What Is Virtue Ethics?

How an ancient approach to ethics was revived in recent times

Aristotle. SuperStock/Getty Images

“Virtue ethics” describes a certain philosophical approach to questions about morality.  It is a way of thinking about ethics that is characteristic of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  But it has become popular again since the later part of the 20h century due to the work of thinkers like Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

The basic question: How should one live?

How should I live?

  This has a good claim to being the most fundamental question that you can put to yourself.  But philosophically speaking, there is another question that perhaps has to be answered first: namely, How should I decide how to live?

There are several answers available within the Western philosophical tradition.

The religious answer:  God has given us a set of rules to follow.  These are laid out in scripture (e.g. the Hebrew bible, the New Testament, the Koran).  The right way to live is to follow these rules. That is the good life for a human being.

Utilitarianism: This is the view that what matters most in the world in the promotion of happiness and the avoidance of suffering.  So the right way to live is, in a general way, to try to promote the most happiness you can, both your own and that of other people– especially those around you–while trying to avoid causing pain or unhappiness.

Kantian ethics: The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that the basic rule we should follow is neither “Obey God’s laws,” nor “Promote happiness.” Instead, he claimed that the fundamental principle of morality is something like: Always act in the way that you could honestly want everyone to act if they were in a similar situation.

Anyone who abides by this rule, he clams, will be behaving with complete consistency and rationality, and they will unfailingly do the right thing.

What all three approaches have in common is that they view morality as a matter of following certain rules. There are very general, fundamental rules, like “Treat others as you’d like to be treated,” or “Promote happiness.” And there are lots of more specific rules that can be deduced from these general principles: e.g. “Don’t bear false witness,” or “Help the needy.” The morally good life is one lived according to these principles; wrongdoing occurs when the rules are broken.

  The emphasis is on duty, obligation, and the rightness or wrongness of actions.

A different basic question: What kind of person do you want to be?

Plato and Aristotle ‘s way of thinking about morality had a different emphasis.  They also asked: How should one live?  But took this question to be equivalent to: What kind of person does one want to be?  That is, what sort of qualities and character traits are admirable and desirable.  Which should be cultivate in ourselves and others?  And which traits should we seek to eliminate?

Aristotle’s account of virtue

In his great work, the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers an detailed analysis of the virtues.  What he says there has been enormously influential and is the starting point for most discussions of virtue ethics.

The Greek term that is usually translated as “virtue” is arête.  Speaking generally, arête is a kind of excellence.  It is a quality that enables a thing to perform its purpose or function.  The sort of excellence in question can be specific to particular kinds of thing. For instance, the main virtue of a racehorse is to be fast; the main virtue of a knife is to be sharp.  People performing specific functions also require specific virtues: e.g. a competent accountant must be good with numbers; a soldier needs to be physically brave.

  But there are also virtues that it is good for any human being to possess, the qualities that enable them to live a good life and to flourish as a human being.  Since Aristotle thinks that what distinguishes human beings from all other animals is our rationality, the good life for a human being is one in which the rational faculties are fully exercised. These include things like the capacities for friendship, civic participation, aesthetic enjoyment, and intellectual enquiry.  Thus for Aristotle, the life of a pleasure-seeking couch potato in not an example of the good life.

Aristotle distinguishes between the intellectual virtues, which are exercised in the process of thinking, and the moral virtues, which are exercised through action.  He conceives of a moral virtue as a character trait that it is good to possess and that a person displays habitually.

  This last point about habitual behavior is important.  A generous person is one who is routinely generous, not just generous occasionally. A person who only keeps some of their promises does not have the virtue of trustworthiness.  To really have the virtue is for it to be deeply ingrained in your personality. One way to achieve this is to keep practicing the virtue so that it becomes habitual.  Thus to become a truly generous person you should keep performing generous actions until generosity just comes naturally and easily to you; it becomes, as one says, “second nature.”

Aristotle argues that each moral virtue is a sort of mean lying between two extremes.  One extreme involves a deficiency of the virtue in question, the other extreme involves possessing it to excess.  E.g. Too little courage = cowardice; too much courage = recklessness.  Too little generosity = stinginess; too much generosity = extravagance.  This is the famous doctrine of the “golden mean.”  The “mean,” as Aristotle understands it is not some sort of mathematical halfway point between the two extremes; rather, it is what is appropriate in the circumstances.  Really, the upshot of Aristotle’s argument seems to be that any trait we consider a virtue as to be exercised with wisdom.

Practical wisdom (the Greek word is phronesis), although strictly speaking an intellectual virtue, turns out to be absolutely key to being a good person and living a good life.  Having practical wisdom means being able to assess what is required in any situation.  This includes knowing when one should follow a rule and when one should break it. And it calls into play knowledge, experience, emotional sensitivity, perceptiveness, and reason.

The advantages of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics certainly didn’t die away after Aristotle.  Roman Stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius also focused on character rather than abstract principles.  And they, too, saw moral virtue as constitutive of the good life– that is, being a morally good person is a key ingredient of living well and being happy.

  No-one who lacks virtue can possibly be living well, even if they have wealth, power, and lots of pleasure.  Later thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and David Hume (1711-1776) also offered moral philosophies in which the virtues played a central role.  But it is fair to say that virtue ethics took a back seat in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The revival of virtue ethics in the mid-late 20th century was fueled by dissatisfaction with rule-oriented ethics, and a growing appreciation of some of the advantages of an Aristotelian approach.  These advantages included the following.

  • Virtue ethics offers a broader conception of ethics inn general.  It doesn’t see moral philosophy as confined to working out which actions are right and which actions are wrong.  It also asks what constitutes well-being or human flourishing.  We may not have a duty to flourish in the way we have a duty not to commit murder; but questions about well-being are still legitimate questions for moral philosophers to address.
  • It avoids the inflexibilities of rule-oriented ethics.  According to Kant, for instance, we must always and in every circumstance obey his fundamental principle of morality, his “categorical imperative.” This led him to conclude that one must never tell a lie or break a promise.  But the morally wise person is precisely the one who recognizes when the best course of action is to break the normal rules.  Virtue ethics offers rules of thumb, not iron rigidities.
  • Because it is concerned with character, with what kind of person one is, virtue ethics pays more attention to our inner states and feelings as opposed to focusing exclusively on actions.  For a utilitarian, what matters is that you do the right thing–that is, you promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number (or follow a rule that is justified by this goal).  But as a matter of fact, this is not all we care about.  It matters why someone is generous or helpful or honest.  The person who is honest simply because they think being honest is good for their business is less admirable that the person who is honest through and through and would not cheat a customer even if they could be sure that no one would ever find them out.
  • Virtue ethics has also opened the door to some novel approaches and insights pioneered by feminist thinkers who argue that traditional moral philosophy has emphasized abstract principles over concrete interpersonal relationships.  The early bond between mother and child, for instance, could be one of the essential building blocks of moral life, providing both and experience and an example of loving care for another person.

Objections to virtue ethics

Needless to say, virtue ethics has its critics.  Here are a few of the most common criticisms leveled against it.

  • “How can I flourish?” is really  just a fancy way of asking “What will make me happy?”  This may be a perfectly sensible question to ask, but it really isn’t a moral question.  It’s a question about one’s self-interest.  Morality, though, is all about how we treat other people.  So this expansion of ethics to include questions about flourishing takes moral theory away from its proper concern.
  • Virtue ethics by itself can’t really answer any particular moral dilemma.  It doesn’t have the tools to do this.  Suppose you have to decide whether or not to tell a lie in order to save your friend from being embarrassed.  Some ethical theories provide you with real guidance.  But virtue ethics doesn’t.  It just says, “Do what a virtuous person would do” which isn’t much use.
  • Morality is concerned, among other things, with praising and blaming people for how they behave.  But what sort of character a person has is to quite a large extent a matter of luck.  People have a natural temperament: either brave or timid, passionate or reserved, confident or cautious. It is hard to alter these inborn traits.  Moreover, the circumstances in which a person is raised is another factor that shapes their moral personality but which is beyond their control.  So virtue ethics tends to bestow praise and blame on people for just being fortunate.

Naturally, virtue ethicists believe they can answer these objections.  But even the critics who put them forward would probably agree that the revival of virtue ethics in recent times has enriched moral philosophy and broadened its scope in a healthy way.