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Ethics VI: Virtue Theory in Practice. Ethics VI: Virtue Theory in Practice. Rosalind Hursthouse: “Virtue Theory and Abortion”. Hursthouse’s Central Program. Hursthouse seeks to apply an Aristotelian approach to virtue theory to the morality of abortion.

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ethics vi virtue theory in practice

Ethics VI:Virtue Theory in Practice

Ethics VI:Virtue Theory in Practice


Rosalind Hursthouse: “Virtue Theory and Abortion”

Hursthouse’s Central Program

  • Hursthouse seeks to apply an Aristotelian approach to virtue theory to the morality of abortion.
  • In particular, Hursthouse claims she is not attempting to argue that a virtue theory approach is the correct approach to the issue, but rather that she is simply trying to show how a virtue theorist would approach the topic.

Outline of Ethical Approaches

Forges a link between right action and moral rule.


P1 An action is right if it is in accordance with a moral rule or principle.

P2 A moral rule is one that…

Forges a link between moral rule and rationality.

  • …is laid on us by God; or
  • …is required by natural law; or
  • …is laid on us by reason; or
  • …is required by rationality; or
  • …would command universal rational acceptance; or
  • …would be the object of choice of all rational beings.

Outline of Ethical Approaches

Forges a link between right action and consequences.

Act Utilitarianism

P1 An action is right if it promotes the best consequences.

P2 The best consequences are those in which happiness is maximized.

Forges a link between consequences and happiness.


Outline of Ethical Approaches

Forges a link between right action and the virtuous agent.

Virtue Theory

P1 An action is right if it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.

P1a A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has an exercises the virtues.

P2 A virtue is a character train a human being needs to flourish or live well.

Forges a link between virtue and flourishing/ living well/ eudaimonia.


Virtue Theory

  • Virtue theory avoids the complaint of circularity by specifying right action in terms of the virtuous agent, she in terms of virtues, and these as characteristics required for eudaimonia.
  • As such, virtue theory is concerned both with “What should I do?” and “What kind of person should I be?”
  • Every virtue generates a positive instruction, and every vice a prohibition.
  • The agent may skip emulating some virtuous agent, and instead ask herself, “If I were to do such-and-such now, would I be action justly or unjustly, kindly or unkindly… etc.”

Virtue Theory (cont’d)

  • The point of emulating the virtuous agent is that acting morally calls for moral wisdom, which is acquired through experience, and is not typically found in youths who have had little life experience.
  • Hursthouse seems to indicate this comes down to a familiarity with the subtleties of the virtues.
  • “A normative theory which any clever adolescent can apply, or which reaches practical conclusions that are in no way determined by premisses about what is truly worthwhile, serious, and so on, is guaranteed to be an inadequate theory.” (597)

Some Problems Defending Virtue Theory

  • The concept of eudaimonia is obscure, but no less obscure than the foundational concepts of deontology (rationality) and utilitarianism (happiness).
  • It is always possible for one to argue that some given characteristic (justice, charity, courage, etc.) is not a virtue—that it has been rejected as such by some culture. Here, virtue theory must stick its neck out and say, well, this culture is simply wrong, and provide some argument.
  • Virtue theory will certainly encounter cases of “unresolvable conflict” –where some circumstance requires following some one virtue and thus rejecting another. The same issue seems to threaten deontology.

Virtue Theory & Abortion

Hursthouse claims not to be trying to solve the “problem of abortion” but to illustrate how virtue theory directs one to think about it.

  • Traditionally, the ethics of abortion focus on two issues:
  • The status of the fetus, and whether it is the sort of thing that may be justifiably killed (e.g., whether it is a person, whether it has rights, etc.).
  • Women’s rights (e.g. what they are, and how far they extend).

A virtue theory approach eliminates each of these issues as “fundamentally irrelevant.”


Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • Whether or not women have total and complete rights to their bodies does not seem to be a factor in whether they are acting rightly or wrongly—virtuously or viciously:
  • “[I]n 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.” (598)
  • The status of a fetus is an extremely difficult metaphysical issue.
  • But to act virtuously would not seem to rely on one’s having deep metaphysical knowledge about the object of one’s actions.
  • As such, the answer to such a question cannot be relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
  • Rather, what are relevant are the “familiar biological facts” pertaining to abortion.

Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • What we should be asking is, how do the familiar biological facts figure into the practical reasoning, actions and passions, thoughts and reactions of the virtuous and the non-virtuous?
  • What does it mean to have the right or wrong attitude towards such facts?
  • What facts
  • e.g. “that human parents […] tend to care passionately about their offspring.” (599)
  • e.g. “that family relationships are among the deepest and strongest in our lives—and, significantly, among the longest-lasting.” (ibid)
  • Relevantly, we should maintain the right attitude towards life, family, and motherhood.

Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • Obviously, pregnancy is not just one physical condition among many, and abortion not comparable to a haircut or an appendectomy.
  • “[P]remature termination of a pregnancy is, in some sense, the cutting-off of a new human life, and thereby […] connects with all our thoughts about human life and death…” and so is a serious matter. (599)
  • Our attitudes regarding the fetus change as it develops, when it is born, and as the baby grows.
  • As such, abortion for shallow reasons in later stages will be more shocking than abortion in early stages, as will miscarriage in later stages rather than earlier.

Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • When pregnancy, childbearing, or childrearing will conflict with the woman’s physical health or physically demanding job, her seeking an abortion cannot be described as self-indulgent, callous, or irresponsible—as showing a lack of serious respect for human life or motherhood.
  • What this shows is rather that something is very wrong with the woman’s life “which makes it so hard to recognize pregnancy and childbearing as the good that they can be.” (601)
  • That is, there is something that seriously restricts her from living her life well.

Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • “The familiar facts support the view that parenthood in general, and motherhood and childbearing in particular, are among the things that can be correctly thought to be partially constitutive of a flourishing human life. If this is right, then a woman who opts for not being a mother […] by opting for an abortion many thereby be manifesting a flawed grasp of what her life should be, and be about.” (601)
  • The good of motherhood may conflict with another worthwhile pursuit, but where it conflicts with either a false, irresponsible, or unrealizable goal, failing to pursue this virtue will be the wrong act.

Virtue Theory & Abortion (cont’d)

  • One who gets pregnant without the intent of bearing a child will usually lack some virtuous character—responsibility, serious-mindedness, and so on.
  • As such, even where securing an abortion is not a vicious act, the guilt such women often feel is understandable.
  • Similar issues arise for men involved in a case of abortion.