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Virtues and vices

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L112-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved January 22, 2021, from

Article Summary

The concepts of virtue and vice identify a distinctive set of goods and evils, ones that are aspects of human excellence unlike, say, the values of feeling pleasure or pain. On a broad conception, virtue and vice are found in many aspects of our lives, so there are not only moral virtues such as benevolence and courage but also intellectual virtues such as skill in assessing evidence and perhaps physical ones, as are had by athletes. A narrower conception recognises only moral virtues. On both conceptions the value that makes a state virtuous or vicious can be either a matter of promoting some independent good or evil or a value the state has in itself.

Some philosophers identify the moral virtues instrumentally, as traits that promote an independently good life either for their possessor or, more plausibly, for her or for other people; a parallel view says the intellectual virtues lead reliably to true belief. But both kinds of virtue can also be valued intrinsically and were so valued by Aristotle, for whom they exercised practical and theoretical rationality and thereby realised core aspects of human nature. A different, non-Aristotelian view grounds the intrinsic goodness of moral virtue in its fittingness to its intentional object, as in the positive attitude of desiring and pursuing a good such as another person’s pleasure.

We apply the concepts of virtue and vice both to standing dispositions or character traits and to individual desires and actions. Some such as Aristotle think the first application is primary, so to be virtuous an act must issue from a virtuous disposition; others see the application to individual states as primary. There are also disagreements about how the value of virtue compares to that of other goods such as pleasure and knowledge, some thinking it the greatest of goods and others that it always has less value than its specific intentional object.

Virtue can play further roles. Virtue-epistemologists say that for a true belief to count as knowledge, its being true must manifest or be because of intellectual virtue. And virtue-ethicists use claims about moral virtue to identify right acts, resulting in a third main method of ethics alongside consequentialism and deontology. One version of virtue ethics says a right act must be done from a virtuous motive, another that it is one a virtuous person would or might do in the circumstances, and a third that right acts can be identified only by a virtuous person’s trained moral perception.

In their dispositional forms, virtue and vice can figure in psychological explanations, as when we say someone helped a stranger because he has the character trait of benevolence. These explanations are challenged by situationist social psychology, which says less of our behaviour than we think is explained by character and more by seemingly trivial features of our situation. Some philosophers impressed by situationism think it tells against virtue-centred philosophical views such as virtue ethics, which they say assume virtues that do not exist. Defenders of these views either question situationism empirically or say it leaves their philosophical claims untouched.

Citing this article:
Hurka, Thomas. Virtues and vices, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L112-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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