Virtue Ethics (source: The Dimensions of Ethics by W. Waluchow,
ethical theory tries to answer the question: What should I do? He was mainly
concerned with providing a viable theory of obligation, the aim of which was to
help us determine which action we should perform in any situation in which we
lot earlier in the history, in the fourth century B.C., Aristotle understood
ethics in a totally different manner. He was not interested in answering
should I do?’
should I be?’
thought that moral behaviour should express virtues or qualities of character.
He emphasized character traits and types of persons rather than mere rules,
obligations, duties, and rights.
was mainly interested in answering questions such as
selfish or generous?
hateful or benevolent?
cowardly or courageous?
over-indulgent or temperate?
offered exemplars of virtue to emulate and vices to avoid rather than rules or
principles to be obeyed or disobeyed.
was much more related to the character rather than to rules.
should not be a matter based on rules or principles to be followed.
should flow from a whole way of life that requires a unity of thought and
feeling which is a main characteristic of the virtuous life.
is why Aristotle’s moral theory became known as "Virtue Ethics."
theory differs from all of the previous ones we have discussed in that it
focuses not upon consequences, rules, prima facie duties, etc., so much as the
development within human beings of a moral or virtuous character by means of
doing what a good or "virtuous" person would do.
dictionary defines virtue as “the quality of moral excellence,
righteousness, and responsibility ... a specific type of moral excellence or
other exemplary quality considered meritorious; a worthy practice or ideal.”
further lists the "cardinal" or "natural" virtues as
"justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance."
dictionary of philosophy describes the term virtue as it is employed in
Aristotle's philosophy as being
"that state of a thing which constitutes its peculiar excellence and enables it to perform its function well ... in man [it is] the activity of reason and of rationally ordered habits. "
you can see, virtue ethics puts the emphasis on the good or virtuous character
of human beings themselves, rather than on their acts or the consequences of
their acts, rules or duties.
other words it is the development of the good or virtuous person that is
important in this moral theory, not abstract rules or consequences of acts or
rules except as they derive from a good or virtuous person or cause that person
to be good or virtuous.
Ethics originally derives from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (named for
his son, Nichomachus).
ethics are teleological in character (that is, aim toward some end or
Aristotle put it: "Every art and every inquiry, every action and choice,
seems to aim at some good ... [and] the good has rightly been defined as that at
which all things aim."
example, a doctor's art aims at health, seamanship aims at a safe voyage, and
economy aims at wealth.
goes on to say that the end of human life is happiness (eudaemonia),
and the basic activity of human beings is reason--a virtuous activity;
therefore, the aim of human beings, according to Aristotle, is to reason well
for a whole or complete life.
is concerned with action, not as being right or good in itself, but as it is
conducive to human good.
ethics he starts from the actual moral judgments of human beings, and says that
by comparing, contrasting, and sifting them, we come to the formulation of
thinks that there are natural ethical tendencies implanted in human beings, and
that to follow them with a general attitude of consistent harmony and proportion
is what constitutes an ethical life.
describes his ethical system as being eminently common sense-based, for
the most part, founded as it is on the moral judgments of the ideal human being,
who based upon reason, is considered good and virtuous.
states that humans begin with a capacity for goodness, which has to be developed
by practice. He says we start by doing acts that are objectively virtuous,
without a knowledge that the acts are good and without actively or rationally
choosing them ourselves.
we practice these acts, we come to realize that the virtue is good in and of
itself. For example, a child is taught to tell the truth (objectively a virtue)
by her parents, and she does so because they have taught her she should.
she recognizes that truth telling is a virtue in and of itself, and she
continues to tell the truth because she knows that it is virtuous to do so.
process would seem to be circular, except that Aristotle makes a distinction
between those acts that create a good disposition (such as telling the
truth without knowing this to be a virtue) and those that flow from the good
disposition once it has been created (such as telling the truth because a person
has come to know it to be a virtue).
further states that virtue itself is a disposition that has been developed out
of a capacity by the proper exercise of that capacity.
to Aristotle, virtue is a mean between two extremes, both of which are
vices --either excess or deficiency (or defect).
virtue, then, is defined by Aristotle as being "a disposition to choose by
a rule ... which a practically wise man would determine" to be the mean
between the two extremes of excess or deficiency."
according to Aristotle, practical wisdom is the ability to see what is the right
thing to do in any circumstance.
a person must determine what a "practically wise, virtuous man" would
choose in any circumstance calling for moral choice, and then do the right
Aristotle attaches much more importance to an enlightened conscience than
to prior theoretical rules [the way Kant or Ross did it].
is the mean between excess and deficiency, and how does one determine it?
According to Aristotle, the mean in ethics cannot be determined mathematically.
Rather it is a mean "relative to us" or to whoever is trying to
determine the right thing to do.
example, if ten pounds of food are too much (excess) and two are too little
(deficiency or defect), then six pounds, which is the mean between these two
extremes, still may be too much for some and too little for others; therefore,
one must choose the appropriate mean between the two extremes, relative to
himself or herself.
examples of means between two extremes, established by Aristotle and tabulated
by W. D. Ross are as follows:
telling about oneself
partial list can give you some idea of what Aristotle means by the mean between
two extremes, but it doesn't really show what the mean "relative to
us" would actually be.
does, however, provide us with some general guidelines that we can refer to as
we attempt to determine the mean "relative to us."
the most significant and prominent contemporary analysis of Virtue Ethics,
especially Aristotle's version of it, may be found in
Alasdair MacIntyre's book, After Virtue.
analyzing Aristotle's intentions, MacIntyre states that virtues are dispositions
not only to act in particular ways but also to feel in particular ways, which
obviously emphasizes the creation of a virtuous character in oneself, not merely
the following of rules or the calculation of good consequences.
must create virtuous feelings or inclinations within oneself, not merely act
further that to act virtuously is not to act against inclination (as Kant
thought), but rather to act from inclinations that have been formed through the
cultivation of the virtues."
idea, then, is to decide what the practically wise and virtuous human being
would do in any situation involving moral choice, and then do likewise.
MacIntyre says, human beings must know what they are doing when they judge or
act virtuously, and then they should do what is virtuous merely because it is
the Good Human Being. Virtue Ethics attempts to create the good or virtuous human being, not
just good acts or rules and not just a robot who follows pre-established rules
or a person who acts on whim or tries to achieve good consequences.
Ethics seeks to inculcate virtue by urging human beings to practice virtuous
acts in order to create the habitually virtuous or good person who will then
continue to act virtuously.
ethicists see this as constituting one of our major problems today: We have
rules and laws and systems of ethics, but we still do not have ethical or
virtuous human beings.
ethicists believe that until we create ethical or virtuous people, our
chances of creating a moral society will remain minimal. After all, they
say, we have had rules, laws, and regulations for at least several millennia,
and have even more nowadays, but still badness, immorality, viciousness,
cruelty, and vice seem to be getting worse rather than better.
Reason and Emotion. Nonconsequentialist theories attempt to separate reason from emotion
or feelings. Virtue Ethics, on the other hand, attempts to unify them by stating
that virtues are dispositions not only to act in certain ways but also to feel
in certain ways--virtuously, in both cases.
purpose again is to use reasoning (practical wisdom) to cause people to do what
is virtuous, while at the same time inculcating that virtuousness within so that
humans not only reason virtuously but also begin and continue to feel
virtuously. None of the other theories attempts to do this.
eschews acting on inclination almost to the point of absurdity so that the
critical question to be propounded against his theory is, "What if people
are inclined to be virtuous? Shouldn't they act upon those inclinations?"
Kant seems to say that such people wouldn't be as moral as they would have been
if they had acted virtuously against their bad inclinations.
believed that human beings’ major activity was to reason well so as to achieve
a complete life; however, he tried much more than Kant did to integrate emotion
or feelings with reason, without excluding the former.
Virtue Ethics, at least Aristotle's version of it, gives us a way to achieve
moderation between excess and deficiency.
ethicists believe, along with the Greeks, that "moderation in all
things" is what human beings ought to strive for.
attempts to set up means to achieve moderation by codifying what constitutes
excess, defect, and the mean between them, as described in Ross's table shown
also encourages freedom by allowing individuals to decide upon the appropriate
mean relative to themselves.
tries to encourage an integration between feeling and reason by urging
individuals to use both their reason and their feelings to decide upon the
appropriate mean for them.
Human Beings Have an End? One of Aristotle's first assumptions is that all
things have a purpose or end at which they aim. He then goes on to say that the
end of human life is happiness, and that all human beings aim at that. First, is
it true or proven that all things have an end or purpose?
people argue that they do, but many also argue that it is not clear that they
do. For example, some argue that the world and everything in it has occurred by
chance or randomly, and that it is not at all clear that anything in such a
universe aims toward any end except its own death or dissolution.
if we assume that everything has an end toward which it aims, what proves that
the end of human life is happiness? Couldn't it just as well be knowledge,
spirituality, death, suffering, or other things?
assumption is just that--an assumption.
would also argue that happiness is not an appropriate end for human life but
that something more "noble" is appropriate, such as love of God and
the hope of being with Him.
some argue that "to reason well for a complete life" might be a
philosopher's view of what the human aim is, but why couldn't it be other things
as well? Again, Aristotle has made another assumption, but one might argue that
being spiritual is the human aim, and other philosophers might argue that
feelings or emotions are the aim.
Morals Naturally Implanted? A second major assumption by Aristotle is that the
tendency to be moral is naturally implanted in human beings.
evidence is there to support that claim? Many would argue that morality is not
some innate characteristic or idea, but rather something that is taught and
learned from experience.
only tendency humans have is to be able to reason, and reason in and of itself
does not necessarily imply morality, although it is thought by many, Aristotle
included, to be its basis.
it really true, however, that human beings have a natural, innate tendency to be
moral? Some argue in the affirmative and some argue the opposite, but there is
no clear evidence or proof that Aristotle's assumption is true.
Is Virtue and What Constitutes the Virtues?
One of the most significant problems with this theory, however, focuses around
the following questions: What is virtue, what are the virtues, and what is the
ideal, or who is the virtuous human being whom we are supposed to emulate when
choosing our virtues?
including Aristotle, argue that all we need to know and provide is an account of
what human flourishing and well-being consist of; then the virtues can be
adequately characterized as those qualities needed to promote such flourishing
to MacIntyre, however, there have been and still are deep conflicts as to what
is involved in human flourishing and well-being.
goes on to say that different periods in history and historical figures from
those periods present us with several sets of virtues:
In ancient Homeric Greece, a man was what he did; that is, a man and his actions
were considered to be identical. Morality and social structure were one in
heroic societies; the ideal virtuous man was the warrior, and the virtues were
strength and courage.
For Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Bible’s New Testament, virtue is a quality
that enables one to move toward the achievement of a specifically human end
(natural or supernatural). For Aristotle, this was rationality and the ideal
virtuous man was the Athenian gentleman. For Aquinas and the New Testament, the
virtues are faith, hope, charity (or love), and humility, and the ideal virtuous
man is the saint.
For Benjamin Franklin, virtue is a quality that has utility in achieving earthly
and heavenly success. His concept of virtue was teleological, like Aristotle's,
but utilitarian in character. To Franklin the virtues were cleanliness, silence,
industry, and chastity, among many.
because Aristotle states that we ought to decide what a virtuous act or person
is by modeling ourselves after the ideal virtuous person, how do we determine
who and what that paradigmatic person is?
could probably each name an ideal person we feel we ought to emulate, but
wouldn’t we come up with a lot of different ones, depending upon our own
backgrounds, experiences, and desires?
example, the Homeric ideal of a virtuous human being would appeal to some
people, as would the humble saint to others, or the person of intellect to still
others, but wouldn't we all act differently depending upon what traits we
would we be able to say that we ought to act in connection with such an ideal
when it would be just that: an abstract ideal of a human being?
how would we know that we had come up with the truly virtuous ideal person?
one of the goals of the teaching of ethics would seem to be the creation of a
virtuous or ethical person; however, it is one thing to try to get people to act
ethically and another to assume that they will do ethical acts because they are
hasn't worked successfully to hold up certain public figures and say, "Here
is the ideal virtuous person; now act as he or she does."
has shown that many of our so-called heroes have had feet of clay, or at least
not always acted virtuously. Look at how many Prime Ministers have not been
perfect in their private and their public lives. Many of them have still done
some good for the country and the people in it, but they have not necessarily
fit any pattern of the "ideal virtuous person."