Does "Does Moral Philosophy Rest Upon a Mistake?" Make an Even Greater Mistake?

The Monist 54 (1):86-99 (1970)


Time was, notably in the theories of classical and medieval moralists, when virtue figured as the central feature in the conception of moral worth. Today, the notion of virtue has slid into conspicuous disuse. Among a few writers today, one can still detect scattered indications of a return to varieties of this conception of goodness; but in most of the contemporary literature it is safe to say that the deontic and usually co-relative notions of ‘right’, ‘ought’, ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ now command the primacy that once was virtue’s. In works of this decade, for instance, it is not uncommon to encounter the following kind of statement: “The experience of moral obligation is the central element in the concept of morality.” The replacement of the concept of virtue with the language of “right” and “obligation” is an historical phenomenon whose investigation would probably uncover a number of contributing causes. Quite obviously, for instance, the shift owes a great deal to Kant’s insistence upon the dispassionately legislative function of the moral judgment. Yet even more radically, I think it could be shown that the interpretation of moral experience has too often been invaded with the properly epistemic concerns of certitude and objectivity in the moral judgment—hence the emphasis on the “right”—and too often grounded on the assumption that moral judgments are properly moral only when they measure up to this or that criterion. But it is probably more to the point to suppose that the erosion of virtue within philosophical discourse was brought about as much by its own obfuscation as by any competing counter-insistence upon the legislative models of imperativeness and prescriptivity. If, that is to say, the notion of virtue was displaced as a significant ethical principle, it was because philosophers themselves became unclear as to its origins and nature. More concretely, the demise of the notion of virtue was inevitable when it was cut off from direct participation in human actions and relegated exclusively to the private area of emotions and desires.

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