Moral virtue and reasons for action

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Moral virtue is a central notion in ethics, and understanding it is a challenge for action theory and moral psychology. It is no easy task to provide an account of it, but even a plausible account of what moral virtue is leaves largely open the difficult question of what it is to act virtuously and the related question of how we can ensure that we do so act. To see the problem, I want to address, consider two points. First, although we can fulfill our obligations by doing the right things—call this behavioral fulfillment of obligation—we deserve little or no credit for doing them if we do not do them for one or more reasons of the right kind. Such creditworthiness is a necessary condition for virtuous fulfillment of obligation. Second, given that acting virtuously is in part a matter of acting for the right kind of reason, and that (as I shall argue) we cannot at will determine for what reasons we act, we cannot act virtuously at will. This holds even when the act that virtue calls for, such as apologizing, is one we can perform at will. Apologizing can be done for a reason of mere self-protection, which is inappropriate to virtue—at least to the kind of virtue, such as respectfulness, which an apology should express. This limitation on acting virtuously is disturbing, perhaps even paradoxical. We think of ourselves as having the voluntary power to conduct ourselves in morally admirable ways. Do we not have that power after all? I shall argue that, in certain ways and under certain conditions, we do. The theory to be presented here will indicate those ways and conditions. It will also bear on the extent to which Aristotle was right in thinking that virtue itself is up to us.1

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