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The Thomist 70 (2006): 237-65 IS AQUINAS AN ACT-ETHICIST OR AN AGENT-ETHICIST? DAVID A. HORNER Bio/a University La Mirada, California ONE OF THE STANDARD WAYS of construing a (or the) basic distinction between virtue theories and nonvirtue theories in ethics is as a distinction between agent-ethics and act-ethics.1 Twelve years before Elizabeth Anscombe's landmark 1958 article on "Modern Moral Philosophy,"2 which is widely credited with sparking the late-twentieth-century revival of virtue ethics, John Laird analyzed the broader role of character in ethics in an article in Mind entitled "Act-Ethics and AgentEthics . "3 There Laird described the contrast between the two conceptions of ethics as follows: "By the morality of the act I mean the morality of specific willed actions. By the morality of the agent I mean a morality whose central conception is a man's moral character."4 I take the act-agent contrast, as understood by Laird and others who make this distinction, as distinguishing the primary object of 1 See, e.g., Lawrence C. Becker, "The Neglect of Virtue," Ethics 85 (1974-75): 110-22; Robert B. Louden, "Some Vices of Virtue Ethics," in Virtue Ethics, ed. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote, Oxford Readings in Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 20116 ; J. B. Schneewind, "The Misfortunes of Virtue," in Crisp and Slote, eds., Virtue Ethics, 178-200. 2 G. E. M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," in Crisp and Slote, eds., Virtue Ethics, 26-44. Anscombe's article originally appeared in Philosophy 33 (1958): 26-42. 3 John Laird, "Act-Ethics and Agent-Ethics," Mind 55 (1946): 113-32. 4 Ibid., 113. 237 238 DAVID A. HORNER moral evaluation in the two approaches.5 The focus of act-ethics is on the identification and moral evaluation of particular acttokens (e.g., Larry's telling a falsehood to Tom), which I will understand, following Laird, as specific willed-i.e., intentionalacts , as well as of the types of acts (e.g., lying) they instance.6 The focus of agent-ethics is broader: it involves the identification and moral evaluation of an agent's character, which comprises not only the agent's actions, but also her attitudes, emotions, desires, and sustained patterns of motivation. These are the concerns of an ethics of virtue.7 The distinction between act-ethics and agent-ethics, so described, expresses much of what the differences between virtue and nonvirtue ethical theories amount to.8 Moreover, it illu5 "The mark of a virtue theory of morality is that the primary object of evaluation is persons or inner traits of persons rather than acts" (Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 15). "So for virtue ethics, the primary object of moral evaluation is not the act or its consequences, but rather the agent" (Louden, "Some Vices of Virtue Ethics," 204). According to Louden, this distinguishes "the respective conceptual starting-points of agent- and act-centered ethics" (ibid.). 6 Moral particularists like Jonathan Dancy are, on my view, act-ethicists, but they restrict moral evaluation to particular acts only, and deny that there are general moral features or types of acts. See Jonathan Dancy, Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). However the focus of act-ethicists typically extends to considerations of types of acts and to the rules or principles under which they fall. 7 A virtue is "a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment and leads to a recognizable human excellence, an instance of flourishing" (Lee H. Yearley, "Recent Work on Virtue," Religious Studies Review 16 [1990], 2). Virtues are "[c]omplexes involving inner states, representations, feelings, as well as dispositions to act, express feelings, and the exercise of these" Oulius M. Moravcsik, "The Role of Virtue in Alternatives to Kantian and Utilitarian Ethics,'' Philosophia 20 [1990]: 35). "Virtues are not just dispositions to actions. They are determinations of our emotions, passions, desires, and concerns. They are patterns of saliency, attention, perception, and judgment" (Robert C. Roberts, "Virtues and Rules," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51 [1991]: 329). 8 It does not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2473-3725
Print ISSN
0040-6325
Pages
pp. 237-265
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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