Supplement on William Frankena’s “A Critique of Virtue-Based Ethics”[1] [1973]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Frankena distinguishes virtue-based ethical systems from principle-based ones and contends, against virtue ethics, that “traits without principles are blind” [p. 446].  That is, if there is a virtue, there must be an action (and a principle) to which it corresponds and from which it derives its virtuous character.  Nonetheless, he also contends, virtues are motivationally central to ethics—that is, “principles without traits are impotent” (they can not explain morality by themselves) [p. 446]. 


The Text:


444 Those who propose a virtue-based ethic hold that deontic judgments are either unnecessary or derivative upon aretaic [that is, virtue oriented] ones. 


445 “A virtue is not a is a disposition, habit, quality, or trait of the person or soul, which an individual either has or seeks to have.” 


Plato and Aristotle thought there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. 


Classical Christianity held there were seven cardinal virtues: [three theological]: faith, hope, and love; and [four “human”]: prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. 


445-447 Frankena contends that an overemphasis upon either principles or dispositions gets us into trouble however:


446 “I propose that we regard the morality of duty and principles and the morality of virtues or traits of character not as rival kinds of morality between which we must choose, but as two complementary aspects of the same morality.  Then, for every principle there will be a morally good trait, often going by the same name, consisting of the disposition or tendency to act according to it; and for every morally good trait there will be a principle defining the kind of action in which it is to express itself.  To parody a famous dictum of Kant’s, I am inclined to think that principles without traits are impotent and traits without principles are blind.” 


One reason traits are important, is that the sanctions for morality can not be purely external or adventitious—strong internal sanctions are necessary: “we cannot praise and blame or apply other sanctions to an agent simply on the ground that he has or has not acted in conformity with certain principles.  It would not be right.  Through no fault of his own, the agent may not have known all the relevant facts.  What action the principles of morality called for in the situation may not have been clear to him, again through no fault if his own, and he may have been honestly mistaken about his duty.  Or his doing what he ought to have done might have carried with it an intolerable sacrifice on his part....All it can really insist on, then except in certain critical cases, is that we develop and manifest fixed dispositions to find out what the right thing is and to do it if possible.  In this sense a person must “be this” rather than “do this.”  But it must be remembered that “being” involves at least trying to “do.”  Being without doing, like faith without works, is dead.” 


-Thus Frankena wants to deny the hard and fast distinction between an ethics of doing and one of being—he thinks that they are “two sides of the same coin.”  Whereas Kant, for example, wants to specify only the principles (and confine an agent’s “doings” to “having reverence for the objective moral law specified by the categorical imperative”), and Aristotle wants one to “be as the just person is,” Frankena maintains that we must have personal traits if our principles are to be “potent,” and that we must have principles if our traits are to be anything but blind. 


446-447 One reason principles are also important, is that “ ethics of duty or principles also has an important place for the virtues and must put a premium on their cultivation as a part of moral education and development.  The place it has for virtue and/or vice is, however, different from that accorded them by an ethics of virtue....if we ask for guidance about what to do or not do, then the answer is contained, at least primarily, in two deontic principles and their corollaries, namely, the principles of beneficence and equal treatment.  Given these two deontic principles, plus the necessary clarity of thought and factual knowledge, we can know what we morally ought to do or not do, except perhaps in cases of conflict between them.  We also know that we should cultivate two virtues, a disposition to be beneficial...and a disposition to treat people equally....the function of the virtues in an ethics of duty is not to tell us what to do but to ensure that we will do it willingly in whatever situations we may face.  In an ethics of virtue, on the other hand, the virtues play a dual role—they must not only move us to do what we do, they must also tell us what do.” 


447 According to Frankena, moral ideals are often identified with principles, but, “…more properly speaking, moral ideals are ways of being rather than of doing.” 


He notes that in moral education we use moral exemplars (Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King, etc.).  Their example gives us “moral saints and heroes—individuals who go beyond what is morally obligatory and, thus, give us something to aspire to beyond what is required. 


“There certainly should be moral heroes and saints who go beyond the merely good man, if only to serve as an inspiration to others to be better and do more than they would otherwise be or do.  Granted all this, however, it still seems to me that, if one’s ideal is truly a moral one, there will be nothing in it that is not covered by the principles of beneficence and justice conceived as principles of what we ought to do in the wider sense referred to earlier.” 


448-449 Acts are right or wrong according to the principle behind them.  They are good or bad depending on the agent’s motive, intention, or disposition. 





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

[1] Lecture supplement to William Frankena’s “A Critique of Virtue-Based Ethics,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 483-491.  The essay originally appeared in Frankena’s Ethics (second edition) (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973), pp. 63-71. 

Return to PHI 3601 Home-page

Last revised on: 11/21/2013