Groundwork for a theoretically ambitious and distinctively virtue ethical theory: constitutivist virtue ethics
O'Connor, John Daniel
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In this thesis I address two related and rarely asked questions: (i) Is a distinctively virtue ethical theory that is theoretically ambitious possible? (ii) If such a theory is possible, and such a theory is also a credible theory in its own right, then what might such a theory look like? By ‘distinctively virtue ethical,’ I mean a theory in which the virtues and other aretaic concepts are foundational, and which does not collapse into forms of other ethical approaches, such as consequentialism and deontology. By ‘theoretically ambitious,’ I mean a systematic theory that seeks to fulfil all the principal aims of theories of practical reason: to explain, justify, prescribe and to guide action. In this thesis I argue that a distinctively virtue ethical theory that is theoretically ambitious is possible. I do this by working out what such a theory might look like. In developing the theory, I also make a case that the theory is credible and attractive in its own right. In Chapter 1 I look at what makes an ethical theory distinctively virtue ethical. I also argue for a eudaimonic conception of virtue ethics, and determine a number of constraints on such a theory if it is to be distinctively virtue ethical. In Chapter 2 I look at what a more precisely characterised distinctively virtue ethical theory that is theoretically ambitious might look like. I argue in favour of using some ideas derived from Plato. A serious problem remains: the virtue ethical theory I develop in Chapter 2 is unable to give adequate action-guidance, a requirement for the theory to be theoretically ambitious. In Chapter 3 I introduce the central strategy of the thesis: to combine the virtue ethical theory arrived at in Chapter 2 with a form of ethical constitutivism in order to arrive at a distinctively virtue ethical theory that is theoretically ambitious, not least one able to give adequate action-guidance. Chapter 3 is concerned primarily with developing a form of ethical constitutivism suitable for combining with virtue ethics. The chapter is also concerned with examining objections to ethical constitutivism and diagnosing what is required to overcome these objections. In Chapter 4 I combine the virtue ethical theory favoured in Chapter 2 with the form of ethical constitutivism developed in Chapter 3 to form a combined theory. I call this theory: ‘constitutivist virtue ethics.’ I present what the theory involves, and I argue that although the theory incorporates elements from ethical constitutivism, it merits being considered distinctively virtue ethical. I also argue that constitutivist virtue ethics overcomes the objections that, as shown in Chapter 3, ethical constitutivism on its own is unable to overcome. Constitutivist virtue ethics therefore holds out the attractive prospect of a theory incorporating both the advantages of virtue ethics and some of the best of what ethical constitutivism has to offer. In Chapter 5 I address the biggest challenge to constitutivist virtue ethics being regarded as a theoretically ambitious theory: to be able to provide adequate action-guidance. To this end, I present an action-guidance procedure of eight action-guidance principles derived from constitutivist virtue ethics. I then argue that the action-guidance procedure can provide adequate action-guidance, even when faced with a difficult test case. I also examine two objections to the action-guidance procedure, and I argue that these can be overcome. I finish the thesis by considering some topics from the literature relevant to constitutivist virtue ethics, and which might be the basis for further work.
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