Virtue ethics (from Greek: arête) stresses the importance of an individual’s character when she is deciding how to act morally and ethically (1). It is also a theory with its origins firmly rooted in Aristotle (384-322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, who argued that a virtuous person is one who possesses ideal character traits (2). Still, over 2300 years later, Aristotle’s work is studied and discussed, especially in moral philosophy and ethics.
A helpful way to examine Virtue ethics is to see how it differs to 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 involving moral decisions. However, virtue ethics does not do this; instead it 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 form 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, for instance, 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 man knows that it will be used by someone else to kill his friend, then his action may be deemed virtuous, or the right thing to do. Take an apparently charitable actress who is not only known to be extremely wealthy but also known for her charitable funding efforts towards the impoverished. However, she knows that she only does this because it is good for her reputation as a celebrity. She makes headlines, photographers want to take pictures of her, and the attention wins her fans and sponsors. To most people she would seem virtuous. However, because of her motives, assuming that they were known, the Virtue ethicist would not view her behaviour as virtuous because she is doing this only for personal gain and popularity. This illustrates that whereas Deontological and Teleological ethics have universal moral laws, 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” (3).
However, this is where Virtue ethics receives some criticism, and most would agree that it at least raises further significant questions. For example, it is clear that Virtue ethics relies on a presupposition, namely, virtuousness.
Perhaps a virtuous person is an individual who simply lives and acts virtuously, with virtuousness being defined as “Having or showing high moral standards” (4). It includes those characteristics that allows for a person to live well if followed, and it must be lived out in practice. Therefore, Virtue ethics urges an individual to develop her character in order to lead a virtuous life, especially since virtuousness leads to goodness.
This definition, however, is open to much disagreement. For example, what is virtuousness? And who gets to decide whose definition of virtuousness is correct if two or more parties disagree with each others definitions? What would a virtuous course of action look like and how would it depend on a situation? Moral philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse, known for her work on this subject, appears critical since one does not get anywhere in “terms of knowing what we ought to do” on a Virtue-based theory (5). As Hursthouse notes, the theory provides no guidance on how to act morally, for instance, take the proverbial phrase that one is to “Act as a virtuous person would act in the situation.” Although this phrase appears self-evident, on closer inspection it is not really so clear, since it raises more questions: “What is a virtuous person, how is virtuousness defined?” or “What situation is a specific person facing, and what are the factors involved?” This is further complicated by the fact that some moral decisions aren’t necessarily black or white, so to speak. Questions pertaining to the justification for taking another person’s life could be debated. Similarly a decision on whether to save a baby in the mother’s womb, or save the mother who will die if she gives birth to the baby constitutes a complex moral conundrum. On questions such as these Virtue ethicists could well differ across the board.
Moreover, it is important to note the cultural subjectivity and its relationship to Virtue ethics. For example, perhaps virtuousness in one culture (tribe A) is for the powerful and ruthless members of the tribe to lead, and for young men to become warriors who not only learn to beat their opposition into submission but also sacrifice any and all survivors as offerings to their deity. Yet there’s the other culture (tribe B) a few hilltops away that views the virtuous member to society as one who exercises altruism, mutual respect, and the love for one’s neighbour. Now, who gets to decide whose concept of virtuousness is the correct one? If, from a contemporary westernized point-of-view, we were to say B is the preferable view of virtuousness then tribe A would rightly ask why our opinion should carry more validity than theirs, and vice versa? On the same line of thought, how could tribe B condemn tribe A as immoral for according to tribe A what they are doing is in fact the most virtuous behaviour? After all, our disagreements would ultimately whittle down to our own subjective preferences of what constitutes virtuousness. Cultural subjectivity is therefore a challenge to Virtue ethicists. However, the Deontologist would not face this dilemma for on his approach murder and ruthlessness is always objectively wrong, and there is no an instance when it would be justified.
Despite these challenges, questions, and criticisms, arguably some strength of Virtue ethics lies in its emphasis on the development of a virtuous character (due to the subjectivity of this theory, my assumption of the virtuous character would be akin to those one would find in tribe B’s society). An individual who prioritizes mutual respect and kindness towards others will to his best to develop his character to reflect these qualities. This would surely benefit a society should its members hold to this ethic.
1. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2015. Virtue ethics, Moral philosophy. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available.
2. Barnes, J & Griffin, M. 1999. Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome. p. 1-69
3. Zagzebski, L. 1996. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical.
4. Oxford Dictionaries, 2015. Virtuous. Oxford Dictionaries. Available.
5. Giersson, H. 2000. Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology. p. 247.