Virtuous persons and social roles

Cordell, Sean (2011). Virtuous persons and social roles. Journal of Social Philosophy, 42(3) pp. 254–272.



The article discusses the characteristics of virtuous persons in relation to their social role(s). It explores the key features of the neo-Aristotelian account of right action and some problems for this account in the context of a certain social role. The problem can be characterized as a dilemma. When evaluating an action in some role, one view is that the obligations and requirements of roles could be taken as something already given by social or professional role descriptions, such that the virtuous person must respond to these demands in the right way. Alternatively, the virtuous person could evaluate the role itself in terms of what the “good parent, teacher, doctor” and so on should be like. Using two different neo-Aristotelian approaches to the ethics of professional roles as examples I argue that neither strategy is, as it stands, satisfactory. ‘Internalism’ about role demands takes institutionally specified role requirements in a way that is too strongly determinate for a virtue ethical analysis. On the other side, ‘externalism’ is all too indeterminate in bypassing or failing to accommodate the institutionally determined demands of social or professional roles. These shortcomings contour an “institution shaped gap” in virtue ethics such that it needs to attend to the qualities of social institutions as well as the character and actions of individuals. In response I suggest that there is a distinctly Aristotelian way in which the virtue ethicist can address it, by appeal to the distinctive function or “characteristic activity”— ergon—of the institution.

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