Critical Character Theory: Toward a Feminist Theory of ‘Vice’

Robin S. Dillon
Lehigh University
Theorizing about human character to understand what it is to be a morally good person and how being morally good relates to acting rightly and living well has always been a central concern of moral philosophy. Traditional virtue theory, however, neglects two significant matters. The first is the sociopolitical dimensions of character: how character is shaped by, supports, and resists domination and subordination. While feminist ethics has begun to theorize virtue in relation to oppression, it shares with traditional virtue theory a second problematic inattention to something of equal importance for understanding character and moral life, namely, bad character or vice. I argue that rich accounts of vice are needed to achieve the aims not only of traditional and feminist ethical theory but also of every moral agent facing the central moral task of trying to become a morally good person leading a morally worthy life. This paper explicates a substantive reorientation in moral theory in general and feminist ethics in particular, arguing for two changes. The first is a move to “critical character theory,” which seeks to understand moral character as both a site and source of domination and subordination, as a center of resistance both to oppression and to change, and as both subject and object of liberatory struggle. The second change is more serious and sustained attention to theorizing vice both as damage inflicted by domination, subordination, and by struggles both to maintain and to resist and overthrow them, and as a mechanism through which domination persists and emancipation is thwarted.
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