In a recent review essay, “Morality and Virtue: An Assessment of Some Recent Work in Virtue Ethics“, David Copp and PEA Soup’s own David Sobel present what I take to be a common understanding of the relationship between right action and virtuous people:
It is facts about the alternatives a person must decide among, including such things as the impact the alternatives will have on people’s ability to meet their needs, that determine what a person ought to do. It is not facts about what a virtuous person would want her to do, or facts about the motives that the person would actually be acting from if she were to do the various alternatives. If someone is drowning, for example, and if you can save her at no risk and at negligible cost to yourself, you ought to save her because otherwise her life will be wasted. It is because a life would otherwise be wasted that a virtuous person would want you to save her (552).
Virtuous people are disposed to perform or approve of actions that are antecedently right (perhaps those that maximize happiness, or which are in accordance with some prior set of duties). Here I wish to argue in defence of an alternative embraced by many (but certainly not all) virtue theorists: that it is the approvals of the virtuous that determine which actions are right (and which states of affairs have various values). In particular, I aim to undercut the main intuitions which appear to support the position of Copp and Sobel with respect to the drowning case.