Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Tragic Dilemmas, Virtue Ethics and Moral Luck

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Fred D. Miller, Jr

Second Advisor

Jacobson Daniel (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Shoemaker David (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Klopfer Dale


Tragic dilemmas are cases in which an agent must choose between two horrific or repugnant options. Such choices are painful and accompanied by emotional suffering on the part of the tragic-agent. Specifically, I argue that the tragic-agent feels torn, guilty, and tainted. I further argue that these responses are appropriate-they are ones we would expect of a good moral agent. Precepts commonly employed by standard versions of consequentialism and deontology, however, make feeling torn, guilty, and tainted unfitting-the feelings are at odds with the moral reality generally espoused by these theories.

I argue that these emotions can be straightforwardly accounted for by employing a neo-Aristotelian theory. This framework recognizes multiple areas of human concern and defines virtue as responding appropriately to these concerns. Tragic dilemmas can be understood as situations where all choices available to an agent require the agent to choose in a way that undermines the very ends of virtue that she is disposed to, and committed to, realizing. This explains why agents feel torn. I go on to provide a virtue ethical account of right and wrong action whereby an act is right (or wrong) if and only if it is what a virtuous (or vicious) agent would characteristically do. Since the action in a tragic dilemma is one that is characteristic of the vicious agent, the action is a genuinely wrong action. This then explains why agents feel guilty. If wrongdoing diminishes goodness, then this also explains why agents feel tainted.

One concern with such an approach is that wrongdoing diminishes goodness and so one's goodness is subject to luck. I address this objection and argue that there is reason to embrace rather than resist this conclusion. I further show how embracing this conclusion gives insight into the tragic hero and can explain why the tragic hero is regarded as admirable precisely because she is guilty.