Friday, September 18, 2009

Foot on Courageous Wrongdoers

We might think of words such as ‘courage’ as naming characteristics of human beings in respect of a certain power, as words such as ‘poison’ and ‘solvent’ and ‘corrosive’ so name the properties of physical things. The power to which virtue-words are so related is the power of producing good action, and good desires. But just as poisons, solvents and corrosives do not always operate characteristically, so it could be with virtues. If P (say arsenic) is a poison it does not follow that P acts as a poison wherever it is found. It is quite natural to say on occasion ‘P does not act as a poison here’ though P is a poison and it is P that is acting here. Similarly courage is not operating as a virtue when the murderer turns his courage, which is a virtue, to bad ends. Not surprisingly the resistance that some of us registered was not to the expression ‘the courage of the murderer’ or to the assertion that what he did ‘took courage’ but rather to the description of that action as an act of courage or a courageous act. It is not that the action could not be so described, but that the fact that courage does not here have its characteristic operation is a reason for finding the description strange.

-- Philippa Foot, 'Virtues and Vices', p.16.


  1. Hi! I've had your blog in my feed for a little while and was moved to comment by this post. I think I disagree with Foot here. I think courage is indeed still operating as a virtue when used by a murderer. It's worth reminding ourselves that bad people engaged in bad actions nevertheless have their virtues; it helps remind us of our common humanity. There's something to be admired about the courage and self-discipline of a Nazi who sacrificed himself for his cause, even though the cause itself was abhorrent. On utilitarian grounds, most of us would probably prefer that Nazis and other murderers be weak and spineless than courageous and disciplined - since that would lead to the failure of their cause, which would be a good thing for others. I don't see that point, however, as reason to deny that a Nazi who risks his life for his cause is exercising the virtue of courage. Just a thought.

  2. Yeah, I used to be of much the same opinion, but I find Foot's suggestion here pretty compelling. Note that she doesn't exactly deny that the Nazi may well be "exercising the virtue of courage". She merely stresses that the virtue in this case isn't operating characteristically, since what makes something a virtue is (according to Foot) that it tends to produce good action. It might occasionally fail to do so, just as a poison may in certain circumstances fail to cause harm when ingested. But in that case it isn't operating as a virtue/poison.

    To deny this, I guess you would have to give some alternative account of what's characteristic of virtues, such that the defining feature would still be operant even in case of (e.g.) Nazis who have courage.


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