That “Ought” Does Not Imply “Right”: Why It Matters for Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethicists sometimes say that a right action is what a virtuous person would do, characteristically, in the circumstances. But some have objected recently that right action cannot be defined as what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances because there are circumstances in which a right action is possible but in which no virtuous person would be found. This objection moves from the premise that a given person ought to do an action that no virtuous person would do, to the conclusion that the action is a right action. I demonstrate that virtue ethicists distinguish “ought” from “right” and reject the assumption that “ought” implies “right.” I then show how their rejection of that assumption blocks this “right but not virtuous” objection. I conclude by showing how the thesis that “ought” does not imply “right” can clarify a further dispute in virtue ethics regarding whether “ought” implies “can.”

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Published in: The Southern Journal of Philosophy
2008 46, Issue 2 Pages 299–315