Lecture Supplement on Walter Schaller’s


“Are Virtues No More Than Dispositions To Obey Moral Rules?”[1] [1990] 


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Schaller is arguing against what he calls “the Standard View,” which contends that virtues are merely complementary to moral duties—that is, this view holds that the essence of moral theory is the discussion of moral duties, and discussion of virtue (which is the core of “virtue theories” of ethics) is merely the discussion of dispositions and motivations for the fulfillment of duties.  Such discussion, holders of the standard view contend, is, at best, instrumental to the discussion of duty. 


Schaller focuses his attention on three virtues (benevolence, gratitude, and self-respect) which he contends can not be properly treated by the Standard View.  His goal is to point to the importance of the virtue theorists’ discussion of virtues themselves for ethical theory. 


If Schaller is right, at least some of the time virtues are not simple instrumental to deontic ethics—and in these cases we need an ethical theory which emphasizes virtues themselves.  We will find his argument useful as we reflect upon the comparison of the deontic and virtue versions of ethical theories! 


I. The Standard View:


Schaller maintains that the “Standard View” has three theses:


451 (1) “Moral rules require persons to perform…certain actions (act-types), and these actions can be performed by persons who lack no less than by those who possess various virtues.” 


-That is, it is the performance (or non-performance) of the act which is morally relevant not the motivation.  His example is the duty of truth-telling, which can be obeyed by honest, and by dishonest, individuals. 


(2) “The moral virtues are, fundamentally and essentially, dispositions to obey the moral rules….” 


-That is, virtues facilitate actions in accordance with deontic rules. 


(3) “The moral virtues have only instrumental or derivative value: individuals who possess the virtues are more likely to do what is right….” 


.Honest and benevolent individuals, then, are more prone to obey the appropriate moral rules—they are, thus, instrumentally important. 


First Example: The Duty of Benevolence:


He contends that this duty can not be properly understood if one adopts the three theses above. 


451-452 He points out that it is difficult to find a satisfactory deontic principle for benevolence.  While we ought to help people in need,


-“Help everyone who needs help” is too strong, and too demanding;


-452 “Help other people as much as possible” is too unclear;


-“other formulations of the duty in terms of obligatory actions are inadequate because they allow persons too much latitude and discretion.” 


But if it is not possible to state the deontic principle here, it makes no sense to claim, as the Standard View does, that the virtue of benevolence is merely of instrumental help!  Thus “instead of defining the virtue in terms of the duty and trying to formulate the duty as an action-guiding rule sufficiently fine-grained to tell us when, how much, how often, and toward who we ought to act beneficently, suppose the duty is conceived as requiring persons to cultivate—to seek to acquire—the virtue of benevolence, to become benevolent persons….” 


-Here think of Aristotle’s comment in Book II, Chapter9 that “for in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g., to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.”  [1109a]


-452-453 A number of specific cases of how the benevolent person behaves are discussed leading to Schaller’s claim that:


--453 “…for the person who has cultivate the virtue of benevolence, the question whether she ought to help a needy individual on a given occasion will often be subordinated to, or even displaced by, the question whether this is a person whom she is able to help….The benevolent person will want to help people in need and will look for ways to overcome whatever obstacles might stand in the way of providing the needed aid or assistance.” 


Moreover, according to Schaller, there will be times when only a person of benevolent character can provide the sort of assistance needed—in some cases what the individual to be assisted need is sympathy!  Here, “what is required in such circumstances is not some external good or service—which could be supplied by persons acting from duty, or even from self-interest—but sympathy itself (or love, compassion, or some other altruistic emotion).  In these cases the needy individual will not be benefited except by the action of someone who is sympathetic and who feels compassion…. 


In short, at least in some circumstances, the first thesis of the Standard View is false in these cases of beneficence! 


453-454 Second Example: The Virtue of Gratitude:


Here the case may be even clearer:


454 “In order to perform an act of gratitude, one must be grateful (at least on that occasion, though not necessarily in the sense of having the virtue as an enduring character trait).  Duty cannot serve as a substitute or back-up motive without altering the nature of the action being performed.” 


“In short, the duty of gratitude cannot be stated satisfactorily as a moral rule for action; on the contrary, in order to fulfill it, one must possess the virtue of gratitude.” 


This shows that the second thesis for the Standard View is false in the case of the virtue of gratitude. 


454 Third Example” The Virtue of Self-Respect:


Schaller points out that Kant treats self-respect as a duty: “…just as other people ought to be respected because of their autonomy and rationality, so individuals ought to respect themselves for the same reasons.”  But, Schaller maintains [455] “…servility and self-respect are fundamentally matters of attitude and belief, not merely of conduct.  Whether an action counts as servile...depends less on what the agent does than upon is or her beliefs, attitudes, and reasons for performing the action.” 


Here, then, the third thesis of the Standard View is shown to be false in the case of self-respect. 




Schaller contends that his analysis shows that:


1. 455 Virtues are not all alike—some conform to the conditions of the Standard view, and some do not. 


2. Neither deontic rules nor virtuous character stand alone at the heart of morality. 


3. At some points the importance of the virtues show that ethics can not be solely concerned with conduct (or action). 



Note: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Walter Schaller, “Are Virtues No More Than Dispositions To Obey Moral Rules?”, in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 450-457.  The essay original appeared in Philosophia v. 20 (1990).  Citation in this supplement are to the reprinted version. 

Return to PHI 3601 Home-page

File revised on: 12/01/2013