Virtue ethics (from Greek, arête) is a normative ethical theory that stresses the importance of an individual’s character when she is deciding how to act morally and ethically. It is also a theory with its origins firmly rooted in the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who argued that a virtuous person is one who possesses ideal character traits. Still, over two millennia later, Aristotle’s work is studied and discussed, especially in moral philosophy and ethics (1).
A helpful way to examine virtue ethics is to see how it differs from other normative ethical theories. Virtue ethics approaches ethical and moral decisions differently to deontological ethics. Deontological ethics, and teleological ethics, identify universal moral laws that apply in all situations. Virtue ethics does not do this and instead asks broader questions such as “How ought I to live?” or “What constitutes a good life?” A Deontological ethicist may say that stealing is always wrong independent of any good that could manifest from such an action, whereas a consequentialist would argue that stealing is wrong due to the negative consequences such an act could have. However, on virtue ethics, further factors such as motives are taken into account: would stealing an item provide personal benefit for the thief? If so, then it is not a moral and virtuous action. However, if the item is a gun, and it is stolen because a person knows that it will be used by someone else for evil, then his action may be deemed virtuous, or the right thing to do. Consider a charitable actress who is not only known to be extremely wealthy but is also known for her charitable efforts towards the impoverished. However, she is aware that she only does charitable work because it is good for her reputation as a celebrity. It is all for the headlines, the photographers, and the attention needed to win over new fans and sponsors. To most people, she seems virtuous on the surface. But because of her motives one could argue that she is not virtuous because she is in it only for personal gain and popularity. This illustrates that whereas deontological ethics has universal moral laws (i.e. it is always good at all times to help the impoverished, independent of one’s motives for doing so), virtue ethics determines the right or wrong action on a specific case-by-case basis. According to philosopher Linda Zagzebski, “The practically wise person is able to weigh the demands of all relevant virtues in a given situation and decide on the course of action that is most virtuous, all things considered” (2).
It is clear that virtue ethics relies on a presupposition, namely, virtuousness. Perhaps a virtuous person is an individual who simply lives and acts in a manner that evidences having or showing high moral standards. But definitions are often open to disagreement and usually raise additional questions.
Moral philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse is critical because one tends to be left in the dark concerning “what we ought to do” given virtue-based ethics provides no guidance on how to act morally (3). If one is to take the seemingly self-evident phrase that an individual is to “Act as a virtuous person would act in the situation” he or she is left with more questions: What is virtuousness? What is virtuousness in light of a specific situation? Who gets to decide which definition of virtuousness is correct, especially if two or more persons disagree? Such matters are further complicated given that some moral dilemmas are not black or white. Justification for taking another person’s life could be debated. Similarly, the use of cloning technology and gene editing opens an array of moral questions and concerns we could debate. These and others are complex moral conundrums that Hursthouse would suggest virtue ethics leaves us in the dark.
Concerning the challenge of who gets to decide what constitutes virtuousness one can easily see the slippery slope of cultural relativism rearing its head. Perhaps, by way of an example, one culture views displays of power and ruthlessness as virtuous. In this culture young men are to become warriors who are to beat their enemies into submission and sacrifice captives, women and children included, to their deity as an offering. In another culture across the ocean, the virtuous member is the person who exercises altruism and mutual respect for his neighbours, the elderly, and the vulnerable. This culture is not particularly war minded and prefers a peaceful existence with its neighbours. In this scenario, who gets to decide which concept of virtuousness is the correct or superior one? Although one could make arguments for both views, if one of these cultures claims theirs to be the superior concept then the other would want to know why they think their opinion should carry any more weight. Cultural relativism is therefore a challenge to virtue ethicists, which is not a challenge a deontologist would encounter given the absolutes his ethics affirms.
Despite such challenges, the strength of virtue ethics exists in its emphasizing the development of a virtuous character. Most ethicists agree that being virtuous, rather than wicked, when making moral choices is preferable. Virtue ethics also acknowledges that not all moral significant situations and decisions persons are faced with are the same, but can range in complexity and challenge. An ability to think through such circumstances in light of possible outcomes is encouraged.
1. Barnes, J & Griffin, M. 1999. Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome. p. 1-69
2. Zagzebski, L. 1996. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical.
3. Giersson, H. 2000. Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology. p. 247.