The active contrast between virtue and obligation (Aristotle, Immanuel Kant)


This study aims to restore to virtue, as manifest in action, a central place in ethical theory, by securing for virtuous action conceptual and evaluative independence from virtuous agency, on the one hand, and morally obligatory action, on the other. An Aristotelian, rather than a Kantian or consequentialist, perspective emerges as the perspective proper to a study of virtuous action. However, in its emphasis upon actions, rather than upon the qualities of agents, this study differs from Aristotle's ethics, as well as from most contemporary writings on virtue ethics. To establish the conceptual autonomy of virtuous action, relative to virtuous agency, I posit the primacy of virtue itself and identify virtuous action as secondary to, and informed by, virtue. An action is informed by virtue just in case it is good and fitting. A good action is one whose aim is good, where the aim of an action is neither the intention of the agent nor the actual or probable consequence of the action, but the consequence which a reasonable person would have grounds for inferring is the intended consequence of the action. Virtuous action, so defined, has value and is not merely the expression of the agent's virtue or good motives. Hence, the value of virtuous action does not derive from the agent's virtue or the value of his motives. I distinguish virtuous action from morally obligatory action in three ways: (1) by showing that some obligatory actions lack fittingness, which is a necessary condition for virtuous action; (2) by showing that my definition of virtuous action distinguishes the concept of virtuous action from the deontic concepts of special obligation, supererogation and imperfect duty; (3) by arguing that the ethical perspective proper to an analysis of the nature of virtuous action is genuinely distinct from the ethical perspective which informs modern theories of obligation. Examining the question of the limits of obligation, I argue that there are actions which are morally good and non-obligatory, by proposing criteria of non-obligatoriness in actions and by presenting four examples of actions which, given these criteria, are non-obligatory, yet are virtuous and moral

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