Morality and Interpretation:

The Principle of Phronetic Charity


Abstract: The recent discussions on the unity of virtue (or lack thereof) suffer from a lack of reference to the processes through which we interpret each other as moral agents. In the present paper it is argued that much light can be thrown on that crucial issue by appealing to a version of Donald Davidson’s Principle of Charity, which we call “Principle of Phronetic Charity”. The idea is that in order to treat somebody as a moral agent, one has first to attribute to them, at least pro tempore, a significant degree of practical wisdom (intended as ethical expertise) and, then, to assess and rationally adjust such attribution of competence via actual engagement with them – a process that may lead to different responses on the part of the interpreter (i.e., the confirmation, upgrading, or withdrawing of the preliminary interpretation). After expounding and defending the Principle of Phronetic Charity and the interpretive practices connected with it, we discuss the repercussions of our account on the issue of the epistemic access to virtue. We will show, in particular, that some important components of both disunitarianism and unitarianism have to be retained: in accordance with the former, we stress the role of concrete experience over pure speculation and, up to a point, the idea that virtues tend to form variegated ensembles; in accordance with the latter, we accept the claim that virtues are not attributed to moral agents in isolation. Ultimately, however, the account developed here rejects both the atomism of the disunitarian view and the holism of the “Unity of the Virtues”, since it is in fact a form of molecularism, according to which virtues come neither individually nor as a whole, but rather as clusters.

Click on the citation to read the article:

De Caro, M., & Vaccarezza, M. S. (2020). Morality and interpretation: The principle of phronetic charity. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice23(2), 295-307.