Moral obligation and the ethics of virtue




Pool, Frank Thomas

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For almost a quarter-century now much has been made of so-called virtue ethics. G.E.M. Anscombe and Philippa Foot have been among the leaders of a contemporary movement away from "law-like" ethics and toward a conception of ethics in which qualities of character and virtues hold the central position. Indeed, there are some philosophers who maintain that virtue ethics' genealogy is long and distinguished, stretching back through Aquinas and the Stoics to Aristotle and earlier. Nonetheless, virtue ethics still represents what must be regarded as a minor countercurrent to the mainstream of modern ethical thought. No more articulate and explicit spokesman for the mainstream philosophers has emerged than William K. Frankena, who has long and often opposed the tenets of the modern exponents of virtue ethics. It will be Frankena, therefore, to whom this investigation will continually refer. Frankena has dealt with disparate topics in his long and fruitful career, but he has confined himself to the specialty of ethics, unlike many of his contemporary academic colleagues. The primary method of this study is to repeat several of Frankena's inquiries, and to focus them on one aspect of morality, namely, the nature of moral obligation in a possible, plausible ethics of virtue. The main purpose of what follows is to investigate the possibilities of two concepts of obligation in an ethics of virtue. This ethics remains provisional, in that it does not closely follow the thought of any one philosopher and is not an attempt at a final and complete system, but is rather an endeavor, among other things, to justify a certain conception of virtue ethics. No recent philosopher has approached the comprehensiveness that Aristotle and Aquinas brought to virtue, and none have, to this student at least, provided a sufficiently systematic and general account of virtue to warrant primary attention and allegiance

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