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J Value Inquiry (2009) 43:493–506 DOI 10.1007/s10790-009-9191-7

Getting It Right in Ethical Experience: John McDowell and Virtue Ethics

Anne-Marie S. Christensen

Published online: 12 November 2009 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Most forms of virtue ethics are characterized by two attractive features. The first is that proponents of virtue ethics acknowledge the need to describe how moral agents acquire or develop the traits and abilities necessary to become morally able agents.


common way of describing this feature is by saying that they focus on the concept


being an agent rather than the concept of right action, thereby reminding us that

we have to construe ethics in a way that makes it possible to understand how it becomes accessible and important for us, the ethical subjects. The second attractive feature of most forms of virtue ethics is that they are forms of moral realism. The acquisition of virtue is considered to be a process through which we acquire the ability to distinguish new features of the world, which serve as reason for virtuous actions. The two features come together in the attempt to describe virtue as a personal ability to distinguish morally good reasons for action. It follows from the general picture of virtue ethics presented here that we cannot evaluate ethical judgment independently of the viewpoint of a virtuous person. Being a virtuous

person plays an essential role within such theories, as being a virtuous person stands for the possibility of correct moral judgment and exemplifies the abilities that such judgment depends on. The ideal of being a virtuous person is vital to our understanding of ethical reflection and judgment. We will examine how this ideal unfolds in the realistic form of virtue ethics advanced by John McDowell. McDowell offers a compelling description of virtue

as a natural ability grounded in human nature, while at the same time insisting that

we cannot understand the judgment resulting from virtue without drawing on that very perspective. Moreover, he meets the need to describe how moral agents become morally able agents by presenting us with a detailed and clear picture of what it is to be a virtuous agent, the ideal that is crucial to our understanding of the

A.-M. S. Christensen (&) Institute of Philosophy, Education and Religious Studies, Southern University of Denmark, Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M, Denmark e-mail:



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character of virtue. However, McDowell’s focus on the passive taking in of reasons in ethical experience and his idea of the silencing of wrong reasons lead us to three related problems. The first is that he cannot account for certain features of the phenomenology of such experience; the second is that he cannot provide any relevant epistemological criteria for correct moral judgment; and the third is that he gives a morally objectionable characterization of the ideal of being a virtuous person. All of these problems arise because McDowell does not take into account the particular nature of ethical experience. If we try to resolve this problem by dropping McDowell’s idea of silencing, we then have to offer another substantial description of our ideal of a virtuous person that includes active and interpersonal ways of evaluating concrete judgments. Proponents of virtue ethics still have to lift this task and develop a position that does not limit ethical experience to the passive intake of reasons.

1 McDowell’s View of Virtue

McDowell opens the case for his liberal form of ethical realism with the widely accepted claim that ethical discourse, or at least large parts of ethical discourse, is presented as a truth-guided endeavor, an attempt to uncover reality. When we claim that something is wrong, cruel, or generous, we take it that we are saying something about something and not just voicing certain private or cultural dispositions. At this point, however, we reach a classic question in philosophical ethics. How do we make room for an ethical discourse guided by truth and objectivity in the world of modern science, a world devoid of any such normative claims? McDowell’s well- known stance is to reject the basic premise. We do not have to establish room for such a truth guided discourse within a scientific worldview, and the idea that we do, follows from a particular, unwarranted picture of objectivity as independency of everything human. It is often taken for granted, among non-cognitivists as well as aspiring cognitivists, that for cognitivism to be a viable option, cognitivists are obliged to show how ethical discourse tracks reality in a way specifiable independently of the discourse. McDowell rejects this premise and instead turns to an idea of philosophy as an investigation of the experience of living within the rationally structured network of abilities for adapting reality, which we have gained through our participation in human society. 1 From this starting point, McDowell develops his form of virtue ethics. To reconcile this with his cognitivist aspirations, he starts from Aristotle’s view of virtue as a state that includes a particular shaping of one’s practical intellect into practical wisdom or phronesis. According to Aristotle, virtue is not just a virtuous inclination, but the ability to reason correctly about how to act in particular situations. However, this ability is not something we are born with. It requires a

1 See John McDowell, ‘‘Aesthetic Value, Objectivity and the Fabric of the World,’’ in Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998); see also ‘‘Values and Secondary Qualities,’’ in McDowell, 1998 op. cit. and esp. Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,



Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


development and shaping of our capacity for practical reason and wisdom, and McDowell unfolds this idea by means of the concept of second nature. This concept concerns the general phenomenon that human beings, as we grow into maturity, develop conceptual capacities, which open our eyes to dimensions of reality as imposing rational constraints on our thinking. From one point of view, this is the development of a passive disposition to be affected by the world; from another, it is a process that opens our eyes to reasons for judgment and action and it thus has a huge impact on the way we act and live. According to McDowell, such second nature has a double source. On the one hand, practical wisdom is developed and formed by our upbringing in a process of Bildung; on the other, we become able to experience the world by actualizing our nature, and experience and reason are in this sense natural. Second nature thus reconciles reason and nature in a naturalism of second nature, a naturalism that McDowell refers to as relaxed or liberal. Sabina Lovibond has a helpful way of putting this point when she notes that human beings ‘‘are a species to whom it is natural – at the level of ‘first’, or biological, nature – to undergo initiation into a culture,’’ that, by involving participation in a variety of social activities, ‘‘gives rise to a ‘second’, or acquired, nature.’’ 2 Human beings are naturally norm-developing animals. This interplay between nature and culture forms the core of McDowell’s view of ethics as well as his view of experience in general. McDowell’s emphasis on the natural aspect of second nature may lead us to think that he works towards an ethics of natural teleology, presenting the virtues as necessary conditions for any successful human life. However, in ‘‘Two Sorts of Naturalism,’’ McDowell rejects the idea of such a human telos by showing how any concept of reason, whether based on second nature or not, implies an element of freedom. The core of his argument is an example of an intelligent wolf. If we imagine such a wolf, his acquired intellect makes it possible for him to choose to behave differently than wolves normally do, and it even allows him to question patterns of behavior such as pack hunting that wolves depend upon in order to survive. Furthermore, we cannot stop the wolf asking such questions just by referring to the fact that this is what wolves as a species necessarily have to do, because we do not know what it would be for a wolf to be intelligent if it did not have ‘‘genuinely alternative possibilities of action, over which its thought can play.’’ 3 According to McDowell, this shows an intimate connection between reason and freedom. Genuine reflection on the world is at the same time reflection on one’s own place in it, which means that anyone capable of thinking about the world is therefore also necessarily an agent. Besides theoretical and epistemological possibilities, reason raises practical problems for us, as it opens the possibility of questioning our instinctive forms of acting. Two important points follow from this connection between reason and freedom. The first is McDowell’s own, that even though reason itself is natural, the possibility of questioning the authority of nature is an essential part of the nature of reason, and we therefore cannot justify the rational necessity of something, for example an ethical view or a particular way of living, just by referring to its naturalness. This

2 Sabina Lovibond, Ethical Formation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 25.

3 John McDowell, ‘‘Two Sorts of Naturalism,’’ in McDowell, Mind, Value, and Reality, p. 170.



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seems, however, to leave the virtues in need of alternative justification, but not according to McDowell. It is a consequence of the naturalness of virtue that such questions about the justification of its authority simply do not arise. As McDowell writes: ‘‘if the second nature one has acquired is virtue, the rationality of virtue simply is not in suspense, though it is always open to reflective questioning. The dictates of virtue have acquired an authority that replaces the authority abdicated by first nature with the onset of reason.’’ 4 When we acquire practical wisdom, we develop ethical concerns that are not imposed from outside, but are concerns of our very own. This means that the apparent lack of a justification of ethics presents no problem to us, because we have no need for such justification. Secondly, the necessary connection of reason to freedom makes it possible for us to direct the critical potential acquired with second nature at the specific historical and cultural moral outlook, which we are given with the moral training that brings this nature about. Such critical reflection takes the form of a piecemeal investigation of the conditions of practical reason often described by means of a reference to Otto Neurath’s picture of a boat to be repaired out at sea: just as we may repair the boat while afloat, we may mend and improve our culturally formed moral outlook by using the tools provided from within this outlook. However, the fact that anyone who acquires a second nature must make a specific moral outlook an integrated part of the person’s moral thinking means that there will always be a tendency not to question the authority of one’s cultural inheritance. To rephrase McDowell’s point about the natural dimension of virtue, if the cultural inheritance acquired with second nature is virtuous, the rationality of such inheritance simply is not in suspense, though it is always open to reflective questioning. The problem is that we internalize our cultural inheritance through our upbringing, and this may lessen or even eradicate our drive to criticize it, even in cases where it is less than virtuous. Furthermore, such an uncritical attitude may prevail, as long as it facilitates uniform moral judgments within a culture, even if the judgments are primarily wrong, because a widespread agreement in moral matters means that there will be nothing to move us to self-criticism. This underlines the importance of having criteria for the evaluation of concrete moral judgment, and whether or not McDowell provides such criteria will be central to our discussion. In ‘‘Virtue and Reason,’’ McDowell addresses the task of trying to grasp the conception of right conduct from the inside out. McDowell starts from the idea of a virtuous person and turns to the Socratic slogan that virtue is knowledge to show how correct moral knowledge is an essential ingredient in moral living. McDowell argues for this by looking at a commonly accepted virtue, kindness. To be kind when required is not a question of having a rational instinct, but of responding properly in particular situations; it is knowledge about what the world requires in terms of action. In this way, virtue is a particular sensitivity to the requirements present in a particular situation, a sensitivity that results in knowledge. As McDowell not only wants to show how knowledge is a necessary part of virtue, but that it is identifiable with virtue, he furthermore argues that an agent’s perception of such requirements is sufficient to account for his reasons for action in that situation. When a kind agent

4 Ibid., p. 188.


Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


perceives overriding reasons calling for kind action, he will perform such an action, and the deliverances of the agent’s sensitivity thus fully explain the action manifesting his virtue. This sensitivity turns out to be what virtue is. However, to reach this conclusion, McDowell has to point to a crucial flaw in his kindness example. If virtue is to result in nothing but the right conduct, then to act rightly someone will have to be sensitive to all morally relevant reasons, because this is the only way of knowing which of the present reasons is right. In this way, someone cannot determine whether a kind act is required before she is aware of all the reasons present. No one can posses the full virtue of kindness without possessing complete virtue, and the identification between knowledge and virtue thus concerns virtue in general, the unity of the virtues. If one thinks of this in terms of cognition, one should avoid a comparison between the virtues and a toolbox of different and separate ways of investigating the world. Instead, the virtues are different manifestations of a single sensitivity, and collectively they form ‘‘an ability to recognize requirements that situations impose on one’s behavior.’’ 5 If one agrees that complete knowledge of all reasons is a necessary condition of morally right conduct, then such a view of virtue as a single, practical sensibility seems inevitable. However, McDowell’s view remains controversial, as it implies that only a completely virtuous person may acquire a correct view of moral reality. The rest of us can only achieve incomplete or even somewhat distorted ones. McDowell proceeds by unfolding a picture of virtue as knowledge about how to live. 6 Traditionally such knowledge is thought to arise from an interaction between universal principles and relevant knowledge about particular situations. We picture our ability to make ethical judgments as a practical syllogism with one universal and one particular premise and a conclusion about what to be done. However, McDowell thinks this picture of ethical rationality springs from a false assumption about what it is for an act to be rational, the assumption that it has to rest on universal principles. In contrast, McDowell argues for the uncodifiability of ethics by reformulating the major premise of the practical syllogism. According to him, this premise does not simply consist in a set of general principles; instead, it involves a person’s complete conception of how to live, as anything in such a conception may influence our moral view of a situation. The knowledge we draw on in ethical reflection thus involves too many interdependent concerns to be hierarchically ranked or made completely explicit. It is, in McDowell’s terminol- ogy, uncodifiable. Moreover, in trying to figure out what to do, we are not, as it were, simply applying a range of independent and abstract principles to a situation. Instead we view the situation in the light of our total knowledge about the right way to live, reaching a view of the situation that forms the minor and decisive premise of the syllogism. A virtuous person is moved to act ‘‘by virtue of his seeing this particular fact rather than that one as the salient fact about the situation,’’ as McDowell puts it. 7

5 John McDowell, ‘‘Virtue and Reason,’’ in McDowell, Mind, Value, and Reality, p. 53.

6 See John McDowell, ‘‘Eudaimonism and Realism in Aristotle’s Ethics,’’ in Robert Heinaman, ed., Aristotle and Moral Realism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998), p. 211.

7 McDowell, ‘‘Virtue and Reason,’’ Mind, Value, and Reality, p. 68.



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2 Raising Children and Silencing as the Virtuous Ideal

We can use an example to bring out both the appeal of McDowell’s realist approach and the problems it faces. When parents try to raise a small child, they will often find themselves in situations where they need to determine whether the right thing to do is to let their child continue pursuing whatever the child is pursuing at the time, or to make the child see that there are indeed limits to how far the world should and will bend at the child’s will. Many different considerations go into determining the right view of such a situation. Parents want to encourage their child in the endeavor to explore the world, giving the child the confidence that this world is in fact an inviting and welcoming place, but they also want to teach the child the existence of danger and to develop the ability to coexist with other people, in due time realizing that other people have interests and claims which may run contrary to the interests of the child. Young children only have a limited understanding of these concerns, and this is why it is the moral responsibility of the parents to lay the foundation for what will in time, hopefully, develop into adequate powers of judgment of when to insist on one’s own enterprises and when to step back from dangers or make room for the interests of others. The weight and relative value of these two concerns varies from case to case, or more precisely, it varies which of these concerns stands out as the decisive one. Moreover, it seems that the only way for parents to determine what to do is to try to get the best possible view of the particular situation at hand. In the example, attentiveness toward the world stands out as an integrated part of ethical reflection, which presents a reason to favor conceptions of ethics like McDowell’s that are advanced with an attempt to account for this phenomenological foundation. 8 Moreover, McDowell’s description of ethical experience has support in other features of the example. First, McDowell’s insistence that virtue as a form of second nature is developed by imitation, training, and a general initiation into a culture is something that one is made painfully aware of when trying to raise a child, who notices and develops, not just all of the virtues of his surroundings, but the vices as well. Secondly, in the example ethical deliberation is shown to presuppose both an idea of morally relevant features of the world and the idea that the right perception of the features is a major part of what we are trying to achieve in moral deliberation. Thirdly, we can use the example to support McDowell’s revised view of the general premise of the practical syllogism. When parents raise a child, they involve considerations about what is good for children in general, what kind of person the child is and what kind of person it should become, what the goal of parenting is, along with a wide range of more specific considerations such as the respect for other people’s views of how to bring up children and the importance of forming and following their own, perhaps somewhat unstable view on the matter. All of these considerations are subject to continuous redefinition and refinement and it thus appears that in the case of parenting, our conception of how to live is stubbornly uncodifiable. This means, finally, that even though a person’s different concerns about how to live, or in this case working together with concerns about

8 See Amy Lara, ‘‘Virtue Theory and Moral Facts,’’ the Journal of Value Inquiry 42 (2008), p. 343.


Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


teaching someone else how to live, are at play in determining the morally right view of any particular situation, such a conception alone cannot determine which feature of a situation should move us. Instead, it seems reasonable to follow McDowell’s view that the minor premise of the syllogism, the virtuous person’s perception of the situation, is the operative factor. However, in the example, we find other aspects of ethical experience that stand out as important as well. Even though the example illustrates a cognitive struggle to get the right view of the situations we face as an important part of what one might call ethical phenomenology or ethical experience, it also highlights how this struggle is often experienced as a thoroughly complex matter. This means that in moral judgment one feels forced to run through a whole range of considerations, previous experiences or examples told, to find the best possible ethical description of a situation. Moreover, having reached such a description parents may still find themselves wanting to take not just this, but also this and this aspect of the situation into account, even if it is impossible to accommodate them all. This and the ever changing character of the context of such situations will often result in a sense of uncertainty that seems impossible to eliminate. This is not, however, McDowell’s way of describing ethical experience. According to him, what happens when two people seriously disagree about the moral requirements present in a particular situation is that at least one of them lacks the right perception of the situation. True virtue is a not matter of weighing different reasons for action, as this would imply that the virtuous does in fact consider the wrong reasons. Instead, a virtuous person simply sees the right reason and a view of the situation where the right reason ‘‘is apprehended, not as outweighing or overriding any reasons for acting in other ways, which would otherwise be constituted by other aspects of the situation (the present danger, say), but as silencing them.’’ 9 Virtue is a sensitivity that allows a virtuous person to take in only one reason for acting, the right reason. Contrary to this, a non-virtuous person is someone that has not yet acquired the motivational structure found in virtue, which means that her understanding of what she perceives will be clouded by a wish to do something other than what virtue demands. What should we make of the idea that a virtuous person’s perception of the situation differs from the perception of the rest of us? In McDowell’s view, virtue is knowledge, and he therefore draws the implication that for any, truly moral agent, perfect moral knowledge must lead to right action. If one knows what the right action is, one is motivated to perform it: a virtuous person, if placed under favorable circumstances, will always do the right thing. A seemingly virtuous person who does not do the right thing under favorable circumstances, turns out not to be truly virtuous after all. McDowell thus rules out the possibility of akrasia in truly virtuous people. 10 However, he does not mean to say that all differences of action spring from differences in people’s views of the situation. His point is much more restricted, expressing a difference between a virtuous person on the one hand, and

9 Ibid., pp. 55–56.

10 See John McDowell, ‘‘Incontinence and Practical Wisdom in Aristotle,’’ in Sabina Lovibond and Stephan G. Williams, eds., op. cit., p. 97.



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the rest of us, continent or incontinent, on the other. A continent person sees the same right and wrong reasons for action as an incontinent person, but a continent person has sufficient strength of will to act on the right reasons. What distinguishes a virtuous person is that she only sees the morally right reason as a reason at all, which means she has no need for continence in order to do the right thing. Our picture of a virtuous person thus primarily functions as a practical, cognitive ideal that we may strive to attain. For example, if we experience that a newly employed co-worker is bullied by our boss, most of us hope to be continent enough to resist the temptation simply to ignore the bullying in order to keep a good relationship with the boss. A virtuous person, however, will not even consider this option but will simply look for the best way to react against such ill-treatment. According to McDowell, she will in this way view the world differently from the rest of us. To need continence is thus to show that one is not fully virtuous, and this account for the fact that most of us, who are not fully virtuous, have similar moral views of the world and still act in different ways. We may ask, however, whether McDowell’s picture of the ideal of a virtuous person and silencing really connects to the moral phenomenology that he takes himself to be respecting. If we imagine cases, where a parent reaches or is forced to settle for a view of what to do in a particular situation that concerns the raising of his or her child, it seems likely that this is hardly ever due to anything that remotely resembles McDowell’s idea of the silencing of the other reasons present. Alone, this point does not present any objection to McDowell’s position, as he may reply that the parent’s somewhat clouded vision of the situation most likely springs from the fact that he or she has not yet reached a state of complete virtue. However, this leads to a number of problems in McDowell’s account. The first is a phenomenological problem that concerns the situation of a continent person. Even if an agent who is not fully virtuous uses all her continence and powers of reflective scrutiny to reject the reasons that spring from irrelevant or unimportant concerns, she may nonetheless still face a dilemma. Contrary to the bullying example, parents may face a range of different, but all valuable, reasons for action in the situations involved in raising a child. But as McDowell ties correct moral knowledge exclusively to the view of world had by a virtuous person, he has nothing to say about ordinary cases such as these, where many right reasons may present themselves. The only help for a continent person in such a situation is the ideal of being a virtuous person, and this leads us to the second problem, that McDowell’s ideal of being a virtuous person does not present us with any tools to help a continent person. When McDowell identifies the perception of the morally relevant features of the world had by a virtuous person by a reference to its unequivocal nature, to its epistemic certainty, he fails to give an account of the special form of moral confidence that follows from such a correct perception of the facts. This means that from an individual perspective, one is unable to distinguish the cases where one has achieved a true silencing of irrelevant concerns from the cases where one simply has a strong inclination to see the matter in a certain way. In one’s own case, one cannot discriminate between virtue and simple inattentiveness or moral blindness. To advance his particular form of moral realism, McDowell minimizes and almost eliminates the active component in the exercise of virtues and thereby leaves no


Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


room for other distinguishing features of virtuous activity. Certainty becomes the only defining characteristic of virtuous experience. This problem is in fact epistemological. If McDowell thinks that the morally right perception of a situation simply is the perception made by a virtuous person under normal and favorable circumstances, this makes the case for the possibility of such a right perception. However, it does not help one to determine whether one is anywhere near such a perception on any particular occasion, or whether one is in fact virtuous or the particular circumstance is in fact favorable. 11 In general, we distinguish between the norms that govern a particular area of discourse and the judgments that follow the norms, and this means that we may ask two different questions of any realistic account of ethical experience. How is the normative character of moral judgments established? How do we know whether a judgment is true? 12 While we have been focusing on McDowell’s views on the first question, it should be clear that a problem with McDowell’s position arises in connection with the question of deciding when a moral judgment is, in fact, true. This problem is connected to the difficulties in reaching the proper description of the morally relevant features of a situation. The certainty that characterizes the experience cannot in itself provide such a criterion, because that would leave us without any way of distinguishing between being a virtuous person and simply being single- minded. Any realistic account of ethical thinking must help us to reflect on the difference between situations where we act on the right moral facts from situations where we simply act on the wrong moral facts with complete certainty. However, McDowell’s idea of virtue as silencing blocks such reflection, and he is therefore unable to give a concrete answer to the second question of how we determine that moral judgments are in fact true. Silencing thus seems to block our understanding of how we pass particular moral judgments. One possible reason for this is that the idea of silencing really only describes a limited part of ethical experience where there is only one remotely good reason present. However, such cases do not present the major challenge for ethical deliberation, because more often we struggle to pick out the right reason among a number of relatively good ones. Part of what we learn from the example of parenting is that even if we exclude the morally wrong or irrelevant reasons, this still leaves the difficult task of identifying which of the remaining good reasons ought to be decisive. What McDowell’s view on ethics lacks are criteria or tools to use in the evaluation of moral judgments. The critical reflection described by the metaphor of Neurath’s boat is not relevant here. While it helps to make the case for the possibility and necessity of an ongoing critique of the foundation of ethical thinking, what we need are ordinary critical tools that make it possible for us to evaluate the reasons presented herein. McDowell’s metaphor of silencing stresses the passive taking in of reasons, instead of the active assessment of them, and thus excludes any active dimension from the situations where we actually exercise our virtue. Both of these questions point to a third problem with McDowell’s use of silencing to characterize a virtuous ideal. In the ‘‘Price of Virtue,’’ Anne Baxley

11 See Jan Bransen, ‘‘On the Incompleteness of McDowell’s Moral Realism,’’ Topoi 21 (2002).

12 See David Coop, Morality, Normativity and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 3.



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argues that silencing represents a morally objectionable ideal, because we want a virtuous person to be aware of the possibility that she might face valuable reasons on which she cannot act. Without such awareness, a virtuous will not be able to acknowledge the cost that may be involved in virtuous action. As Baxley puts it, ‘‘recognizing the value of competing (moral) options and feeling pain about the prospect of foregone opportunities, would appear to be a condition of morally good action.’’ 13 We see the damaging character of this argument if we reflect on the fact that an inability to acknowledge the presence of a range of morally valuable reasons has practical consequences. A virtuous person will act on the right reason, but she may still have obligations rising from reasons that she did not follow or was forced to override. If one has the opportunity to save a child at the expense of breaking a trivial promise to a friend, a virtuous person will break the promise without hesitation. However, a truly virtuous person will still acknowledge that she did break a promise and take care to remedy this fact, for example by offering an explanation or apology in return, thus responding to possible remainders of her action. McDowell cannot adequately explain why this the case, since the promise simply loses its status as a relevant moral reason. The third problem reveals that McDowell’s focus on the central role of certainty distorts our understanding of ethical experience. Ethical experience is not like other forms of experience where certainty or confidence in itself can serve as a mark of correctness. As McDowell shows, there is a necessary connection between practical reason and freedom. However, this connection establishes a reason to distrust any account of ethics that tempts us to be overly confident in the moral perceptions we simply happen to have. The ideal of silencing is thus likely to further a distorted form of practical reason, leading the individual striving to achieve virtue in a particular area to strive to develop a particular feeling of certainty, instead of becoming better at distinguishing the moral reasons present in concrete situations. This means that the focus on silencing makes us unable to hold on to the positive insight behind the attempt to develop a moral realism that moral reasoning is a form of reasoning that concerns an attentiveness toward the world. We may ask whether this point threatens the very possibility of an ethical realism. The answer is that it should not, because McDowell’s work toward a more liberal form of naturalism paves the way for more a nuanced view of what such a moral realism could be. What is problematic is that many of these nuances are omitted from McDowell’s position. In this way, it manifests an insufficient appreciation of the full potential of his liberal form of naturalism: the possibility of developing a realistic ethics without limiting this to the passive intake of reasons.

3 Virtue Ethics, Uncertainty, and Discussions in Ethics

The investigation of McDowell’s position shows an inherent tension between the realistic aspirations of his form of virtue ethics and the idea that we can account for

13 Anne Margaret Baxley, ‘‘The Price of Virtue,’’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 88 (2007), p. 414.


Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


morally correct judgment exclusively by focusing on the individual perspective of a virtuous agent. The point behind McDowell’s form of liberal realism is that we cannot explain moral reasoning without drawing on the abilities and the viewpoint we develop when we acquire virtues. A virtuous person thus represents both the possibility of such reasoning and, as a part of that, the possibility of having a right perception of the moral reasons present in a particular situation. Furthermore, we have learned that this ideal of being a virtuous person is important, not just theoretically, but also because it informs our actual attempts to achieve and exercise such virtue. This calls for a need to find a position within virtue ethics where we are able to preserve the strengths in McDowell’s thinking, his realistic aspirations and his insistence on uncodifiability, while we, at the same time, present an ideal of being a virtuous person that does not depend on the idea of silencing. Furthermore, we will have to show how such an ideal provides us with critical tools that we can use in the evaluation of individual ethical judgment. To know what we are looking for, we can again turn to parenting and develop the example to include the ways in which we actually evaluate particular moral judgments. Let us imagine that a parent sits in a park, watching his or her child play. The child starts talking to an old woman, poking her knee, and grabbing her coat. The parent examines the situation and judges that the right thing to do is to respect the woman’s need for privacy and stop the child. How does he or she know this to be true? Perhaps the right judgment was to give the child and the woman a chance to meet without interference. In the park, the parent has a number of available options to turn to. First, the parent is obliged to turn her attention or awareness to the situation in order to get the facts right, for example whether the woman seems to mind the advances of the child. Secondly, the parent can try to remember earlier cases, where some strangers have been unsympathetic or others have been surprisingly forthcoming toward the child, or, if the parent still has doubts after making a decision, he or she may later tell the story of the woman to others, asking what they would have done, or how they would have felt, if they had been in the woman’s situation. All of the possibilities presented in the second group, along with many others, are essential tools in any attempt to improve the ability to pass true practical judgments, ethical and otherwise. They are all tools that help us develop and evaluate the major premise of the practical syllogism, our conception of how to live. The important point is that the parent only becomes aware of the necessity of involving such tools on the basis of an initial acknowledgment of an element of uncertainty in the experience of the situation. This means that we, as a part of our attempt to become virtuous, must accept this uncertainty and its call for active assessment of our ethical experience as an important part of the experience, which, for example, leads us to draw in inter- subjective tools in the evaluation of our moral judgments. In this way, attention to uncertainty seems to be an essential part of the ethical experience of a virtuous person. What we need is a view of being a virtuous agent that allows for this. A relevant candidate to author such an ideal is Rosalind Hursthouse. In On Virtue Ethics, she explicitly endorses McDowell’s view of ethical uncodifiability, just as she thinks ethical judgment essentially involves what she refers to as McDowell’s idea of



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‘‘reading situations correctly.’’ 14 The focus on the metaphor of reading seems promising because it stresses the active exercise of virtue, instead of the passive taking in of reasons, but Hursthouse does not develop this idea. After noting the importance of grasping the right reasons in particular moral judgments, she leaves

the question again and turns to the question of moral motivation. The only context in which Hursthouse discusses the evaluation of particular moral judgments is in her opening chapter on virtue ethics and right action, where she defines right action as the action that a virtuous person would perform, thus respecting the idea that moral reasons can only be explained from the perspective of a virtuous person. Unfortunately, she does not offer us any concrete descriptions of the character of

a virtuous person. Instead, Hursthouse provides us with a catalogue of what a less

virtuous person can do in order to become better at knowing what to do. We may consult other people, more virtuous than ourselves, reflect on our knowledge of virtuous role models or on our complicated understanding of the concepts of the virtues. The problem with these suggestions is that they all contribute to the refinement of our general knowledge of the right way of living, the general premise of the practical syllogism. However, we are inquiring after a description of our

ability to fill in and critically evaluate the particular premise, how we become better at taking in or reading right reasons for actions, but Hursthouse, very much like McDowell, simply reduces this second question to first. Hursthouse thus follows McDowell’s aims to put virtuous judgment into a realistic frame by stressing the passive character of ethical experience, by a virtuous person taking in objective content. The question that neither of them addresses is the particular character of ethical experience. Contrary to judgments of sense perception for example, it is impossible to isolate an area of experience as relevant for ethical judgment, just as the context surrounding such judgment changes continuously. When we try to pass ethical judgment, we move within a field where there is very little stability to be found. We have to act in response to a changing range of situations that concerns a indefinite range of features, and we do so while our own ethical priorities change, hopefully slowly advancing to the better. This feature is especially prominent when it comes to the task of raising children, since children grow up. Just when we think that we have detected the ethically important features involved, the child changes, opening up new questions and directing our attention to other features of the context. This means that even if we have a good grasp of what we would like our child to become, of what a valuable life is and of the virtues it includes, we may still face problems when we try to identify the particulars relevant for this goal in individual judgments. The result is that for most of us, concrete instances of ethical deliberation are characterized by an eliminable uncertainty. This

is a good thing, because it makes us value the opportunity to discuss ethical matters

with others struggling and needing to be morally trained in a particular area. This might be the reason why so many parents engage in ongoing discussions about the raising of children, resulting in the permanent talk of children so inexplicable and even annoying to the childless.

14 Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 139.


Getting It Right in Ethical Experience


This central role of discussion in ethics marks an important difference between moral discourse and other, more basic forms of rule-following, like the ones investigated by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. In basic rule- following, such as reading or doing mathematics, we do not attach any value to the possibility of discussing different views of the right way to go on; instead, we simply reject such alternatives, and discussion is considered a sheer waste of time. This is so, because agreement is a part of the very point of basic rule-following. As Wittgenstein writes: ‘‘Disputes do not break out (among mathematicians, say) over the question whether a rule has been followed or not. People don’t come to blows over it, for example.’’ 15 Contrary to this, when we try to determine the morally right reason for acting in a particular situation, such disputes do break out and we often actually engage in it, because we cannot simply reject divergent views as misunderstood. However, the most important difference from basic rule-following is that we do not even have to consider the disagreement to be a bad thing, because we value its outcome, a more refined awareness guiding our ethical experience. It seems likely that both Hursthouse and McDowell would agree with this. The insistence on the uncodifiability of ethics is among others things an attempt to further a sense of humility in our assessment of our powers of ethical judgment and the principles we value, and stressing the importance of ethical discussion is a call for humility of the same kind. However, the problem that they face is that while such humility applies to both levels of McDowell’s practical syllogism, neither McDowell nor Hursthouse offer any descriptions of what such humility would require in connection to the minor premise. Let us evaluate the status of the three problems identified earlier. The phenomenological problem consists in the fact that ethical experience may present us with more than one valuable reason. This should lead us to acknowledge that the sensibilities we draw on in ethical experience are used not only to eliminate wrong reasons, but also to distinguish between a range of good reasons. Moreover, we have seen that awareness of all such reasons is valuable for a virtuous agent. What is important in ethical experience is not only the ability to identify the right reasons, but to distinguish all the relevant reasons and how they stand in relation to each other. The epistemological problem is a call for criteria by which we may decide between such valuable reasons. We have seen that in establishing such criteria, we cannot rely exclusively on a reference to the perspective of an individual, because from this perspective there are no tools by which we may critically assess individual ethical judgments. We find nothing with which to compare the deliverances of ethical experience. Thus, we should not take for granted that an individual’s attentiveness to her own experience is sufficient to reveal flaws in her moral judgment or make her see the need to critically evaluate her moral perceptions. We cannot account for the critical evaluation of the minor premise of McDowell’s revised syllogism solely by drawing on the ideal of the virtuous. Instead, we should see that such critique is an essentially inter-subjective process, where we cooperate with others to evaluate the correctness of our ethical judgment, in the same way as the continual discussion between parents is directed toward the upbringing of their

15 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), § 240.



A.-M. S. Christensen

particular children in their particular circumstances of life. The only criteria we may use to evaluate the deliverances of ethical experience comes from knowledge of and discussions about the experience of other people. Moreover, to do this we need to be sensitive to all the reasons present in a situation, not just the reason we act on, because only then can we discuss with others how the decisive reasons stands compared with other reasons present, and why the reason we act on is the right one to act on. We can only avoid the third concern that virtue ethics leads to a view of a virtuous person as blind to the importance of a full view of the ethical significant features of a situation, if we include this requirement in any description of ethical experience. In this way, the epistemological and moral worries are connected. In virtue ethics, there is a tendency to overlook the fact that we actually have inter-subjective criteria for the correctness of the deliverances of ethical experience, because it brings with it the idea that the development of virtue necessarily involves interpersonal elements. However, if we ignore this fact, virtue ethics stands in danger of succumbing to the most common charge against forms of moral realism, the charge that it entails a lack of reflection and responsibility. This charge is well formulated by Iris Murdoch, who diagnosed the concern as a driving force behind much of the twentieth century non-cognitivist critique of cognitivism. ‘‘Now I suggest that there is another type of answer to the question, why not attach morality to the substance of the world? And that is a moral answer. If you do this, you are in danger of making your morality into a dogma; you are in danger of becoming intolerant of the values of others, and of ceasing to reflect on your own values through taking them too much for granted.’’ 16 This danger of furthering ethical intolerance should be taken seriously by anyone working toward a realist position in ethics. Therefore any such position must be combined with a more substantial description of the particular nature of ethical experience as well as of the need for moral discussion in our evaluation of its deliverances. Proponents of realistic forms of virtue ethics still need to rise to this challenge. 17

16 Iris Murdoch, ‘‘Metaphysics and Ethics,’’ in Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker, eds., Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1996), p. 243.

17 I would like to thank several anonymous referees and Thomas Magnell, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Value Inquiry, for their valuable comments and help.


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