Virtue and continence

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John McDowell argued that the virtuous person (VP) knows no temptation: her perception of a situation silences all competing motivations - be it fear in the face of danger or a strong desire. The VP cannot recognize any reason to act non-virtuously as a reason, and is never inclined to act non-virtuously. This view rests on the requirement that the VP rationally respond, and not merely react, to the environment - it rests on the requirement that the relation between the VP and the world (ethical requirements) must rule out the possibility that the VP is a brain in a vat. I will argue that the opposite is true: virtue requires a sensitivity to temptation. The VP, as such, must be able to recognize reasons for performing non-virtuous actions as reasons, and be inclined to perform them. She must find nothing human alien. This is so because the VP must possess the ability to understand non-virtuous agents, and understanding necessarily involves vulnerability to temptation. Otherwise, it will be argued, the VP views the actions of others as determined from outside the space of reasons. But the VP, like any other person, must have the ability to view the actions of others as rational responses to the environment, not only as reactions to it. Put differently, the VP's view of others must rule out the possibility that they are brains in a vat - the possibility that their actions are merely caused, rather than justified, by the facts. Finally, it will be suggested that an amended conception of the VP can meet both requirements: view others as rationally responsive to the world, without relinquishing its relation to the facts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-151
Number of pages15
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2009


  • Akrasia
  • Charity
  • Continence
  • McDowell
  • Perception
  • Reasons
  • Secondary qualities
  • Temptation
  • Understanding
  • Values
  • Virtue
  • Virtuous person


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