Moral Actions vs. Virtuous Characters: Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Personal Transformation

Philosophical Studies (University of Tokyo) 26 (2008)
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The central argument of this article is that the standard conception of character given in virtue theory, as exemplified in the work of Rosalind Hursthouse, is seriously flawed. Partially, this is because looking behind a moral action for a ‘character’ is suspiciously akin to looking behind an object for an ‘essence’, and is susceptible to the same interpretive errors as an epistemic strategy. Alternately, a character—once inducted and projected upon a moral agent—is supposed to be a more or less permanent property of that individual; a schema which leaves little room for the real possibility of personal transformation. I argue here that what is often referred to in virtue literature as ‘character’ can be productively re-described as the aggregate of all moral actions performed by any one moral agent: nothing more, and nothing less. My hope is that this interpretive strategy will result in broader and more coherent readings of moral actions, and thus also clarify moral confusion resulting from the current lack of the same.

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