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The Acorn

Volume 18, Issue 1/2, Spring/Fall 2018

Steven Steyl
Pages 29-50

What Can Virtue Ethics Offer Pacifists?

Though warfare has been a popular subject of inquiry in Aristotelian virtue ethics since antiquity, pacifism has almost never been afforded sympathetic study. This paper helps to fill that lacuna by asking whether and how secular virtue ethics can provide a theory of pacifism, whether and how it might defeat some common/foreseeable objections, and what additional work needs to be done in order for virtue ethicists to provide a philosophically robust account of pacifism. I begin by translating a pacifist argument from suffering into an argument from the virtue of compassion. Compassionate agents, sensitive as they are to others’ plights, will be highly averse to lethal warfare. In the second section, I argue that cases for pacifism like this one, which are rooted in individual virtues, cannot constitute a complete argument for pacifism because of the commonly held view that the virtues are reciprocal/unified, and that such an argument will therefore require supplementation in order to be action-guiding. The third section elaborates on what I call the impracticality objection. Any convincing account of pacifism will have to respond to this objection, and I argue that virtue ethical pacifism is especially vulnerable to it. In the fourth section, I highlight two avenues available to the virtue ethicist who defends pacifism from the impracticality objection. Neither of these avenues is viable without further research, however, so while I insist that virtue ethical pacifism is not defeated by the impracticality objection, I maintain also that this form of pacifism requires further scholarly work.

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