Critical virtue: Evaluative moves and the emergence of moral agency

Date of Completion

January 2000






Moral theories often take the guidance of individual conduct as their central task, and seek to provide grounds for confidence in deliberation. Yet they are inevitably also drawn into justifying our reactions to and interventions in one another's actions. This dissertation takes critical encounters to mark a central aspect of moral life. Yet standard deontological and consequentialist theories fall short of providing conceptual tools adequate for reflection on this aspect, and virtue theory is surprisingly undeveloped here. I develop a naturalistic account of the capacities and virtues of critical engagement, and suggest some consequences in ethics and metaethics. ^ Critical processes are often inarticulate, being experientially and historically prior to moral theory. For example, certain “thick” judgments (that an act is reprehensible, or blameworthy, or admirable), conceive a provocation immediately in terms of specific evaluative response-strategies whose fittingness is implicitly honored, but left opaque. Processes of critical response also function inarticulately on a much larger scale, sparking long-term projects, convictions, and identities of solidarity and resistance. A proper-function account (Millikan) of critical agency illuminates our intuitive attachments to critical response patterns, while suggesting some senses in which they can fail. ^ Meanwhile, articulated moral judgments (that some act is wrong , for example) have a problematic role in critical engagement. They can be understood as signs with descriptive content, but such content cannot be interpreted without attention to how the thought or claim is historically poised to be put to use or “taken up” in subsequent attitudes and activity. I highlight the fragility of the historical, social, and psychological contexts in which moral verdicts engage effectively with their audiences. ^ I argue against identifying the critical moral domain by way of its connection to any fixed set of reactive attitudes, such as resentment and guilt (Strawson, Gibbard). Moral complexity and critical virtue emerge as critical agency acquires certain new formal dimensions. Subtleties of critical virtue include a capacity for engaged ambivalence, interest in the genealogy of our attitudes and norms, and an ability to apprehend and reconstruct strands of critical moral agency where we might otherwise have been tempted to diagnose brute moral error. ^