Neo-Aristotelian Flourishing and Tragic Dilemmas

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Fred D. Miller, Jr. (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Daniel Jacobson (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Marvin Belzer (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Member)


Tragic dilemmas are commonly understood to be situations in which an agent has overriding moral reason to choose between two incompatible actions, each of which there is very strong moral reason against taking. As a result of choosing, tragic agents tend to feel guilty, tainted, and the need to make amends. We tend to suspect the virtue of agents who do not have these feelings, suggesting that they are in some way appropriate, but in order for them to be fitting, i.e. in order for them to track reality accurately, the tragic agent must be morally responsible for wrongdoing. Moreover, second-person responses of resentment toward and forgiveness of tragic agents also appear to be appropriate, suggesting that the tragic agent is culpable for wrongdoing. Yet third persons do not blame tragic agents as would be fitting if this were so, but rather tend to experience pity and fear.

Classical Virtue Ethics and standard versions of Kantian and Utilitarian ethical theories do not have the resources to explain why this phenomenology is fitting because they deny that the tragic agent engages in wrongdoing. I argue that neo-Aristotelian ethical theory, grounded in personal flourishing, has the resources to do so. To this end I put forward an account of wrongdoing according to which an action is wrong if and only if it either counts against an agent’s virtue or seriously negatively affects an agent’s flourishing. An implication of this account is that tragic dilemmas are situations of inescapable wrongdoing, for whatever the agent does in them will significantly undermine her flourishing. I also employ Aristotle’s account of voluntariness to argue that the tragic agent is morally responsible for the specific wrongdoing that she chooses to do in a tragic dilemma. As such, we can make sense of the phenomenology as fitting. Additionally, I argue that whereas Classical Virtue Ethics has trouble accounting for the ways in which virtue is vulnerable to luck, by allowing that the tragic agent engages in wrongdoing and suffers significant harm, a neo-Aristotelian theory of the sort I develop is capable of recognizing this vulnerability.