Article body

Michael Stocker’s “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” brought attention to the issue of self-effacement in consequentialism and deontological ethics. More recently, there has been an increasing interest in the question as to whether self-effacement is also an issue for virtue ethicists. An argument that self-effacement is an inevitable feature of virtue ethics runs roughly as follows. Virtue ethicists think that we ought to act in a virtuous manner. But, in most cases, acting virtuously requires that one not be moved by thoughts about one’s own virtue or about acting virtuously, but by other considerations. The generous person, for example, is typically moved not by thoughts about his or her own generosity, but by thoughts about the needs of others. Hence, virtue ethicists are forced to say that sometimes one ought not to be moved by the considerations that allegedly justify our actions or make them valuable. Virtue ethics is, therefore, self-effacing, and the self-effacement-related problems that confront consequentialists and deontologists are equally problems for the virtue ethicist. Simon Keller argues along these lines in his paper, “Virtue Ethics is Self-Effacing.” He says that while Stocker’s claims are often taken as a reason to give up consequentialism or deontology in favour of virtue ethics, this is a mistake since virtue ethics is self-effacing in the same way as those other theories.

In this paper, I seek to defend virtue ethics against this claim. There is, I agree, a kind of self-effacement involved in the acquisition and display of virtue. But this is quite different from the feature of consequentialist and deontological theories that Stocker finds objectionable. Importantly, the self-effacement that is required for the acquisition and display of virtue does not result in the problematic split in one’s practical reasoning—the condition that Stocker terms “moral schizophrenia”—where one is forced to embrace mutually inconsistent moral commitments. I also respond to Keller’s claim that self-effacement becomes inevitable when the virtue ethicist articulates a criterion of right action. Bernard Williams’s distinction between a de re and a de dicto interpretation of the phrase “acting as the virtuous person would” points to a way of understanding the virtue-ethical criterion that avoids the self-effacement alleged by Keller. A de re reading of the virtue-ethical criterion shows that the justificatory considerations recognized by the virtue ethicist include those considerations that move a virtuous agent to action. Hence, there is no problematic discord between justification and motive. I aim to clarify the de re reading of the virtue-ethical criterion by responding to the objections that Keller raises against it.

I begin (section 1) with a general discussion of Stocker’s views on self-effacement and the problems he identifies with it, and point out why virtue ethics appears to avoid these problems. In section 2, I outline Keller’s argument that virtue ethics is self-effacing. Section 3 discusses the self-effacement that is involved in the exercise of virtue, and tries to show how this is different from the self-effacement that is a feature of versions of consequentialism and deontological theory. Section 4 discusses the de re interpretation of the virtue-ethical criterion of right action, and explains how it allows the virtue ethicist, but not the consequentialist or deontologist, to avoid the problems of self-effacement.

1. Stocker, Self-Effacement, and Virtue Ethics

A moral theory is self-effacing when it says that, on at least some occasions, agents ought not to be moved by the considerations adduced in that theory’s account of moral justification. What, according to Stocker, is problematic about self-effacing theory? Stocker discerns two basic problems, both of which concern the relationship between moral theory and the thought and actions of moral agents. First, it seems that self-effacing theories fail to offer moral guidance. Presumably, a central role of a moral theory is to guide our actions and to help us live a moral life. But if it is to do this, then the theory’s claims must, in one way or another, enter into our motives and practical deliberations. So when a theory says that we ought to put its claims out of our minds when acting, it apparently fails to provide action guidance. This problem is particularly evident in forms of objective consequentialism that entertain the possibility that the consequentialist standard ought to be completely absent from the practical thought of moral agents.[1] If we accept that part of the point of a moral theory is to identify the considerations that ought to inform the conduct of moral agents, then that very strong form of self-effacement appears problematic, to say the least.

Of course many theorists are open only to more modest forms of self-effacement, acknowledging the need for a moral theory to play some role in regulating our conduct. This brings us to Stocker’s second problem with self-effacing theories—namely, that they prevent us from achieving the psychological harmony that he thinks is constitutive of a good life. The threat to psychological harmony becomes apparent just when moral theorists recognize that their claims about moral justification must play some role in guiding an agent’s actions, but insist that, in many cases, the agent should be unaware of this role. This issue is often discussed in the context of the tension between a theoretical commitment to the impartiality of moral norms, and the partiality that we show to significant others. Stocker’s famous example involving the hospital visit is meant to illustrate this tension.

But now, suppose you are in hospital, recovering from a long illness. You are very bored and restless and at loose ends when Smith comes in once again. You are now convinced more than ever that he is a fine fellow and a real friend—taking so much time to cheer you up, traveling all the way across town, and so on. You are so effusive with your praise and thanks that he protests that he always tries to do what he thinks is his duty, what he thinks will be best. You at first think he is engaging in a polite form of self-deprecation, relieving the moral burden. But the more you two speak, the more clear it becomes that he was telling the literal truth: that it is not essentially because of you that he came to see you, not because you are friends, but because he thought it his duty, perhaps as a fellow Christian or Communist or whatever, or simply because he knows of no one more in need of cheering up and no one easier to cheer up.[2]

This example intends to bring out the apparent inconsistency between acting on the basis of some impartial principle and acting out of friendship or out of love—a problem for impartial theorists if we assume that acting out of friendship is itself a good thing. Impartial theorists typically seek to deal with this issue by appealing to a form of self-effacement. They argue that one can, on a reflective level, embrace an impartial moral standard, while ensuring that that standard is far enough removed from one’s everyday practical thought such that it does not crowd out the thoughts and motives that are part of friendship and love.[3] But such a solution comes at the expense of an agent’s psychological harmony. Far from addressing the rational tension between friendship and impartialism, the appeal to self-effacement seeks to show that that tension is practically manageable. The attempt to maintain a commitment to an impartial moral theory while also being responsive to the norms of friendship inevitably results in a divided self, where the agent attempts to live by mutually contradictory moral commitments.[4] Stocker uses the term “moral schizophrenia” to describe such a divided self, a condition that he thinks bespeaks a “malady of the spirit.”[5]

My interest here is in how Stocker’s claims against self-effacing theory bear upon a virtue ethical position. While “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” does not contain an explicit argument for virtue ethics, there is an important reason why what he says might be thought to give encouragement to the virtue ethicist. Stocker’s major complaint against self-effacing theories is that they presuppose a merely external or contingent relation between motives and actions, on the one hand, and moral reasons and justifications, on the other. They focus on a set of rules (in deontological theories) or on some desirable outcome (in consequentialism) that serves as the justificatory standard of rightness for our actions. All that is taken to matter is that our actions conform to that standard. From the legislative point of view adopted by those theories, questions of how moral actions are motivated are deemed either irrelevant or of secondary importance. Stocker writes, “The legislator wants various things done or not done; it is not important why they are done or not done; one can count on and know the actions but not the motives.”[6] Moral reasons are viewed not as something that belongs to the conduct of moral agents, but as something that moral theorists are concerned about in their after-the-fact assessment of that conduct. By observing only a contingent relation between moral reasons and moral conduct, Stocker thinks that self-effacing theories are blinded to the “constraints that motivation imposes on ethical theory and life.”[7]

Why should this give encouragement to the virtue ethicist? It is because, by taking virtue as a fundamental moral category, virtue ethicists seemingly show an appreciation of the internal relation between moral motives and reasons. Put simply, virtuous conduct involves acting for the right reasons, not simply performing actions that, observed externally, conform to some moral standard. Helping someone in need wouldn’t count as a virtuous act if you did it by accident, or if you only did it to look good in front of others. Since the practice of virtue involves acting in light of (not merely in conformity with) the reasons that serve as the justificatory standard for our actions, it looks like virtue ethicists are unlikely to tolerate or encourage the self-effacement that Stocker thinks induces moral schizophrenia.

2. Keller: Virtue Ethics is Self-Effacing

Yet Thomas Hurka and Simon Keller have recently argued that virtue ethics is self-effacing in much the same way that consequentialism and deontological theory are.[8] Hence, they claim that, contrary to appearances, Stocker’s argument does not speak in favour of virtue ethics. I focus on Keller’s argument here.

Keller’s interest is in versions of virtue ethics that are in direct competition with consequentialism and deontology—i.e., versions that offer a criterion of right action that rivals the criteria offered by consequentialists and deontologists. The following is an example of such a criterion, defended by Rosalind Hursthouse:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.[9]

The criterion identifies the justificatory standard by which the virtue ethicist thinks that actions can be morally assessed. So, if the virtue ethicist really is to avoid the problematic separation of justification and motivation that Stocker decries, he or she will need (Keller argues) to say that it is always acceptable or appropriate for an agent to be moved by the thought that his or her action conforms to the justificatory standard articulated in that criterion.

But as Keller says, virtue ethics cannot avoid self-effacement in this way. To see why, consider the following example that he provides.[10] Arthur, Benjamin, and Christine are spending the night together in a hut located within a camping ground. Outside the hut, a family of hikers are in a spot of bother: they are trying to erect a tent, but are struggling due to the cold, wet, and windy weather. Arthur, Benjamin, and Christine each decide to invite the family into the hut. But, in each case, their motives differ. Arthur’s motivation is to help the hikers who are clearly in need. Benjamin’s motivation is to act as a generous person would act, and he decides to invite the family into the hut since that is what a generous person would do in the circumstances. Christine’s motivation is to act as a fully virtuous person would in the circumstances, and she decides to invite the family into the hut since it seems clear that a virtuous person would act in this way.

Arthur, Benjamin, and Christine each perform the action we would expect a generous or virtuous person to perform. Yet it seems that Arthur is the most generous and the most virtuous of the three, since it is Arthur who acts as the generous or virtuous person would. To act out of generosity is to be moved by a concern for others. Since it is Arthur who has this as his motive, he looks the most generous. Whatever we might say about Benjamin and Christine (in what follows, I make some suggestions as to what we should say), it appears that neither is as generous as Arthur is.

But it also appears that it is not Arthur, but Benjamin and Christine whose motivating thought most closely approximates the consideration adduced in the virtue-ethical criterion of right action. Benjamin and Christine are, after all, moved by a desire to act in the way that a virtuous person would in the circumstances. But in doing so they fail to be fully virtuous in the way that Arthur is. In acting to help the hikers, Benjamin and Christine are focused upon acting in a generous or virtuous manner. This, Keller argues, prevents them from achieving full-blown generosity, since (as we have seen) the truly generous person acts out of direct concern for others, just as Arthur does. If this is right, then it appears that being motivated directly by the thought articulated in a virtue-ethical criterion of right action, at least in some cases, prevents one from being fully virtuous, and therefore stops one from living up to the virtue-ethical standard. Hence, Keller argues, the virtue ethicist will need to say that on some occasions we should not be motivated by that which justifies our actions or makes them valuable. Virtue ethics therefore exhibits the same self-effacement that is evident in versions of consequentialism and deontological ethics.

In what follows, I argue against this conclusion drawn by Keller. My argument comes in two parts. In the following section, I argue that, while there may be a kind of self-effacement involved in the exercise of virtue, this is quite different from the feature of consequentialism and deontological ethics that Stocker criticizes. I return to the issue of the virtue-ethical criterion of right action in the final section, elaborating on the de re reading of that criterion and how it speaks to concerns about self-effacement in virtue ethics.

3. Modes of Self-Effacement: Effortlessness and Schizophrenia

There is something paradoxical about the acquisition and display of virtue. Generosity, courage, honesty, and the like seem like character traits that are desirable or worth possessing. We admire others who possess them, and aspire to emulate those others by acquiring these traits ourselves. Yet, in many cases, trying really hard to be virtuous only shows that one is not—or at least not fully so. This is the plight of Benjamin and Christine. Those who are genuinely virtuous display a kind of effortlessness, such that they don’t need to try very hard, or think explicitly about their own virtue. Indeed, this effortlessness is part of what we admire in them. Perhaps the initial cultivation of virtue requires some effort. But since a kind of effortless is a mark of virtuous conduct, trying hard to be virtuous seems to indicate that one does not possess the virtues in full measure.[11]

Keller brings out this paradox by contrasting the motives and focus of Arthur with those of Benjamin and Christine. The focus of Benjamin and Christine, in aspiring to be generous and virtuous respectively, is directed inward, towards themselves. The motivating thought for Benjamin is “In doing this, I am being generous,” and for Christine it is “Here I am, acting as the virtuous person would.”[12] In both cases, they seem preoccupied with themselves—namely, with their own virtue or generosity. Arthur’s focus, in contrast, is directed outward towards the hikers. His motivating thought is “They are so cold and tired and hungry…and they’ll be much happier in here.”[13] It is this outward focus that is necessary to Arthur’s being generous. In giving reasons for his or her actions, the generous person will honestly say things like, “They needed my help,” or “He’ll get great use out of that barbeque.” Something similar is true of many other virtues. Those who are modest do not act out of concern for their own modesty. Being courageous means, by and large, being moved not by thoughts about your own courage, but by thoughts about the importance of meeting some challenge, despite the risks to oneself. Being loyal generally means being moved by a sense that you ought to stand by someone with whom you share a particular relationship. For the most part, genuine virtue is manifested in a kind of responsiveness to features of one’s situation or environment. The attention of a virtuous person is typically directed not to himself or herself but towards those features.

On appearances, then, there is a kind of self-effacement that is often involved in the display of virtue. Virtue may be something we take to be valuable, but in many cases we had better not have that as our motivating thought if we are to display that value. Still, the self-effacement involved here is, I argue, rather different from that which Stocker deems an objectionable feature of consequentialist and deontological theory. To show this, I want to look more closely at what is going on in the characters in Keller’s example, starting with Benjamin. (For the sake of brevity, I focus on Benjamin and mostly ignore Christine. I do not suppose there is any problem in doing so: what I say about Benjamin and his desire to be generous should also be applicable to Christine and her desire to be virtuous.)

In being overly concerned with acting in a way that would make him generous—or acting in a way that a generous person would—Benjamin is focused upon himself in a way that prevents him from being fully generous. He is, with respect to generosity, inferior to Arthur. What more can we say about Benjamin? Thomas Hurka has argued that it is “not virtuous—it is morally self-indulgent—to act primarily from concern for one’s own virtue.”[14] Keller is far more measured than this, noting that there need not be “anything deeply objectionable about the motives of Benjamin and Christine.”[15] I want to go further still and say that there just isn’t anything objectionable about Benjamin’s motives. Benjamin’s aim is to be generous, or to act generously. Since, as we have seen, acting generously involves acting out of direct concern for others, Benjamin’s aim is to act out of direct concern for others. In this way, though he may have a significant focus upon himself, a regard for others cannot be altogether absent from Benjamin’s thinking. If he thinks that there is something worthwhile or admirable or important about being generous and he aspires to be so, this just means that he recognizes that there is something worthwhile or admirable or important about being moved by a concern for others.[16]

Perhaps what motivates Hurka’s allegation of self-indulgence is the thought that if one acts out of concern for, say, one’s own generosity, then that person will be inclined to insist on displaying it “come hell or high water”—i.e., even if others are ultimately made worse off as a consequence of those generous acts. That is, since such a person thinks his or her own generosity is what really matters, this will ultimately trump considerations about the interests or needs of others. But in this case, the trouble is not that one is trying too hard to be generous, but that one is not trying hard enough. Being a generous person does not mean willy-nilly seeking to help others, regardless of whether your actions do end up benefitting those others. That behaviour is much better described as “overbearing” or “being a busybody” than it is as being generous. Essential to generosity is the ability to recognize when coming to the aid of others is appropriate, the ability to recognize when someone else is better placed to provide this help, the ability to discern when your assistance is more of an annoyance than anything else, and so on. So trying to be generous involves trying to cultivate these capacities. If Benjamin thinks that acting generously means taking that “come hell or high water” attitude, then the problem is not that he is moved by a desire to be generous, but that he has a distorted understanding of what generosity consists in.

Of course it is also possible that Benjamin (or someone else who explicitly aims at virtue) just is self-indulgent, and that therefore his efforts to be generous are likely to be in vain. But now the problem is specific to Benjamin and his general self-indulgence, not with his efforts to be or become generous. If anything, his desire to become generous offers a glimmer of hope that he is not irredeemably self-indulgent. Or perhaps again Benjamin merely thinks that he is aiming at generosity, and is deceived as to his true motives. Really, he just wants to look good, and that is why he acts to help the hikers. But again, this scenario is different from the one described by Keller. In this case, he is not really aiming to be generous at all, only to appear so. Such a scenario need not concern us here, since we are interested in the implications of aiming for virtue, not the implications of aiming for something else.

The example aims to show that Benjamin, who is moved by explicit thoughts about his own generosity, is inferior qua generosity to Arthur, who is not moved by such thoughts. We can agree that it succeeds in this aim. So far as the virtue of generosity goes, there is, as Keller says, something regrettable about Benjamin’s motives.[17] But it would not, it seems to me, be clearly wrong to describe Benjamin as a generous person, though admittedly less so than Arthur. (I am assuming that being generous is not an all-or-nothing affair: that one can be “quite,” “somewhat,” “fairly,” or “very” generous.) So we can admit that the extent to which one needs to think explicitly about one’s own generosity limits the extent to which one is generous, without needing to accept that someone with Benjamin’s motives altogether lacks generosity. And, given the points just made, it certainly would be wrong to say of Benjamin that he is ungenerous or selfish or “self-indulgent,” as Hurka would have it. The point is that the explicit focus upon one’s own generosity, and upon the effort to be generous, is not needed for someone who is more fully and naturally generous, like Arthur. This shows that Benjamin is not perfect, but since none of us is, his commitment to moral improvement is surely commendable.[18]

A proper understanding of the worth of generosity means having a sense of the significance of the considerations that move a generous person—i.e., considerations that go to the needs and interests of others. This encourages the view that we can observe multiple ways of articulating what is significant about virtuous actions. If we think about Arthur, one can say that what is morally significant about Arthur’s action is both that the hikers received the help that they needed and that the action instantiated the virtue of generosity. The question then becomes whether that second consideration—relating to one’s generosity—can play any role at all in the thinking of a fully generous agent. Might someone like Arthur place any value at all on his own virtue or generosity, or would doing so only detract from the extent to which he actually is virtuous or generous?

What seems right is that at the time of action, explicit thoughts about the needs of others—not thoughts about oneself—are what characteristically move the fully generous person. But this does not entail that someone like Arthur need be radically indifferent to his own generosity. Suppose one were to press Arthur afterwards about his decision to help the hikers, asking him what would have been wrong with simply letting them fend for themselves. It is surely consistent with his generosity for Arthur to respond by saying, “Well, they’d have had a horrible time had they spent the night outside. It would have been really unkind of us to leave them in the lurch.” The second sentence in the imagined response expresses a concern that he instantiate the virtue of generosity, or (more accurately) a concern that he not display the vice of unkindness. But it is hardly plausible to say that this casts doubt over Arthur’s generosity. While the motivating thought at the time of action will not typically make reference to the agent’s own virtue, this does not prevent the agent from noting that, upon reflection, it is morally significant that the action is expressive of an admirable character, or at least that the action is not expressive of vice.[19]

Nor does the fact that thoughts about the virtue are effaced at the point of action imply that any value that agents places upon the quality of their own characters is practically inert, playing no role at all in their behaviour. Reflecting upon what is involved in virtuous or vicious action—for instance, reflecting upon what it means to be generous—can surely help to focus the mind, assisting a review of one’s own conduct, and enabling a clear view of the sorts of considerations that move a virtuous agent like Arthur. Indeed this touches upon a central feature of moral life—namely, that part of one’s moral development involves the effort to become more like those whom one recognizes as his or her moral superiors, drawing inspiration from those others.[20]

Still, it is perhaps at this point that the self-effacement involved in the exercise of virtue begins to look similar to the self-effacement that Stocker deems an objectionable feature of consequentialism and deontological theories. For, it might be argued, the contrast observed between the agent’s motivating thoughts at the time of action, and the sorts of justificatory considerations he or she might appeal to upon reflection, is no different from the contrast drawn by impartial theorists when aiming to show that accepting an impartial moral standard is compatible with acting out of friendship. It is, recall, just this contrast that requires a division in the agent’s practical thought, where the agent commits to an impartial ethic on a reflective, theoretical level, but for the most part puts that commitment out of his or her mind when acting, and that, Stocker thinks, induces moral schizophrenia.[21]

The self-effacement at work in the practice of virtue is, however, quite different from that which Stocker attacks. The problematic feature of self-effacing theories is not simply that they trade upon a contrast between the unreflective thoughts one typically has when acting, and those that one has in more reflective moments. On its own, this is surely unproblematic. Since it is difficult to conceive of a moral life that does not include this contrast, Stocker’s critique of self-effacing theory would fall flat if that were all he was saying. The problem is, rather, that the rational stances occupied at the unreflective and reflective levels are mutually inconsistent. The appreciation of moral reasons one has when acting out of, say, friendship, is not merely different from, but inconsistent with the understanding of moral reasons expressed in impartial moral theory. The moral commitments of friendship and those of impartial theory are mutually inconsistent. And it is this mutual inconsistency that encourages a split in one’s practical reasoning; maintaining friendships and the like require that one’s commitment to consequentialism, for example, be kept hidden from oneself.[22] But placing value on a virtue such as generosity and valuing the needs of others are not mutually conflicting in the same way—far from it, since, as we saw with Benjamin, valuing the former necessarily entails that one values the latter.

We can return to Stocker’s example of the hospital visit to help see the difference. What is important in acting out of friendship is that one is focused upon the particular friend, and that the particular friend is himself viewed as the source of one’s reasons. As Stocker puts it, “it is essential to the very concept of love that one care for the beloved, that one be prepared to act for the sake of the beloved.”[23] Imagine that Smith—the visiting friend—attempts to provide a rationale for his frequent visits that both incorporates that particular focus and incorporates a commitment to a given impartial moral theory. When asked why he keeps visiting his friend (let’s call him Bob) in hospital, suppose that Smith says something like, “It’s Bob, and the right thing to do is always that which will promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The trouble here is that the second part of that justification is not merely different from, but undermines the first part. If Smith really does think that all that matters is that happiness in general is promoted, then this only shows that he is not acting, in Stocker’s words “for that person’s [Bob’s] sake as a final goal.”[24] It shows that he is not really committed to the significance expressed in a claim like “It’s Bob.” Things are different if we imagine Smith offering a justification for his visits that incorporate that concern for this particular other, and that also incorporate some regard for the virtue of friendship. Suppose that Smith says something like, “It’s Bob, and good friends look out for each other.” The reference to the virtue of friendship contained in the second part of that justification in no way undermines the particular concern for Bob contained in the first part. A commitment to the value of friendship is hardly inconsistent with a commitment to acting for the sake of one’s friend. There is no inconsistency here, since a lucid understanding of what is involved in being a good friend necessarily includes a sense of the importance of acting for the sake of the friend.[25]

It is helpful, I think, to note that the schizophrenia that Stocker has in mind is a condition that is specifically related to an encounter with moral philosophy, where one seeks to conform to the justificatory standard identified by a certain kind of moral theory. Modern moral theory often exhibits a tendency towards systematization, where a given type of consideration is identified as being morally relevant, and the right or good action then explained with reference to that general consideration. As Stocker puts it, “the most general classification seems to have been reified and itself taken as the morally relevant goal.”[26] It is this that encourages a split in one’s practical reasoning, since thinking on that general level is in many cases inappropriate, preventing one from acting in the best way. While it may be entirely appropriate to be thinking about promoting the general happiness when making a donation to OXFAM, such a thought is not appropriate in the case of the hospital visit, and prevents one from realizing the good in question—i.e., the good of friendship. But the self-effacement that is involved in the exercise of virtue has nothing in essence to do with moral theory and its propensity for systematization. Benjamin and Christine, we can imagine, have had no exposure to moral theory of any kind and are merely seeking to acquire character traits that are generally viewed as admirable and worth aspiring to.

That said, it might be maintained that virtue ethics will run into the same problems when it commits to a criterion of right action. It is, after all, in offering such a criterion that consequentialists and deontologists articulate a very general justification for our actions, a justification that in many cases should be put out of one’s mind when acting. So, the virtue ethicist may be left in the same position, just as soon as he or she provides a criterion of right action that competes with those provided by the consequentialist and the deontologist. This is Keller’s view. I turn to this claim in the final section.

4. Virtue Ethics, Self-Effacement, and Right Action

The virtue-ethical criterion of right action that Keller considers is a variant of the one defended by Rosalind Hursthouse:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.[27]

In spelling out that criterion, Keller says, the virtue ethicist is articulating the specific justificatory consideration that makes the act right. “She [the virtue ethicist] must say that what makes the act right is its being what the fully virtuous person would do.”[28] But of course if you are to successfully conform with the criterion—if you are to act as a virtuous person would—then in most cases the thought that this is what a virtuous person would do had better not be what moves you to action. As we have seen, acting virtuously normally requires being moved by other considerations. Hence, the virtue ethicist will need to say that the considerations that morally justify our actions should (at least in some cases) be put out of mind when acting. Virtue ethics thus reveals itself to be self-effacing in the same way as consequentialism and deontological ethics, and inherits the self-effacement-related problems of those other theories.

The threat of self-effacement is prima facie mitigated if the phrase “what a virtuous agent would do” is read in a de re rather than a de dicto sense, as intended by Hursthouse.[29] Bernard Williams, while neither defending a virtue-ethical criterion of right action nor directly addressing the issue of self-effacement, first made explicit this way of approaching what it might mean to aim to act “as a virtuous agent would.”[30] For any given virtue, there is a range of reasons to which someone who possesses that virtue is responsive. A generous person is moved by considerations such as “they need our help” and “he will really like this”; a fair person is moved by considerations such as “they arrived here first,” and “we need to hear her side of the story”; an honest person is moved by considerations such as “it’s the truth”; and so on. [31] For a given virtue, the range of reasons may include those that make explicit reference to that virtue, reasons such as “that would be rude” or “it’s important to be honest.” Importantly, however, those reasons are not prioritized or regarded as more fundamental than reasons that make no reference to virtue. If you are moved by any one of the considerations that belong to the ranges of reasons associated with the virtues, then (all things being equal) you are acting as the virtuous person would, where that phrase is read in a de re sense. This is true, even if explicit thoughts about how a virtuous person would act play no role at all in your motives or deliberations.

How does this revision of the virtue-ethical criterion speak to the issue of self-effacement? The revision serves to clarify the sorts of justificatory reasons that a virtue ethicist is capable of recognizing. In doing so, it shows how the virtue ethicist can avoid the problematic discord between motive and justification that Stocker objects to. Keller’s argument that virtue ethics is self-effacing proceeds from the assumption that the virtue-ethical criterion must be articulating the specific consideration that confers a justification on our actions—i.e., that what justifies a given act is the fact that a virtuous person would perform it, or perhaps that performing the act will help the agent to become virtuous. But the de re reading of the criterion shows that assumption to be misplaced. A given act is justified not by the fact that a virtuous person would perform it, but by any one of a range of reasons that are associated with the relevant virtue. An act of generosity such as sharing the hut with the hikers is morally justified in virtue of those hikers being in need of help. Taking a fair or even-handed approach is justified in virtue of others being entitled to an opportunity to state their case, and so on. There is no problematic discord between motive and justification, since the virtue-ethical criterion, understood in a de re sense, invokes precisely those justificatory reasons that typically and rightly move a virtuous agent. What makes an act right is exactly that which moves a virtuous agent to perform it. Virtue ethics avoids the systematization that I spoke of at the end of the previous section, since the considerations it deems morally significant are as diverse as those to which a virtuous person is responsive.

Keller acknowledges that the virtue ethicist may look to utilize Williams’s distinction between de re and de dicto readings of the phrase “acting as a virtuous person would” as a way of responding to the threat of self-effacement. He argues, however, that this revision of the virtue-ethical criterion of right action fails to rescue the virtue ethicist from the self-effacement present in consequentialism and deontological ethics. He identifies two problems with this strategy. First, he thinks that it does not really offer a solution to the problem at all. Somewhere along the line, the virtue ethicist will need to embrace a de dicto interpretation of his or her criterion of right action, at which point the problem of self-effacement will re-emerge. Second, Keller thinks that the move to a de re interpretation does not “turn on anything special about virtue ethics,” and is equally open to consequentialists and deontologists as a way of dealing with the alleged problems of self-effacement.[32] Hence, the move to a de re reading of the criterion does nothing to show that the virtue ethicist is better placed to deal with those problems than the consequentialist and the deontologist.

The first of Keller’s objections to a de re reading of the virtue-ethical criterion of right action effectively questions whether such an account remains a distinctively virtue-ethical position: “It surely must remain true, if we are really to be virtue ethicists, that the claim, ‘An act is right iff it is what the virtuous person would do in the circumstances,’ presented as such and understood de dicto, reveals something true and interesting about the nature of right action.”[33] If the justification for a given action is derived not from considerations relating to virtue, but from considerations that are external to the agent—considerations like “they needed my help,” and “she has a right to defend herself”—then you might just think that this no longer counts as a virtue-ethical position. The objection raised here by Keller ties into a range of general concerns about virtue ethics. One of these is that what the virtue ethicist has to say about right action can appear vacuous. It can appear as though the virtue ethicist is defining the virtuous agent as one who performs right actions, while supplying a criterion of right action defined in terms of a virtuous agent.[34] A related worry is that if the virtue ethicist is saying that what justifies a given action is the outcomes that it generates, rather than the virtues that are manifested in those actions, then the position may be viewed as an “ethics of outcome” rather than an “ethics of virtue.”[35] Virtue has to play some role in making a given action the right one to perform, otherwise we are no longer dealing with an instance of virtue ethics. This means that the virtue ethicist will need, on some level, to embrace a de dicto reading of the virtue-ethical criterion, at which point the problems of self-effacement re-emerge.

It is certainly true that the virtue ethicist will want to say that virtue itself is a condition of right action; he or she will insist that what matters, so far as right action goes, is an action’s origins and not merely its outcomes.[36] I have suggested that the virtue ethicist can recognize a wide range of considerations as the basis of moral justification for our actions, and in many cases an articulation of these considerations need make no reference to the virtues. Nonetheless, it remains important that the agent be properly oriented towards those considerations. Virtue ethicists typically observe a set of satisfaction conditions for this proper orientation, such as the following. First, it is not enough for an action to result in a positive outcome; it is necessary that the agent intend to bring about that outcome. Second, it is important that the agent act for the right reason. Intending to bring about a good outcome is not enough on its own, since the virtue ethicist will want to rule out aiming at the appropriate outcome, but doing so with an ulterior motive—e.g., wanting to appear generous in front of others. Third, it is necessary that there be a degree of predictability in the agent’s conduct. The virtue ethicist will want to distinguish virtuous actions from those where the agent acts on a whim or perhaps out convenience, performing the required act for the right reason but only because it happens to be easy on this occasion. Fourth, the virtue ethicist will want to insist that one act with the appropriate feeling, thus ruling out acting for the right reason but doing so begrudgingly or in a way that lacks the appropriate warmth. Virtue ethicists may differ on how these conditions should be formulated, and on the allowable margin for error in each case. Still, some set of these conditions is essential to acting as a virtuous person would act, and therefore (for the virtue ethicist) essential to right action.[37]

Where an agent performs an action that the virtue ethicist thinks worthy of being assessed as right, that agent acts out of virtue, and this involves much more than simply acting in a way that promotes desirable outcomes. Very well. But to return to Keller’s objection, isn’t this where the issue of self-effacement re-emerges? Doesn’t this show that the virtue ethicist’s view of right action incorporates considerations that are typically alien to a virtuous agent, such that being guided by the virtue ethicist’s claims about right action will result in us failing to act virtuously?

The answer is “no.” The crucial point here is that there is no problematic discord between the theoretical understanding brought to bear in the virtue ethicist’s action assessment and the understanding enjoyed by a virtuous agent; there is no evidence of what Williams referred to as a “deeply uneasy gap or dislocation…between the spirit of the theory itself and the spirit it supposedly justifies.”[38] An appreciation of the difference between acting virtuously and performing the same act but with an ulterior motive is not just something that features in Aristotelian theory. We expect the virtuous agent to appreciate this; indeed, this appreciation is constitutive of virtuous conduct. To act virtuously is to act “with understanding” where this involves not merely an understanding of the features of one’s situation that merit a given action—e.g., the fact that the hikers are in need of help—but also an appreciation of what it means to respond appropriately to those features. This is part of the practical know-how that is realized in virtuous conduct. Anyone who didn’t get the moral difference between helping the hikers because they are in need and doing so to impress others would be morally suspect and would therefore lack virtue. The conditions I outlined a moment ago are not just formulated by virtue ethicists for the purposes of action assessment. An implicit grasp of these conditions belongs to virtuous action itself.

The practice of virtue involves a certain evaluative stance on one’s own conduct, not just on the outcomes of it. Among other ways, this is demonstrated in the emotion or feeling typically displayed by virtuous agents. An uncharacteristic moment of callousness will give an otherwise virtuous person cause for remorse, even if no harm ultimately came from that callousness. Equally, where the situation calls for doing something morally regrettable (e.g., breaking a promise or revealing a hurtful truth), a virtuous person will act “with regret.”[39] A sense of regret at breaking a promise—even as you recognize that it is, given the circumstances, the right thing to do—involves not only a recognition of the moral significance of failing to keep a promise, but also a recognition of the significance of the fact that it is you who have failed to do so, such that a feeling of regret is warranted. It demonstrates an understanding of the moral burden you carry for having acted in this way, again, even though you’re satisfied that it is what you morally ought to have done. An experience of regret of this kind is unintelligible independent of an implicit concern for the quality of one’s own actions.

This type of regret brushes up against the issue of moral dilemmas, and points to a different way in which an understanding of what it means to be virtuous informs virtuous conduct, even where the justificatory considerations that move the agent are not overtly related to virtue. It is sometimes claimed that virtue ethics’ openness to pluralism renders it inadequate for the purposes of action guidance and action assessment, since it has nothing to say when divergent values come into conflict. This is viewed as a major shortcoming, insofar as it is just when we are faced with such a conflict that a theoretical criterion is needed to arbitrate between the competing claims. Yet virtue ethicists argue that it is precisely in such cases that virtue plays an important role in informing virtuous conduct. Hursthouse takes this approach, arguing that acting rightly in the case of a conflict between goods requires “moral” or “practical wisdom”; roughly, the capacity to recognize that a given consideration is salient in the circumstances. Take benevolence or kindness. A kind person is characteristically sensitive to others’ feelings, and will typically avoid making comments that cause hurt. But there are, of course, times where the right thing to do is what one knows full well will result in another’s feelings being hurt—e.g., where there is a painful truth that someone else has a right to know. Moral wisdom is needed to discern when the situation calls for sparing another’s feelings, and when consideration of the hurt that will be caused should be put to one side in view of other considerations. But to possess moral wisdom just is to have a grasp of what it means to be kind, honest, fair, loyal, and so on. It means recognizing, for example, that withholding a painful truth that another has a right to know is not kind, but unfair and dishonest, perhaps even cowardly. This, at least, is how virtue ethicists such as Hursthouse view moral dilemmas and their resolution.[40] Note, however, that in underscoring the relevance of moral wisdom to right action, Hursthouse is not elevating the need to safeguard one’s own virtue as the over-riding consideration that serves as the tiebreaker in any conflict between goods. What is morally at issue in the example just used is that someone has a right to know the truth. The point is that moral wisdom is required to discern when that type of consideration is morally salient, and when the situation is such that other considerations become so.

This brings us to Keller’s second objection to the use of a de re reading of the virtue-ethical criterion of right action as a way of dealing with the problems of self-effacement. Keller argues that an appeal to a de re interpretation does not “turn on anything special about virtue ethics,” and is equally open to the consequentialist and the deontologist. The move therefore does nothing to show virtue ethics is better placed than either of those theories. Suppose that the consequentialist commits to a criterion of right action that says, “an act is right iff it brings about the best available state of affairs,” but insists that we apply a de re reading to this criterion. Now the consequentialist can say that his or her criterion identifies not only a standard of justification but also tells us how we ought to be motivated. If, on a given occasion, visiting a friend in hospital is the action that will bring about the best available state of affairs, and if the agent in question has the motive of visiting his friend, then that agent is motivated to perform the action that will bring about the best available state of affairs. Hence, the agent is “moved by the considerations that make his act right, according to consequentialism.”[41] Suppose that the deontologist commits to a criterion of right action that says, “an act is iff it conforms to the moral rules,” but insists that we apply a de re reading to this criterion. If visiting a friend in hospital is what the rules require, and one is motivated to visit one’s friend in hospital, then that person is motivated by the considerations that make the act right, according to the deontologist.

It is easy to imagine a consequentialist, and at least some deontologists, insisting upon a de re reading of their respective criteria of right action. But far from offering a way of avoiding self-effacement, this move, when made by the envisaged consequentialist or the deontologist, really just highlights the way in which their theories are self-effacing. In insisting upon the de re reading of his or her standard of justification, the consequentialist is essentially saying that all that really matters is that a given outcome be achieved, and that agents take whatever motives will bring about that outcome. So if you are moved to perform an act that brings about that outcome, then you are moved to do what the consequentialist asks of you, even if the consequentialist standard itself did not feature at all in your motives. This insinuates an objective consequentialist position of the kind defended by Peter Railton, according to which the consequentialist standard itself need not play any role at all in the practical thought of moral agents. Likewise, the envisaged deontologist is, in insisting upon a de re reading, saying that all that really matters is that an act conform to the moral rules. So if one is moved to perform an act that is compliant with those rules, then he or she is moved to do what the deontologist asks of him or her, even if the deontological standard or the particular rule did not feature at all in his or her motives. This amounts to a restatement of the division between motive and justification, exactly the feature of those theories that comes under attack in Stocker’s argument. “The legislator wants various things done or not done; it is not important why they are done or not done; one can count on and know the actions, but not the motives.”[42]

The move to a de re interpretation of a criterion of right action made by the consequentialist or deontologist is disanalogous to that made by the virtue ethicist. For the virtue ethicist, the point of insisting on a de re reading is to emphasize the way in which virtue ethics can invoke the vision and understanding enjoyed by a virtuous agent for the purposes of action assessment. The aim is to provide an account of right action informed by (to quote John McDowell) “the virtuous person’s distinctive way of viewing particular situations.”[43] A de re reading of the consequentialist or deontological criterion, as envisaged by Keller, moves in the opposite direction. It highlights the attempt to occupy an external or legislative standpoint from which to assess actions. Again, this is where the issue of self-effacement arises. There is problematic gap between the theorist’s viewpoint and that of the agents whose actions are to be assessed. The justificatory reasons that the theorist recognizes are distinct from, and inconsistent with, those that ideally move an agent when acting in the best possible way. Hence, while the virtue ethicist can adequately respond to Keller’s first objection, that objection is decisive against the consequentialist and the deontologist.

That, at least, is true of the versions of consequentialism and deontology that Keller considers. Can we say this of any version of those theories? Perhaps not. Much of my elaboration upon the de re interpretation of the virtue-ethical criterion focused on the way that virtue ethics is “agent-centred,” in contrast to the outcome-centredness of consequentialism and the rule-centredness of deontological ethics.[44] The response to the threat of self-effacement makes use of the insights generated when attending to the rationality and feeling that are internal to the practice of virtue. If consequentialists and deontologists are to adopt a similar approach, they will need to borrow from the insights of virtue ethics, shifting away from an exclusive focus on outcomes and rules. Whether this shift can be effected without forfeiting what is distinctive and attractive about those theories is another question.