Virtue Ethics

Author: David Merry
Category: Ethics, Historical Philosophy
Word Count: 1000

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Think of the (morally) best person you know. It could be a friend, parent, teacher, religious leader, thinker, or activist.

The person you thought of is probably kind, brave, and wise. They are probably not greedy, cruel, or foolish.

The first list of ‘character traits’ (kind, brave, etc.) are virtues, and the second list (arrogant, greedy, etc.) are vices. Virtues are ways in which people are good; vices are ways in which people are bad.

This essay presents virtue ethics, a theory that sees virtues and vices as central to understanding who we should be, and what we should do.

The main characters from The Wizard of Oz. Each has a vice, but they are seeking to become more virtuous.
The main characters from The Wizard of Oz. Each has a vice, but together they are seeking to become more virtuous.

1. Virtue and Happiness

Virtues are excellent traits of character.[1] They shape how we act, think, and feel. They make us who we are. Virtues are acquired through good habits, over a long period of time.

1.1. Eudaimonia

According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) virtues are those, and only those, character traits we need to be happy.[2] Many virtue ethicists today agree.[3] These virtue ethicists are called eudaimonists, after the Greek word eudaimonia, usually translated as “happiness,” “flourishing,” or “well-being.[4]

For eudaimonists, happiness is more than a feeling: it involves living well with others and pursuing worthwhile goals. This includes cultivating strong relationships, and succeeding at such projects as raising a family, fighting for justice, and (moderate yet enthusiastic) enjoyment of pleasure.[5]

Eudaimonists believe our happiness is not easily separated from that of other people. Many would consider the happiness of their friends and family as part of their own. Eudaimonists may extend this to complete strangers, and non-human animals. Similarly for causes or ideals: eudaimonists believe complicity in injustice and deceit reduces a person’s happiness.,[6]

If eudaimonists are right about happiness, then it is plausible that we need virtues such as honesty, kindness, gratitude and justice to be happy. This is not to say that the virtues will guarantee happiness. But eudaimonists believe we cannot be truly happy without them.

One concern is that vicious people often seem happy. For example, dictators live in palaces, apparently rather pleasantly. Eudaimonists may not think this amounts to happiness, but many would disagree. And if dictators can be happy, then we certainly can be happy without the virtues. Answering this objection is an ongoing project for eudaimonists.[7]

1.2. Emotion, Intelligence, and Developing Virtue

Eudaimonists believe emotions are essential to happiness, and that our emotions are shaped by our habits. Good emotional habits are a question of balance.

For example, eudaimonists argue that honest people habitually want to and enjoy telling the truth, but not so much that they will ignore all other considerations–a habit of enjoying pointing out other people’s shortcomings will leave us friendless, and so is not part of honesty.[8]

Because virtue requires balancing competing considerations, such as telling the truth and considering other people’s feelings, virtue also requires experience in making moral decisions. Virtue ethicists call this intellectual ability practical intelligence, or wisdom.[9]

2. Virtue and Right Action

Virtue ethicists believe we can use virtue to understand how we should act, or what makes actions right.

According to some virtue ethicists, an action is right if, and only if, it is what a virtuous person would characteristically do under the circumstances.[10] On rare occasions, virtuous people do the wrong thing. But this is not acting characteristically.

2.1. Being Specific

“Do what virtuous people would do” is not very specific, and we may be left wondering what the theory is actually saying we should do.

One way to make it more specific is to generate rules for each of the virtues and vices, called “v-rules.” Two examples of v-rules are: be kind, don’t be cruel. The v-rules give specific guidance in many cases: writing an email just to hurt someone’s feelings is cruel, so don’t do it.[11]

Unfortunately, the virtues can conflict: if a friend asks whether we like their new partner, it may be more honest to say we do not, but kinder to say we do. In this case it is hard to say what the virtuous person would do.

Virtue ethicists might respond that other ethical theories will also struggle to give clear guidance in hard cases.[12]

Second, they might try to understand how a virtuous person would think about the situation. Remember that virtuous people have practical intelligence, and habitually care about other people’s happiness and telling the truth. So they may consider a lot of particular details, including how close the friendship is, how bad the partner is, how gently the friend may be told.[13]

This may not provide a specific answer, but virtue ethicists hope they can at least provide a helpful model for thinking about hard cases.[14]

2.2. Explaining Why

We have seen how virtue ethics tells us what to do. But we also want to know why we should do it.

Virtue ethicists point out that if we ask virtuous people, they will explain why they did what they did.[15] Their reasoning results from their excellent emotional habits and practical intelligence–that is, from their virtue. And if we want to be happy, we need to cultivate virtue. So these should be our reasons too.

But in explaining their decision, the virtuous person won’t necessarily mention virtue. They might, for example, say, “I wanted to avoid hurting their feelings, so I told the truth gently.”[16]

It might then seem that something other than virtue–in our example, the importance of other people’s feelings–explains why the action is right. But then this other thing should be central to ethical theory, instead of virtue.

Virtue ethicists may respond that the moral weight of this other thing depends on which character traits are virtues. Accordingly, if kindness were not a virtue, there may be no moral reason to care about others’ feelings.[17]

3. Conclusion

Virtue ethicists recommend reflecting on the character traits we need to be happy. They hope this will help us make better moral decisions. Virtue ethics may not always yield clear answers, but perhaps acknowledging moral uncertainty is not a vice.

Notes

[1] Others may define virtue as admirable or merely good traits of character. For additional definitions of virtue and understandings of virtue ethics, see Hursthouse and Pettigrove’s “Virtue Ethics.”

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book One, Chapter 9, Lines 1099b25-29. For this interpretation, see Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, p. 6.

[3] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 165-169, “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, p. 226, Foot, Natural Goodness, pp. 99-116.

There are many other accounts of virtue worth considering. One major alternative is sentimentalist accounts, such as that of Hume and Zagbzebski, who define virtues as those character traits that attract love or admiration. Some scholars argue that Confucian ethics is a virtue ethic, though this is debated: see Wong, “Chinese Ethics.” Also see John Ramsey’s Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 1: The Four Moral Sprouts. For an African understanding of virtue, see Thaddeus Metz’s The African Ethic of Ubuntu.

[4] Hursthouse has a detailed and accessible discussion of the merits of different translations of eudaimonia in On Virtue Ethics, pp. 9-10.

[5] Some people find this account of virtue surprising because they think virtue must involve sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of other people, and living like a saint, a monk, or just being a really boring and miserable person. In this case it may be more helpful to think in terms of ‘good character’ than ‘virtue’. David Hume amusingly argued that some alleged virtues, such as humility, celibacy, silence, and solitude, were vices. See his Enquiry 9.1.

[6] The idea that injustice erodes everybody’s happiness is not to deny that it especially harms people who are treated unjustly. However, eudaimonists consider being unjust, or deceiving others to be bad for us.

[7] For a compelling discussion of this objection to eudaimonism, see Blackburn, Being Good, pp. 112-118. Eudaimonists have been trying to answer this objection for a long time. Indeed, arguing that it is more beneficial to be just than unjust is one of the major themes of Plato’s Republic. For more recent attempts to make the case, see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, Chapter 8, or Foot, Natural Goodness, especially Chapter 7. See also Kiki Berk’s Happiness.

[8] The idea that the virtues involve finding a balance is called ‘the doctrine of the mean.’ See Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 6, lines 1106b30-1107a5. For one contemporary account of the emotional aspects of virtue, see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, pp.108-121.

[9] Aristotle discusses practical intelligence in Nicomachean Ethics Book 6. For a contemporary account see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, pp. 59-62.

[10] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 28-29. This is sometimes called a qualified-agent account. For some alternatives, see van Zyl’s “Virtue Ethics and Right Action”.

[11] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 28-29.

[12] For other moral theories, see Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman and Introduction to Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz. When reading, you might consider whether these theories would give you clearer guidance about your friend’s partner.

[13] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, chapter 9, lines 1109a25-30. Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics pp. 128-129.

[14] For two examples of how virtue ethics may be helpfully applied to tough moral decisions, see Hursthouse’s “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, and Foot’s “Euthanasia”.

[15] Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics and Abortion”, especially p. 227, pp. 234-237. “Do what a virtuous person would do” is only supposed to tell us what we should do, not how we should think.

[16] This objection is discussed in Shafer-Landau’s The Fundamentals of Ethics, pp. 272-274.

[17] On this connection between facts about morality on facts about virtue and human happiness, see Hursthouse “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, pp. 236-238.

References

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. C. 355-322 BCE. Trans. Roger Crisp. Cambridge UP. 2014.

Blackburn, S. Being Good. Oxford UP. 2001.

Boxill, B. “How Injustice Pays.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9(4): 359-371. 1980.

Foot, P. Natural Goodness. Oxford UP. 2001.

Foot, P. “Euthanasia”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(2): 85–112. 1977.

Foot, P. “Moral Beliefs.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 59: 83-104. 1958.

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 1777.      

Hursthouse, R. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs. 20(3): 223-246. 1991.

Hursthouse, R. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford UP. 1999.

Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove, “Virtue Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Zalta, E.N (ed.). 2018,

Nussbaum, M. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge UP. 2nd Edition, 2001.

van Zyl, L. “Virtue Ethics and Right Action”. In Russell, D. C (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. Cambridge UP. 2013.

Plato. Republic. C. 375 BCE. Trans. Paul Shorey. Harvard UP. 1969.

Shafer-Landau, R. The Fundamentals of Ethics. Fourth Edition. Oxford UP. 2017.

Wong, D. “Chinese Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition). Zalta, E.N (ed). 2021.

Zagzebski, L.T. Exemplarist Moral Theory. Oxford UP. 2017.

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About the Author

David Merry’s research is mostly about ethics and dialectic in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, although he also occasionally works on contemporary ethics and philosophy of medicine. He received a Ph.D. from the Humboldt University of Berlin, and an M.A in philosophy from the University of Auckland. He is co-editor of Essays on Argumentation in Antiquity. He offers interactive, discussion-based online philosophy classes and maintains a blog at Kayepos.com.

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