Bioethics Blogs

The Virtuous Homophobe

A few days ago, Kim Davis was released from jail, where she had spent the past few days. Davis, as you probably recall, is the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples (more technically, for contempt for refusing to obey an order to grant such licenses). Davis says that doing so is inconsistent with her Christian beliefs. Let’s assume (rightly, I am very confident) that Davis’s belief that single sex marriage is morally objectionable is wrong. Is there nevertheless something admirable about her behaviour?[1]

Why would it be admirable? Davis might be displaying the virtue of fortitude by refusing to bow to pressure to betray her principles. Some people have suggested that she is in fact just seeking attention, or money, which are of course far less laudable motives. I don’t think we have much evidence for these claims; in any case, I set aside the suggestions. Let’s suppose, then, that she is motivated, in at least important part, by her principles.

Virtue theorists sometimes defend a thesis called the unity of virtue. This doctrine comes in various flavors, but the weakest entails that no one can have any of the virtues without having them all. A terrorist cannot exemplify the virtue of courage, for instance. That seems to me very implausible. A terrorist might exercise great self-control to overcome their fear when they act horrifically; the only reason to deny that they act courageously is that we deeply (and rightly) disapprove of what they do.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.