The Problem of Continence in Contemporary Virtue Ethics

The Journal of Ethics 19 (1):85-104 (2015)

The harmony thesis claims that a virtuous agent will not experience inner conflict or pain when acting. The continent agent, on the other hand, is conflicted or pained when acting virtuously, making him inferior to the virtuous agent. But following Karen Stohr’s counterexample, we can imagine a case like a company owner who needs to fire some of her employees to save her company, where acting with conflict or pain is not only appropriate, but necessary in the situation. This creates a problem for virtue ethicists because the virtue/continence distinction cannot easily be drawn in the case. One solution offered by Stohr is to claim that a virtuous agent will respond with an intensity of feeling corresponding to her correct judgment, whereas a continent agent will miss the mark: he will feel too much or too little pain in response to his correct judgment of value. This demarcation, I argue, is too strict because it entails something like a mean resembling a moral virtue or vice regarding pain, being inconsistent with our ordinary understanding of continence. In dealing with the difficulty, I argue that Aristotle’s virtue of endurance is better suited to account for the problem case. The following move explains why the case of the company owner is problematic: the company owner was missing a virtue on which we did not have the conceptual resources to elaborate. This points to a deeper problem in virtue ethics that needs to be addressed
Keywords Aristotle  Continence  Endurance  Virtue ethics
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DOI 10.1007/s10892-014-9189-7
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On Virtue Ethics.Rosalind Hursthouse - 1999 - Oxford University Press.
Virtue and Reason.John McDowell - 1979 - The Monist 62 (3):331-350.
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Nicomachean Ethics.Martin Aristotle & Ostwald - 1962 - Hackett Publishing Company.

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