UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of October 2017: David K. Chan

David K. Chan

Professor, University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point


AOS: Ancient Greek and Roman, Applied Ethics, Bioethics/Medical Ethics, Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics, Philosophy of Action, Practical Reason

I began my philosophical career as a philosopher of action, and I still am. However, I am first and foremost a virtue ethicist, and my research projects follow Anscombe’s dictum in “Modern Moral Philosophy” to do philosophy of psychology before ethical theory. In pursuing my interest in a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, I am at the stage where I have completed my work in moral psychology, published in Action Reconceptualized: Human Agency and Its Sources (Lexington Books, 2016), and I am about to embark on developing my own version of virtue ethics. I also think there is an important third part in doing virtue ethics, which is its application in applied ethics. I am particularly interested in both medical ethics and the ethics of war, on which I have published Beyond Just War: A Virtue Ethics Approach (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). More recently, I have been working on issues in the ethics of new technologies in warfare, in particular, the use of drones.

Philosophers of action rightly do not develop theories of reason, intention, and motivation with ethical concerns in mind. But I do not think the widely shared assumption, that human action necessarily involves intentional action in one way or another, lends itself to an understanding of agency that is suitable for use in virtue ethics. I have argued that desire, understood as intrinsic desire, in contrast with intention, is what provides the basis for the ethical evaluation of agents in terms of their character. In fact, virtuous agents can and do act directly from desire without forming intentions to act. Moreover, I have made the case for there being a third category of actions, the non-intentional, alongside the intentional and the unintentional. Such actions are not done for reasons or in the course of doing something for reasons, and are exemplified by habitual actions, including the kind needed in the process of character formation. Yet this does not mean that the process is non-rational or that the desires acquired are brute forces that one can disown.

In previous work, I have sought to recapture two deontological principles for virtue ethics, namely the doctrine of double effect and the doctrine of doing and allowing. In my ethics of war book, I sought to replace the just war doctrine of rights and duties, with an approach that starts from the question, “Would a leader with courage, justice, compassion, and all the other moral virtues ever choose to engage in the great evil of war?” My answer is that war would be a tragic choice for such a leader, and in choosing to bring about the evils of war, the leader’s good character is adversely affected. What I will be doing in developing a virtue theory is to provide criteria for goodness of character, and to explain how practical wisdom is exercised by virtuous agents in a way that does not depend on the application of rules or the comparison of alternatives in terms of a single value.