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Virtue ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that emphasizes character, rather than rules or consequences, as the key element of ethical thinking. In the West virtue ethics was the prevailing approach to ethical thinking in the ancient and medieval periods. The tradition suffered an eclipse during the early modern period, as Aristotelianism fell out of favour in the West. Virtue ethics returned to prominence in Western philosophical thought in the twentieth century, and is today one of the three dominant approaches to normative ethics (the other two being deontology and consequentialism).

Although concern for virtue appears in several philosophical traditions, notably the Chinese, in the West the roots of the tradition lie in the work of Plato and Aristotle, and even today the tradition’s key concepts derive from ancient Greek philosophy. These concepts include arête (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing, sometimes mistranslated as happiness).


A system of virtue ethics, having offered an account of the good life, then identifies those habits and behaviours that will allow a person to achieve that good life: these habits and behaviours are the virtues (arête). In the course of one's activities one will have opportunity to practice these virtues. Sometimes these virtues will be, or will seem to be, in conflict with one another: a common dilemma is the apparent conflict between honesty and compassion, when telling a friend the truth (about his appearance, say) would hurt that friend's feelings. In such cases the agent must exercise her practical wisdom (phronesis) to resolve the conflict. Ultimately, a lifetime of practicing these virtues will allow the agent to flourish and live the good life (eudaimonia). In fact, in most accounts, practicing the virtues partially constitutes eudaimonia rather than being merely a means to that end.

This schema of the moral life strongly differs from those offered by virtue ethics' predominant rivals, deontological and consequentialist ethics. These systems aim to articulate principles or rules that provide an agent the ability to decide how to act in a given situation. Consequentialist and deontological ethics often still employ the term 'virtue', but in a restricted sense, namely as a tendency or disposition to adhere to the system's principles or rules. These very different senses of what constitutes virtue, hidden behind the same word, are a potential source of confusion.

This disagreement over the meaning of virtue points to a larger conflict between virtue ethics and its philosophical rivals. A system of virtue ethics is only intelligible if it is teleological: that is, if it includes an account of the purpose (telos) of human life, or in popular language, the meaning of life. Obviously, strong claims about the purpose of human life, or of what the good life for human beings is, will be highly controversial. Virtue ethics' necessary commitment to a teleological account of human life thus puts the tradition in sharp tension with other dominant approaches to normative ethics, which, because they focus on actions, do not bear this burden.

Historical origins and development

Like much of the Western tradition, virtue ethics seems to have originated in ancient Greek philosophy. Discussion of what were known as the Four Cardinal Virtues - prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance - can be found in Plato's Republic. The virtues also figure prominently in Aristotle's moral theory (see below). The Greek idea of the virtues was later incorporated into Christian moral theology. During the scholastic period, the most comprehensive consideration of the virtues from a theological perspective was provided by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae and his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. The idea of virtue also plays a prominent role in the moral philosophy of David Hume.

Virtue ethics has been a recurring theme of political philosophy in the emergence of classical liberalism or republicanism, particularly in the Scottish Enlightenment that was carried to the British North American colonies and influenced the Founders of the United States. An exemplar of this was George Washington, who summarized his moral philosophy in a few words said on the final day, September 17, 1787, of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Many of the participants were dissatisfied with the Constitution they had just drafted, and concerned about its prospects for adoption and success. Washington is reported to have said, "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God." He was saying that we are not morally responsible for outcomes, which largely result from factors we cannot control, and that while it is virtuous to do one's duty, sometimes we have to venture into new territory, creating new duties for ourselves not previously established. When we do that, our guide is the good opinion of those we admire as virtuous, and that the most virtuous members of society provide the standards for making moral decisions, by their own virtuous examples.

Achieving eudaimonia

Eudaimonia is a state variously translated as "happiness" or "human flourishing". The latter translation is more accurate; eudaimonia is not a subjective, but an objective, state. It characterizes the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it. According to Aristotle, the most prominent exponent of eudaimonia in the Western philosophical tradition, eudaimonia is the proper goal of human life. It consists of exercising the characteristic human quality-- reason-- as the soul's most proper and nourishing activity. Aristotle, like Plato before him, argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia was an activity that could only properly be exercised in the characteristic human community-- the polis or city-state.

Although eudaimonia was first popularized by Aristotle, it now belongs to the tradition of virtue ethics generally. For the virtue ethicist, eudaimonia describes that state achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, an outcome which can be reached by practising the virtues. A virtue is a habit or quality that allows the bearer to succeed at his, her, or its purpose. The virtue of a knife, for example, is sharpness; among the virtues of a racehorse is speed. Thus to identify the virtues for human beings, one must have an account of what the human purpose is. There is, and always has been, sharp disagreement on this question: thus, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed in After Virtue, though thinkers as diverse as Homer, Aristotle, the authors of the New Testament, Thomas Aquinas, and Benjamin Franklin have all proposed lists of the virtues, these lists often fail to overlap. Aristotle praises magnanimity but does not mention faith; the New Testament does the reverse.

Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. Aristotle identified nine intellectual virtues, the most important of which were sophia (theoretical wisdom) and phronesis (practical wisdom). The moral virtues included prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (see Golden Mean) between two corresponding vices. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between the two vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Where cowardice is the disposition to act more fearfully than the situation deserves, and foolhardiness is the disposition to show too little fear for the situation, courage is the mean between the two: the disposition to show the amount of fear appropriate to the situation.

Virtue ethics outside the Western tradition

Non-Western moral and religious philosophies, such as Confucianism, also incorporate ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks. Like ancient Greek ethics, Chinese ethical thought makes an explicit connection between virtue and statecraft. However, where the Greeks focused on the interior orientation of the soul, Confucianism's definition of virtue emphasizes interpersonal relations.

Normally when the term virtue ethics is used, it is in reference to the western conception of virtue ethics, rather than any of the schools of East Asian ethical thought.

Contemporary virtue ethics

Although some Enlightenment philosophers (e.g. Hume) continued to emphasize the virtues, with the ascendancy of utilitarianism and deontology, virtue ethics moved to the margins of Western philosophy. The contemporary revival of virtue ethics is frequently traced to the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 essay, Modern Moral Philosophy and to Philippa Foot, who published a collection of essays in 1978 entitled Virtues and Vices. Since the 1980s, in works like After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has made an effort to reconstruct a virtue-based ethics in dialogue with the problems of modern and postmodern thought. Following MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, American Methodist theologian, has also found the language of virtue quite helpful in his own project. More recently, Rosalind Hursthouse has published On Virtue Ethics and Roger Crisp and Michael Slote have edited a collection of important essays titled Virtue Ethics.

Criticisms of virtue ethics

As with all other schools of ethical theory, there are objections to virtue ethics.

Some claim a problem with the theory is the difficulty of establishing the nature of the virtues. Different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue. For example, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious. This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies (see also cultural relativism). Proponents of virtue ethics sometimes respond to this objection by arguing that a central feature of a virtue is its universal applicability. In other words, any character trait defined as a virtue must reasonably be universally regarded as a virtue for all sentient beings. According to this view, it is inconsistent to claim for example servility as a female virtue, while at the same time not proposing it as a male one.

Other proponents of virtue ethics, notably Alasdair MacIntyre, respond to this objection by arguing that any account of the virtues must indeed be generated out of the community in which those virtues are to be practiced: the very word 'ethics' implies 'ethos'. That is to say that the virtues are, and necessarily must be, grounded in a particular time and place. What counts as virtue in fourth-century Athens would be a ludicrous guide to proper behaviour in twenty-first-century Toronto, and vice-versa. To take this view does not necessarily commit one to the argument that accounts of the virtues must therefore be static: moral activity-- that is, attempts to contemplate and practice the virtues-- can provide the cultural resources that allow people to change, albeit slowly, the ethos of their own societies. MacIntyre appears to take this position in his seminal work on virtue ethics, After Virtue. One might cite (though MacIntyre does not) the rapid emergence of abolitionist thought in the slave-holding societies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world as an example of this sort of change: over a relatively short period of time, perhaps 1760 to 1800, in Britain, France, and British America, slave-holding, previously thought to be morally neutral or even virtuous, rapidly became seen as vicious among wide swathes of society. While the emergence of abolitionist thought derived from many sources, the work of David Brion Davis, among others, has established that one source was the rapid, internal evolution of moral theory among certain sectors of these societies, notably the Quakers.

Another objection to virtue ethics is that the school does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. In other words, while some virtue ethicists may not condemn, for example, murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, they may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues, such as compassion and fairness. Still, antagonists of the theory often object that this particular feature of the theory makes virtue ethics useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation. Some virtue theorists concede to this point, but respond by opposing the very notion of legitimate legislative authority instead, effectively advocating some form of anarchism as the political ideal. Others argue that it is possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than rules.

Some virtue ethicists, like Phillipa Foot, might respond to this overall objection with the notion of a "bad act" also being an act characteristic of vice. That is to say that those acts which do not aim at virtue, or stray from virtue, would constitute our conception of "bad behavior". Although not all virtue ethicists agree to this notion, this is one way the virtue ethicist can re-introduce the concept of the "morally impermissible". One could raise objection with Foot that she is committing an argument from ignorance by postulating that what is not virtuous is unvirtuous. In other words, just because an action or person 'lacks of evidence' for virtue does not, all else constant, imply that said action or person is unvirtuous.

See also

Further reading

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