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This question got me thinking.

If deontology and virtue ethics are not reconcilable but in direct competition with each other, does that mean that in arguing for one we are arguing against the other? To be more specific, does that mean that a virtuous person is not performing their moral duties or obligations?

I would imagine that could send a shudder down most people's spine: at least if the main or important meta-ethical theories do not say that ethical people or decisions simply do or make for the right or ethical action, and nothing else. What is the name of that, this latter position?

  • fwiw, deontology feels the most robotic and automated of ethical theories (and so i mean could, he feels, survive the onslaught of alternative ethical conceptions by demanding action is the principle first and foremost), but it may also seem the least subjectively appealing. i dunno! the least happy, independent of social justice etc., i mean – another_name Apr 15 at 4:37
  • "Not reconcilable" in what sense? "Does it matter" to whom? Virtue ethicists, and even consequentialists, admit a place for rules, just as deontologists admit a place for virtues, and even consequences. The dispute is what is more foundational. So the answer is negative, as already mentioned in the linked thread. – Conifold Apr 15 at 6:21
  • i thought the opposite was being said via that link: that the two / three are likely in direct opposition. thanks tho, that's useful to know @Conifold 1. in the sense that in arguing for one we argue against the other, and observance of it. 2. does it matter for those who want to act ethically (with that intrinsic value i mean) – another_name Apr 15 at 6:24
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Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove compare virtue ethics with deontology and consequentialism:

Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.

These three are not in direct competition with each other. Their main difference is whether virtue is fundamental or can it be defined in terms of consequences or duties:

This is not to say that only virtue ethicists attend to virtues, any more than it is to say that only consequentialists attend to consequences or only deontologists to rules. Each of the above-mentioned approaches can make room for virtues, consequences, and rules. Indeed, any plausible normative ethical theory will have something to say about all three. What distinguishes virtue ethics from consequentialism or deontology is the centrality of virtue within the theory (Watson 1990; Kawall 2009). Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental.

One way to reason that virtue might be fundamental is to consider Michael Polanyi's distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge and his observation (page 7)

...all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

If one notes that rules and consequences are explicit forms of knowledge and virtue is tacit knowledge then one has a justification for saying that virtue is fundamental and consequences and rules depend upon it.

The OP notes:

I would imagine that could send a shudder down most people's spine: at least if the main or important meta-ethical theories do not say that ethical people or decisions simply do or make for the right or ethical action, and nothing else. What is the name of that, this latter position?

If tacit knowledge is the root of all explicit knowledge, including ethical consequences and rules, as Polanyi suggests it would mean knowing this explicit knowledge is not enough for consistent ethical behavior however useful such explicit knowledge might be. One would also need to develop a virtuous character which would be a form of tacit knowing.


Hursthouse, Rosalind and Pettigrove, Glen, "Virtue Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/ethics-virtue/.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The logic of tacit inference. Philosophy, 41(155), 1-18.

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    who links 'implicit' knowledge to 'virtue'? i'm just asking if it's your invention, or appears in the literature (if so then say that!) – another_name Apr 15 at 16:49
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    @another_name I don't have an explicit reference for that connection, so I will have to assume responsibility for it. However, I think the "character" emphasis of virtue ethics goes well with tacit knowledge and suspect others have thought of it before me. – Frank Hubeny Apr 15 at 16:56
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    well, i won't accept it for that reason! not that i disagree, i'm just not sure that this answer is not your own! – another_name Apr 15 at 16:57
  • “If one notes that rules and consequences are explicit forms of knowledge and virtue is tacit knowledge” That’s a big if. Where do you get this from? I have never heard anyone claim this. – Eliran Apr 15 at 19:00
  • @Eliran Both the rules and the consequences are explicit knowledge since they come in the form of propositions. A person's virtuous character is not a proposition. It is how one knows how to behave like riding a bicycle or breathing. It is habitual and can be trained. That would make it tacit. – Frank Hubeny Apr 15 at 19:55

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