[email protected]: an International Journal for Moral Philosophy (Jan 2002)

Are we responsible for our characters?

  • Neil Levy

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 1, no. 2
pp. 115 – 132


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A number of philosophers have argued in recent years that we are each, typically, responsible for our characters; for what we are, as well as what we do. This paper demonstrates that this is true only of the basically virtuous person; the basically vicious are not responsible for their characters. I establish this claim through a detailed examination of the conditions upon the attribution of moral responsibility. Most accounts of moral responsibility claim that it is only appropriately attributed to an agent if she exercises control over the action, omission or consequence for which she is held responsible; it is therefore natural to think that we are responsible for our characters only if we exercise a sufficient degree of the right kind of control over their contents. Accordingly, I devote the first half of the paper to establishing that only the basically virtuous person exercises the requisite control. It is a condition upon responsibility for bringing about a consequenc! e that we are capable of understanding the value of that consequence obtaining or failing to obtain; I show that the vicious are unable to understand this value. I then turn to an examination of various non-control conceptions of responsibility for character; I show that all fail. Responsibility for character requires control, but only those who are already basically virtuous exercise the requisite degree of control.