In Search of a Reasonably Clear Conscience: On Paul Woodruff’s “Living Toward Virtue”

By Howard J. CurzerMay 3, 2023

In Search of a Reasonably Clear Conscience: On Paul Woodruff’s “Living Toward Virtue”

Living Toward Virtue: Practical Ethics in the Spirit of Socrates by Paul Woodruff

WHAT DOES it take to lead what’s called a “flourishing life”? Pleasure? Satisfied desires? Friendships? Opportunities? Fulfilling labor? Paul Woodruff’s new study Living Toward Virtue: Practical Ethics in the Spirit of Socrates (2022), confirmed and illustrated by his experiences as an officer during the Vietnam War, suggests an item that seldom makes it onto contemporary lists: a reasonably clear conscience. We all know—some of us via testimony, others by bitter personal experience—that guilt and remorse over terrible deeds can rip a soul into shreds, putting inner harmony, and thus happiness, beyond reach. Here is a book that takes conscience seriously and offers a path to peace of mind.


Moral injury is damage to one’s soul (“the what-it-is-to-be-you”) caused by moral failure (violating your own moral principles). Moral failure, once experienced, makes the next temptation harder to resist, the next moral mistake harder to avoid. But the big problem here is that moral failure yields guilt, or regret, or remorse, which erodes flourishing by setting one part of the soul against another. As many veterans and others who have faced tough, terrible choices will testify, major moral failure can ruin one’s life. Of course, healing is possible. Woodruff mentions apologizing and telling one’s story as methods of soul repair. But healing is hard, uncertain, and often incomplete. Better to avoid moral injury in the first place.

Woodruff lists two rather different causes of moral injury. “Sometimes the injury results from a bad choice on your part; sometimes you find yourself in a situation with no choices you can accept in good conscience. Then, even if the situation is not your fault, you may well be injured morally.” That is, sometimes you do the wrong thing when you could have done the right thing. Other times you find yourself in a dilemma: a situation in which there is no morally good choice. Woodruff argues that, in such circumstances, “you should do what you judge to be the least bad thing. But the least bad thing is still bad.”

Wait! How could the morally best choice in a situation ever be morally wrong? How could doing what one should do (one’s moral duty) be a moral failure? Woodruff is thinking of situations in which all of the options are morally repugnant acts, the sort of dirty-hands acts that give decent people nightmares. War is filled with such high-stakes situations, and Woodruff supplies several moving examples from his own experience, and from the experiences of his fellow soldiers. Low-stakes dilemmas cause less moral injury but are more common. An emotionally distraught and distracted student struggles earnestly but ineffectively to write a paper for my class. Should I give her paper the F it deserves (and which will cause her to lose her financial aid and drop out of college), or unjustly give it an undeserved C? Whether we describe dilemmas as having a best choice but no morally good choice (Woodruff), or as having a best choice that is morally good but repugnant (me) doesn’t really matter. What matters is that dilemmas cause moral injury. Even the best choices take a toll on one’s soul.


How can moral failure be prevented? One might have expected a university professor to plump for ethics education, but Woodruff rejects that tempting path. He had a terrific education (Oxford, Princeton), yet he testifies that it did him no good in morally challenging situations in Vietnam. Why not? Virtue can’t be taught, at least in the usual meaning of “taught.” People cannot imbibe morality from the teachings of others. They have to work things out for themselves. And they have to examine their own lives rather than merely fictional moral problems. Indeed, not only is traditional moral education unhelpful; it sometimes also provides the dangerous illusion of moral mastery.

Instead, Woodruff offers a Socratic approach dubbed care of the soul:

Pay attention to your values, exposing them to other people’s questions about them, facing challenges to them, clarifying them, sharpening them, checking on how well you are living up to them—those are the main activities that make up the regimen Socrates recommends […] The goal of the regimen is to maintain moral fitness—an ability to resist moral failure.

A Socratic approach? Readers of Plato’s Republic might find this puzzling. There, Plato offers a detailed pedagogical program. He clearly thinks that teaching works. But Woodruff does not think that Socrates espouses a consistent view across all of Plato’s dialogues. Woodruff is a fan of the Socrates of the so-called “early dialogues” rather than the Socrates who is Plato’s mouthpiece in the Republic.


To be clear, Woodruff is hardly a Socrates groupie. Like Plato, he rejects some of Socrates’s views. Moreover, while he describes and endorses Socrates’s single mechanism for moral progress, Woodruff spends the bulk of the book offering numerous additional tips for dealing with moral challenges. Here are a few of my favorites.

Like every other aspect of human life, ethics is complicated and requires judgment. But people want simple answers. When my ethics class takes up a new moral problem, the students propose simple solutions for about an hour, and then begin to give up. They retreat to sophomoric versions of relativism and skepticism as if moral problems that cannot be solved in an hour have no solution. People yearning for simplicity are attracted to simulacra of virtues. Fearlessness, for example, is much admired because it is simple, even though courage (taking reasonable risks and declining foolish ones) is a better trait. Similarly, the desire for simplicity leads people to adopt a single moral theory, even though different moral theories offer useful perspectives on different situations. Woodruff cautions against seductive simplicity in thinking about ethics.

We should avoid other temptations too. In particular, beware of moral holidays. People deploy various rationalizations to give themselves permission to do wrong: “Breaking my diet or my promise of fidelity will be okay, because I’ll do it just this once.” People also persuade themselves that there are morality-free zones in life: “All is fair in love and war.”

The inscription on the Delphic oracle demands to “know yourself,” but self-knowledge is hard. Knowledge of moral truths is for the gods. At best, all we actually know is that we lack knowledge of moral truths. Human wisdom, then, consists in recognizing our inadequacy (particularly our lack of knowledge) and keeping that inadequacy before our minds. Do not get complacent; keep reexamining your past actions, present values, and future intentions to see if you have missed something. Since moral knowledge is beyond our grasp, we must learn to live with ignorance. We should not become content with moral ignorance, but neither should we despair over it.

Do we even believe all the things that we think we believe? Would Socratic questioning (elenchus) reveal that we profess certain beliefs out of convenience, or we have uncritically adopted various beliefs without even understanding what they entail, or we have negligently failed to notice or take seriously contradictions among our beliefs?

Do we have the virtue that we think we have, or are we only rationalizing our wrongdoing? Even when we are doing the right things, are we doing them for the right reasons?

While avoiding moral failure is difficult, we need not, and should not, go for it alone. Much wrongdoing stems from ignorance about other ways of life, so we should get to know people different from ourselves. Moreover, we should seek supportive friends and communities, just as we should seek challenging gadflies and exemplars. None of these are guaranteed to give good advice. All are sometimes helpful, but sometimes misleading.


Although Living Toward Virtue is aimed at a general, intellectual audience, those who want to go deeper will not be disappointed. In several appendices making up about 10 percent of the book, Woodruff delves into certain topics in more depth (e.g., moral injury, moral dilemmas, the elenchus) and duels with philosophers holding different views.

As the self-help shelves of bookstores show, people look to religious, psychological, and philosophical traditions for wisdom about morality and flourishing. This diversity is useful for many reasons. But let’s not neglect the roots of the Western philosophical tradition. To my knowledge, Woodruff’s Living Toward Virtue is the only serious self-help book aimed at the general reader and which features the founder of Western philosophy. The book is a welcome reminder that flourishing lives depend upon moral goodness, and it offers a promising path toward such lives.


Howard J. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include Aristotle and the Virtues (2012), Virtue Ethics for the Real World (2023), and Difficult Virtues(forthcoming), plus various articles on ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics.

LARB Contributor

Howard J. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include Aristotle and the Virtues (Oxford, 2012), Virtue Ethics for the Real World (Routledge, 2023), Difficult Virtues (Routledge, forthcoming), and various articles on ancient philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics, the Confucian tradition, moral development, research ethics, biomedical ethics, the ethics of care, and the Hebrew Bible. He is a recipient of grants from the NSF and the NEH.


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