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Virtue Ethics

Introduction | History of Virtue Ethics | Criticisms of Virtue Ethics
Introduction Back to Top

Virtue Ethics (or Virtue Theory) is an approach to Ethics that emphasizes an individual's character as the key element of ethical thinking, rather than rules about the acts themselves (Deontology) or their consequences (Consequentialism).

There are three main strands of Virtue Ethics:

  • Eudaimonism is the classical formulation of Virtue Ethics. It holds that the proper goal of human life is eudaimonia (which can be variously translated as "happiness", "well-being" or the "good life"), and that this goal can be achieved by a lifetime of practicing "arĂȘte" (the virtues) in one's everyday activities, subject to the exercise of "phronesis" (practical wisdom) to resolve any conflicts or dilemmas which might arise. Indeed, such a virtuous life would in itself constitute eudaimonia, which should be seen as an objective, not a subjective, state, characterized by the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it.
    A virtue is a habit or quality that allows individuals to succeed at their purpose. Therefore, Virtue Ethics is only intelligible if it is teleological (i.e. it includes an account of the purpose or meaning of human life), a matter of some contention among philosophers since the beginning of time. Aristotle, with whom Virtue Ethics is largely identified, categorized the virtues as moral virtues (including prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) and intellectual virtues (including "sophia" or theoretical wisdom, and "phronesis" or practical wisdom). Aristotle further argued that each of the moral virtues was a golden mean, or desirable middle ground, between two undesirable extremes (e.g. the virtue of courage is a mean between the two vices of cowardice and foolhardiness).

  • Ethics of Care was developed mainly by Feminist writers (e.g. Annette Baier) in the second half of the 20th Century, and was motivated by the idea that men think in masculine terms such as justice and autonomy, whereas woman think in feminine terms such as caring. It calls for a change in how we view morality and the virtues, shifting towards virtues exemplified by women, such as taking care of others, patience, the ability to nurture, self-sacrifice, etc, which have been marginalized because society has not adequately valued the contributions of women. It emphasizes the importance of solidarity, community and relationships rather than universal standards and impartiality. It argues that instead of doing the right thing even if it requires personal cost or sacrificing the interest of family or community members (as the traditional Consequentialist and deontological approaches suggest), we can, and indeed should, put the interests of those who are close to us above the interests of complete strangers.

  • Agent-Based Theories, as developed recently by Michael Slote (1941 - ), give an account of virtue based on our common-sense intuitions about which character traits are admirable (e.g. benevolence, kindness, compassion, etc), which we can identify by looking at the people we admire, our moral exemplars. The evaluation of actions is therefore dependent on ethical judgments about the inner life of the agents who perform those actions.

Virtue Ethics, essentially Eudaimonism, was the prevailing approach to ethical thinking in the Ancient and Medieval periods. It suffered something of an eclipse during the Early Modern period, although it is still one of the three dominant approaches to normative Ethics (the others being Deontology and Consequentialism).

The term "virtue ethics" is a relatively recent one, essentially coined during the 20th Century revival of the theory, and it originally defined itself by calling for a change from the then dominant normative theories of Deontology and Consequentialism.

History of Virtue Ethics Back to Top

Socrates, as represented in Plato's early dialogues, held that virtue is a sort of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good, or eudaimonia, which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve. Discussion of what were known as the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) can be found in Plato's "Republic". He also claimed that the rational part of the soul or mind must govern the spirited, emotional and appetitive parts in order to lead all desires and actions to eudaimonia, the principal constituent of which is virtue.

The concept reached its apotheosis in Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" in the 4th Century B.C.. Aristotle held that eudaimonia is constituted, not by honor, wealth or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life, what might be described today as productive self-actualization. This rational activity, he judged, should manifest as honesty, pride, friendliness, wittiness, rationality in judgment; mutually beneficial friendships and scientific knowledge.

Non-Western moral and religious philosophies, such as Confucianism in ancient China, also incorporate ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks and, like ancient Greek Ethics, Chinese ethical thought makes an explicit connection between virtue and statecraft or politics.

The Greek idea of the virtues was later incorporated into Scholastic Christian moral theology, particularly by St. Thomas Aquinas in his "Summa Theologiae" of 1274 and his "Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics". The Christian virtues were also based in large part on the Seven Virtues from Aurelius Clemens Prudentius's epic poem (written c. 410 A.D.): chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience and humility. Practice of these virtues was alleged to protect one against temptation from the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride).

Virtue Ethics has been a recurring theme of Political Philosophy, especially in the emergence of classical Liberalism, the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century, and the theoretical underpinnings behind the American Revolution of 1775. However, although some Enlightenment philosophers (e.g. David Hume) continued to emphasize the virtues, with the ascendancy of Utilitarianism and Deontology, Virtue Ethics moved to the margins of Western philosophy.

In the second half of the 20th Century, there was a minor revival of Virtue Ethics, principally due to the efforts of Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 - 2001), Philippa Foot (1920 - 2010), Alasdair MacIntyre (1929 - ), Paul Ricoeur (1913 - 2005) and Stanley Hauerwas (1940 - ).

Criticisms of Virtue Ethics Back to Top

According to critics, a major problem with the theory is the difficulty of establishing the nature of the virtues, especially as different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue. Some proponents counter-argue that any character trait defined as a virtue must be universally regarded as a virtue for all people in all times, so that such cultural relativism is not relevant. Others, however, argue that the concept of virtue must indeed be relative and grounded in a particular time and place, but this in no way negates the value of the theory, merely keeps it current.

Another objection is that the theory is not "action-guiding", and does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. Thus, a virtue theorist may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues (e.g. compassion and fairness, among others), but does proscribe murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, and the theory is therefore useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation. Virtue theorists may retort that it is in fact possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than rules (modern theories of law related to Virtue Ethics are known as virtue jurisprudence, and focus on the importance of character and human excellence as opposed to moral rules or consequences). They argue that Virtue Ethics can also be action-guiding through observance of virtuous agents as exemplars, and through the life-long process of moral learning, for which quick-fix rules are no substitute.

Some have argued that Virtue Ethics is self-centered because its primary concern is with the agent's own character, whereas morality is supposed to be about other people, and how our actions affect other people. Thus, any theory of ethics should require us to consider others for their own sake, and not because particular actions may benefit us. Some argue that the whole concept of personal well-being (which is essentially just self-interest) as an ethical master value is mistaken, especially as its very personal nature does not admit to comparisons between individuals. Proponents counter that virtues in themselves are concerned with how we respond to the needs of others, and that the good of the agent and the good of others are not two separate aims, but both result from the exercise of virtue.

Other critics are concerned that Virtue Ethics leaves us hostage to luck, and that it is unfair that some people will be lucky and receive the help and encouragement they need to attain moral maturity, while others will not, through no fault of their own. Virtue Ethics, however, embraces moral luck, arguing that the vulnerability of virtues is an essential feature of the human condition, which makes the attainment of the good life all the more valuable.

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