Do ascriptions of vice and virtue, etc., to someone or their character really not "blame" them? I have seen it said that virtue ethics, which must maintain 'vice' at least to actions, does not "blame" or "condemn" people. But in what way is someone not to "blame" for their character? We might say that happy vices are the ground of human flourishing and as such ethical. But that only makes senses if vice is inescapable or relatively blameworthy. Could do better?

  • 1
    Emerson: "Sow a thought, and reap an act; sow an act, and reap a habit; sow a habit, and reap a character; sow a character, and reap a destiny." If you believe that someone can influence their own thoughts, then you must agree that they are responsible for what follows from their thoughts. Otherwise, what are we all doing here?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 17 at 18:48
  • there's a bit of analysis on blaming people's character, but i don't have access to it
    – user64279
    Jan 17 at 19:36
  • See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's Moral Responsibility. Jan 18 at 8:44
  • seems that some behaviours are a product of our character @Futilitarian but are not morally accountable to us for that reason, as character is shaped by things beyond our control, adverse experiences etc.. is that what you mean?
    – user64279
    Jan 18 at 14:12
  • @vices. I wasn't pointing to any particular point in the article, but merely pointing it out as a relevant source. Glad you found it useful. Jan 18 at 14:14

2 Answers 2


(Sketch answer - take with a grain of salt!)

The key thing with focusing on Virtues is that the evaluation of the quality is a separate matter from determining that an individual has a quality.

One can come to understand a quality as circumstantially valuable - in a crisis being quick and decisive to respond can be a valuable asset, where in exploring a dangerous but non-hostile environment it might be a risk.

Individuals may possess qualities that are virtues in some situations and vices in others, and being objective about the qualities in question helps. Other ethical theories of the person can rush to binary judgement without this more nuanced consideration.

  • 1
    do you just mean that the ascription of a vice or virtue has to be tempered? or do you mean that because of situational demands we move out of consideration of "blame" personally, i would feel more blamed if someone suggested my character was weak, rather than one decision i make
    – user64279
    Jan 17 at 9:18

Blame is a type of attribution. Its function is to point out the cause of some undesired event or state of affairs. There are multiple events or states which can be blamed here:

  • acquiring the vice -- whence did it originate?
  • having the vice -- why is it kept?
  • exercising the vice -- why was it not suppressed or controlled?
  • the result of its exercise -- is it the person's fault, or something else's fault?

Ascribing some vice to a person's character is not necessarily attributing blame to anything in particular. Perhaps the person's vice is genetic, or perhaps from uncontrollable earlier circumstances. Should we blame a person's character for acquiring bad character?

Condemnation implies irredeemability. Indeed, whether one believes vice or virtue can be changed or mitigated depends on one's attribution, or blame, for its origin, keeping, and expressing.

  • we cannot infer moral responsibility from an assignment of causal responsibility. Young children for example [or] Suppose that S causes an explosion by flipping a switch: the fact that S had no reason to expect such a consequence from flipping the switch
    – user64279
    Jan 19 at 18:01
  • @vices -- We sure can, and even ought to, trace the causal chains until a suitable candidate for correction is found. In the example of a child or person flipping a switch, we would ask "is this the right link for causal attribution?". The reasonable answer may be "no", in which case we keep tracing. Generally, the further we trace, the more abstract the "cause" becomes. But this is fine. Different moral frameworks have different links in the causal chain they would rather attribute, or blame. In the case of duty, or someone failing to abide, their non-compliance would be abstract causal.
    – Michael
    Jan 20 at 19:34

You must log in to answer this question.