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Moral Cacophony: When Continence Is a Virtue

Karen E. Stohr
The Journal of Ethics
Vol. 7, No. 4 (2003), pp. 339-363
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115771
Page Count: 25
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Moral Cacophony: When Continence Is a Virtue
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Abstract

Contemporary virtue ethicists widely accept the thesis that a virtuous agent's feelings should be in harmony with her judgments about what she should do and that she should find virtuous action easy and pleasant. Conflict between an agent's feelings and her actions, by contrast, is thought to indicate mere continence - a moral deficiency. This "harmony thesis" is generally taken to be a fundamental element of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I argue that the harmony thesis, understood this way, is mistaken, because there are occasions where a virtuous agent will find right action painful and difficult. What this means is that the generally accepted distinction between continence and virtue is unsupportable. This conclusion affects several well-known accounts of virtuous action, including those of Philippa Foot and John McDowell. A closer look at Aristotle, however, provides another way of distinguishing between continence and virtue, based in his categorization of goods as noble or base. I argue that virtue is exhibited when an agent's feelings harmonize with his correct judgments of value, while discrepancies between feelings and correct judgments of value indicate continence. This understanding of continence and virtue enables us to accommodate the problem cases I raise.

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