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Can virtuous people emerge from tragic dilemmas having acted well?

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.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
van Zyl, L. (2007). Can virtuous people emerge from tragic dilemmas having acted well? Journal of Applied Philosophy 24(1), 50-61.
Blackwell Publishing Ltd
This is an author’s electronic version of an article published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy.