Posted: November 21st, 2022 Assignment #3: Virtue Ethics


After reading Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and Hursthouse’s “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, as well as the other material provided in this unit, write a 3-4 page es.say in which you do all of the following:

  1. Considering Aristotle’s virtue theory and Hursthouse’s application of that theory, explain what a virtuous person would think, feel, and do in the following case:

Case 12 of Regional Ethics Bowl cases 2022

You can decide which specific person you will be evaluating in this scenario (e.g. person seeking abortion, lawmaker, medical professional). 

Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”:




FALL 2022

Written and edited by:

Michael Funke

Rhiannon Dodds Funke

Alexa Bishopric

Contributing Authors:

Matthew Mangum

Juliana Hemela (NHSEB)

Meredith Sheeks (NHSEB)

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2 022

Editor’s Note: Please note that source materials cited may be used multiple times, but only

identified once per case.

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

1. Abandoned? Well, that’s too bad

The Rowe family is suing Blue Energy LLC for compensation regarding an incident that

occurred in May 2012, although they say not even a million dollars would be sufficient for the

horrors they endured. Reuters reported that “Hanson and Michael Rowe noticed an overpowering

smell, like rotten eggs, seeping from an abandoned gas well on their land in Kentucky. The

fumes made the retired couple feel nauseous, dizzy, and short of breath.”1 Unfortunately, the

Rowes faced significant difficulty in holding the well’s owner accountable. While the well was

on their land, the well itself was owned and drilled by J.D. Carty Resources LLC in 2006. Carty

dissolved in 2008 and sold the well to a company that was then acquired by Blue Energy, LLC,

which denied any ownership or obligation for the well.

The state of Kentucky declared the well an environmental emergency and ran a 40-day operation

to plug it, while the Rowes moved to a trailer on their property with no running water.

Regulators determined the leak was a toxic blend of hydrogen sulfide, a common drilling

byproduct, and the potent greenhouse gas, methane.

In last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, 4.7 billion dollars were provided to plug and

remediate abandoned oil and gas wells.2 There are anywhere from 750,000 to over 3 million

abandoned oil and gas wells in the U.S. and they emit millions of metric tons of methane per

year. In addition to climate impacts, they also can contaminate ground water and even pose

safety hazards. And these wells are labor intensive and expensive to plug, costing anywhere

between $76,000 to $1 million for each well3. If you do the math, the funds set aside for fixing

the issue are a good start but nowhere near sufficient to fully address the problem.

While the issue of abandoned wells has been pervasive for decades, our lawmakers have only

begun to focus on remediation in the last few years. Many saw remediation of abandoned wells

as politically popular because it could become a source of jobs in so called “energy transition

communities” or areas where fossil fuel industry jobs dwindle as we transition to cleaner energy.

And although the money will be put towards reducing emissions, something which we must do

in order to reduce the most dire effects of climate change, some lawmakers have stated that the

private companies who caused this problem should be footing the bill, not the federal

government. Increasing bonding requirements for future well drilling could ensure that private

companies put aside money in advance to deal with abandoned wells, but this would not address

wells that have already been abandoned. Additionally, the money allocated in the bipartisan

infrastructure law for remediation of abandoned wells will not solve the systemic problems that

resulted in the abandonment of wells that emit methane, which would only accelerate with a

transition away from fossil fuels.

1 Nichola Groom, “Special Report: Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace” June 16,

2020, Reuters

2 H.R.3684 – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

3 Daniel Raimi, Alan J. Krupnick, Jhih-Shyang Shah, and Alexandra Thompson, “Decommissioning Orphaned and

Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: New Estimates and Cost Drivers” Environmental Science & Technology 2021 55

(15), 10224-10230

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

But, as made clear by the Rowe’s situation, these abandoned wells are causing harm in

communities, and the debate over who should pay would not have helped them live in a safe

home. If there is political capital so to speak, many argue that the opportunity should be grabbed

by the horns.

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

2. Happy to be alone?

On May 18, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals heard a case on whether Happy the elephant

has the right of Habeas Corpus, and therefore, whether she is considered a legal person. This was

the first case of its kind in an English-speaking high court and called into question what

constitutes a person in the United States.1

For the past 45 years, Happy the elephant has been kept at the Bronx Zoo in a one-acre

enclosure, with intermittent contact with other elephants.2 A petition led by the Nonhuman

Rights Project (NhRP) garnered almost 1.5 million signatures calling for Happy’s release to an

elephant sanctuary. The petition, titled “End Happy The Elephant’s 10 Years of Solitary

Confinement”, states that Happy has been in isolation since her companions Grumpy and Sammy

died. Zoo defenders assert that Happy is not alone, and that she receives extensive care,

including efforts at interaction and enrichment, unlike prisoners in solitary confinement who

receive little if any human contact. For instance, Happy resides next to another female elephant,

Patty, who is separated by a fence and the two elephants can see and smell each other, and even

touch trunks.3

Proponents on both sides agree that a ruling in favor of Happy’s personhood would have massive

ramifications. The Nonhuman Rights Projects filing the case on behalf of Happy, argue that the

ruling could help animals achieve the bodily liberty that has been denied to them across human

history. Whereas in a brief, attorneys for the Bronx Zoo wrote “Expanding the notion of a

‘person’ to include animals … has implications not just for zoos, but for pet owners, farmers,

academic and hospital-based researchers and, most critically, every human who might seek or

need access to the judicial system.”

Happy was, in part, selected by the NhRP because in 2005 she was the first elephant to pass the

mirror test, previously only passed by great apes and dolphins. The mirror test determines

whether an animal possesses the ability of visual self-recognition and is often associated with

capacity for empathy. It is unclear whether opening the legal recognition of personhood to

Happy the elephant would set the stage for all animals to fall under this category. There have

been many theories on how to quantify the moral value of a being, whether that is self-

awareness, capacity for pain, or the capacity of rational thought. Some philosophers have even

addressed consideration for the moral weight of plants.

NhRP argues that those who have claims against their case do so for personal interest, such as

the National Association for Biomedical Research, which claimed that “extending habeas rights

to animals would … drive up the cost of conducting critical research using animals, threatening to

1 Michael Doyle, “Happy the elephant’s case poses heavy philosophical” Politico, 05/12/2022


2 Vicki Constantine Croke, “Happy the elephant had her day in court. We humans are better for it.” The Washington

Post, June 23, 2022

3 Jill Lepore, “The Elephant who could be a person” The Atlantic, 11, 2021

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

impede important medical breakthroughs and other major scientific advances that benefit

humans and animals alike.”4

Three Buddhist scholars countered in a brief that “this legal moment for Happy represents a great

opportunity to consider the treatment of sentient beings from a cross-cultural and more moral

perspective than we have done before, so as to avoid perpetuating a great moral wrong merely

because it has been a habit of the law.”

On June 16, 2022, the top New York Court ruled that Happy cannot claim habeas corpus rights,

and therefore, is not a legal person. While this may put to rest this challenge seeking animal

personhood in the United States, the law is not necessarily coextensive of morality.

4 Kathleen M. Sullivan, Amicus Curiae Brief, September 24, 2021

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

3. Knowledge for the sake of … lizard dewlaps?

An ecology lab at a renowned University focuses their research on animals largely found in the

Caribbean and the southeastern United States. One of the groups focuses on anoles, a type of

lizard of which there are more than 425 species, and focuses on one of these species. The Anolis

Distichus had been selected out of hundreds, due to the dearth of research on the particular

species, because it is smaller and quicker, and therefore harder to catch than others. The group

researches the lizard’s dewlap, a brightly colored extendible flap of skin, and seeks to determine

its true purpose as it has been hypothesized that male anoles use it to attract mates. In the course

of research, teams of students are sent to capture wild anoles for study, measurements are taken,

and then the lizards are released. But sometimes during this process, accidents happen, and the

lizards die due to sun exposure, dropping of containers, or other unforeseen circumstances.

It is unclear to some, what this research would do for either humanity, or for the lizards

themselves. This begs the question whether knowledge, for the sake of knowledge, is a goal

justified in it of itself, in exchange for the loss of animal lives. Others may argue that scientific

discoveries sometimes lead to unexpected advantages in other aspects of life. Like how scientists

discovered that sharks resist infection, and then transitioned this knowledge into studying the

sharks’ immune system with the hope that their immunity could unlock secrets to improve

human health1. Scientists may not always know the application of their study until after findings

are made. Thus, it’s possible the dewlap research could become relevant for conservation of

lizard habitats if, for instance, we learn that they need to use their dewlaps in a particular

location, climate, or time of day. And even if the research does not impart some immediate

further application, some could say the knowledge alone is powerful. But the anoles at the

moment do not get a say.

The above is an example where animals are accidentally killed in the field, but in many cases,

animals are killed at the end of experiments due to factors such as stress or illness, that would not

allow them to be returned to the wild. Many consider this a reasonable cost of better knowledge

and understanding of our world. In Germany, there are investigations into whether the routine

culling of unused research animals should be allowed, as they were not even used “for the

greater good”. For example, the European Union estimated that in 2017, EU labs culled 83% of

mice in labs without any studies, due to space or time constraints.2 Animal rights activists in

many countries have tried and failed for decades to get stricter animal testing laws on the books.

The Animal Welfare Act is the only federal legislation that regulates researching animals in the

U.S, but it does not cover 95% of the animals used in laboratories such as mice, rats, birds, and


1 Melinda Ratini, “Understanding Cancer — the Basics” WebMD, January 20, 2022
2 Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup “Germany weighs whether culling excess lab animals is a crime” Science, May 5,

3 Susan Gilbert, Gregory E. Kaebnick, and Thomas H. Murray, “Animal Research Ethics: Evolving Views and

Practices,” Special Report, Hastings Center Report 42, no. 6 (2012)


U.S. Law and Animal Research

U.S. Law and Animal Research

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

4. Do no harm

On December 24, 2017, 75-year-old Charlene Murphey was admitted to Vanderbilt University

Medical Center with a subdural hematoma.1 Two days later, Murphey’s condition had improved,

and she was prescribed a sedating drug, Versed, to allow her to be still during a final MRI before

release. RaDonda Vaught, a registered nurse with seven years of experience at the hospital, was

ordered to administer the sedative. Vaught attempted to withdraw the sedative from an

automated dispensing cabinet by keying “VE” into the search function. When this failed Vaught

used an override code to manually withdraw the medication. Unfortunately, Vaught mistakenly

withdrew vecuronium, a paralyzing drug, the administration of which led to the death of

Charlene Murphy.

Vaught admitted her error to Vanderbilt administrators, explaining that she was distracted by a

trainee and had been complacent. That information was not passed on to medical examiners, as

required by law, and Murphy’s death was attributed to natural causes. In the following month

Vaught was fired but retained her nursing license as Vanderbilt continued to suppress public

knowledge of the incident. In October 2018, the incident became public due to an anonymous tip

and Vaught faced a hearing with the Tennessee Department of Health’s Board of Nursing.

Vaught explained the incident and that overriding the automated dispensing system was daily

practice, that “You couldn’t get a bag of fluids for a patient without using an override function.”

The board allowed her to retain her license.

Vaught was arrested on February 4, 2019 and charged with reckless homicide and impaired adult

abuse. To fund her legal defense, Vaught started a GoFundMe campaign writing, “Many feel

very strongly that setting the precedent that nurses should be indicted and incarcerated for

inadvertent medical errors is dangerous.” Nurses rallied to Vaught’s defense raising over

$100,000, appearing at her trial, and writing letters of support. Janie Harvey Garner, a St. Louis

registered nurse and founder of Show Me Your Stethoscope, a nurse’s group with more than

600,000 members said, “In response to a story like this one, there are two kinds of nurses,”

Garner said. “You have the nurses who assume they would never make a mistake like that, and

usually it’s because they don’t realize they could. And the second kind are the ones who know

this could happen, any day, no matter how careful they are. This could be me. I could be


Pharmacists have taken Vaught’s case as an object lesson in the need for reform in the control of

dangerous medications. For example, pharmacist confirmation of drugs obtained by overriding

an automated dispenser, limiting overrides to emergency situations, separate control systems for

paralytic drugs, like vecuronium, and other increases in institutional safeguards.3 Under

1 Brett Kelman “The RaDonda Vaught trial has ended. This timeline will help with the confusing case” Nashville

Tennessean March 27, 2022.

2 Brett Kelman “As a nurse faces prison for a deadly error, her colleagues worry: Could I be next?” NPR, March 22,


3 Myungsun (Sunny) Ro and Emily B. Holcomb, “More Lessons Learned From RaDonda Vaught Case” Pharmacy

Practice News June 27, 2022


© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

increased federal scrutiny Vanderbilt developed a “plan of correction” which satisfied officials

and allowed it to continue operations with federal funds.

On the other hand, the Tennessee Department of Health’s Board of Nursing reversed its earlier

decision and revoked Vaught’s nursing license. Vaught was subsequently convicted of criminally

negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult. Although guilty of very serious charges,

Vaught was sentenced to three years of probation and while she will likely never be a nurse

again, she will also likely not serve time in prison. Still, many worry that the apparent

institutional cover-up and chilling effect on nurses will cost other patients their lives.

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

5. Do innocents pay the price?

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of long-standing tensions

between the nations. The on-going conflict has caused humanitarian problems including food

shortages and a refugee crisis. In response to the conflict American and EU nations have

provided and pledged billions in military support to Ukrainian defense. Individuals and private

organizations have refused to carry Russian vodka in restaurants, liquor stores, or bars; refused to

play symphonies by Russian composers. Additionally, western nations have implemented an

aggressive series of escalating sanctions on the Russian state and individual powerful Russian


Beyond western state sanctions, some private organizations have chosen to apply pressure on

Russia within their own spheres of influence. In one such case, Wimbledon, the oldest and

perhaps most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, banned Russian and Belarussian

athletes. Wimbledon’s ban impacts a handful of top players including Daniil Medvedev, the

number two ranked men’s tennis player, and Aryna Sabalenka, the number four ranked women’s

tennis player.1

Wimbledon wrote in explanation, “Given the profile of The Championships in the United

Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts

of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence

through the strongest means possible.”2 The statement continues, “In the circumstances of such

unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian

regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The

Championships.” Ian Hewitt, Chairman of the All England Club, commented: “We recognise

that this is hard on the individuals affected, and it is with sadness that they will suffer for the

actions of the leaders of the Russian regime.”

In response to Wimbledon’s actions, both the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours

stripped the points available for Wimbledon participants. A statement from the Association of

Tennis Professionals (ATP) condemns Wimbledon’s decision as undermining the merit based

ranking system. It goes on to add, “Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a

violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP

rankings.” Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s player and Serbian war survivor describes the

decision as “…crazy. The players, the tennis players, the athletes have nothing to do with it

[war]. When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good.” Martina Navratilova, a nine-

time Wimbledon champion, says “as much as I feel for the Ukrainian players and Ukrainian

people,” excluding players is “unfair” and “not helpful.”3

1 Rachel Treisman “Wimbledon bans Russian and Belarusian players — including No. 2 Medvedev” NPR,

April 20, 2022
2 “Statement Regarding Russian and Belarusian Individuals at The Championships” Wimbledon April 20, 2022

3 Lee Igel “Wimbledon Ban On Russian And Belarusian Players Serves Points About Sports And Politics”

Forbes, Apr 26, 2022


© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

Since originally writing this, in an ironic twist of fate, this year’s Wimbledon Women’s

Champion was Russian born Elena Rybakina. Rybakina plays under the flag of Kazakhstan and

travels with a passport from that country. Reportedly her decision in 2018 to play as a Kazakh

was made primarily due to financial considerations and her parents continue to reside in


© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

6. Are sports dope?

Performance in sports is enhanced by regular training, adequate rest, good nutrition, and

supplemental medication. There is apparent universal agreement that the first three of these are

foundational to the values of sports. But the use of supplemental medication to enhance

performance has been quite controversial.

In 1935, Adolf Butenandt and a team of German scientists first synthesized human testosterone

for the treatment of hypogonadism and depression. Butenandt would go on to win the Nobel

Prize in Chemistry for his work on “sex hormones.”1 By 1954 the Soviet weightlifting team was

using testosterone injections to enhance their performance, but with detrimental health effects

such as prostate enlargement. In 1956, to compete with fewer side effects, U.S. weightlifting

doctor John Ziegler synthesized the anabolic steroid methandrostenolone (Dianabol).

Unfortunately, dianabol does have rather serious side effects including liver damage and

increased risk of stroke. These very serious potential health consequences are the reason

performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are often prohibited in competition.

1960 Sports Illustrated published an exposé on the use of amphetamines, tranquilizers, cocaine,

and other drugs in elite sports.2 Eventually the international Olympic committee included

anabolics and testosterone on their banned substances list. The Montreal Olympics of 1976 were

the first Olympic games to drug test for anabolics and testing regimes have grown since then.

Now all major U.S. sporting leagues, including the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, and UFC, test

for a range of substances from marijuana to anabolic steroids. But these leagues do not test

equally and the growth in testing is not without its critics.

Libertarians have long advocated an end of prohibition arguing that the use of PEDs should not

be regulated beyond the individual’s choice. For decades now serious athletes have suspected

that most of their competition is using some form of banned PED and this belief leads to a

prisoner’s dilemma in which using PEDs seems like the only rational choice.3 This belief seems

supported by studies where over 50% of anonymous competitive amateur athletes admitted using

PEDs in the previous year.4 Some hope to change the calculation by increasing surveillance on

athletes, but more testing leads to more creative drug regimes and it seems impractical to reliably

catch even most PED users.5

Further complicating the situation are the apparent inequities of enforcement regimes. Recently a

Russian Olympic figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive for Trimetazidine, a banned

substance. But her case is in arbitration, and she has not been suspended, in part because she is a

minor. Some draw a comparison to the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, a U.S. sprinter who was

1 “What is the history of anabolic steroid use?. National Institute on Drug Abuse website.” NIDA April 12, 2021.

2 George Walsh “Our Drug-Happy Athletes”
3 Haugen KK. “The performance-enhancing drug game.” Journal of Sports Economics2004;5:67–87.
4 Ulrich, R., Pope, H.G., Cléret, L. et al. Doping in Two Elite Athletics Competitions Assessed by Randomized-

Response Surveys. Sports Med 48, 211–219 (2018).
5 Brandon Specktor “Why Is It So Easy to Cheat at the Olympics?” LiveScience

February 13, 2018

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

suspended for marijuana she reportedly used in the days following the death of her mother.

Critics argue that, while both took a banned substance the “difference is that she is black, and

Valieva is white.”6

Compounding the disparity in possible outcomes is the choice between various systems of drug

testing. For instance, leagues like the NFL administer their own drug programs, with team

physicians doing the testing, and lower penalties for marijuana then anabolic steroids. The

Olympic Games use a testing protocol developed and administered by the World Anti-Doping

Agency (WADA). Other organizations, like the UFC, rely on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency

(USADA) for testing and regional rules for determining penalties. A newer organization, the

Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA) launched in 2011 with the goal of attracting athletes

who are not required to be tested, but who want to compete without PEDs.

6 Joe Lancaster “Olympic Athletes Can Take Drugs so Long as They Also Get an Unfair Advantage” Reason

February 15, 2022


Olympic Athletes Can Take Drugs so Long as They Also Get an Unfair Advantage

Olympic Athletes Can Take Drugs so Long as They Also Get an Unfair Advantage

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

7. Anti-Vax or Anti-American

The United States Air Force Academy graduating class of 2022 was three fewer than anticipated

at the May 25th ceremony in Colorado Springs. Three cadets who anticipated graduating with

their classmates and receiving commissions in the USAF refused COVID-19 vaccination and

were not allowed to attend the ceremony. One of the cadets has resigned from the Academy and

may owe the cost of his attendance to taxpayers. The other cadets are in a legal limbo as they

seek to join one of several class action lawsuits filed on behalf of military members who were

required to either be vaccinated or be separated from military service.1

According to former Colorado state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, “These are evangelical

Christian cadets, who are pro-life, and they object to the fact that the vaccines were tested on

aborted fetal stem cell lines. Because of their objection to abortion, their conscience will not let

them … inject this particular drug into their own bodies.” The cadets applied for religious

exemptions for the mandated vaccination, but their requests were denied—as of January 2022,

the USAF had only approved a total of 9 religious exemptions. Director of Public Affairs Brian

Maguire responded saying, “The majority of our religious accommodation requests centered on

the use of stem cells in the development and/or production of the currently available vaccines.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines did not use stem cells in the development, testing or

production and were presented as an option. The cadets refused to commit to this vaccine.”2

The cadets received an official letter of reprimand for not taking the


in violation of

Article 90 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for disobeying an order from a superior

officer. The letter makes the point that officers in the military are expected to obey orders even

when they disagree with those orders. In this case, disobeying the order to be vaccinated,

“jeopardizes the health, safety and readiness of yourself and of your fellow military members

and compromises our mission.”

According to one whistleblower’s account, in October 2021 Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall

told commanders “no religious accommodations could or should be approved for anyone who

would be remaining in the Department of the Air Force.”3 However, the U.S. military has

allowed numerous medical exemptions to the vaccination policy. For some, this calls into

question the degree to which safety is impacted by unvaccinated members of the armed forces.

Amid concerns that vaccination requirements are overblown and the possible costs that cadets

may face for refusing, some in Congress have taken the side of the cadets and introduced the

Defending Freedom of Conscience for Cadets and Midshipmen Act. The Act would, if passed,

prevent denial of graduation for not being vaccinated against COVID-19; prevent being

1 Lolita Baldor “3 Air Force cadets who refused vaccine won’t be commissioned” AP News

May 21, 2022

2 Stephanie Earls “Air Force Academy cadets who refused vaccine, and were denied waiver, could face expulsion”

The Gazette May 14, 2022

3 O’Dell Isaac “Air Force Academy cadet submits resignation after refusing vaccine on religious grounds”

The Gazette May 18, 2022


© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

dismissed from a service academy for refusing to be vaccinated; and, prevent any cadet who is

not allowed to commission due to their COVID-19 vaccination status from being subject to

repayment claims.4

4 Marco Rubio, “Colleagues Introduce Bill to Protect Air Force Cadets, Midshipmen From Being Punished for Not

Receiving Covid-19 Vaccine” May 25 2022



© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

8. Damn the dam?

As part of the Colorado River Storage Project, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam began

in 1956. The 726-foot-tall dam is the United States’ second highest concrete-arch dam. The dam

created Lake Powell—covering parts of Arizona and Utah—which reached full capacity in 1980.

In 1972, the area was declared Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and is managed by the

National Park Service.

Supporters of the dam note that the dam produces five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each

year which supports the needs of seven western states. Further, as a national park, the lake

provides recreation opportunities to over four million visitors each year. These visitors support a

half-billion-dollar tourism industry. The Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the dam, describes

Lake Powell as a “bank account” of water for dry years. This water supply is essential to three

lower states of the Colorado River Basin.

However, Lake Powell is facing an existential threat: record low water levels caused a two-

decade long megadrought. Currently, the lake is about one-third full and long-term trends

indicate that the lake level will continue to fall. John Fleck of the University of New Mexico told

KUER radio, “It appears to be this permanent phenomenon that’s lowering the lake levels. You

should not expect it to return to high lake levels over long periods of time. That’s just not

something we can expect to happen.” The NPS has been forced to close multiple boat ramps, the

Dangling Rope Marina, and dock access to Rainbow Bridge National Monument because of the

low water levels. Further, the low levels will make honoring water allocations dating from the

1920 difficult if not impossible to honor. In a worse-case scenario, the dam could cease power

production in the near future.

For decades, groups have called for the draining of Lake Powell. Some see the low water levels

as the perfect opportunity to do so and return Glen Canyon to its natural state. Glen Canyon

Institute Director Eric Balken told NPR, “All of the best data that we have suggests it’s going to

be mostly empty for now on. So I think it’s really important for policymakers to consider what

phasing out this reservoir looks like, because if we don’t, then we might just be stuck in a harder

situation down the road where it’s happening by default.” Balken’s group advocates for using

Lake Mead as the primary water storge reservoir for the states relying on water from the

Colorado River.

Draining the lake could mean recovering what has been called America’s “lost national park.”

Although lower lake levels mean less water-based recreation, slot canyons, grottoes, cliffs, and

spires are emerging to provide different recreation activities. Further, historic and cultural sites

representing thousands of years of human activity in the area could be uncovered.

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

9. Freedom of tweets

As Twitter sues Elon Musk to force his purchase of the company or pay a reported one billion

dollars in compensation, the character of Twitter today and under Musk’s proposed leadership

has become contentious. In March 2022, when Musk began his acquisition bid, he polled users

on the platform asking, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe

Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Musk’s offer letter contained his response, “I now

realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form.

Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”1

Twitter’s content moderation policies have developed over the last ten years to prohibit the

glorification of violence, incitement of violence, harassment, hateful conduct, graphic content

and much more. These policies themselves have clarifying policies, but still require judgment

calls. The judgment of the content moderation team has come under criticism in the past for

being too aggressive, too lenient, and too inconsistent. For instance, when Twitter permanently

suspended former President Donald Trump’s account over tweets relating to the January 6th riots

many viewed the decision as censorship of valid political beliefs and while others lamented the

decision as too late.2

Musk’s perspective is that content moderation should mirror local laws regarding speech and

thus be as lenient as legally permissible and has vowed to reinstate the former President’s

account. Critics wonder, “[i]f Twitter wants to pull back from moderating speech on its site, will

people be less willing to hang out where they might be harassed by those who disagree with

them and swamped by pitches for cryptocurrency, fake Gucci handbags or pornography?”3

Beyond the user experience, others express concern that the rampant spread of misinformation

on platforms like Twitter leads to a degradation of democracy and acts of violence like those of

January 6th.

However, the proposed sale of Twitter resolves the digital public square will continue to be

controlled by a handful leading voices at places like Twitter, Facebook, and Tik Tok. These

leaders are controlled by market forces and their own moral compasses but are not themselves

beholden to a democratic electorate. Some states have taken decisions about content moderation

away from unelected leaders by implementing laws restricting the content on digital platforms.

These new laws include both the Digital Services Act in the European Union, which requires

Twitter to scrub its platform of misinformation and abuse, and Vietnam’s policy of holding

companies accountable for government criticism on their platforms.

1 Jennifer Korn, “Elon Musk’s bumpy road to possibly owning Twitter: A timeline” CNN Business, August 19, 2022
2 Bobby Allyn and Tamara Keith, “Twitter Permanently Suspends Trump, Citing ‘Risk Of Further Incitement Of

Violence’” NPR January 8, 2021

3 Shira Ovide, “Buying Twitter, Elon Musk Will Face Reality of His Free-Speech Talk” New York Times April 26,


© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

10. A minor problem…

Joseph Campbell famously discussed the process of “coming of age,” and the need for rites of

passage to help youths transition from childhood into adulthood in “The Power of Myth,” a

transcribed interview between Campbell and Bill Moyers of PBS.1 Campbell talked about how

myths, be they religious (as with Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs at 12 to 13, and Christian

confirmation from about 12 to 15) or secular rites (quinceañera at 15, sweet 16 and drivers’

licenses at 16, and even gang membership from around 12 to 18 years of age), all aim to give the

young person a sense of transition into the world of adult responsibilities and independence.

But notably, the timetable for the transition into adulthood is neither concrete nor consistent for

all groups or individuals. For instance, the religious coming of age celebrations are usually

around 12 to 13, but the secular rites are often a little later, around 15 to 16. States also have

myriad laws when it comes to age of consent2, marriage3, and legal capacity to enter into

contracts4. These laws provide a slow evolution to legal adulthood, granting partial rights that

will become full (or at least fuller) once the youth turns 18 (a few minor rights are still withheld

until 21, such as the age to buy alcohol or to consume marijuana in states where it has been


Given that there are different approaches to a minor’s ability to consent to participate in

significant, potentially life-altering behaviors, some ask whether these pre-adulthood rights

should necessarily be tied to other legal rights that a minor may need to exercise, particularly as

relate to medical treatment. In many states, minors may visit a gynecologist or family physician

to obtain birth control, abortion care, or to treat sexually transmitted diseases without a parent

consenting or being present. However, in other states, despite youths being allowed to marry

under the age of 18, they nevertheless cannot see a gynecologist or other sexual healthcare

provider without the consent of a parent or guardian.

Similarly, many states have allowed minors to obtain vaccines against deadly diseases without

parental consent, particularly in light of the public health needs of society, as well as the

potential for serious, even debilitating diseases if vaccines are not administered. As vaccines and

abortions become increasingly controversial, many minors are seeking medical care without the

permission or even expressly against the wishes of their parents. In many states, minors can

obtain birth control without parental consent, and a recent piece of legislation in California may

1 See Campbell and Moyers, The Power of Myth, Betty Sue Flowers, Editor, Anchor Books, a Division of Random

House, Inc., July 1991.
2 “Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for

Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Dec. 14, 2004,

3 “Marriage Age in the United States,” Wikipedia, last accessed September 5, 2022,

4 “Legal Ages Laws,”,; last accessed Sept. 5, 2022;

Stim, Richard, “Who Lacks the Capacity to Contract?”, last accessed Sept. 5, 2022,,,and%2011%20states%2C%20respectively,and%2011%20states%2C%20respectively,family%20division%20of%20district%20court.&text=Minors%20cannot%20marry,family%20division%20of%20district%20court.&text=Minors%20cannot%20marry

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

allow children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without needing their parents’ permission.5

With the proliferation of anti-vaccination movement, critics of these new vaccine rights laws

worry that the legislation may allow children to make decisions they do not fully understand.6

For instance, many in the anti-vaccination movement hold serious concerns about the potential

long-term impacts of new vaccines, which have yet to be tested for long-term impacts to health

that may not be known for years or even decades.

5 Klass, Perri, M.D., “When Should Children Take Part in Medical Decisions?” The New York Times, Sept. 20,

6 Abcarian, Robin, Should kids need parental consent for vaccines? Read this before you decide,” Los Angeles

Times, Jan. 26, 2022,

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

11. Granola mom is nuts?

Maria was a loving mother. Because she herself struggled with her health and weight, she

decided that she was going to do her best for her child and make best efforts to shield him from

artificial colors and sweeteners, focusing her efforts on growing their own food, buying local,

and serving her son whole, minimally processed foods. In other words, no eating at McDonalds

or drinking Hi-C fruit drinks, but enjoying beef and barley soup and using a juicer to process

fresh fruits and veggies into snacks. Maria’s son started daycare when she had to start work, and

the daycare in question agreed to make modest accommodations for her son. Maria would

regularly bring treats for her child that followed her dietary restrictions to ensure that he could

eat with his classmates and not feel excluded. This meant that the daycare would let Maria know

what color fruit drinks they served, and Maria would bring in fresh juices in place of the Hi-C of

the day. For many months, this went on, and Maria’s son flourished, making new friends,

enjoying mealtime, and learning social skills.

However, this all changed when one day, the daycare staff made a mistake and inadvertently

gave Maria’s son the regular, artificially flavored/colored/sweetened drink, and her son had an

allergic reaction, requiring an ER visit. Maria’s son was in anaphylactic shock, and his throat

was closing, resulting in a near fatal incident until an EpiPen was used to administer life-saving

medication. Maria was incensed that the daycare had not followed her son’s nutritional plan but

was ultimately relieved that her son’s allergic reaction was resolved so quickly.

Unfortunately for Maria, her son’s recovery did not end the stress of the day. Once her son

appeared ready for discharge from the ER, the treating physician pulled Maria aside and

chastised her for choice of diet for her son. He warned her that if she didn’t expose her son to the

colors and flavors he was almost certainly going to encounter when out, it could lead to serious

allergies and that he could end up right back at the hospital; and next time, they might not be so


Maria was shocked and taken aback by the doctor’s response, as she thought she had been

helping her child to become the healthiest he could be. She was now faced with the difficult

decision about whether to continue on her healthful path with her son, or allow her son to be

exposed to the toxins of normal American life in order to ensure he could function in “normal”


(Based on a true story.)

1 See e.g. Bell, Becky, M.S., R.D. “Food Dyes: Harmless or Harmful?”, Jan. 7, 2017, (last accessed Sept. 5, 2022).

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

12. My company, my choice?

In light of the recent Supreme Court case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 1

which overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made access to abortion a constitutional

right, states like Texas, Alabama, Ohio, Idaho, and others have now activated their trigger laws

to effectively ban abortion in a post-Roe world; 2 Many companies have struggled with how to

react to changing healthcare laws that could deter female talent from joining their businesses.3

Some young professionals have legitimate fears of the dangers that could exist in emergency

situations involving reproductive healthcare. To mitigate this hesitation and draw more talented

applicants, as well as to generate positive social capital, some corporations have enacted

corporate policies promising to fund travel for non-life-threatening treatment, including


Texas, particularly, has been marketing itself as a tech haven that promotes lighter business

regulation, lower taxes, and more affordable housing than that found on the coasts.5 These

conditions have, in turn, drawn major corporations to move their headquarters to Texas. Many

such corporations have found benefits in hiring a more diverse workforce—including more

women6—but the enactment of these new abortion restrictions has changed the dynamics and

deterred women from joining Texas-based corporations for fear of a lack of reproductive health

services in cases of rape, incest, or risks to the mother’s life. With the new reproductive

healthcare restrictions, these major corporations face a double-edged sword—respond to their

staff’s needs and provide support for reproductive health out of state, but face potential legal

liability and/or governmental backlash to such policies,7 or maintain the status quo and accept the

loss of many highly qualified individuals who simply do not wish to undertake the risk of being

denied essential forms of healthcare.8

Many corporations have come out on the side of providing leave and even travel cost

reimbursement for their staff who need to make use of reproductive healthcare out of state.9

1 597 U.S. ____, 2022; 2022 WL 2276808; 2022 U.S. LEXIS 3057.
2 “State Bans on Abortion Throughout Pregnancy,” Guttmacher Institute, July 16, 2022,
3 Matt O’Brien, Dee-Ann Durbin, Barbara Ortutay, David Koenig, and Ken Sweet, “Abortion ruling pushes

businesses to confront divisive politics,”, June 25, 2022,

4 Id.
5 Lee, Don, “Silicon Valley’s tech monopoly is over. Is the future in Austin, Texas?” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 9,

6 Phillips, Katherine W., “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, October 1, 2014,
7 Wiessner, Daniel, “Legal clashes await U.S. companies covering workers’ abortion costs,” Reuters, June 27, 2022,;

Marr, Chris and Robert Iafolla, “Can States Ban Employer Abortion Aid? Post-Roe Limits Explained,” Bloomberg

Law, June 28, 2022,

8 McCarty Carino, Meghan, “How the tech landscape could change if abortion laws do,”, June 24,

9 Marquardt, Andrew, “With Roe v Wade overturned, major firms from Starbucks to Tesla will cover employees’

abortion travel costs. Here are the major employers who have promised to cover it,”, May 16, 2022,

How the tech landscape could change if abortion laws do

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

Although this response from corporate America was welcomed by many, some have questioned

the motivations of these corporations.10 Many of these corporate giants do not appear to have any

issue with providing their tax revenues to such states through their continued presence within the

state.11 Moreover, many of these corporations provided muted or non-existent initial responses

to the leak of the proposed ruling in Dobbs, and only joined the PR bandwagon to enact such

policies after it appeared that other corporate players were gaining positive traction with such


Some argue that the policies don’t go far enough. Providing $4,000 to employees seeking

medical care does not necessarily protect the spouses and children who must live in that state, as

well.13 Others argue that the policies go too far, because they create a digital trail that could be

used to prosecute the employees for seeking out of state what could not be done within the

state.14 Still others who support abortion bans would argue that abortion is essentially murder,

and thus, actions within the state to commit murder outside of the state should come with

attendant “conspiracy” charges against employees and/or employers who committed such acts.15

The businesses themselves could thus face potential criminal liability for the implementation of

such travel reimbursement policies. This is particularly true in states like Idaho, where state law

now prohibits travel out of state to obtain an abortion.16

10 Linkins, Jason, “Corporate America Doesn’t Really Care About Your Abortion Rights,” The Soap Box, The New

Republic, July 18, 2022,
11 See e.g., Korte, Lara, “Democrats look to recruit businesses from red states restricting abortion,”,

June 28, 2022,

abortion-00042716; Cohn, Scott, “As decision on Roe v. Wade looms, states weigh the economic cost of abortion

bans,” CNBC, June 21, 2022,

12Goldberg, Emma and Lora Kelley, “Companies Are More Vocal Than Ever on Social Issues. Not on Abortion,”

The New York Times, June 24, 2022,

13 Rowland, Christopher, “Groups that aid abortion patients pull back, fearing legal liability,” The Washington Post,

July 15, 2022,
14 “Companies covering abortion travel costs for employees could face privacy hurdles,” Moneywatch, CBS News,

July 5, 2022,
15 See e.g. Belz, Emily, “The Pro-Life Movement Faces Blue State Backlash,” Christianity Today, July 1, 2022, (not that

this article may contain inaccuracies, as it states that no U.S. states contain abortion protections, yet others note that

11 states have constitutional protections for abortion access, see “State Constitutions and Abortion Rights,” Center

for Reproductive Rights,; Marr, Chris and Robert

Iafolla, “Can States Ban Employer Abortion Aid? Post-Roe Limits Explained,” Bloomberg Law, June 28, 2022,
16 Kitchener, Caroline and Devlin Barrett, “Antiabortion lawmakers want to block patients from crossing state

lines,” The Washington Post, June 30, 2022,


State Constitutions and Abortion Rights

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

13. Learn to live with your demons?

Caroline Mazel-Carlton began hearing voices as a young child.1 And from a young age, she was

put on medications that were supposed to temper and control those voices. But they had severe

side effects, such as weight gain, self-harm (such as pulling hair out in patches), and erratic body

movements, as well as feelings of isolation and ultimately a suicide attempt.

The National Institute of Mental Health found that these antipsychotic drugs have not improved

since their inception 70 years ago,2 and some studies found that that maintenance on the drugs

may actually worsen outcomes and even cause brain atrophy, though these findings have been


Mazel-Carlton found solace working on a farm where she stopped taking her prescriptions cold

turkey. Once she stabilized and learned to process her audial hallucinations with greater skill, she

became involved with a growing effort to reform how the field of mental health treats severe

psychiatric conditions. She became a peer-support specialist, someone who has lived experience

and works alongside medical practitioners, and became involved in the Wildflower Alliance, a

peer run organization.

“She began leading Hearing Voices Network support groups—which are

somewhat akin to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—for people with auditory

and visual hallucinations. The groups, with no clinicians in the room, gathered on

secondhand chairs and sofas in humble spaces rented by the Alliance. What

psychiatry terms psychosis, the Hearing Voices Movement refers to as

nonconsensus realities, and a bedrock faith of the movement is that filling a room

with talk of phantasms will not infuse them with more vivid life or grant them

more unshakable power. Instead, partly by lifting the pressure of secrecy and

diminishing the feeling of deviance, the talk will loosen the hold of hallucinations

and, crucially, the grip of isolation.”

Antithetical to traditional medical views of risk management, Mazel-Carlton’s treatment focused

instead on acceptance and living with your voices. Medical practitioners claim that drug

regimens can reduce violent actions,4 although most studies reaching such conclusions both

presume optimal or near optimal compliance with the patient’s prescription regimen (which is

not always the case), and further, the odds of violent outbursts are overall very low in any case,

1 Bergner, Daniel, “Doctors Gave Her Antipsychotics. She Decided to Live With Her Voices,” The New York

Times Magazine, May 17, 2022, updated May 22, 2022,

(; future discussion

of Ms. Mazel-Carlton’s experiences are predominantly drawn from the foregoing article, and citation is

ongoing throughout this case study unless noted otherwise.
2 See “Questions and Answers About the NIMH Clinical Antipsychotic Trials of Intervention Effectiveness Study

(CATIE) – Phase 1 Results,” National Institute of Mental Health,

research/practical/catie/phase1results (last accessed July 22, 2022).
3See e.g. David M. Gardner, Ross J. Baldessarini, Paul Waraich, “Modern antipsychotic drugs: a critical overview,”

Canadian Medical Association Journal, Jun 21, 2005,
4 See “Antipsychotic drugs see drop in violent crime,” University of Oxford, May 8, 2014,

© Association for Practical and Professional Ethics 2022

with some studies showing that poverty, homelessness, and isolation that often go hand-in-hand

with nonconsensus realities are more likely to cause violent outbursts than the hallucinations


“Mazel-Carlton takes care not to diminish the suffering of people like herself and speaks of

expanding ‘the options for healing.’ Yet she sees her wish as analogous to not just the

mainstreaming of autism but the nascent acceptance of new forms of gender identity. ‘Our

society needs to expand its view of what it means to be human,’ she says. ‘To expand what is

affirmed and honored.’”

Through their work, the Alliance also works on suicide prevention, although their work is very

different than mainstream suicide prevention methods.

“A slide within the training protocol Mazel-Carlton has designed teaches that the

mission is ‘to stay present’ and not ‘to prevent them from doing that.’ ‘Stay away

from fix-it mode, from savior mode,’ Mazel-Carlton tells trainees. ‘With our

capes on, we can’t listen.’ A first principle is that people must be allowed to talk

freely about all that is preying on them, including the wish to take their own lives,

and in the groups, a foundational pact is that no one will be reported, not to any

hotline, not to the police or any practitioner, no matter what he or she expresses

an intent to do.’

To comprehend how thoroughly this defies dominant practice, take the policy of

the country’s most-called—and heavily federally funded—suicide hotline. It

advertises confidentiality but covertly scores risk and, each year, without

permission, dispatches police cars and ambulances to the doors of thousands.”

5 Maurizio Pompili, MD, PhD, Andrea Fiorillo, MD, PhD, “Aggression and Impulsivity in Schizophrenia,”

Psychiatric Times, Vol. 32, No. 7, July 23, 2015,



14. So sue me! 1

After Gawker Media published a scandalous video of the wrestler Hulk Hogan, Hogan sought

revenge. He ultimately decided to sue Gawker for violating his right to privacy. Luckily for

Hogan though, he was not the only person out for vengeance against Gawker. Years earlier,

Gawker had divulged private and sensitive information about Peter Thiel, one of the wealthy

founders of PayPal. Upon hearing of Hogan’s situation, Thiel secretly invested around 10 million

dollars to help Hogan win his lawsuit against Gawker. Thiel engaged in what is called ‘litigation

financing.’ Litigation financing is the funding of litigation by individuals or groups who are not

parties to the litigation.

While Thiel may have been motivated to invest for personal reasons, often the payoff for

investing in another person’s lawsuit is a significant financial gain for the investor. In the case of

Miller UK Ltd. v. Caterpillar Inc. (2014), for example, the investors on the side of Miller (a

small business litigator) against Caterpillar (a big business defendant) stood to earn millions if

they won the case. Many worry that the potential for financial gain in litigation financing could

lead to further corruption of the already pricey U.S. legal system. With the aim of making a

profit from litigation financing, these investment firms are well positioned to perpetuate

injustice. Such practices could lead to financiers exploiting potential plaintiffs who are in

financial need.

Others don’t share these worries. In the end, they argue, legal cases will succeed or fail on

account of their merits, regardless of the money involved. Moreover, they contend that citizens

should be permitted to sell and commodify their own lawsuits because they have a right to do so,

especially if it helps them to cover expensive legal processes. Denying citizens this right out of

sheer speculation that it could lead to negative consequences overlooks the fact that litigation

financing can lead to positive outcomes in the U.S. legal system. Several case examples reveal

how litigation financing has helped many to achieve justice, who could not otherwise afford to

put up a legal fight against their opponents. One example, in NAACP v. Button (1963), the

Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that prevented the NAACP from funding litigation

cases for those subject to unjust racial discrimination. The case of NAACP v. Button (1963)

reveals how litigation financing can be an important means of achieving justice.

1 This case was developed by the Parr Center for Ethics for use in the National High School Ethics Bowl. It appears in NHSEB’s 2022-2023
Regional Case Set, and is reproduced here with permission. For more information about the National High School Ethics Bowl, please






15. Justice delayed, justice denied?1

The murder of Emmett Till is one of the most notorious hate crimes in American history. At 14

years old, Till was killed in 1955, while visiting his family in Mississippi. This case has long

symbolized both the racist violence that was perpetrated against African-Americans throughout

the Jim Crow era, and the way in which perpetrators of this violence were rarely held


While socializing outside of a store, Till’s cousins allegedly dared him to ask the white woman

in the store, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, on a date. The 14-year old Till allegedly accepted the

dare and made comments to her in the store. Bryant initially claimed that Till also made physical

advances on her. When Bryant’s husband Roy, heard of this, he and his half-brother J.W. Milam

went to the residence where Till was staying and forced him into their car. Three days later, the

boy’s mutilated body was found by the Tallahatchie River, only identifiable by an engraved ring

he was wearing. His body was flown back to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open

casket funeral. The news media soon picked up the story after seeing the state of his body, and

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried for murder in a segregated courthouse in Mississippi. At

this trial, Carolyn Bryant repeated her allegations against Till. After deliberating for less than an

hour, the all-white jury found the defendants to be not guilty. Carolyn Bryant later recanted her

claims about Till, revealing the truth to author Timothy Tyson: Till never touched or harassed


In July of 2022, an unserved arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant (now Carolyn Donham of

Raleigh, NC) from 1955 was found in a courthouse basement in Mississippi. Weeks later, a

grand jury was empaneled to decide whether to indict her, as the only living accomplice of the

Till kidnapping and lynching nearly 70 years ago. Ultimately, the grand jury decided not to issue

an indictment over concerns about whether there was sufficient evidence to convict her.3

Critics of the grand jury’s decision emphasize the importance of accountability. Those who

would like to see Donham arrested and convicted argue that, just as Nazis have been prosecuted

years after they committed their crimes, those who engage in horrible acts deserve to be punished

regardless of how much time has passed. Moreover, given the symbolic importance of this case,

it is important to have a formal acknowledgement and condemnation of her role in Till’s

lynching. Yet others question whether prosecuting an 88-year-old woman as an accomplice to a

murder committed seven decades earlier would really constitute justice. Moreover, defenders of

the grand jury’s decision point out, given her age and serious health issues, she would not be

likely to face punishment for this crime even if she were convicted—instead, she would likely

have been sent home on compassionate release.

1 This case was developed by the Parr Center for Ethics for use in the National High School Ethics Bowl. It appears

in NHSEB’s 2022-2023 Regional Case Set, and is reproduced here with permission. For more information about the

National High School Ethics Bowl, please visit




ROSALIND HURSTHOUSE Virtue Theory and Abortion

The sort of ethical theory derived from Aristotle, variously described as
virtue ethics, virtue-based ethics, or neo-Aristotelianism, is becoming

better known, and is now quite widely recognized as at least a possible
rival to deontological and utilitarian theories. With recognition has come
criticism, of varying quality. In this article I shall discuss nine separate
criticisms that I have frequently encountered, most of which seem to me
to betray an inadequate grasp either of the structure of virtue theory


of what would be involved in thinking about a real moral issue in its

terms. In the first half I aim particularly to secure an understanding that

will reveal that many of these criticisms are simply misplaced, and to
articulate what I take to be the major criticism of virtue theory. I reject

this criticism, but do not claim that it is necessarily misplaced. In the
second half I aim to deepen that understanding and highlight the issues

raised by the criticisms by illustrating what the theory looks like when it
is applied to a particular issue, in this case, abortion.


Virtue theory can be laid out in a framework that reveals clearly some of
the essential similarities and differences between it and some versions of

deontological and utilitarian theories. I begin with a rough sketch of fa-

Versions of this article have been read to philosophy societies at University College, Lon-

don, Rutgers University, and the Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Oxford, Swansea,

and California-San Diego; at a conference of the Polish and British Academies in Cracow
in I988 on “Life, Death and the Law,” and as a symposium paper at the Pacific Division of

the American Philosophical Association in I989. I am grateful to the many people who

contributed to the discussions of it on these occasions, and particularly to Philippa Foot and

Anne Jaap Jacobson for private discussion.

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Hursthouse, Rosalind (1991), “Virtue Theory and Abortion”,
Philosophy & Public Affairs 20(3):223-246

224 Philosophy & Public Affairs

miliar versions of the latter two sorts of theory, not, of course, with the
intention of suggesting that they exhaust the field, but on the assump-
tion that their very familiarity will provide a helpful contrast with virtue

theory. Suppose a deontological theory has basically the following frame-

work. We begin with a premise providing a specification

of right action:

P. i. An action is right iff it is in accordance with a moral rule or prin-

This is a purely formal specification, forging a link between the concepts
of right action and moral rule, and gives one no guidance until one
knows what a moral rule is. So the next thing the theory needs is a prem-

ise about that:

P.2. A moral rule is one that …

Historically, an acceptable completion of P.2 would have been

(i) is laid on us by God


(ii) is required by natural law.

In secular versions (not, of course, unconnected to God’s being pure rea-

son, and the universality of natural law) we get such completions as

(iii) is laid on us by reason


(iv) is required by rationality


(v) would command universal rational acceptance


(vi) would be the object of choice of all rational beings

and so on. Such a specification forges a second conceptual link, between

the concepts of moral rule and rationality.
We have here the skeleton of a familiar version of a deontological the-

ory, a skeleton that reveals that what is essential to any such version is
the links between right action, moral rule, and rationality. That these

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225 Virtue Theory and Abortion

form the basic structure can be seen particularly vividly if we lay out the
familiar act-utilitarianism in such a way as to bring out the contrasts.
Act-utilitarianism begins with a premise that provides a specification

of right action:

P. i. An action is right iff it promotes the best consequences.

It thereby forges the link between the concepts of right action and con-
sequences. It goes on to specify what the best consequences are in its
second premise:

P.2. The best consequences are those in which happiness is maxi-

It thereby forges the link between consequences and happiness.
Now let us consider what a skeletal virtue theory looks like. It begins

with a specification of right action:

P. i. An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the

This, like the first premises of the other two sorts of theory, is a purely
formal principle, giving one no guidance as to what to do, that forges the
conceptual link between right action and virtuous agent. Like the other
theories, it must, of course, go on to specify what the latter is. The first

step toward this may appear quite trivial, but is needed to correct a pre-
vailing tendency among many critics to define the virtuous agent as one
who is disposed to act in accordance with a deontologist’s moral rules.

P. i a. A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has
and exercises the virtues.

This subsidiary premise lays bare the fact that virtue theory aims to pro-
vide a nontrivial specification of the virtuous agent via a nontrivial spec-
ification of the virtues, which is given in its second premise:

i. It should be noted that this premise intentionally allows for the possibility that two
virtuous agents, faced with the same choice in the same circumstances, may act differ-
ently. For example, one might opt for taking her father off the life-support machine and
the other for leaving her father on it. The theory requires that neither agent thinks that
what the other does is wrong (see note 4 below), but it explicitly allows that no action is
uniquely right in such a case-both are right. It also intentionally allows for the possibility
that in some circumstances-those into which no virtuous agent could have got herself-
no action is right. I explore this premise at greater length in “Applying Virtue Ethics,”
forthcoming in afestschrift for Philippa Foot.

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226 Philosophy & Public Affairs

P. 2. A virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live

This premise forges a conceptual link between virtue and flourishing (or
living well or eudaimonia). And, just as deontology, in theory, then goes
on to argue that each favored rule meets its specification, so virtue
ethics, in theory, goes on to argue that each favored character trait meets

These are the bare bones of virtue theory. Following are five brief com-
ments directed to some misconceived criticisms that should be cleared
out of the way.

First, the theory does not have a peculiar weakness or problem in vir-
tue of the fact that it involves the concept of eudaimonia (a standard
criticism being that this concept is hopelessly obscure). Now no virtue
theorist will pretend that the concept of human flourishing is an easy
one to grasp. I will not even claim here (though I would elsewhere) that
it is no more obscure than the concepts of rationality and happiness,
since, if our vocabulary were more limited, we might, faute de mieux,
call it (human) rational happiness, and thereby reveal that it has at least
some of the difficulties of both. But virtue theory has never, so far as I
know, been dismissed on the grounds of the comparative obscurity of
this central concept; rather, the popular view is that it has a problem
with this which deontology and utilitarianism in no way share. This, I

think, is clearly false. Both rationality and happiness, as they figure in
their respective theories, are rich and difficult concepts-hence all the
disputes about the various tests for a rule’s being an object of rational
choice, and the disputes, dating back to Mill’s introduction of the higher
and lower pleasures, about what constitutes happiness.

Second, the theory is not trivially circular; it does not specify right ac-
tion in terms of the virtuous agent and then immediately specify the vir-
tuous agent in terms of right action. Rather, it specifies her in terms of
the virtues, and then specifies these, not merely as dispositions to right
action, but as the character traits (which are dispositions to feel and react
as well as act in certain ways) required for eudaimonia.2

2. There is, of course, the further question of whether the theory eventually describes a
larger circle and winds up relying on the concept of right action in its interpretation of
eudaimonia. In denying that the theory is trivially circular, I do not pretend to answer this
intricate question. It is certainly true that virtue theory does not claim that the correct
conception of eudaimonia can be got from “an independent ‘value-free’ investigation of

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227 Virtue Theory and Abortion

Third, it does answer the question “What should I do?” as well as the

question “What sort of person should I be?” (That is, it is not, as one of

the catchphrases has it, concerned only with Being and not with Doing.)
Fourth, the theory does, to a certain extent, answer this question by

coming up with rules or principles (contrary to the common claim that it

does not come up with any rules or principles). Every virtue generates a
positive instruction (act justly, kindly, courageously, honestly, etc.) and

every vice a prohibition (do not act unjustly, cruelly, like a coward, dis-

honestly, etc.). So trying to decide what to do within the framework of

virtue theory is not, as some people seem to imagine, necessarily a matter
of taking one’s favored candidate for a virtuous person and asking one-

self, “What would they do in these circumstances?” (as if the raped fif-
teen-year-old girl might be supposed to say to herself, “Now would Soc-
rates have an abortion if he were in my circumstances?” and as if

someone who had never known or heard of anyone very virtuous were
going to be left, according to the theory, with no way to decide what to
do at all). The agent may instead ask herself, “If I were to do such and
such now, would I be acting justly or unjustly (or neither), kindly or
unkindly [and so on]?” I shall consider below the problem created by
cases in which such a question apparently does not yield an answer to

“What should I do?” (because, say, the alternatives are being unkind or
being unjust); here my claim is only that it sometimes does-the agent
may employ her concepts of the virtues and vices directly, rather than
imagining what some hypothetical exemplar would do.

Fifth (a point that is implicit but should be made explicit), virtue the-
ory is not committed to any sort of reductionism involving defining all of
our moral concepts in terms of the virtuous agent. On the contrary, it
relies on a lot of very significant moral concepts. Charity or benevolence,

for instance, is the virtue whose concern is the good of others; that con-
cept of good is related to the concept of evil or harm, and they are both
related to the concepts of the worthwhile, the advantageous, and the
pleasant. If I have the wrong conception of what is worthwhile and ad-

human nature” (John McDowell, “The Role of Eudaimonia in Aristotle’s Ethics,” in Essays
on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amelie Rorty IBerkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, I980]). The sort of training that is required for acquiring the correct conception no
doubt involves being taught from early on such things as “Decent people do this sort of
thing, not that” and “To do such and such is the mark of a depraved character” (cf. Nico-
machean Ethics i i ioa22). But whether this counts as relying on the concept of right (or
wrong) action seems to me very unclear and requiring much discussion.

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228 Philosophy & Public Affairs

vantageous and pleasant, then I shall have the wrong conception of what
is good for, and harnful to, myself and others, and, even with the best
will in the world, will lack the virtue of charity, which involves getting

all this right. (This point will be illustrated at some length in the second
half of this article; I mention it here only in support of the fact that no
virtue theorst who takes her inspiration from Aristotle would even con-
template aiming at reductionism.)3

Let me now, with equal brevity, run through two more standard criti-
cisms of virtue theory (the sixth and seventh of my nine) to show that,
though not entirely misplaced, they do not highlight problems peculiar
to that theory but, rather, problems that are shared by familiar versions

of deontology.

One common criticism is that we do not know which character traits

are the virtues, or that this is open to much dispute, or particularly sub-
ject to the threat of moral skepticism or “pluralism”4 or cultural relativ-
ism. But the parallel roles played by the second premises of both deon-
tological and virtue theories reveal the way in which both sorts of theory
share this problem. It is at the stage at which one tries to get the right
conclusions to drop out of the bottom of one’s theory that, theoretically,
all the work has to be done. Rule deontologists know that they want to

get “don’t kill,” “keep promises,” “cherish your children,” and so on as
the rules that meet their specification, whatever it may be. They also
know that any of these can be disputed, that some philosopher may
claim, of any one of them, that it is reasonable to reject it, and that at
least people claim that there has been, for each rule, some culture that

3. Cf. Bernard Williams’ point in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: William
Collins, I985) that we need an enriched ethical vocabulary, not a cut-down one.

4. I put pluralism in scare quotes to serve as a warning that virtue theory is not incom-
patible with all forms of it. It allows for “competing conceptions” of eudaimonia and the

worthwhile, for instance, in the sense that it allows for a plurality of flourishing lives-the
theory need not follow Aristotle in specifying the life of contemplation as the only one that
truly constitutes eudaimonia (if he does). But the conceptions “compete” only in the sense
that, within a single flourishing life, not everything worthwhile can be fitted in; the theory
does not allow that two people with a correct conception of eudaimonia can disagree over

whether the way the other is living constitutes flourishing. Moreover, the theory is com-
mitted to the strong thesis that the same set of character traits is needed for any flourishing
life; it will not allow that, for instance, soldiers need courage but wives and mothers do not,

or that judges need justice but can live well despite lacking kindness. (This obviously is
related to the point made in note i above.) For an interesting discussion of pluralism (dif-
ferent interpretations thereof) and virtue theory, see Douglas B. Rasmussen, “Liberalism
and Natural End Ethics,” American Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1990): 153-6I.

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229 Virtue Theory and Abortion

rejected it. Similarly, the virtue theorists know that they want to get jus-
tice, charity, fidelity, courage, and so on as the character traits needed

for eudaimonia; and they also know that any of these can be disputed,
that some philosopher will say of any one of them that it is reasonable to
reject it as a virtue, and that there is said to be, for each character trait,

some culture that has thus rejected it.
This is a problem for both theories, and the virtue theorist certainly

does not find it any harder to argue against moral skepticism, “plural-

ism,” or cultural relativism than the deontologist. Each theory has to

stick out its neck and say, in some cases, “This person/these people/other
cultures are (or would be) in error,” and find some grounds for saying

Another criticism (the seventh) often made is that virtue ethics has
unresolvable conflict built into it. “It is common knowledge,” it is said,
“that the requirements of the virtues can conflict; charity may prompt
me to end the frightful suffering of the person in my care by killing him,
but justice bids me to stay my hand. To tell my brother that his wife is
being unfaithful to him would be honest and loyal, but it would be kinder
to keep quiet about it. So which should I do? In such cases, virtue ethics
has nothing helpful to say.” (This is one version of the problem, men-
tioned above, that considering whether a proposed action falls under a
virtue or vice term does not always yield an answer to “What should I

The obvious reply to this criticism is that rule deontology notoriously

suffers from the same problem, arising not only from the fact that its
rules can apparently conflict, but also from the fact that, at first blush, it
appears that one and the same rule (e.g., preserve life) can yield contrary
instructions in a particular case.5 As before, I agree that this is a problem
for virtue theory, but deny that it is a problem peculiar to it.

Finally, I want to articulate, and reject, what I take to be the major
criticism of virtue theory. Perhaps because it is the major criticism, the
reflection of a very general sort of disquiet about the theory, it is hard to

state clearly-especially for someone who does not accept it-but it goes
something like this.6 My interlocutor says:

5. E.g., in Williams’ Jim and Pedro case in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitar-

ianism: For and Against (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
6. Intimations of this criticism constantly come up in discussion; the clearest statement

of it I have found is by Onora O’Neill, in her review of Stephen Clark’s The Moral Status

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230 Philosophy & Public Affairs

Virtue theory can’t get us anywhere in real moral issues because it’s
bound to be all assertion and no argument. You admit that the best it
can come up with in the way of action-guiding rules are the ones that

rely on the virtue and vice concepts, such as “act charitably,” “don’t
act cruelly,” and so on; and, as if that weren’t bad enough, you admit
that these virtue concepts, such as charity, presuppose concepts such
as the good, and the worthwhile, and so on. But that means that any
virtue theorist who writes about real moral issues must rely on her
audience’s agreeing with her application of all these concepts, and
hence accepting all the premises in which those applications are en-
shrined. But some other virtue theorist might take different premises
about these matters, and come up with very different conclusions,
and, within the terms of the theory, there is no way to distinguish be-
tween the two. While there is agreement, virtue theory can repeat con-

ventional wisdom, preserve the status quo, but it can’t get us any-
where in the way that a normative ethical theory is supposed to,
namely, by providing rational grounds for acceptance of its practical

My strategy will be to split this criticism into two: one (the eighth) ad-
dressed to the virtue theorist’s employment of the virtue and vice con-

cepts enshrined in her rules-act charitably, honestly, and so on-and
the other (the ninth) addressed to her employment of concepts such as
that of the worthwhile. Each objection, I shall maintain, implicitly ap-
peals to a certain condition of adequacy on a normative moral theory, and
in each case, I shall claim, the condition of adequacy, once made explicit,
is utterly implausible.

It is true that when she discusses real moral issues, the virtue theorist
has to assert that certain actions are honest, dishonest, or neither; char-

itable, uncharitable, or neither. And it is true that this is often a very
difficult matter to decide; her rules are not always easy to apply. But this
counts as a criticism of the theory only if we assume, as a condition of
adequacy, that any adequate action-guiding theory must make the diffi-
cult business of knowing what to do if one is to act well easy, that it must
provide clear guidance about what ought and ought not to be done which

of Animals, in Journal of Philosophy 77 (I980): 440-46. For a response I am much in
sympathy with, see Cora Diamond, “Anything But Argument?” Philosophical Investiga-
tions 5 (I982): 23-41.

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23I Virtue Theory and Abortion

any reasonably clever adolescent could follow if she chose. But such a

condition of adequacy is implausible. Acting rightly is difficult, and does

call for much moral wisdom, and the relevant condition of adequacy,

which virtue theory meets, is that it should have built into it an expla-

nation of a truth expressed by Aristotle,7 namely, that moral knowl-

edge-unlike mathematical knowledge-cannot be acquired merely by

attending lectures and is not characteristically to be found in people too

young to have had much experience of life. There are youthful mathe-

matical geniuses, but rarely, if ever, youthful moral geniuses, and this

tells us something significant about the sort of knowledge that moral

knowledge is. Virtue ethics builds this in straight off precisely by couch-

ing its rules in terms whose application may indeed call for the most

delicate and sensitive judgment.
Here we may discern a slightly different version of the problem that

there are cases in which applying the virtue and vice terms does not yield

an answer to “What should I do?” Suppose someone “youthful in char-

acter,” as Aristotle puts it, having applied the relevant terms, finds her-

self landed with what is, unbeknownst to her, a case not of real but of

apparent conflict, arising from a misapplication of those terms. Then she

will not be able to decide what to do unless she knows of a virtuous agent

to look to for guidance. But her quandary is (ex hypothesi) the result of

her lack of wisdom, and just what virtue theory expects. Someone hesi-

tating over whether to reveal a hurtful truth, for example, thinking it

would be kind but dishonest or unjust to lie, may need to realize, with

respect to these particular circumstances, not that kindness is more (or

less) important than honesty or justice, and not that honesty or justice

sometimes requires one to act unkindly or cruelly, but that one does peo-

ple no kindness by concealing this sort of truth from them, hurtful as it

may be. This is the type of thing (I use it only as an example) that people
with moral wisdom know about, involving the correct application of kind,

and that people without such wisdom find difficult.

What about the virtue theorist’s reliance on concepts such as that of

the worthwhile? If such reliance is to count as a fault in the theory, what

condition of adequacy is implicitly in play? It must be that any good nor-

mative theory should provide answers to questions about real moral is-

sues whose truth is in no way determined by truths about what is worth-

7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I142ai2-i6.

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232 Philosophy & Public Affairs

while, or what really matters in human life. Now although people are
initially inclined to reject out of hand the claim that the practical conclu-
sions of a normative moral theory have to be based on premises about
what is truly worthwhile, the alternative, once it is made explicit, may
look even more unacceptable. Consider what the condition of adequacy
entails. If truths about what is worthwhile (or truly good, or serious, or
about what matters in human life) do not have to be appealed to in order
to answer questions about real moral issues, then I might sensibly seek
guidance about what I ought to do from someone who had declared in
advance that she knew nothing about such matters, or from someone
who said that, although she had opinions about them, these were quite
likely to be wrong but that this did not matter, because they would play
no determining role in the advice she gave me.

I should emphasize that we are talking about real moral issues and real
guidance; I want to know whether I should have an abortion, take my
mother off the life-support machine, leave academic life and become a
doctor in the Third World, give up my job with the firm that is using
animals in its experiments, tell my father he has cancer. Would I go to
someone who says she has no views about what is worthwhile in life? Or
to someone who says that, as a matter of fact, she tends to think that the
only thing that matters is having a good time, but has a normative theory
that is consistent both with this view and with my own rather more pu-
ritanical one, which will yield the guidance I need?

I take it as a premise that this is absurd. The relevant condition of
adequacy should be that the practical conclusions of a good normative
theory must be in part determined by premises about what is worth-
while, important, and so on. Thus I reject this “major criticism” of virtue
theory, that it cannot get us anywhere in the way that a normative moral
theory is supposed to. According to my response, a normative theory that
any clever adolescent can apply, or that reaches practical conclusions
that are in no way determined by premises about what is truly worth-
while, serious, and so on, is guaranteed to be an inadequate theory.

Although I reject this criticism, I have not argued that it is misplaced
and that it necessarily manifests a failure to understand what virtue the-
ory is. My rejection is based on premises about what an adequate nor-
mative theory must be like-what sorts of concepts it must contain, and
what sort of account it must give of moral knowledge-and thereby
claims, implicitly, that the “major criticism” manifests a failure to under-

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233 Virtue Theory and Abortion

stand what an adequate normative theory is. But, as a matter of fact, I
think the criticism is often made by people who have no idea of what
virtue theory looks like when applied to a real moral issue; they drasti-
cally underestimate the variety of ways in which the virtue and vice con-

cepts, and the others, such as that of the worthwhile, figure in such dis-

As promised, I now turn to an illustration of such discussion, applying

virtue theory to abortion. Before I embark on this tendentious business,
I should remind the reader of the aim of this discussion. I am not, in this
article, trying to solve the problem of abortion; I am illustrating how vir-
tue theory directs one to think about it. It might indeed be said that
thinking about the problem in this way “solves” it by dissolving it, insofar
as it leads one to the conclusion that there is no single right answer, but
a variety of particular answers, and in what follows I am certainly trying
to make that conclusion seem plausible. But, that granted, it should still
be said that I am not trying to “solve the problems” in the practical sense

of telling people that they should, or should not, do this or that if they
are pregnant and contemplating abortion in these or those particular cir-

I do not assume, or expect, that all of my readers will agree with ev-

erything I am about to say. On the contrary, given the plausible assump-
tion that some are morally wiser than I am, and some less so, the theory

has built into it that we are bound to disagree on some points. For in-

stance, we may well disagree about the particular application of some of
the virtue and vice terms; and we may disagree about what is worthwhile
or serious, worthless or trivial. But my aim is to make clear how these

concepts figure in a discussion conducted in terms of virtue theory.
What is at issue is whether these concepts are indeed the ones that

should come in, that is, whether virtue theory should be criticized for
employing them. The problem of abortion highlights this issue dramati-
cally since virtue theory quite transforms the discussion of it.


As everyone knows, the morality of abortion is commonly discussed in
relation to just two considerations: first, and predominantly, the status of
the fetus and whether or not it is the sort of thing that may or may not

be innocuously or justifiably killed; and second, and less predominantly

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234 Philosophy & Public Affairs

(when, that is, the discussion concerns the morality of abortion rather
than the question of permissible legislation in a just society), women’s
rights. If one thinks within this familiar framework, one may well be
puzzled about what virtue theory, as such, could contribute. Some peo-
ple assume the discussion will be conducted solely in terms of what the
virtuous agent would or would not do (cf. the third, fourth, and fifth crit-
icisms above). Others assume that only justice, or at most justice and
charity,8 will be applied to the issue, generating a discussion very similar
to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s.9

Now if this is the way the virtue theorist’s discussion of abortion is
imagined to be, no wonder people think little of it. It seems obvious in
advance that in any such discussion there must be either a great deal of
extremely tendentious application of the virtue terms just, charitable,
and so on or a lot of rhetorical appeal to “this is what only the virtuous
agent knows.” But these are caricatures; they fail to appreciate the way
in which virtue theory quite transforms the discussion of abortion by dis-
missing the two familiar dominating considerations as, in a way, funda-
mentally irrelevant. In what way or ways, I hope to make both clear and

Let us first consider women’s rights. Let me emphasize again that we
are discussing the morality of abortion, not the rights and wrongs of laws
prohibiting or pernitting it. If we suppose that women do have a moral
right to do as they choose with their own bodies, or, more particularly, to
terminate their pregnancies, then it may well follow that a law forbidding
abortion would be unjust. Indeed, even if they have no such right, such
a law might be, as things stand at the moment, unjust, or impractical, or
inhumane: on this issue I have nothing to say in this article. But, putting
all questions about the justice or injustice of laws to one side, and sup-

8. It seems likely that some people have been misled by Foot’s discussion of euthanasia
(through no fault of hers) into thinking that a virtue theorist’s discussion of terminating
human life will be conducted exclusively in terms of justice and charity (and the corre-
sponding vice terms) (Philippa Foot, “Euthanasia,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6, no. 2
[Winter 1977]: 85-I I 2). But the act-category euthanasia is a very special one, at least as
defined in her article, since such an act must be done “for the sake of the one who is to
die.” Building a virtuous motivation into the specification of the act in this way immediately
rules out the application of many other vice terms.

9. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs I, no. i
(Fall 1971): 47-66. One could indeed regard this article as proto-virtue theory (no doubt
to the surprise of the author) if the concepts of callousness and kindness were allowed
more weight.

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235 Virtue Theory and Abortion

posing only that women have such a moral right, nothing follows from
this supposition about the morality of abortion, according to virtue the-
ory, once it is noted (quite generally, not with particular reference to
abortion) that in exercising a moral right I can do something cruel, or
callous, or selfish, light-minded, self-righteous, stupid, inconsiderate,
disloyal, dishonest-that is, act viciously.Io Love and friendship do not
survive their parties’ constantly insisting on their rights, nor do people
live well when they think that getting what they have a right to is of
preeminent importance; they harm others, and they harm themselves.
So whether women have a moral right to tenninate their pregnancies is
irrelevant within virtue theory, for it is irrelevant to the question “In hav-

ing an abortion in these circumstances, would the agent be acting vir-
tuously or viciously or neither?”

What about the consideration of the status of the fetus-what can vir-
tue theory say about that? One might say that this issue is not in the
province of any moral theory; it is a metaphysical question, and an ex-
tremely difficult one at that. Must virtue theory then wait upon meta-
physics to come up with the answer?

At first sight it might seem so. For virtue is said to involve knowledge,
and part of this knowledge consists in having the right attitude to things.
“Right” here does not just mean “morally right” or “proper” or “nice” in
the modem sense; it means “accurate, true.” One cannot have the right
or correct attitude to something if the attitude is based on or involves
false beliefs. And this suggests that if the status of the fetus is relevant
to the rightness or wrongness of abortion, its status must be known, as a
truth, to the fully wise and virtuous person.

But the sort of wisdom that the fully virtuous person has is not sup-
posed to be recondite; it does not call for fancy philosophical sophistica-
tion, and it does not depend upon, let alone wait upon, the discoveries of
academic philosophers.”, And this entails the following, rather startling,

io. One possible qualification: if one ties the concept of justice very closely to rights,
then if women do have a moral right to terminate their pregnancies it may follow that in
doing so they do not act unjustly. (Cf. Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion.”) But it is debat-
able whether even that much follows.

i i. This is an assumption of virtue theory, and I do not attempt to defend it here. An
adequate discussion of it would require a separate article, since, although most moral phi-
losophers would be chary of claiming that intellectual sophistication is a necessary condi-
tion of moral wisdom or virtue, most of us, from Plato onward, tend to write as if this were
so. Sorting out which claims about moral knowledge are committed to this kind of elitism

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236 Philosophy & Public Affairs

conclusion: that the status of the fetus-that issue over which so much
ink has been spilt-is, according to virtue theory, simply not relevant to
the rightness or wrongness of abortion (within, that is, a secular moral-

Or rather, since that is clearly too radical a conclusion, it is in a sense
relevant, but only in the sense that the familiar biological facts are rele-
vant. By “the familiar biological facts” I mean the facts that most human
societies are and have been familiar with-that, standardly (but not in-
variably), pregnancy occurs as the result of sexual intercourse, that it
lasts about nine months, during which time the fetus grows and devel-
ops, that standardly it terminates in the birth of a living baby, and that
this is how we all come to be.

It might be thought that this distinction-between the familiar biolog-
ical facts and the status of the fetus-is a distinction without a differ-
ence. But this is not so. To attach relevance to the status of the fetus, in
the sense in which virtue theory claims it is not relevant, is to be gripped
by the conviction that we must go beyond the familiar biological facts,
deriving some sort of conclusion from them, such as that the fetus has
rights, or is not a person, or something similar. It is also to believe that
this exhausts the relevance of the familiar biological facts, that all they
are relevant to is the status of the fetus and whether or not it is the sort
of thing that may or may not be killed.

These convictions, I suspect, are rooted in the desire to solve the prob-
lem of abortion by getting it to fall under some general rule such as “You
ought not to kill anything with the right to life but may kill anything
else.” But they have resulted in what should surely strike any nonphilos-
opher as a most bizarre aspect of nearly all the current philosophical lit-
erature on abortion, namely, that, far from treating abortion as a unique
moral problem, markedly unlike any other, nearly everything written on
the status of the fetus and its bearing on the abortion issue would be
consistent with the human reproductive facts’ (to say nothing of family
life) being totally different from what they are. Imagine that you are an
alien extraterrestrial anthropologist who does not know that the human
race is roughly 50 percent female and 50 percent male, or that our only
(natural) form of reproduction involves heterosexual intercourse, vivipa-

and which can, albeit with difficulty, be reconciled with the idea that moral knowledge can
be acquired by anyone who really wants it would be a major task.

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237 Virtue Theory and Abortion

rous birth, and the female’s (and only the female’s) being pregnant for

nine months, or that females are capable of childbearing from late child-

hood to late middle age, or that childbearing is painful, dangerous, and
emotionally charged-do you think you would pick up these facts from

the hundreds of articles written on the status of the fetus? I am quite

sure you would not. And that, I think, shows that the current philosoph-
ical literature on abortion has got badly out of touch with reality.

Now if we are using virtue theory, our first question is not “What do

the familiar biological facts show-what can be derived from them about

the status of the fetus?” but “How do these facts figure in the practical

reasoning, actions and passions, thoughts and reactions, of the virtuous

and the nonvirtuous? What is the mark of having the right attitude to

these facts and what manifests having the wrong attitude to them?” This

immediately makes essentially relevant not only all the facts about hu-
man reproduction I mentioned above, but a whole range of facts about
our emotions in relation to them as well. I mean such facts as that hu-

man parents, both male and female, tend to care passionately about their
offspring, and that family relationships are among the deepest and

strongest in our lives-and, significantly, among the longest-lasting.
These facts make it obvious that pregnancy is not just one among

many other physical conditions; and hence that anyone who genuinely
believes that an abortion is comparable to a haircut or an appendectomy
is mistaken. 12 The fact that the premature termination of a pregnancy is,
in some sense, the cutting off of a new human life, and thereby, like the
procreation of a new human life, connects with all our thoughts about
human life and death, parenthood, and family relationships, must make
it a serious matter. To disregard this fact about it, to think of abortion as

12. Mary Anne Warren, in “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” Monist 57
(1973), sec. i, says of the opponents of restrictive laws governing abortion that “their con-
viction (for the most part) is that abortion is not a morally serious and extremely unfortu-
nate, even though sometimes justified, act, comparable to killing in self-defense or to let-
ting the violinist die, but rather is closer to being a morally neutral act, like cutting one’s
hair” (italics mine). I would like to think that no one genuinely believes this. But certainly
in discussion, particularly when arguing against restrictive laws or the suggestion that re-
morse over abortion might be appropriate, I have found that some people say they believe
it (and often cite Warren’s article, albeit inaccurately, despite its age). Those who allow
that it is morally serious, and far from morally neutral, have to argue against restrictive
laws, or the appropriateness of remorse, on a very different ground from that laid down by
the premise “The fetus is just part of the woman’s body (and she has a right to determine
what happens to her body and should not feel guilt about anything she does to it).”

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238 Philosophy & Public Affairs

nothing but the killing of something that does not matter, or as nothing

but the exercise of some right or rights one has, or as the incidental

means to some desirable state of affairs, is to do something callous and

light-minded, the sort of thing that no virtuous and wise person would
do. It is to have the wrong attitude not only to fetuses, but more generally
to human life and death, parenthood, and family relationships.

Although I say that the facts make this obvious, I know that this is one
of my tendentious points. In partial support of it I note that even the most
dedicated proponents of the view that deliberate abortion is just like an
appendectomy or haircut rarely hold the same view of spontaneous abor-
tion, that is, miscarriage. It is not so tendentious of me to claim that to

react to people’s grief over miscarriage by saying, or even thinking,

“What a fuss about nothing!” would be callous and light-minded,

whereas to try to laugh someone out of grief over an appendectomy scar
or a botched haircut would not be. It is hard to give this point due prom-
inence within act-centered theories, for the inconsistency is an inconsis-
tency in attitude about the seriousness of loss of life, not in beliefs about
which acts are right or wrong. Moreover, an act-centered theorist may
say, “Well, there is nothing wrong with thinking ‘What a fuss about
nothing!’ as long as you do not say it and hurt the person who is grieving.

And besides, we cannot be held responsible for our thoughts, only for the
intentional actions they give rise to.” But the character traits that virtue
theory emphasizes are not simply dispositions to intentional actions, but
a seamless disposition to certain actions and passions, thoughts and re-

To say that the cutting off of a human life is always a matter of some

seriousness, at any stage, is not to deny the relevance of gradual fetal
development. Notwithstanding the well-worn point that clear boundary
lines cannot be drawn, our emotions and attitudes regarding the fetus do
change as it develops, and again when it is born, and indeed further as
the baby grows. Abortion for shallow reasons in the later stages is much
more shocking than abortion for the same reasons in the early stages in
a way that matches the fact that deep grief over miscarriage in the later
stages is more appropriate than it is over miscarriage in the earlier stages
(when, that is, the grief is solely about the loss of this child, not about,
as might be the case, the loss of one’s only hope of having a child or of
having one’s husband’s child). Imagine (or recall) a woman who already
has children; she had not intended to have more, but finds herself un-

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239 Virtue Theory and Abortion

expectedly pregnant. Though contrary to her plans, the pregnancy, once

established as a fact, is welcomed-and then she loses the embryo al-

most immediately. If this were bemoaned as a tragedy, it would, I think,
be a misapplication of the concept of what is tragic. But it may still prop-

erly be mourned as a loss. The grief is expressed in such terms as “I shall

always wonder how she or he would have turned out” or “When I look

at the others, I shall think, ‘How different their lives would have been if
this other one had been part of them.’ ” It would, I take it, be callous and

light-minded to say, or think, “Well, she has already got four children;
what’s the problem?”; it would be neither, nor arrogantly intrusive in the

case of a close friend, to try to correct prolonged mourning by saying, “I

know it’s sad, but it’s not a tragedy; rejoice in the ones you have.” The
application of tragic becomes more appropriate as the fetus grows, for

the mere fact that one has lived with it for longer, conscious of its exis-

tence, makes a difference. To shrug off an early abortion is understand-

able just because it is very hard to be fully conscious of the fetus’s exis-

tence in the early stages and hence hard to appreciate that an early

abortion is the destruction of life. It is particularly hard for the young and

inexperienced to appreciate this, because appreciation of it usually

comes only with experience.

I do not mean “with the experience of having an abortion” (though

that may be part of it) but, quite generally, “with the experience of life.”

Many women who have borne children contrast their later pregnancies
with their first successful one, saying that in the later ones they were
conscious of a new life growing in them from very early on. And, more
generally, as one reaches the age at which the next generation is coming

up close behind one, the counterfactuals “If I, or she, had had an abor-
tion, Alice, or Bob, would not have been born” acquire a significant ap-

plication, which casts a new light on the conditionals “If I or Alice have
an abortion then some Caroline or Bill will not be born.”

The fact that pregnancy is not just one among many physical condi-

tions does not mean that one can never regard it in that light without

manifesting a vice. When women are in very poor physical health, or
worn out from childbearing, or forced to do very physically demanding
jobs, then they cannot be described as self-indulgent, callous, irrespon-
sible, or light-minded if they seek abortions mainly with a view to avoid-
ing pregnancy as the physical condition that it is. To go through with a
pregnancy when one is utterly exhausted, or when one’s job consists of

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240 Philosophy & Public Affairs

crawling along tunnels hauling coal, as many women in the nineteenth
century were obliged to do, is perhaps heroic, but people who do not

achieve heroism are not necessarily vicious. That they can view the preg-

nancy only as eight months of misery, followed by hours if not days of
agony and exhaustion, and abortion only as the blessed escape from this
prospect, is entirely understandable and does not manifest any lack of

serious respect for human life or a shallow attitude to motherhood. What
it does show is that something is terribly amiss in the conditions of their
lives, which make it so hard to recognize pregnancy and childbearing as
the good that they can be.

In relation to this last point I should draw attention to the way in

which virtue theory has a sort of built-in indexicality. Philosophers ar-

guing against anything remotely resembling a belief in the sanctity of
life (which the above claims clearly embody) frequently appeal to the
existence of other communities in which abortion and infanticide are
practiced. We should not automatically assume that it is impossible that
some other communities could be morally inferior to our own; maybe
some are, or have been, precisely insofar as their members are, typically,
callous or light-minded or unjust. But in communities in which life is a
great deal tougher for everyone than it is in ours, having the right atti-

tude to human life and death, parenthood, and family relationships
might well manifest itself in ways that are unlike ours. When it is essen-
tial to survival that most members of the community fend for themselves

at a very young age or work during most of their waking hours, selective

abortion or infanticide might be practiced either as a form of genuine
euthanasia or for the sake of the community and not, I think, be thought

callous or light-minded. But this does not make everything all right; as
before, it shows that there is something amiss with the conditions of
their lives, which are making it impossible for them to live reaUly well.13

The foregoing discussion, insofar as it emphasizes the right attitude to

human life and death, parallels to a certain extent those standard discus-
sions of abortion that concentrate on it solely as an issue of killing. But
it does not, as those discussions do, gloss over the fact, emphasized by
those who discuss the morality of abortion in terms of women’s rights,

that abortion, wildly unlike any other form of killing, is the termination

13. For another example of the way in which “tough conditions” can make a difference
to what is involved in having the right attitude to human life and death and family relation-
ships, see the concluding sentences of Foot’s “Euthanasia.”

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241 Virtue Theory and Abortion

of a pregnancy, which is a condition of a woman’s body and results in
her having a child if it is not aborted. This fact is given due recognition
not by appeal to women’s rights but by emphasizing the relevance of the
familiar biological and psychological facts and their connection with hav-

ing the right attitude to parenthood and family relationships. But it may
well be thought that failing to bring in women’s rights still leaves some

important aspects of the problem of abortion untouched.
Speaking in terms of women’s rights, people sometimes say things

like, “Well, it’s her life you’re talking about too, you know; she’s got a
right to her own life, her own happiness.” And the discussion stops there.
But in the context of virtue theory, given that we are particularly con-
cerned with what constitutes a good human life, with what true happi-
ness or eudaimonia is, this is no place to stop. We go on to ask, “And is
this life of hers a good one? Is she living well?”

If we are to go on to talk about good human lives, in the context of
abortion, we have to bring in our thoughts about the value of love and
family life, and our proper emotional development through a natural life
cycle. The familiar facts support the view that parenthood in general,
and motherhood and childbearing in particular, are intrinsically worth-
while, are among the things that can be correctly thought to be partially
constitutive of a flourishing human life. ‘4 If this is right, then a woman
who opts for not being a mother (at all, or again, or now) by opting for
abortion may thereby be manifesting a flawed grasp of what her life
should be, and be about-a grasp that is childish, or grossly materialistic,
or shortsighted, or shallow.

I said “may thereby”: this need not be so. Consider, for instance, a
woman who has already had several children and fears that to have an-
other will seriously affect her capacity to be a good mother to the ones
she has-she does not show a lack of appreciation of the intrinsic value
of being a parent by opting for abortion. Nor does a woman who has been
a good mother and is approaching the age at which she may be looking
forward to being a good grandmother. Nor does a woman who discovers

that her pregnancy may well kill her, and opts for abortion and adoption.
Nor, necessarily, does a woman who has decided to lead a life centered

14. I take this as a premise here, but argue for it in some detail in my Beginning Lives

(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, I987). In this connection I also discuss adoption and the sense
in which it may be regarded as “second best,” and the difficult question of whether the
good of parenthood may properly be sought, or indeed bought, by surrogacy.

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242 Philosophy & Public Affairs

around some other worthwhile activity or activities with which mother-
hood would compete.

People who are childless by choice are sometimes described as “irre-

sponsible,” or “selfish,” or “refusing to grow up,” or “not knowing what
life is about.” But one can hold that having children is intrinsically
worthwhile without endorsing this, for we are, after all, in the happy po-
sition of there being more worthwhile things to do than can be fitted into
one lifetime. Parenthood, and motherhood in particular, even if granted
to be intrinsically worthwhile, undoubtedly take up a lot of one’s adult
life, leaving no room for some other worthwhile pursuits. But some

women who choose abortion rather than have their first child, and some

men who encourage their partners to choose abortion, are not avoiding
parenthood for the sake of other worthwhile pursuits, but for the worth-
less one of “having a good time,” or for the pursuit of some false vision
of the ideals of freedom or self-realization. And some others who say “I
am not ready for parenthood yet” are making some sort of mistake about
the extent to which one can manipulate the circumstances of one’s life
so as to make it fulfill some dream that one has. Perhaps one’s dream is
to have two perfect children, a girl and a boy, within a perfect marriage,

in financially secure circumstances, with an interesting job of one’s own.
But to care too much about that dream, to demand of life that it give it
to one and act accordingly, may be both greedy and foolish, and is to run

the risk of missing out on happiness entirely. Not only may fate make

the dream impossible, or destroy it, but one’s own attachment to it may
make it impossible. Good marriages, and the most promising children,
can be destroyed by just one adult’s excessive demand for perfection.

Once again, this is not to deny that girls may quite properly say “I am
not ready for motherhood yet,” especially in our society, and, far from
manifesting irresponsibility or light-mindedness, show an appropriate
modesty or humility, or a fearfulness that does not amount to cowardice.
However, even when the decision to have an abortion is the right deci-
sion-one that does not itself fall under a vice-related term and thereby
one that the perfectly virtuous could recommend-it does not follow that
there is no sense in which having the abortion is wrong, or guilt inappro-
priate. For, by virtue of the fact that a human life has been cut short,
some evil has probably been brought about,15 and that circumstances

15. I say “some evil has probably been brought about” on the ground that (human) life

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243 Virtue Theory and Abortion

make the decision to bring about some evil the right decision will be a

ground for guilt if getting into those circumstances in the first place itself

manifested a flaw in character.

What “gets one into those circumstances” in the case of abortion is,

except in the case of rape, one’s sexual activity and one’s choices, or the

lack of them, about one’s sexual partner and about contraception. The

virtuous woman (which here of course does not mean simply “chaste

woman” but “woman with the virtues”) has such character traits as

strength, independence, resoluteness, decisiveness, self-confidence, re-

sponsibility, serious-mindedness, and self-determination-and no one, I

think, could deny that many women become pregnant in circumstances

in which they cannot welcome or cannot face the thought of having this

child precisely because they lack one or some of these character traits.

So even in the cases where the decision to have an abortion is the right

one, it can still be the reflection of a moral failing-not because the de-

cision itself is weak or cowardly or irresolute or irresponsible or light-

minded, but because lack of the requisite opposite of these failings

landed one in the circumstances in the first place. Hence the common

universalized claim that guilt and remorse are never appropriate emo-
tions about an abortion is denied. They may be appropriate, and appro-

priately inculcated, even when the decision was the right one.

Another motivation for bringing women’s rights into the discussion
may be to attempt to correct the implication, carried by the killing-cen-

tered approach, that insofar as abortion is wrong, it is a wrong that only

women do, or at least (given the preponderance of male doctors) that

only women instigate. I do not myself believe that we can thus escape
the fact that nature bears harder on women than it does on men,i6 but

virtue theory can certainly correct many of the injustices that the em-

phasis on women’s rights is rightly concerned about. With very little

amendment, everything that has been said above applies to boys and
men too. Although the abortion decision is, in a natural sense, the wom-
an’s decision, proper to her, boys and men are often party to it, for well

is (usually) a good and hence (human) death usually an evil. The exceptions would be (a)
where death is actually a good or a benefit, because the baby that would come to be if the

life were not cut short would be better off dead than alive, and (b) where death, though not
a good, is not an evil either, because the life that would be led (e.g., in a state of permanent
coma) would not be a good. (See Foot, “Euthanasia.”)

i6. I discuss this point at greater length in Beginning Lives.

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244 Philosophy & Public Affairs

or ill, and even when they are not, they are bound to have been party to
the circumstances that brought it up. No less than girls and women,
boys and men can, in their actions, manifest self-centeredness, callous-
ness, and light-mindedness about life and parenthood in relation to abor-
tion. They can be self-centered or courageous about the possibility of dis-
ability in their offspring; they need to reflect on their sexual activity and
their choices, or the lack of them, about their sexual partner and contra-
ception; they need to grow up and take responsibility for their own ac-
tions and life in relation to fatherhood. If it is true, as I maintain, that
insofar as motherhood is intrinsically worthwhile, being a mother is an
important purpose in women’s lives, being a father (rather than a mere
generator) is an important purpose in men’s lives as well, and it is ado-
lescent of men to turn a blind eye to this and pretend that they have
many more important things to do.


Much more might be said, but I shall end the actual discussion of the
problem of abortion here, and conclude by highlighting what I take to be
its significant features. These hark back to many of the criticisms of vir-
tue theory discussed earlier.

The discussion does not proceed simply by our trying to answer the

question “Would a perfectly virtuous agent ever have an abortion and, if
so, when?”; virtue theory is not limited to considering “Would Socrates
have had an abortion if he were a raped, pregnant fifteen-year-old?” nor
automatically stumped when we are considering circumstances into
which no virtuous agent would have got herself. Instead, much of the
discussion proceeds in the virtue- and vice-related terms whose applica-
tion, in several cases, yields practical conclusions (cf. the third and
fourth criticisms above). These terms are difficult to apply correctly, and
anyone might challenge my application of any one of them. So, for ex-
ample, I have claimed that some abortions, done for certain reasons,
would be callous or light-minded; that others might indicate an appro-
priate modesty or humility; that others would reflect a greedy and foolish
attitude to what one could expect out of life. Any of these examples may

be disputed, but what is at issue is, should these difficult terms be there,
or should the discussion be couched in terms that all clever adolescents

can apply correctly? (Cf. the first half of the “major objection” above.)

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245 Virtue Theory and Abortion

Proceeding as it does in the virtue- and vice-related terms, the discus-

sion thereby, inevitably, also contains claims about what is worthwhile,
serious and important, good and evil, in our lives. So, for example, I

claimed that parenthood is intrinsically worthwhile, and that having a

good time was a worthless end (in life, not on individual occasions); that

losing a fetus is always a serious matter (albeit not a tragedy in itself in

the first trimester) whereas acquiring an appendectomy scar is a trivial

one; that (human) death is an evil. Once again, these are difficult mat-

ters, and anyone might challenge any one of my claims. But what is at

issue is, as before, should those difficult claims be there or can one reach

practical conclusions about real moral issues that are in no way deter-

mined by premises about such matters? (Cf. the fifth criticism, and the
second half of the “major criticism.”)

The discussion also thereby, inevitably, contains claims about what life

is like (e.g., my claim that love and friendship do not survive their par-
ties’ constantly insisting on their rights; or the claim that to demand per-

fection of life is to run the risk of missing out on happiness entirely).

What is at issue is, should those disputable claims be there, or is our
knowledge (or are our false opinions) about what life is like irrelevant to

our understanding of real moral issues? (Cf. both halves of the “major

Naturally, my own view is that all these concepts should be there in

any discussion of real moral issues and that virtue theory, which uses all
of them, is the right theory to apply to them. I do not pretend to have
shown this. I realize that proponents of rival theories may say that, now
that they have understood how virtue theory uses the range of concepts

it draws on, they are more convinced than ever that such concepts
should not figure in an adequate normative theory, because they are sec-
tarian, or vague, or too particular, or improperly anthropocentric, and re-
instate what I called the “major criticism.” Or, finding many of the de-
tails of the discussion appropriate, they may agree that many, perhaps
even all, of the concepts should figure, but argue that virtue theory gives
an inaccurate account of the way the concepts fit together (and indeed
of the concepts themselves) and that another theory provides a better
account; that would be interesting to see. Moreover, I admitted that there
were at least two problems for virtue theory: that it has to argue against
moral skepticism, “pluralism,” and cultural relativism, and that it has to
find something to say about conflicting requirements of different virtues.

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246 Philosophy & Public Affairs

Proponents of rival theories might argue that their favored theory pro-

vides better solutions to these problems than virtue theory can. Indeed,

they might criticize virtue theory for finding problems here at all. Anyone

who argued for at least one of moral skepticism, “pluralism,” or cultural

relativism could presumably do so (provided their favored theory does not
find a similar problem); and a utilitarian might say that benevolence is
the only virtue and hence that virtue theory errs when it discusses even

apparent conflicts between the requirements of benevolence and some

other character trait such as honesty.
Defending virtue theory against all possible, or even likely, criticisms

of it would be a lifelong task. As I said at the outset, in this article I aimed
to defend the theory against some criticisms which I thought arose from

an inadequate understanding of it, and to improve that understanding.
If I have succeeded, we may hope for more comprehending criticisms of
virtue theory than have appeared hitherto.

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