What is it to act virtuously, or well, on a particular occasion?
(1) For a start, it is to do a certain sort of action. What sort? ‘A virtuous, good, action’, we might say – and truly, but this is hardly an illuminating way to begin laying down what it is to act virtuously, or well. So we’ll give examples – it is to do something such as helping someone, facing danger, telling the truth, repaying a debt, denying oneself some physical pleasure, etc.
This is clearly insufficient, for suppose someone does such an action by accident, unintentionally – helping when she meant to harm, in greater danger without knowing it, telling the truth when she thought she was saying what was false, etc. Or suppose the agent acts, as a small child might, in uncomprehending obedience to someone’s instruction. Hence we add:
(2) The agent must know what she is doing – that she is helping, facing danger, telling the truth, etc.
It is standard to add a further condition, namely: The agent acts for a reason. I do not want to get bogged down in many disputes about what, in detail, is involved in acting ‘for a reason’ so, following Williams(1), I shall gloss this, I hope neutrally enough, by saying that if we ask them why they helped or told the truth of whatever, they would, if articulate, be able to give us an honest answer which enables us to understand what it is about the situation and the action that made this action in this situation something that would seem to them an appropriate thing to do.
What is this condition doing? It is, in fact, doing a lot of work. Part of what it is doing is ruling out someone’s doing such an action knowingly but ‘for no particular reason’ – on impulse, or a whim, or just because she feels like it at the time, or akratically; acting ‘for a reason’ contrasts with ‘acting from inclination’. It is also ruling out acting in comprehending, but blind, knee-jerk obedience to an order. As Anscombe rightly remarks, ‘Because he told me to’ can give one’s reason for doing something, when the agent is thinking of obeying him as something that is good about what she has done. But it can also give no more than ‘mental cause’. (2)
It is also a condition that needs further elaboration. Stated in full it is something like:
(3) The agent acts for a reason and, moreover, for ‘the right reason(s)’.
This rules out helping, or facing danger, or telling the truth, or whatever, for ulterior reasons or under compulsion. (It is common, but a little misleading, to describe such cases as ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reason(s)’. What is misleading about this phrase is that it obscures the fact that, in one way, the agent is not ‘doing the right thing’. What she is doing is, say, trying to impress the onlookers, or hurting someone’s feelings, or avoiding punishment. (3)
Is any further condition necessary? One might maintain, plausibly, that we have got enough, in outline, for ‘acting morally’. But here we should note an interesting difference between ‘acting morally’ on the one hand and ‘acting well’ on the other. The former is not hospitable to such qualifications as ‘quite’, ‘fairly’, ‘very’, or ‘perfectly’; the latter is. Hence we can, comprehensibly, ask ‘Have we all the conditions for acting very well, perfectly (“excellently”), or only for acting fairly well? And this leads us to think of a forth condition.
Suppose an agent fulfills the first three conditions, but helps someone or repays the debt with difficulty, reluctantly, and another agent does the same easily and gladly; suppose one agent fulfills the first three but tells the hurtful truth with zest and enjoyment while another does the same, regretting the necessity, and so on. True, there will be occasions where the inappropriateness of the feelings of the first agent in each pair is such as to cast doubt on whether the agent really is acting for the right reason(s). But take the cases where this is not so. Then we may have to admit that the agent with the inappropriate feelings ‘acts morally’ and acts (fairly) well, but we can insist that the agent with appropriate feelings acts better. And, according to virtue ethics, the agent with the inappropriate feelings does not act virtuously, in the very way or manner that the virtuous agent acts. To capture acting (really) well, excellently, or virtuously, we need the further condition:
(4) The agent has the appropriate feeling(s) or attitude(s) when she acts.
The first three conditions are related to, though not identical to, the first two conditions Aristotle gives, in Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, ch.4, for a virtuous act’s being done ‘in the way’ a virtuous man does it. Suppose a just or temperate act to be done (cf. Condition 1 above), then Aristotle says, the agent acts ‘in the way’ someone with the virtue of justice and temperance acts only if (i) he knows what he is doing (cf. Condition 2), and (ii) he chooses it (cf. acts for a reason) and chooses it ‘for its own sake’ or ‘because of itself’ (cf. Condition 3).
Aristotle’s third condition is that the agent acts from a firm and unchanging state, i.e. (in this context) from (a) virtue. Given the emotional aspect of the virtues, this certainly relates to the forth condition above; whether it imports more, and if so what, will be considered later.
(This excerpt is from R. Hursthouse's
(This excerpt is from R. Hursthouse'sOn Virtue Ethics)