A Ku Indeed!

Foot II: Fake Virtues

Posted in virtue ethics by Chris on May 28, 2008

Foot has a lot to say about the question of whether a person can misuse a virtue. This is a fairly standard question — can an evil person be courageous? Or generous? Foot’s answer to this question is interesting, and I’m still mulling it over. I’m going to hold off on posting about the main “meat” of her answer until tomorrow, to give me a bit more time to think about her position (her answer to the question is a clear “no,” by the way).

Here I merely want to highlight a small, but interesting thing she says. First, she notes that it is of course tempting to say that bad person can do things courageously. Soldiers can fight in wars for the wrong side, and do so in ways that surely look courageous. I’ve had this conversation with my classes before — were any World War II German soldiers courageous? They feel pulled in two ways. They want to say yes, because clearly in action they performed deeds that, if in a different context, they would label courageous. But, at the same time, it bothers them to label Nazi soldiers with virtue terms.

Foot recognizes the obvious pull towards seeing them as courageous, and wants to acknowledge this by pointing to something in the situation that makes us feel that way. Of course, she wants to do it in a way that doesn’t then entail permissible use of virtue terminology. So her answer is this: what we see is a certain lack of a vice. So, in the case of the soldier, Foot is willing to admit that the actions of the Nazi soldier can, in fact, be not-cowardly. It’s this fact that pulls us towards praising their behavior, though her second point then comes in to stop us: that something is “not-cowardly,” she suggests, is not the same as saying that it is “courageous.”

It’s a pretty simple answer, but it raises questions (that she doesn’t really answer, as far as I can tell). The first is to ask why, obviously, an action that is not-cowardly isn’t straightforwardly a courageous action. When we talk about courage, this is sometimes what we imply; we say “don’t be a coward, be courageous” as if the two are opposites. Foot denies it; being ‘not-cowardly’ is a necessary condition for courage, not a sufficient one.

Of course, there’s one easy answer that Foot doesn’t embrace (not rejected, she simply doesn’t mention it). Note that virtues are means, and that being ‘not-cowardly’ doesn’t imply courage because it could also mean that the person is rash. In the case of courage, this explanation actually works out pretty well. A person who fights in the wrong battles hasn’t thought things through enough, and so has too quickly entered the fray. This seems to imply that wisdom is necessarily connected to any employment of courage as a success term.

I simply haven’t had time to think it through yet, but I wonder whether (a) this sort of analysis would work for the other virtues. If A and C (cowardly, rash) are the vices associated with a virtue B (courage), does this imply that being “not-A” (not-cowardly) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for B (courage) because the remaining possibility is to describe the action in question as a C-action (rash)?

As well, I’m not sure if Foot would appreciate my way of understanding her point either; it’s clear that she thinks that virtues, in order to be virtues, must be aimed at the right targets, and this requires wisdom. But on this specific question she doesn’t develop her point.


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  1. […] 17.23 is interesting because it seems to serve as an example of something I was talking about in this other post, “Fake Virtues,” on Phillipa Foot. There, I noted that Foot believes that a virtue can be present “in” a person but not […]

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