Virtuous Law-Breaking


A rapidly growing body of scholarship embraces virtue jurisprudence, a series of (often ad hoc) attempts to incorporate the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics into legal theory. Broadly understood, virtue ethics describes an approach to moral questions that emphasizes the importance of developing and embodying various virtues, often as manifestations of human flourishing. Scholars typically contrast virtue ethics with deontological and consequentialist moral theories, tracing virtue-centered analysis to ancient Greek philosophers, and in particular to Aristotle. Virtue ethics has experienced a revival over the past 65 years; but, long before that, it proved especially influential in Catholic moral thought, particularly through the work of Aquinas. Perhaps relatedly, scholars have seized on virtue jurisprudence to defend a range of politically conservative positions, such as originalist constitutional interpretation and the propriety of utilizing the law to regulate ostensibly “private” immoralities. This Article reveals the radically underappreciated progressive promise of virtue jurisprudence. Virtue jurisprudence requires no religious commitments whatsoever, but a strong version entails acceptance of the moral significance of developing one’s character—both within and without the law. On a compelling understanding of the virtues, rejecting a state of perpetual disadvantage under the law is a meaningful marker of the virtue of self-respect, and a repudiation of the vice of servility that would otherwise be imposed by the legal system itself. Thus, contrary to the predominant tenor of research on the subject, virtue jurisprudence can ground significant resistance to—and even defiance of—the law. In making this argument, the Article also draws novel connections between virtue jurisprudence and literature on (inter alia) race, feminism, and sexual orientation to reveal the unnoticed potential of virtue jurisprudence to push forward work in those and related areas. At a time when massive and widespread protests across the United States reflect a groundswell of support for overturning certain long-standing, legally-ingrained, systemic disadvantages of people of color, many might be surprised to learn that virtue jurisprudence can serve as a potent theoretical ally.


Virtue, Jurisprudence, Ethics, Deontological, consequentialist, Moral Theories



G. Alex Sinha (Quinnipiac University)


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