Adam Smith on virtuous action and the derivative value of character

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PinniB 4141, address: Kanslerinrinne 1


Doctoral Programme in Philosophy

It is now commonplace to hold that the ethical theory contained in Hume's sentimentalist moral philosophy falls under virtue ethics. Smith, however, seems to lay stress both on motives and character as well as on conforming to moral rules. In this paper, I offer an interpretation of Smith's account of virtue and vice that reveals the unity of his ethical theory. My interpretation consists of two claims and rests on Smith's distinction between virtue as a quality of an action and virtue as a quality of character.

First, I argue that the moral value or disvalue of an act is based solely on its motive. Smith thus advances what Michael Slote calls agent-based virtue ethics. Second, I claim that character traits derive their moral value from the moral value of acts. Importantly, mental qualities other than virtuous-making motives can contribute to the fact that one acts on such motives or does not act on vicious-making ones. I suggest that Smith's virtue ethics is superior to Hume's in two ways: it recognizes the value of out-of-character acts and allows moral motivation to have a substantive role in what makes a virtuous character.

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Professor Arto Laitinen,