Of Philosophy

Notes on Virtue Ethics

The ethical theories of both Mill and Kant establish principles for the evaluation of actions:  actions are determined to be morally right depending on the consequences which result from the action (Mill) or depending on the form or motivation of the action (Kant).  Both approaches, however, appear to leave out a significant portion of what we normally think of as ethics or morality. The ethical theories of Mill and Kant assess the morality of actions, but it might be said that morality is not only—or even chiefly—about how to do good things.  In general we also aspire to be good persons.  We are not only concerned about what we do, but also about what we are.  In other words, a complete moral theory should be capable not only of judging actions, but of judging character. Rather than focus our attention on the morality of actions, the ethics of virtue examines the morality of agents

Positive traits of character are generally known as virtues (and their opposites called vices).   In Western philosophy, ethical theories of virtue date back as far as Plato and Aristotle in the third and fourth centuries B.C., and remained dominant through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, virtue approaches were gradually superseded by more narrowly rational or “scientific” approaches like those of Kant and Mill, but in the late 20th century virtue ethics began to reemerge as an important philosophical theory.  (In Asia and Africa, virtue ethics has always been the dominant tradition.)

For the Greeks, a virtue (arete) is an excellence, or more precisely an excellence at something.  Excellence for a knife is based in the ability to cut; excellence for a pen in the ability to make clear marks; excellence for a glue is in the ability to bind materials together.  Each has an excellence or virtue in achieving its goal (telos) or what it is for.  Similarly for people: excellence, or virtue, is in our ability to achieve what we are for, in fully actualizing our human potential.  Aristotle described this goal as eudaimonia.

Unlike simple things like knives and pens, however, humans have many tasks to perform.  Virtue ethics does not set up a single rule of morality, but identifies many possible goals.  This approach is therefore classified as a pluralism.  Typically, such a theory will set up a number of virtues (honesty, loyalty, courage, generosity, etc.) to be fostered—and vices to be avoided—by any individual of good character.  Different lists of virtues have been put forward by writers over the centuries.

We are generally familiar with virtues such as Courage, Generosity, or Humility, and with vices like Gluttony, Envy and Greed.  But how are such categories defined, and how many virtues—and vices—are there?

Aristotle located each virtue in a mean between two extremes: the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency.  An individual manifests Courage, for example, by exhibiting the right amount of a particular kind of behavior in between the deficiency (Cowardice) and the excess (Foolhardiness).  Determining the right amount has to take into consideration the abilities and disposition of the individual as well as and the nature of the situation.  Knowing what to do in a situation is a matter of practical wisdom (phronesis) learned through experience and taught by example.  But ultimately, possessing a virtue is not merely a matter of doing the right thing, but of possessing such a character that virtuous behavior arises spontaneously.  It should be more a matter of habit than rational calculation.

Adherents of the more rational and principle-based approaches to ethics find much to criticize in Virtue Ethics.   Its concepts are vaguely defined, and the list of virtues is always open-ended and subject to revision.  The Christian virtue of Humility, for example, was not a virtue for the ancient Greeks, and social virtues (like good humor) need to be distinguished from moral virtues.   Moreover, virtues may conflict—as is often the case with Justice and Mercy.  Is there a hierarchy among the virtues?  If so, how would that be determined?  Finally, does Virtue Ethics rely so much on tradition and context that it falls into a kind of relativism?

Another pluralistic approach to ethics is the principlism of Beauchamp and Childress (autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice).  While similar in many regards, their theory differs because the principles they set forward are not all personal virtues.