Dr Liezl van Zyl: Virtue and Right

Dr Liezl van Zyl
Can Virtuous People Emerge from Tragic Dilemmas Having Acted Well?
Wednesday 15 September from 5-6.30pm in ib3.307

This Wednesday 15 September the Deakin Philosophical Society will discuss an article by Dr Liezl van Zyl in preparation for her presentation the following day. ‘Can Virtuous People Emerge from Tragic Dilemmas Having Acted Well?’ is a 2007 article on the question of whether a person can be judged to have acted well when they have to act but are given only two choices, both of which are typically considered morally reprehensible. The article abstract will make the dilemma much clearer:

A tragic dilemma is thought to arise when an agent, through no fault of her own, finds herself in a situation where she must choose between two courses of action, both of which it would be wrong to undertake. I focus on tragic dilemmas that are resolvable, that is, where a reason can be given in favour of one course of action over another, and my aim is to examine whether Hursthouse’s virtue-ethical account of right action succeeds in avoiding two problems presented by tragic dilemmas. The first of these is that they produce the seemingly contradictory conclusion that an agent, in doing what she ought to do, acts wrongly, making it appropriate for her to feel guilt. The second is the paradox of moral luck, which consists in the conflict between the intuition that an agent cannot be held responsible for actions that are not fully voluntary, and the fact that she may nevertheless believe that she has done something morally reprehensible. I argue that if we accept Hursthouse’s separation of action guidance and action assessment, her account succeeds in solving the problem of contradiction. However, it does not completely avoid the problem of moral luck. I argue, against Hursthouse, that the virtuous agent can emerge from a tragic dilemma having acted well, and that this is the conclusion we must arrive at if we want to avoid the problem of contradiction and of moral luck.

Our discussion of the article should give us an understanding of van Zyl's work prior to her presentation on Thursday (see below). You can also access the article online at www.deakinphilosophicalsociety.com/texts/vanzyl/tragicdilemma.pdf. Hard copies are available on my office door (ic1.211), Waurn Ponds campus.

Dr Liezl van Zyl
Virtue and Right: The Plight of the Non-Virtuous
Thursday 16 September from 3-4.20pm in c2.05 (ArtsEd meeting room), Burwood and videolinked to jb2.107, Waurn Ponds

Dr Liezl van Zyl, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Studies at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, will give the next in our series of special presentations. Dr Van Zyl's presentation is entitled Virtue and Right: The Plight of the Non-Virtuous and will take place on Thursday 16 September from 3-4.20pm in c2.05 (ArtsEd meeting room), Burwood and videolinked to jb2.107 (in the same building as the B-Bar/bistro. You enter the room from the footpath just after the B-Bar on your way towards the KD Stewart Centre/bus stop), Waurn Ponds. Here is an abstract:

Virtue ethicists have long been under pressure to show that, despite its focus on character, it is able to provide an account of right action. In response to this, Aristotelian virtue ethicists – most notably Rosalind Hursthouse – have defined an act as right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances. In this paper I discuss two closely related objections to this criterion, both of which relate to the actions of the non-virtuous. The first is that virtue ethics fails to provide correct action guidance and assessment in cases that involve non-virtuous agents, for in some cases a non-virtuous agent should not do what a virtuous person would characteristically do. A second objection is that virtue ethics altogether fails to provide action guidance and evaluation whenever the agent, through previous wrongdoing, finds herself in circumstances in which a virtuous person cannot be.

Dr van Zyl's aim is to defend Hursthouse’s account of right action against these objections. She will do so by first drawing attention to the different senses in which the concept ‘right action’ can be used, namely as referring to (a) the act that ought to be done and (b) a good or excellent action. Where (a) is the relevant sense of right action when seeking action guidance, (b) is relevant when assessing an action. Dr Liezl van Zyl will then argue that if we understand ‘right action’ in the second sense, then Hursthouse’s criterion does allow us to accurately assess the actions performed by non-virtuous agents. Finally, when it comes to providing action guidance, Dr Liezl van Zyl agrees that the criterion is inadequate, but argues that this problem can be avoided by viewing it solely as a means of action assessment while turning to the virtue- and vice-rules (v-rules) for action guidance.

Dr van Zyl's main research interests are virtue ethics and applied ethics, and her focus is on questions that arise when trying to apply virtue ethics. She is the author of Death and Compassion: A virtue-ethical approach to euthanasia (Ashgate, 2000), as well as numerous journal articles.

Dr van Zyl's presentation is hosted by the Philosophy program in the School of International and Political Studies, the Alfred Deakin Institute and the Deakin Philosophical Society.

Kind Regards,

Dylan Nickelson,
President, Deakin Philosophical Society.

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