Archive: Virtue Ethics without Character Traits

Virtue Ethics without Character Traits
Gilbert Harman
Princeton University
August 18, 1999
Presumed parts of normative moral philosophy

Normative moral philosophy is often thought to be concerned with at least three questions. Using standard (misleading) terminology, these questions are: (1) What is it for something to be one’s moral duty? (2) How are we to assess the relative goodness or value of situations? (3) What are the moral virtues and vices? So, normative moral philosophy is often supposed to have at least three parts: the theory of duty, the theory of value, and the theory of virtue.

Deontology, or the study of moral duty is supposed to be concerned with what agents ought morally to do on various occasions, what they have to do or are morally required to do, what they may do or are morally permitted to do, and what it is morally right or wrong for them to do. The theory might also discuss what sorts of moral obligations people have and perhaps even what sorts of moral duties they have in some ordinary sense of “duty.”

The theory of value is supposed to try to say what it is for a state of affairs to be good, all things considered, and for one situation to be better, all things considered, than another. More generally, such a theory might try to indicate what it is for a situation to be correctly evaluated as right or wrong, just or unjust, and so forth. There is a disagreement as to whether it makes sense to ask whether one state of affairs is simply better than another, all things considered, as opposed to being better in one or another way. Philippa Foot[1] and Judith Jarvis Thomson[2] have argued that this does not make sense. Others believe that it does make sense to ask what Foot and Thomson say does not make sense. One complication is that Thomson does allow that it makes sense to say that one situation is better than another for people in general. In any event, she has a theory of value in the sense of a theory of what it is for something to be good or bad in one or another way.

Finally, the theory of moral virtue is supposed to try to specify the moral virtues and vices. It would try to indicate what it is to act virtuously or viciously on a particular occasion and how that is related to what it is to have a good or bad moral character. It would try to specify which traits (of acts or character) are moral virtues, which are moral vices, and which are neither moral virtues nor moral vices.

It is controversial whether moral philosophy has these three parts or whether the relatively standard terminology I have used is the best. One might object to calling the first sort of theory a “theory of moral duty” on the grounds that the ordinary notion of “duty” is too narrow or that there is no such thing as “moral duty” in any strict sense. I have already mentioned that Foot and Thomson object to the idea that there is a single sort of goodness of situations relevant to morality. There are reasons to doubt the existence of the sorts of robust character traits that figure in standard accounts of virtue.[3] Many writers distinguish “the right” from “the good,” where this might be the distinction between what I called the theory of duty and what I called the theory of value,[4] with or without a special theory of the goodness of situations. The theory of “the good” is sometimes taken to include the theory of virtue. Alternatively, the term “virtue” can be used to stand for any good-making characteristic whatsoever, so as to be able to talk e.g. about the virtues of aerobic exercise, in which case the theory of virtue is the same as the theory of value. Sometimes the right is taken to include the rightness of states of affairs and even the basic justice in a state,[5] which for many writers are issues that fall under what I am calling the theory of value rather than the theory of duty. So, there are various issues both of terminology and of substance. Nevertheless, many writers do accept something like the threefold distinction in notions that I am using here.

Treating one notion or theory as basic

General normative moral theories sometimes take one of these notions to be more “basic” than the others. There are at least three ways to do this, deontological ethics, consequentialism, and virtue ethics.

Deontological ethics takes the theory of duty to be more basic. For example, a deontological theory might say that a situation is good to the extent that it involves a person’s doing his or her duty or (in one sort of Kantian version) in a person’s trying to do his or her duty. A virtuous character might be identified with a robust disposition to do one’s duty. Different virtues and vices might be identified in terms of dispositions to perform different duties.

Utilitarianism or consequentialism takes the theory of value to be more basic and explains the rest of morality in terms of value. Moral duties might be explained as acts that make things better (or better for people generally) or that tend to do so or that are instances of rules that would make things better if everyone followed them. Moral virtues might be identified with those character traits possession of which tends to make things generally better (or better for people generally) and moral vices might be identified with those character traits possession of which tends to make things generally worse.

Finally, virtue ethics takes virtue and vice to be at least as basic as moral duty and the goodness of situations. Many versions of virtue ethics take character traits to be basic. For example, one version supposes that the goodness of a situation (at least, how good it is for people in general) has to do with the extent of human flourishing it involves, where human flourishing requires full possession of the morally virtuous character traits. To be a virtuous person is identified with being a person in full possession of the virtuous character traits. This version explains moral duty in terms of a virtuous person: what one ought morally to do in a particular situation is to do what a virtuous person would do in that situation.[6]

In recent work, Judith Jarvis Thomson has also been developing a moral theory that in some ways resembles or sounds like virtue ethics although it differs in significant ways from the standard version.[7] The purpose of the present paper is to discuss certain aspects of this theory of Thomson’s.

My purpose is quite limited. I do not discuss Thomson’s objections to consequentialism, for example. Instead I am concerned entirely with her virtue ethics. In particular, I want to examine the extent to which Thomson’s version of virtue ethics avoids objections that seem to me to be conclusive against a different version. So, I begin by describing that other version and the serious objections that have been raised to it. Then I describe some aspects of Thomson’s view and consider how it does with respect to those objections.

One Version of Virtue Ethics

In one version of virtue ethics,[8] moral virtues are robust character traits possessed by ideally morally virtuous people. The character traits in question are acquired robust habits of perception, motivation and action: habits of perceiving situations in certain ways, habits of being motivated to act in certain ways, and habits of actually acting in those ways. In this view, to specify a moral virtue is to specify the relevant perceptual, motivational, and behavioral habits.

I quickly list some points about character traits. First, they are to be distinguished from possession of certain knowledge or skills or innate temperament, or psychological illness. Second, people are thought to differ in what character traits they possess. Third, the traits are supposed robust in the sense that they are relatively long lasting and are or would be exhibited in a variety of circumstances. Fourth, character traits are supposed to be explanatory in the respect that it will at least sometimes be correct to explain actions in terms of character traits and not just in terms of features of the situation. For example, it will at least sometimes be correct to explain an honest action by appeal to the honesty of the agent and not just to features of the situation that would lead anyone to act honestly in that situation.

Possession of moral virtue is often supposed in this approach to be a necessary condition of leading the best sort of life for a human being; in other words, possession of the moral virtues is often taken to be part of what is involved in human flourishing. Even if a person was materialistically successful and content with life, if the person lacked an important moral virtue, he or she could not be leading the best sort of life and could not flourish in the relevant sense, in this view.

In this view, ideally virtuous people are robustly disposed to do what they ought morally to do. Other people should try to become so disposed and should in various situations imitate virtue. In a typical situation of moral choice, an agent ought to do whatever a virtuous person would do in that situation.

However, in this view the goal is not just to do the right thing. It is to be the right sort of person. One needs to develop a virtuous character. So, the moral education of children should be aimed at such character development and might consist in describing to them the ideal virtues as they are expressed in action[9] together with the sort of training that will lead children to acquire virtuous habits.[10]

Objection to explaining what one ought morally to do in terms of what an ideally virtuous person would do.

One obvious objection to the standard form of virtue ethics is to its account of the relation between what a person ought morally to do and what it is to be a virtuous person. The objectionable claim is that what one ought morally to do in a given situation is to do what a virtuous person would do in that situation. The objection is that this cannot cover all cases, because someone a nonvirtuous person will be in a situation that a virtuous person would never be in.[11]

To some extent the point is acknowledged in the idea that a person who is not yet virtuous should try to develop the virtues. That is something a virtuous person does not need to do, so it is a way that the non-virtuous person should act that is not just to imitate the way a virtuous person would act. But there are various other cases as well.

For example, a person who has done something wrong often ought morally to apologize to those affected by his or her action. However, an ideally virtuous person would not have done the wrong thing in the first place and so would have nothing to apologize for.

Similarly, consider a person who is aware that he or she tends to be weak-willed and to give into temptation. Should such a person make plans with others that will be undermined if the person gives into temptation in the midst of carrying out the plans? Perhaps not; but an ideally virtuous person would not suffer from weakness of the will and could make plans with others without fear of ruining everything by giving into temptation at just the wrong moment. In this sort of case a person should precisely not do what an ideally virtuous person would do because that would in a way to pretend that he or she had the sort of character that he or she does not have.

Doing what a virtuous person would advise one to do

One might try to modify the account of what a not wholly virtuous agent ought to do as follows by saying that an agent ought morally to do what a virtuous person would advise the agent to do. This would be to move some distance from the original version of virtue ethics in the direction of a critic-centered or spectator-centered moral theory and it has its own problems. A morally virtuous agent might think that he or she ought not to give another person advice about certain matters, perhaps because it would be better for the other person to figure things out for him or herself, or for other reasons. Furthermore, an agent who is good at acting virtuously might not be good at advising others what to do, just as some people are good at giving advice but not good at doing the right thing themselves.[12]

Objection to reliance on character traits

A less obvious but in my view more important objection to any appeal to what an ideally virtuous person would do comes from current social psychology. It seems that, when people attribute robust character traits to other agents, they do so on the basis of minimal evidence and tend completely to overlook the relevance of features in agents’ situations that help to explain why they as they do. And, although people routinely explain the actions of others by appeal to robust character traits, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of the sorts of traits that people standardly attribute to others. What a person with a seemingly ideal moral character will do in a particular situation is pretty much what anyone else will do in exactly that situation, allowing for random variation.[13]

This is not to deny all individual differences. People have different innate temperaments, different knowledge, different goals, different abilities, and tend to be in or think they are in different situations. All such differences can affect what people will do. But there is no evidence that people also differ in robust character traits or that differences in goals, knowledge, etc. are to be explained by differences in robust character traits.

People unfamiliar with social psychology find these conclusions incredible, just as psychoanalysts find it incredible when they are told that there is no evidence that psychoanalysis has therapeutic value. But our ordinary convictions about differences in character traits can be explained away as due to a “fundamental attribution error” together with “confirmation bias”. I have discussed this elsewhere and won’t try to say more here.[14]

Similarly, there is no evidence that moral education via “character development” is required for ordinary moral behavior or indeed that it ever happens. The thought that such training is necessary is similar to the thought that children normally have to be taught their first language.[15]

Thomson’s Version of Virtue Ethics

To appreciate Thomson’s approach, it is important to observe, first, that we use the terminology of particular virtues and vices not only to specify character traits but also to describe particular acts. A person who is not generally honest or dishonest may yet act honestly or dishonestly on a particular occasion. Similarly, someone may act generously on one occasion only, or be conscientious on one occasion only, or be unkind on one occasion only. In developing her account, Thomson starts with a person’s acting virtuously or viciously rather than with a person’s possessing one or another character trait.

Second, Thomson distinguishes moral virtues, properly so-called, from all-purpose virtues like courage, industry, prudence, and loyalty that are useful for both moral and evil purposes. An evil act might be courageous. A villain can be prudent and industrious. One can be loyal to bad companions. Such courage, industry, prudence, and loyalty are not by themselves moral virtues.

Thomson suggests that the proper moral virtues fall into two groups. Reliance virtues include justice and honesty (at least if honesty is not just “a sheer unwillingness to lie, come what may,” which is “a peculiarly unattractive form of self-righteousness, and thus a minor vice)” (285). Virtues of concern include generosity, kindness, and considerateness.[16]

Courage, industry, loyalty, and prudence can be morally praiseworthy if they are exhibited in conduct that is virtuous in one of the basic senses, but not otherwise. Praise of courage, industry, loyalty, and prudence in action is “parasitic on there being other grounds for welcoming the act” (286).

Thomson flirts with a utilitarian virtue ethics in suggesting that the true moral virtues might be distinguished from the all-purpose ones like courage in that “the fact of there being people who possess the virtues is good for us” (282). It is good for us that there are kind and just people. It is not in the same way good for us that there are courageous people, unless those people are also kind and just.

The next point is to specify what morality requires. On the supposition that for each true moral virtue there are corresponding moral vices that are contraries of the virtue, such as being unjust, mean, cruel, etc., Thomson proposes that we identify what morality requires with the avoidance of these contraries. “Morality requires us to do a thing if and only if not doing it would be unjust, or mean, or cruel, and so on. Morality requires us not to do a thing if and only if doing it would be unjust, or mean, or cruel, and so on” (286).[17]

How Thomson’s version avoids problems for standard versions of virtue ethics.

Thomson’s version of virtue ethics is concerned in the first instance with virtuous action rather than virtuous character traits. Her version is compatible with the existence of robust character traits, but it does not require that people actually have robust character traits.

It is true that she says she is tempted to identify the virtues by noting that it is good for us that there are virtuous people. So, her idea may be that the virtues are those robust character traits that it is good for us that people have. But the point is really that it is good for us that there are people who act virtuously. It is compatible with this that people do not and maybe even could not have corresponding robust character traits.[18]

Thomson’s way of explaining moral requirement also avoids the problem that a person might be in a situation that a fully virtuous person would never be in. She does not explain moral requirement in terms of what an ideally virtuous person would do in a given situation. In such a situation, an agent might still be able to avoid acting cruelly, or unjustly.[19]

Furthermore, Thomson’s version is not committed to supposing that “moral education” consists in “character development.”

Thomson’s virtue ethics versus Ross’ theory of prima facie duties?

What distinguishes Thomson’s theory from a deontological theory like Ross’ that sees two families of prima facie duties, duties of justice and duties of benevolence? There seems to be a strong parallel between the two views. Wherever Thomson sees a virtue in one or another possible action, Ross sees a prima-facie duty, and wherever Ross sees a prima-facie duty, Thomson sees a virtue in one or another possible action.

Perhaps there is a disagreement about the order of explanation. Maybe Thomson thinks we have a better grip on what it is for someone to act unjustly or to be inconsiderate on a particular occasion and Ross thinks we have a better grip on what is involved in the prima facie duty to be honest or benevolent.

One difference is that Ross’ duties are prima facie, whereas Thomson’s virtues and vices are all or nothing. In Ross’ view there may be a conflict in prima facie duties. In Thomson’s view there cannot be an analogous conflict. So, for example, Thomson takes it to be impossible to be in a situation in which, if one does A, one will be unjust, and if one does not do A, one will be cruel. [20]

There certainly are cases in which there appears to be a conflict between justice and kindness. A student has written a worthless paper. If the teacher gives the student the failing grade that the paper deserves, the student will not graduate, which will be a hardship both to the student and to the student’s family. It would seem not to be fair to the other students that they are held to a higher standard than this student. It might seem to be unjust to give the student a passing grade yet cruel to give the student a failing grade.

How to resolve this apparent conflict? Thomson holds that both these things cannot be true. It cannot be both unjust to give the student a passing grade and also cruel not to do so. It cannot be unjust to do something that it would be cruel not to do and it cannot be cruel to do something that it would be unjust not to do. So, we have to between these two possibilities. Which is it? Cruel to fail the student or unjust not to?

Ross would say that we must decide between two prima facie duties, the duty not to be unfair to the other students and the duty not to harm the poorer student. If the duty not to be unfair wins out, then we are not really violating a duty not to harm the student if we fail him. If the duty not to harm the student takes precedence, then that is really our duty and we do not in this case have a duty of fairness to fail the student.

For myself, I find it hard to say whether either of these ways of looking at the issue makes more sense than the other does.


Thomson is an objectivist about the requirements of morality. She says, “a person’s having done what morality requires him to do turns on success rather than on intentions–just as, for my own part, I believe we should accept an objectivist view of the virtue properties (and their contraries), that is, a view according to which an act’s possessing a virtue property (or its contrary) turns on success rather than on intentions.”[21] Does this mean that intentions are irrelevant or just not enough?

Suppose Joan is morally required to return a book to Max. Unconcerned with this requirement, she leaves the book on a bench in the park. It happens that Max is the next along. He finds the book and assumes it has been left there on purpose for him. Has Joan satisfied the moral requirement to return the book? Has she acted justly? Wasn’t she careless to leave the book on the bench and isn’t carelessness a vice? Perhaps the answer is that carelessness is not a moral vice. Carefulness is an all purpose virtue, not a moral virtue. And, perhaps, it was not unjust of her to leave the book on the bench, given how things worked out!

But can’t someone do the wrong thing through a failure of one of the all-purpose virtues? Must this always involve a failure in one of the moral virtues also? To be sure, if Ophelia fails to return the book she owes to Max through imprudence, maybe then she has acted unjustly to Max because of her imprudence. But if she wrongly allows Max to be harmed because of her lack of courage, has she acted unkindly?

Here I am neither sure what the best view is or what Thomson’s view is.


Philosophers attracted to virtue ethics should consider the account of ethics that Thomson has been developing. Thomson’s account focuses on properties of particular actions and so avoids what seem to be serious problems with versions of virtue ethics that focus on robust character traits.[22]

[1] “Utilitarianism and the virtues,” Proceedings and “Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 57 (1983) pp. 273-83.

[2] “The right and the good,” Journal of Philosophy 94 (1997), 273-298; “Evaluatives and directives,” Chapter 7 of Gilbert Harman and Judith Jarvis Thomson, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 125-154; “Goodness” and “Moral requirement,” Tanner lectures, Princeton University, March 24-25, 1999.

[3] Ross, L., and R. E., Nisbett, The Person and the Sutuation: Perspectives of Social Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), Peter Railton, “Made in the shade: moral compatibilism and the aims of moral theory,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 21. John Doris, “Persons situations, and virtue ethics,” Nous 32 (1998). Gilbert Harman, “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1998-99, 99, pp. 315-331.

[4] Thomson, “The right and the good.” W. D. Ross, The Right and The Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930).

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1971).

[6] E.g., Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue theory and abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20 (1991), p. 225. However, Hursthouse immediately goes on to modify her initial account of what someone ought to do.

[7] See footnote 2.

[8] For further elaboration see Gilbert Harman, “Human flourishing, ethics, and liberty,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12 (1983) pp. 307-322, and references included there.

[9] Bennett, W. J. (1993). The Book of Virtues. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[10] Hursthouse, “Virtue theory and abortion,” p. 227, fn.

[11] Harman, “Human flourishing,” p. 315. Hursthouse, “Virtue theory and abortion,” p. 227, notes a related point, “as if the raped fifteen-year-old girl might be supposed to say to herself, `Now would Socrates have an abortion if he were in my circumstances?'”

[12] We might suppose that being a good moral adviser is one of the virtues that an ideally virtuous person must possess. But then the account would seem to become circular and trivial. One ought morally to do what one would be advised to do by someone who advises one to do something if and only if one ought morally to do it.

[13] See footnote 3.

[14] Harman, “Moral philosophy meets social psychology …” in footnote 3.

[15] Gilbert Harman, “Moral philosophy and linguistics,” Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy: Volume I: Ethics, edited by Klaus Brinkmann (Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1999), pp. 107-115.

[16] James D. Wallace, Virtues and Vices (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978) similarly distinguishes three classes of character traits: (1) courage, cowardice, self-indulgence; (2) conscientiousness; (3) benevolence. His analysis derives in part from Richard Brandt, “Traits of Character: A Conceptual Analysis,” American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1970), pp. 23-37.

[17] Wallace says, “It is a plausible thesis generally that the faulty actions philosophers lump under the heading of `morally wrong’ are actions fully characteristic of some vice …” (p. 59). Hursthouse says, “Every virtue generates a positive instruction (act justly, kindly, courageously, honestly, etc.) and every vice a prohibition (do not act unjustly, cruelly, like a coward, dishonestly, etc.).” “Virtue theory and abortion,” p. 227. For Thomson, the prohibition against acting like a coward would not be a moral prohibition.

[18] Maria Merritt, Virtue Ethics and the Social Psychology of Character (Ph. D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1999).

[19] Hursthouse takes this approach in discussing applications. See also her, “Applying virtue ethics,” in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, edited by Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warrent Quinn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 57-75.

[20] Compare Hursthouse’s discussion of a similar case, “Virtue theory and abortion,” p. 231. “Someone hesitating over whether to reveal a hurtful truth, for example, thinking it would be kind but dishonest or unjust to lie, may need to realize, with respect to these particular circumstances, not that kindness is more (or less) important than honesty or justice, and not that honesty or justice sometimes requires one to act unkindly or cruelly, but that one does people no kindness by concealing this sort of truth from them, hurtful as it may be.”

[21] “Rightness and goodness,” p. 286.

[22] I am indebted to Ralph Wedgewood for useful comments.

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