Virtue Ethics  (source: The Dimensions of Ethics by W. Waluchow, 2002)

Kant’s 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 find ourselves.


A 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

‘What should I do?’


‘What should I be?’


Aristotle 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.


Aristotle was mainly interested in answering questions such as

should we be:
selfish or generous?

hateful or benevolent?

cowardly or courageous?

over-indulgent or temperate?


Aristotle offered exemplars of virtue to emulate and vices to avoid rather than rules or principles to be obeyed or disobeyed.


Morality was much more related to the character rather than to rules.


Morality should not be a matter based on rules or principles to be followed.


Morality 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.


This is why Aristotle’s moral theory became known as "Virtue Ethics."


Virtue 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.


Definition of Terms

The 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.”


It further lists the "cardinal" or "natural" virtues as "justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance."


A 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. "



As 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.


In 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.


Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics

Virtue Ethics originally derives from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (named for his son, Nichomachus).


Such ethics are teleological in character (that is, aim toward some end or purpose).


As 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."


For example, a doctor's art aims at health, seamanship aims at a safe voyage, and economy aims at wealth.


He 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.


Emphasis on Goodness of Character

Aristotle is concerned with action, not as being right or good in itself, but as it is conducive to human good.


In 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 general principles.


Aristotle 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.


Development of the Good or Virtuous Human Being

Aristotle 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.


Aristotle 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.


As 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.


Eventually 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.


This 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).


Aristotle further states that virtue itself is a disposition that has been developed out of a capacity by the proper exercise of that capacity.


What Is Virtue and How Does It Relate to Vice?

According to Aristotle, virtue is a mean between two extremes, both of which are vices --either excess or deficiency (or defect).


Moral 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."


And, according to Aristotle, practical wisdom is the ability to see what is the right thing to do in any circumstance.


Therefore, a person must determine what a "practically wise, virtuous man" would choose in any circumstance calling for moral choice, and then do the right thing.


Obviously, Aristotle attaches much more importance to an enlightened conscience than to prior theoretical rules [the way Kant or Ross did it].


How to Determine the Proper Mean

What 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.


For 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.


Some examples of means between two extremes, established by Aristotle and tabulated by W. D. Ross are as follows:


Feeling or Action                               Excess                   Mean                     Defect


Confidence                                            Rashness               Courage                 Cowardice

Sensual pleasure                                  Profligacy              Temperance          Insensibility

Shame                                                    Bashfulness          Modesty                                Shamelessness

Giving amusement                               Buffoonery            Wittiness               Boorishness

Truth telling about oneself                 Boastfulness         Truthfulness         Self-depreciation

Friendship                                             Obsequiousness  Friendliness          Sulkiness



This 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.


It does, however, provide us with some general guidelines that we can refer to as we attempt to determine the mean "relative to us."


Contemporary Analysis of Virtue Ethics

Probably 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.


In 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.


One must create virtuous feelings or inclinations within oneself, not merely act virtuously.


MacIntyre stated 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."


The 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.


As 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 so.


Advantages of Virtue Ethics

Creating 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.


Virtue 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.


Many 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.


These 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.


Unifying 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.


The 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.


Kant 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.


Aristotle 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.


Emphasizes Moderation. Virtue Ethics, at least Aristotle's version of it, gives us a way to achieve moderation between excess and deficiency.


Many ethicists believe, along with the Greeks, that "moderation in all things" is what human beings ought to strive for.


Aristotle 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 earlier.


Aristotle also encourages freedom by allowing individuals to decide upon the appropriate mean relative to themselves.


Aristotle 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.



Disadvantages or Problems

Do 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?


Many 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.


Even 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?

Aristotle's assumption is just that--an assumption.


Many 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.


Furthermore, 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.


Are Morals Naturally Implanted? A second major assumption by Aristotle is that the tendency to be moral is naturally implanted in human beings.


What 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.


The 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.


Is 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.


What 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?


Some, 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 and well-being.


According to MacIntyre, however, there have been and still are deep conflicts as to what is involved in human flourishing and well-being.


MacIntyre goes on to say that different periods in history and historical figures from those periods present us with several sets of virtues:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.


Who Is the Ideal Virtuous Person?

Finally, 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?


We 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?


For 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 admired?


How 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?


Also, how would we know that we had come up with the truly virtuous ideal person?


Certainly 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 already virtuous.


It 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."


History 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."