Virtue, Rule-Following, and Absolute Prohibitions

Journal of the American Philosophical Association 5 (1):78-97 (2019)
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In her seminal article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958) Elizabeth Anscombe argued that we need a new ethics, one that uses virtue terms to generate absolute prohibitions against certain act-types. Leading contemporary virtue ethicists have not taken up Anscombe's challenge in justifying absolute prohibitions and have generally downplayed the role of rule-following in their normative theories. That they have not done so is primarily because contemporary virtue ethicists have focused on what is sufficient for characterizing the deliberation and action of the fully virtuous person, and rule-following is inadequate for this task. In this article, I take up Anscombe's challenge by showing that rule-following is necessary for virtuous agency, and that virtue ethics can justify absolute prohibitions. First, I offer a possibility proof by showing how virtue ethics can generate absolute prohibitions in three ways: by considering actions that directly manifest vice or that cannot be performed virtuously; actions that are prohibited by one's institutional roles and practical identities; and actions that are prohibited by the prescriptions of the wise. I then seek to show why virtue ethicists should incorporate rule-following and absolute prohibitions into their theories. I emphasize the central role that rules have in the development of virtue, then motivate the stronger view that fully virtuous agents follow moral rules by considering the importance of hope, uncertainty about consequences, and taking responsibility for what eventuates. Finally, I provide an account of what Anscombe called a ‘corrupt mind’, explaining how our understanding of virtue is corrupted if we think that virtue may require us to do vicious actions.

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Jeremy Reid
San Francisco State University


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