Two Models of What a Virtuous Person Would Do

Chicago From Fullerton Beach. Photo by Chris Smith.

In philosophical literature about virtue, correct behavior is cashed out or, at least identified, in terms of what a virtuous agent would do. This idea is sometimes traced to Aristotle’s claim that the mean lies where a person of practical wisdom would determine it to lie. It finds its modern expression in Rosalind Hursthouse’s thesis that an act is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do.

Explanation of correct behavior by reference to virtuous agents is partly tied to thinking there can be no canon of what is right, no general procedure for determining what it is right to do. Even if we cannot precisely specify what a virtuous agent would do, we can note an ambiguity in our understanding of the virtuous agent: does being virtuous mean doing what is best or doing what is good (enough)? That is, there are two models employed to understand what a virtuous agent does. These models may not tell us how to reach any particular decision, but will give us an idea of how a virtuous agent approaches decisions or the form such decisions take.

One model we might describe as a superlative or maximizing model. According to this model, a right act is the best act, or the most important one, or the one we have most reason to do, or the one that the situation calls for. Most commonly, if an act is right, on this model, it will be the unique right action for the situation, and one we are obligated to perform. And determining which act is right requires considering the available options for action, for rightness is determined by comparison with other action we could perform.

The second model we can characterize as a threshold or satisfaction model. According to this model, an act is right if it is good enough, meets a certain threshold or standard, or satisfies a condition in isolation from other available actions. When an act is right 0n this model it is usually one of many acts that are right in the situation. No one of them is obligated, but each is permissible.

These models are not always kept separate, sometimes causing us to slide from one into the other, though they have different implications. I also think that most people either presuppose the former or find it hard not to accept. For instance, it is sometimes suggested that a virtuous person is a perfect person, and it would seem that a perfect person does what is best. Alternatively, it is hard to deny that we can go right if we X even if there is more reason to Y. Now unlike a utilitarian view where there is a single value to be maximized, a good human life, on a virtue ethical view, is composed of different kinds of activities, like the exercise of different virtues. Part of the problem is determining from among these valuable activities which to engage in and when. For instance, I may have the opportunity to do something generous by volunteering my time or trying to cheer up a friend, or I may have the opportunity to take care of a standing responsibility, say to grade some papers. A virtuous person, according to the first model, can’t just maximize a single value. Rather she considers which opportunity it is more important to pursue given the facts of the situation and what kind of response the situation calls for. So if I have said I will return the papers early tomorrow, I should spend my time grading rather than doing something generous.

This model is tempting because of how easily it fits with certain decisions, especially when a decision is forced upon us or when we are committed to satisfying multiple interests. If I am on my way to fulfill a promise and an accident occurs in which a person needs immediate attention, then since I likely cannot both keep the promise and help, I need to decide which is more important. Or, again, if I have to do some grading this week but also want to have dinner with friends, it may be that circumstances determine that I have to do most of the grading today. Then it makes sense to speak of doing what is most important or what the situation calls for. But most situations do not call for anything in particular, and it is strained to speak as if we are always in a (“moral”) situation.

In what follows, I suggest two ways the maximizing model has difficulties incorporating aspects of a good human life.

I am going to assume that temperance is a virtue. Temperance is that trait that consists in being well disposed toward the pursuit of pleasures of the body: those connected with eating, having sex and doing drugs. One effect of temperance is to counteract the human tendency to overindulge our bodily pleasures. Yet if the virtues are connected with living a good human life, then temperance cannot prescribe denying bodily pleasures altogether. Under-indulgence of these pleasures is as problematic as overindulgence of them. For instance, an intimate partnership is part of a good human life. A healthy sex life is necessary for that partnership to go well and a healthy amount of sex is necessary for a healthy sex life. Again, we can be prone to drink to excess and that should be avoided. Yet as Peter Geach remarks, we do not always need to have our wits about us, and when we do not there is something good about the pleasures of drinking.

I am skeptical that the maximizing model can accommodate this account of temperance. On that model, a virtuous agent does what there is most reason to do. So if a virtuous agent indulges in drink or sex that is what is most important to do or what the situation calls for. This fails to fit how we think about deciding in such situations. We rarely compare the option of having sex with our partner to the other available opportunities. (This would be a mood-killing one thought too many.) Further, the cases in which having sex with my partner will satisfy the description “doing what is most important” or “what the situation calls for” must be rare. Having sex when it does meet these descriptions would run counter to having a healthy sex life and thus, also, to temperance forming part of a good human life.

I think the maximizing model will have similar trouble accommodating the pursuit of our personal interests. A good human life requires in addition to virtue a place for our own projects and for our own leisure. But enjoying some leisure time is rarely what it is most important to do. That description seems most fitting when we’ve worked so hard that we absolutely need a break. Indeed, if we think of comparing what else we could be doing with our time instead of spending it leisurely, almost anything else may win out.

Though I cannot begin to justify this here (or perhaps elsewhere), the maximizing model seems to distort what we generally pursue in our lives. On this model, we are meant to do what is most important, and given the role of the virtues in making a person good, the concerns of the virtuous would seem to have some primacy in deliberation. It can then easily look like the virtuous agent is always pursuing and trying to satisfy virtuous ends. But we are often just pursuing trivial or personal ends: doing our job, cooking dinner, watching TV, going for a walk, surfing the internet, etc.

This is no knock down argument. It is sufficient, however, to cast doubt on the fittingness of the maximizing model. After all, no reason is given for thinking it is correct. This should point us in the direction of the threshold model.

I will briefly indicate how we might fill in this model on a virtue ethical view. What matters on this model is not comparing our available options in order to select that which is most important. Rather, what matters is the contrast between good and bad. Aquinas claimed that an act is bad if it is bad in any respect, good if it is good in every. Now good and bad on a virtue ethical view are primarily tied to the virtues: an act is bad if it conflicts with the virtues or is in some way vicious. If there is no middle ground between good and bad—no acts that are indifferent—then an act that is not bad in any way is good. An act is right not by being the best act or the most important one but by being consistent with the demands of the various virtues.

Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.