states of affairs in a particular possible world. My goal is to construct a more plausible version of Driver’s account that nevertheless maintains its basic integrity. I aim to accomplish this goal by developing four problems concerning admiration and luck for Driver’s account. Subsequently, I modify the account in a way that partially or entirely mitigates each difficulty. Finally, I attempt to undermine Driver’s rationale for rejecting the modification and explore how well the modified account of moral virtue fits with utilitarian accounts of right action.

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  1. 1.

    The modest pre-theoretic status of the intuitions safeguards these arguments from begging the question against the utilitarian; for while I think that these intuitions survive reflection, claiming so without substantial argument would beg the question.

  2. 2.

    Ben Bradley (2005) also recommends this modification. My contribution is three-fold. First, I advance several new arguments against Driver’s view, and I show how the modified account either partially or entirely undermines each problem. Second, I provide new reasons for thinking that the permissive limit on consequences is more plausible than Driver’s restrictive limit. Third, I also explore how well utilitarian accounts of right action fit with the modified account of moral virtue.

  3. 3.

    In response to an argument from Onora O’Neill (2004), Driver (2004, pp. 35–36) exchanges the causal requirement for a weaker ‘make a difference’ requirement. Since causation is one way to make a difference, I retain the original language of causation with the understanding that she is committed only to the thinner requirement.

  4. 4.

    There is an ambiguity in the claim that the better virtues systematically produce more good than other virtues. The phrase ‘produce more good’ could mean either (i) produce more overall good in the world or (ii) produce a higher average quantity of good each time it is actualized. As Bradley (2005, pp. 296–297) recognizes, if we assume the meaning that the better virtue produces more overall good in the world, then we get the counterintuitive result that wit may be a better moral virtue than generosity only because it is far more frequently enacted. The more plausible disambiguation is that one moral virtue is better than another because it systematically produces a higher average quantity of good each time it is actualized.

  5. 5.

    Since Driver (2001, p. 56) takes the concept of moral virtue to apply across species, the fact that her thought experiment appeals to non-human beings is unproblematic.

  6. 6.

    We may assume that the beaters are ignorant of lifespan enhancing effects of the beatings.

  7. 7.

    In conversation, Driver confirmed this interpretation.

  8. 8.

    W. D. Ross (1930, pp. 34–35) offers a similar argument regarding the morally significant features of an action. Should one abstain from lying and produce 1000 units of happiness or tell a lie and produce 1001 units of happiness? It is intuitive that the former act should be pursued, even though that action is slightly less instrumentally valuable, because this act has moral significance beyond its instrumental value.

  9. 9.

    Analogously, consider J. J. C. Smart’s (1961) famous utilitarian substitute for moral blame. Because Smart does not attempt to provide an account of the pre-theoretical idea of blame, his view is widely rejected in the moral responsibility literature. See, for example, T. M. Scanlon (1988, p. 159), George Sher (2006, pp. 72–74), Angela Smith (2008, p. 374), and Manuel Vargas (2013, p. 166).

  10. 10.

    Additionally, Michael Slote (2004, pp. 29–30) agrees that it is counterintuitive to grant that the beater trait is a moral virtue.

  11. 11.

    My revised distinction between mere and moral virtues appears to be the same as Michael Stocker’s distinction between technical and moral virtues (Driver 2001, pp. 57–58). Technical virtues systematically produce good states of affairs but lack the “good” intentional and motivational structure required to be a moral virtue. They are virtues of an inferior sort. Driver’s (2001, p. 58) main response to Stocker is that his distinction either commits a person to virtue maximalism where only the best traits can be moral virtues or it is a distinction without a function. I agree that virtue maximalism is to be avoided. So then, given the parallel between my and Stocker’s distinctions, is it also incumbent upon me to show that the revised distinction between mere and moral virtues serves some function? My answer is that my distinction serves the same function as Driver’s implicit distinction between mere and moral virtues. Both distinctions aim to accommodate pre-theoretical intuitions.

  12. 12.

    There is an even more radical version of the Fragility Argument that we may call the Inversion Argument (cf. Driver 2001, pp. 79–80; Slote 2004, p. 30; Calder 2007, pp. 204–208). Instances of the Fragility Argument show several ways in which luck may prohibit traits that are pre-theoretically moral virtues or vices from being such, and the Inversion Argument takes it a step further illustrating how luck may render a psychological trait that is pre-theoretically a moral virtue to be a moral vice.

  13. 13.

    Someone sympathetic to Driver’s account may attempt to counterbalance the negative impact of the Fragility Argument by appealing to the attractiveness of the actualist requirement itself. In a later section, however, I will attempt to demotivate a commitment to actualism.

  14. 14.

    The lines dividing supervenience bases are metaphysically vague. This, of course, results in metaphysically vague moral virtues and vices.

  15. 15.

    Owen Flanagan (1990) and Michael Winter (2012) argue that these traits are not moral virtues at all.

  16. 16.

    The distinction between trait-token and trait-type systematic production is the same as Driver’s (2001, p. 79) atomistic and systematic distinction.

  17. 17.

    One might think that Nagel’s (1979, p. 28) category of circumstantial luck is a better fit than the category of constitutive luck for the phenomenon that I identify. The problem is that circumstantial luck pertains to the morally significant decisions one faces. More specifically, the issue is that an agent might choose better or worse depending on the proper subset of possible circumstances in which she finds herself. In contrast, constitutive luck is about the praise or blame one deserves for the moral status of her dispositions. Thus, constitutive luck is the right category for this phenomenon.

  18. 18.

    Driver (2001, p. xv) interprets Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue as a mixed theory: “certain psychological states are necessary for virtue but not sufficient, since a virtue trait must show some connection to actual human flourishing.” It is worth noting that Todd Calder (2007, pp. 213–219) plausibly argues that Aristotle’s account of moral virtue is an intrinsic and not instrumental view. The exercise of a moral virtue is itself constitutive of (and does not instrumentally cause) happiness or flourishing.

  19. 19.

    In earlier work, Prichard (2005, p. 128) asserts that luck not only has a modal condition but also has a significance condition. Prichard (2014, pp. 604–606) now believes that including the significance condition is a mistake. It is worth noting that Prichard’s modal account of luck may easily be extended to account for the intuitive idea that luck comes in degrees (cf. Church 2013, pp. 39–42).

  20. 20.

    To be clear, moral virtues and vices on the modified account actually supervene on consequences that dispositions produce in the actual and close possible worlds. It is not the case that moral virtues or vices counterfactually supervene.

  21. 21.

    My analysis of the problem with Driver’s argument differs from Bradley’s diagnosis (2005, p. 291). According to him, the difficulty is that Sally’s spiritedness does not itself produce good consequences in the actual world and bad consequences in nearby possible worlds. Rather, he argues that her spiritedness produces good or bad consequences in concert with other dispositions which differ between the actual world and close possible worlds. Bradley’s analysis of Driver’s argument, however, ends here.

  22. 22.

    An analogy illustrates this point nicely. Suppose there are two racehorses, Thunder and Lightning. In Thunder’s practice runs, his times are consistently worse than other racehorses. Nevertheless, Thunder has won all five races in which he has competed. At the end of each race, all of the leading horses trip and fall, which allows Thunder to take the lead and win. In contrast, Lightning’s practice times consistently beat the times of the other horses. It is clear that Lightning is stronger and faster than the other horses. Lightning too has won all five races in which he has competed. Since these horses have the same winning record, their good-producing track record is equivalent. According to the frequency sense of reliability, these horses are equally good. Nevertheless, looking to the future, which horse would you rely on to win the race? Obviously, the rational bet is Lightning. And it is still the rational bet even if Lightning had won only four out of five of her previous races. The analogy offers intuitive evidence that it is the propensity sense of reliability that is the important sense for the practical purpose of flagging reliable good-producing dispositions, which is a contention that supports counterfactualism.

  23. 23.

    I thank an anonymous referee for offering this objection.

  24. 24.

    I ignore a complication concerning the distinction in practical reasoning between actualism and possibilism regarding which options are relevant for determining what action is best to pursue. For an overview of this subject, see Driver (2012, pp. 131–144).

  25. 25.

    I hedge with ‘typically’ because there may be cases where the option with the highest objective probability of producing good in fact has a low objective probability of producing good or preventing bad.

  26. 26.

    I am grateful to Joel Archer, Josh Anderson, Donald Bungum, Gideon Jeffrey, Anne Jeffrey, Max Perish, Josh Rasmussen, Nick Setliff, and several anonymous referees for their comments on some version of this essay. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Elizabeth Foreman for her comments on many versions of this paper. Additionally, I am thankful for the commentary provided by Julia Driver at the Illinois Philosophical Association, Brad Cokelet at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, and Scott Forschler at the Indiana Philosophical Association. I also thank the audience members for their questions and comments.


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Hartman, R.J. Utilitarian Moral Virtue, Admiration, and Luck. Philosophia 43, 77–95 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-014-9574-2

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  • Moral virtue
  • Utilitarianism
  • Admiration
  • Luck
  • Julia Driver