Virtue ethics is a moral philosophy and theory of normative ethics that emphasizes individuals’ character and personality traits instead of their actions.
Rather than asking whether an action is right or wrong, virtue ethics focuses on assessing the individual’s qualities and cultivating these noble characteristics to reach the best possible outcome.
For example, someone practicing virtue ethics might analyze an individual’s character traits, such as honesty, intelligence, and compassion, before deciding how best to respond in a given situation.
It may result in different decisions than one made by employing a consequentialist approach to evaluate the likely outcomes of specific actions.
So, virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of cultivating good character qualities rather than relying solely on assessing potential outcomes when making decisions. It requires individuals to take personal responsibility for their actions and strive for excellence in all aspects of life.
Definition of Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is a type of moral theory that focuses on the character of agents rather than their actions.
It holds that an individual’s ethical behavior should be measured by their trait-based characteristics such as honesty, courage, and wisdom, rather than by the consequences of their actions or the particular duties they are obliged to obey.
This approach emphasizes cultivating good virtues within individuals to attain desirable outcomes (Hu & Shen, 2018).
According to Sharma (2021),
“…virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences” (p. 74).
Virtue ethics can be seen as a teleological ethical system that takes a goal-oriented approach toward morality. This goal is to develop desirable traits in individuals who will lead to a greater good for society as a whole (Duignan, 2011).
It also draws upon concepts from ancient philosophy, such as Aristotle’s conception of the golden mean, which states that virtue lies in moderation between two extremes.
Simply, virtue ethics is concerned with developing good character traits within individuals and helping them become the best versions of themselves.
15 Examples of Virtue Ethics
- Loyalty: Being faithful, reliable, and dedicated to something or someone. It requires a commitment to helping others succeed and working together for common goals despite the difficulty.
- Courage: The ability to act despite fear, adversity, or danger. It can include physical bravery but also moral courage, such as standing up for what one believes is right and just, even when it may be unpopular.
- Honesty: Being truthful and sincere in all aspects of life. Honesty includes being open with others about disagreements or mistakes rather than attempting to cover them up.
- Compassion: Having empathy for the plight of others and willingness to reach out with understanding and assistance. Compassion is often seen as the basis for altruistic behavior, such as charitable giving or volunteerism.
- Patience: The capacity to endure hardships or unpleasant situations without losing one’s temper. Patience is often considered key to resolving conflicts peacefully or creating productive relationships with others.
- Wisdom: The capacity to think deeply and use judgment based on experience. Wisdom involves understanding how the parts of a problem fit together rather than simply focusing on isolated details.
- Kindness: Acting with generosity, gentleness, and concern for others. Kindness requires more than simply being nice but involves actively seeking opportunities to help those around you who may be struggling or need assistance.
- Integrity: Living according to one’s principles no matter what the cost. Integrity involves taking responsibility for your actions, keeping promises, and having a consistent set of values regardless of circumstances or social pressure.
- Humility: Acknowledging one’s own limitations while still recognizing personal strengths. Humility can involve admitting when we are wrong, praising another’s achievements rather than our own, and not placing oneself above other people.
- Respect: Valuing the rights, beliefs, feelings, needs, preferences, and opinions of yourself and those around you. Respect requires treating everyone fairly regardless of background, race, gender identity, etc.
- Gratitude: Appreciating the people, things, and experiences in one’s life and expressing thankfulness. Gratitude can lead to a greater sense of well-being and a more positive outlook on life.
- Forgiveness: Letting go of anger or resentment towards someone who has wronged you. Forgiveness can help heal relationships and promote inner peace.
- Creativity: Thinking outside the box and finding unique solutions to problems. Creativity involves taking risks and embracing failure as part of the learning process.
- Justice: Upholding what is fair and equitable, and advocating for the rights of all individuals. Justice involves fighting against discrimination, inequality, and oppression.
- Determination: Having the drive and persistence to achieve one’s goals despite obstacles or setbacks. Determination involves hard work, focus, and resilience in the face of challenges.
History of Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman philosophical thought, particularly the writings of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.
Aristotle proposed his theory of virtue ethics in the 4th century BC, suggesting that humans should be guided by their character rather than external rules or regulations (Armstrong, 2007).
He argued that cultivating certain habits and traits, known as virtues, was essential to living an ethical life and reaching a state of eudaimonia (human flourishing).
The writings of Socrates were influential in the development of Aristotelian virtue ethics.
He taught that being wise meant knowing oneself and what makes a person happy or sad. He focused on inner reflection rather than rule-following, a radical idea for his time (Van Hooft & Athanassoulis, 2014).
Plato also contributed to the development of virtue ethics in his writings. For example, he suggested that striving for justice and harmony within oneself was more important than following external rules or laws (Armstrong, 2007).
In the 1st century BC, Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively about Stoicism, emphasizing virtuous behavior as opposed to rigid external rules.
He believed that all emotions should be suppressed in favor of reason and logic to achieve emotional balance (Van Hooft & Athanassoulis, 2014).
In recent times, Immanuel Kant proposed his version of virtue ethics, which emphasized self-discipline above all else.
His theory suggested that if people acted with harmonious wills, they could make ethical decisions without resorting to outside moral guidelines or codes (Hill, 2012).
Today, virtue ethics continues to influence ethical thinking. It has been incorporated into many modern philosophical theories, such as utilitarianism and deontology.
By developing strong virtues such as courage, kindness, humility, and respect, individuals can become better versions of themselves while positively influencing society.
Central Concepts in Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics, originating from Plato and Aristotle, consist of three main ideas: Aretê (excellence), Eudaimonia (“happiness” or “bliss”), and Phronêsis (practical wisdom). As a result of these core concepts, virtue ethics have been used for centuries to aid people in living their lives virtuously.
Here is a brief overview of these concepts:
1. Virtue (aretê)
This concept refers to genuine moral excellence of character. It is an internal quality that manifests itself in external actions and attitudes.
Examples of virtues include courage, kindness, honesty, justice, and temperance. A virtuous person embodies these qualities and acts with integrity even when faced with temptation or adversity (Green, 2016).
2. Eudaimonia (“happiness” or “human flourishing”)
This concept is based on the idea that humans should lead a life full of purpose and meaning. It involves being true to oneself while living according to one’s values and beliefs to reach a state of contentment.
Examples of eudaimonia-driven behavior would be taking care of your health by engaging in physical activities or pursuing meaningful relationships with friends and family that enhance our sense of belonging (Fowers, 2016).
3. Practical Wisdom (phronêsis)
This concept focuses on the importance of rational decision-making based on empirical evidence and logical reasoning.
It involves understanding the consequences of one’s actions and having good judgment when faced with moral dilemmas or conflicting interests (Kinsella & Pitman, 2012).
Examples include weighing the pros and cons before making a big decision or being able to think critically about different situations from multiple perspectives to find a just outcome.
Major Forms of Virtue Ethics
Contemporary researchers identify three major forms of virtue ethics, including ethics of care, agent-based theories, and the eudaimonism approach, all emphasizing different aspects of living an ethically upright life.
Here is a brief overview of each one:
1. Ethics of Care
This approach to ethical decision-making focuses on caring for others, particularly vulnerable individuals such as the sick, elderly, or disabled (Timpe & Boyd, 2015).
For example, when a doctor is tasked with treating a terminally ill patient, they should consider both the patient’s wishes and their own obligations to provide medically and ethically sound care.
In this example, the doctor’s moral decision might be influenced by their sense of empathy, compassion, and justice rather than simply following laws or regulations.
2. Agent-Based Theories
This type of virtue ethics emphasizes individual agents’ importance and societal roles. It questions traditional views on morality, focusing on large groups or abstract principles rather than individual actions (Timpe & Boyd, 2015).
An example would be an individual who chooses to pursue a career path based on their own values rather than what society expects them to do.
In doing so, they are taking responsibility for their own decisions and showing strength of character, an important aspect of virtue ethics.
3. Eudaimonist Approach
Eudaimonism is an ethical framework based on Ancient Greek philosophy. It postulates that individuals should strive for self-fulfillment by developing virtues such as courage, temperance, and wisdom to lead a good life (Fowers, 2016).
For example, if a person is faced with a difficult situation involving personal conflict between two people who are close to them, eudaimonism suggests that they should find a resolution that involves clear communication and mutual respect.
This approach puts less emphasis on punishment or retribution and more emphasis on finding a just outcome that allows everyone involved to flourish.
Critique of Virtue Ethics
While virtue ethics is quite a popular approach to ethical decision-making, it has some limitations, such as a lack of clear guidance for moral decision-making, high subjectivity, and lack of clear incentives for virtuous living.
- Lack of Clear Guidance: First, critics argue that the approach does not provide clear guidance for moral decision-making because there are no universal virtues. Instead, each individual must decide which virtues they should pursue to lead a good life (Swanton, 2010). Such lack of specificity can make it difficult to determine the right course of action in any given situation, especially if conflicting values are at play.
- Subjectivity: some consider this approach to be too subjective and open to interpretation (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2003). Since individual agents have the autonomy to prioritize their values over social norms or legal regulations, they may end up making decisions detrimental to their moral integrity or the well-being of others.
- Lack of obvious rewards for virtuous behaviors: critics point out that virtue ethics does not provide enough incentive for individuals to act virtuously since there are no external rewards or punishments associated with this approach (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2003). Instead, people must have an intrinsic motivation to behave according to their moral codes.
Virtue ethics emphasizes cultivating good character traits within individuals rather than simply evaluating the consequences of their actions or adhering to a set of external rules or regulations.
This philosophy is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman thought and has influenced ethical thinking for centuries.
Virtue ethics involves developing virtues such as honesty, courage, compassion, and humility and using practical wisdom to make moral decisions.
Despite some limitations, virtue ethics is still a relevant and popular approach to ethical decision-making in many contexts.
Through careful reflection and practice, individuals can use this approach to cultivate strong moral character and lead meaningful lives.
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Duignan, B. (2011). The history of Western ethics. Britannica Educational Pub.
Fowers, B. J. (2016). The deep psychology of eudaimonia and virtue: Belonging, loyalty and the anterior cingulate cortex. Varieties of Virtue Ethics, 199–216. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-59177-7_12
Green, A. (2016). The virtue ethics of levi gersonides. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hill, T. E. (2012). Virtue, rules, and justice: Kantian aspirations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hu, J., & Shen, J. (2018). Virtue ethics: Reflection on and construction of moral education in colleges. Proceedings of the International Conference on Contemporary Education, Social Sciences and Ecological Studies (CESSES 2018). https://doi.org/10.2991/cesses-18.2018.42
Kinsella, E. A., & Pitman, A. (2012). Phronesis as professional knowledge: Practical wisdom in the professions. London: Sensepublishers.
Sharma, M. (2021). Assam public service commission (APSC) main exam: General studies 4 & general studies 3 study package. New York: Maniram Sharma.
Swanton, C. (2010). Virtue ethics and the problem of moral disagreement. Philosophical Topics, 38(2), 157–180. Doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43154586
Timpe, K., & Boyd, C. A. (2015). Virtues and their vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Hooft, S., & Athanassoulis, N. (2014). The handbook of virtue ethics. New York: Acumen Publishing Limited.