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‘The effort of trying to imagine someone reaching correct moral decisions about what to do by cranking through a decision procedure without exercising judgement (which really does call for a great stretch of the imagination) may bring one to another (insufficiently acknowledged) insight of Aristotle’s — namely that moral knowledge, unlike mathematical knowledge, cannot be acquired merely by attending lectures, and is not characteristically to be found in people too young to have much experience of life. We do not think of moral or practical wisdom — of knowledge of what one should do — as easily come by, as something that an adolescent is likely to have, even if the adolescent is a genius at mathematics or science or the stock market and has been to lectures on normative ethics.12’

p. 47.

From footnote 12, p. 47-8.

‘From the moment that I first read it, this has struck me as one of Aristotle’s most profound insights. (True only ‘for the most part’ of course, since adolescents are often notable for an idealism that can serve as a needed corrective to the corrupted ‘realism’ of their elders. Sometimes the latter say, ‘Oh, things are much more complicated than you think; you will learn the necessity of compromise’, and the former say, rightly, ‘No, in this case it’s very simple; we just have to go for such-and-such and we’ll work out where to go from there.’)

I have noted that it is an insight that deontologists can readily take on board. Wondering, in a non-combative spirit, whether utilitarians could similarly take on board the idea that adolescents tend to lack moral knowledge, however well provided with utilitarian theory, I discovered, rather to my surprise, that I thought they could. In so far as they go for a rich, objective conception of happiness or well-being, they can share with the virtue ethicists the idea that few adolescents have an adequate grasp of such a conception. More concretely, they can note the fact that adolescents tend to be much more gormless about consequences than they are about ideals. Think of all those innocent young optimists who say, confidently, ‘I can handle drugs’, ‘Our relationship is a serious commitment but we don’t get bothered about casual sex on the side’, ‘We won’t have any serious difficulties in standing together, because we’re all committed to the same ideals’, ‘I don’t need my parents’ love and approval; I can cut myself off from them without any hang-ups’. And then reap the whirlwind.’


‘While we were thinking that an adequate normative ethics must come up with clear guidance about what ought and ought not to be done which any reasonably clever adolescent could follow if she chose, we might well suppose that this was an unsatisfactory feature of the v[irtue]-rules. But now we have discussed dilemmas and recognized that knowledge of what one should do in a particular hard case is not knowledge that we expect adolescents, however clever, and however well armed with a normative ethics they have been given in a book, to have, it should no longer seem an unsatisfactory feature. It can be seen, on the contrary, as a particularly desirable one. If the rules that determine right action are, as the v[irtue]-rules are, very difficult to apply correctly, involving for instance, a grasp of ‘the sort of truth that one does people no kindness in concealing’ or ‘the sort of truth that puts consideration of hurt feelings out of court’, then the explanation of why adolescents so often do not know what they should do (even if they think they do) is readily to hand. Adolescents do not, in general, have a good grasp of that sort of thing,however clever they are. And of course I have to say ‘the sort of truth that… ’and ‘that sort of thing’, relying on my readers’ knowledgeable uptake. For if I could neatly define the sorts then, once again, clever adolescents could acquire moral wisdom from textbooks.

Indeed, most, if not all, of us have an imperfect grasp of these ‘sorts’, which is why we should sometimes seek advice over dilemmas, sometimes take heed when people we respect for their wisdom disagree with us about what we are proposing to do or have done, and sometimes simply defer to their judgement at least pro tem and try to acquire their understanding of things in a particular area.’

p. 48-49, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse, 1999.