Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations

The Skill of Virtue

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Daniel Jacobson


The revival of virtue ethics brought the ancient Greek concepts of ‘virtue’ and ‘the virtuous person’ back into prominence. Contemporary virtue ethicists present an attractive picture of virtue, for the virtuous person knows how to act in a morally appropriate way and is reliable in acting accordingly. This portrait of the virtuous person appears to be the type of person one should aspire to be, but problems arise with many of the details. Often, only the end state of the virtuous person is described, and it is left mysterious how an average person could ever achieve such an idealized state. Accounts of virtue have left readers with the impression that the virtuous person is an unattainable ideal or psychologically implausible. This dissertation argues that reviving the ancient Greek idea that virtues are like practical skills, which is rarely discussed in contemporary literature, can help provide a more plausible account of the virtuous person. The moral knowledge of the virtuous person is analogous to the practical knowledge of the expert in a skill. Learning a skill is a process of acquiring practical knowledge, that is, the knowledge of how to do something, like building a house or driving a car. With virtue, the practical knowledge is the knowledge of how to act well, like acting brave or just. The few current discussions of the skill analogy rely on a reconstruction of the ancient account of skills for a comparison to virtue. There are advantages, however, to using a modern account of skill acquisition that has had the benefit of research and application. This dissertation adapts an account of skills developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus in their research on artificial intelligence. The Dreyfus account displays the features of skills that were relevant in the ancient analogy to virtue: a progress from novice to expert, which begins with following rules and then progresses to being sensitive to the relevant features of particular situations. The skill model of virtue offers the most promising direction for contemporary virtue theory, because it can ground a plausible account of the moral knowledge of the virtuous person.