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Hume Studies Volume XXV, Numbers 1 and 2, April/November 1999, pp. 67-82 Virtue Ethics and Human Nature ROSALIND HURSTHOUSE In this paper, I begin by outlining some basic features of the version of virtue ethics I espouse, and then turn to exploring what light may be shed on our understanding and interpretation of Hume when he is viewed from that perspective . I. Virtue Ethics A characteristic claim of modern virtue ethicists, as I take it is well known, is the following: An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would, characteristically , do in the circumstances. However, as is also, I think, well known, the claim is hardly distinctive of virtue ethics, for, as it stands, it comes too close to being a truism that just registers a link between the concept of right action and the concept of a virtuous agent; deontologists or indeed utilitarians may well espouse it too. The difference between those who do and virtue ethicists such as myself lies in the way in which the claim is read. They read it as an answer to the question, "What is a virtuous agent?" Having already got themselves (as they suppose) a specification of right action from somewhere else, they then use the truism to specify their concept of a virRosalind Hursthouse is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom, e-mail: r.hursthouse@open.ac.uk 68 Rosalind Hursthouse tuous agent. An act is right, it may be said, if and only if it maximizes utility, and so a virtuous agent is one who is disposed to maximize utility. Or, an act is right if and only if it is in accordance with correct moral laws or rules, so a virtuous agent is one who is disposed to act in accordance with such laws or rules. Consider Rawls's definition of the virtues as "strong and normally effective desires to act on the basic principles of right," or, indeed, Locke: "If virtue be taken for actions conformable to God's will, or to the rule prescribed by God, which is the true and only measure of virtue."1 But we virtue ethicists read it the other way, as an answer to the question, "What is a right action?" Answer: It is not, necessarily, an action that maximizes utility; not, necessarily, an action that is in accordance with any moral rule, principle, or law (as those terms are normally understood); but, simply, what a virtuous agent would, characteristically, do (or have done) in the circumstances . Thereby, of course, we invite the question, "So what is a virtuous agent?" since, without an answer to this question, our specification of right action is obviously woefully incomplete. Notwithstanding a surprisingly widely held belief to the contrary, this problem has not escaped our notice, and contrary to one which is, perhaps, equally common, we do not regard it as necessary to resort to deontology in order to answer it. Rather than producing anything remotely resembling Rawls's claim, we move to another truism, namely, that a virtuous agent is one who has, and exercises, those character traits that are the virtues, and then turn to the question, "Which character traits are the virtues?" At this point, we may start to diverge, according to what kind of virtue ethics we are espousing. But if, like me (and unlike, say, Michael Slote or Christine Swanton) you are a neo-Aristotelian, you begin your work on this question by brooding about Aristotle's answer, namely: A virtue is a character trait that a human being, given her (human) nature, biological and psychological , needs for eudaimonia, or true happiness, to flourish or live well.2 So let us think of virtue ethicists of my ilk as basically making just these two claims: (1) An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would, characteristically , do in the circumstances (reading that as an answer to the question "What is a right action?") and (2) A virtue is a character trait a human being, given her (human) nature, needs for eudaimonia. Given that we modern...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 67-82
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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