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Character, Virtue Theories, and the Vices

Christine McKinnon (Broadview Press: August 1999), 261 pages.

Extended Description

This book argues that the question posed by virtue theories, namely, "what kind of person should I be?" provides a more promising approach to moral theories than do either deontological or consequentialist moral theories where the concern is with what actions are morally required or permissible. It does so both by providing firmer theoretical foundations for virtue theories and by showing the superiority of virtue theories over deontological and consquentialist theories on the question of explaining morally bad behavior.

One of the more problematic features of virtue theories is their apparent conflation of criteria for functional goodness and criteria for ethical goodness. This book argues that character-possession is a functional good for humans and that the relevant sense of "character" must have normative force. This ensures that to construct a character is to construct a good character, that is, an ethically praiseworthy character. This is shown, first, by examining the nature of virtue and vice and their relations to character, and then by seeing in what ways practical reason serves to constrain the directions in which characters can be developed. The kinds of deficits that account for the acquisition of vicious character traits are shown to preclude the construction of a character in the relevant sense.

Consequentialist and deontological theories appear to be limited to appeals to weakness of will or to very specific kinds of ignorance in their explanations of bad behavior. Virtue theories can give a richer account by appealing to the kinds of dispositions that make certain bad choices appear attractive. This richer account of bad behavior also exposes a further advantage of virtue theories: they provide the best kinds of motivations to agents to become better persons.