For a very long time, many philosophers thought that knowledge is justified true belief. But Gettier pointed out how one can have justified true belief and yet lack knowledge.
For a very long time, many philosophers have thought that performing a virtuous action is performing the right action for the right reason. Here I wish to point out how considerations analogous to those that Gettier identified show how one could perform the right action for the right reason, and yet not perform a virtuous action.
To make this analogy clearer, I shall specify which elements in the practical case function similarly to the more familiar elements in the original epistemological case. First, just as beliefs can be true or false, acts can be right or wrong. Rightness is the success condition of acts, just as truth is the success condition of beliefs.
But it is possible to believe truly without justification—one might just be lucky. It is also possible to believe falsely but with justification—one might just be unlucky. The same holds for the practical case. It is possible to do what’s right, even though one does not so act for the right reason; Kant’s example of the prudent shopkeeper comes to mind. And, it is possible to do the wrong thing, but be doing it for the right reason; think of the doctor who blamelessly gives her patient the wrong medicine. So, right action and justified action can come apart. The vast literature on moral luck discusses cases such as these.
But in cases where luck is not a factor, it appears that one acts as well as one can (viz. one acts virtuously) if one does the right thing for the right reason. Is this really so?
In Gettier cases, Smith has a justified false belief that p, has a justified true belief that p implies q, and so with justification infers that q, which happens to be true. Smith thus has a justified true belief that q, and yet we are reluctant to say that Smith knows that q, since Smith’s belief that q is based upon a false belief.
Now suppose Jones is E-ing, and is doing so for the right reason, but as it happens, E-ing is not really the right thing to do. (Let’s suppose E-ing is not evil either; it is merely suboptimal.) Jones is thus unlucky. Jones is also taking the necessary means to E-ing; in other words, Jones is M-ing in order to be E-ing. And suppose Jones is under no illusion about how to attain E; M-ing really is the necessary means for E-ing. Since Jones is E-ing with justification, then Jones is also M-ing with justification. (Practical justification is transferred from ends to means much as theoretical justification is transferred from premises to conclusion.) But M-ing just so happens to be the right thing to do—not because it is the necessary means for E-ing, but because it is (also) the necessary means for F-ing, where F-ing <> E-ing. Thus Jones’s M-ing is the right action, and Jones is M-ing with justification; she is M-ing for the right reason. Yet we are reluctant to say that Jones’s M-ing is a virtuous action, because her M-ing is aimed at an end that isn’t right.
To focus our thoughts, let’s consider a specific example. Suppose Jones has a spare $100, and she aims to donate it in a way to benefit the disadvantaged the most. I assume that acting out of concern for others is a virtuous motivation, and acting from this motive is acting with justification. (Egoists can suitably alter my example to make it more plausible to them, I suppose.) Jones hears that UNICEF is the only provider of mosquito netting to those threatened by malaria, and so writes a check to UNICEF to support their mission. Let’s imagine that UNICEF is indeed the only provider of mosquito netting. But purchasing mosquito netting is not how Jones can most benefit the disadvantaged. So financially supporting UNICEF’s efforts to provide mosquito netting is not the right action; she could in fact most benefit the disadvantaged by providing those threatened by cholera with water purification tablets. This would be the right action. But it just so happens that UNICEF is also the only provider of water purification tablets to those threatened by cholera; let us suppose for the sake of the example that UNICEF is the sole charity for both projects. Thus writing a check to UNICEF is also the necessary means to the right action.
Now when out of concern for the poor, Jones writes the check to UNICEF, she does so with justification, even though supporting UNICEF’s mission to provide mosquito netting is not in fact the right thing to do with her money. But writing a check to UNICEF (her means) is itself a right action, since it is the necessary means for most benefiting the poor and disadvantaged. So in writing the check to UNICEF, Jones does the right thing for the right reason. And yet her act is not fully virtuous, since what justifies her action is not the same as what makes her action right, just as in the standard Gettier case, Smith’s justified true belief is not knowledge, since what justifies Smith’s belief has nothing to do with what makes Smith’s belief true.
So, one can do the right thing for the right reason, and yet not act virtuously.
Plausible? Original? Feedback!