Virtue Ethics






Virtue theory, an approach to ethics originally devised by Aristotle and recently popularized by G.E.M. Anscombe (a 20th century female philosopher), is based around the idea that when ethical questions are being considered, our focus should not be on moral duty, obligation, right and wrong, or anything of this nature, but rather on people and their characteristics. We should not speak of things in terms of their being moral or immoral as, according to Anscombe at least, when we talk about things like this we are actually referring back to the concept of a law-giving God (one which is quite outdated in today’s modern society). Calling an action mean or cruel is more than sufficient to establish that it is bad – saying that it is immoral doesn’t add anything. Anscombe’s argument here is that our use of terms like “moral” and “immoral” are only in use today because we have grown accustomed to them over many years of Christianity. They are no longer fully intelligible, as we no longer believe in any sort of “divine law”(note that this does not mean we need to stop using the words altogether, but rather that we should strive to reassess their meaning). Instead, she suggested that we look at the work of Aristotle, and his ideas regarding virtues and vices. A modern ethical system, based on the thoughts of a philosopher who lived many years before Christianity rose to prominence, and one which could provide us with a fresh perspective on the question of ethics.

The underlying idea here is that there should be more of a focus on a person’s character and emotions when one is discussing ethical problems. We generally talk about what people should say or do, rather than how they should think and feel, which is arguably more important. A person acting according to the rules of some particular ethical system is not necessarily a “good person”, but someone who has cultivated positive character traits would by default be such an individual, and consequently he would act in a more ethically sound manner without needing to be instructed to do so. To the virtue theorist, character is of the essence, and should lie at the centre of any debate pertaining to morality.

Now, as the name implies, this particular theory is concerned with virtues and vices. So what are these? Well, they’re character traits; the one positive, the other negative. And how do we acquire these elusive, positive character traits then? According to virtue theory, we do this through practice. A possible analogy for this would be learning how to paint. If you want to become a skilled painter capable of creating realistic portraits or landscapes, or even abstract canvases, you’ll need to practice. You’ll have to study the work of those painters who have come before you, learn about the different types of paint available to you, and spend hour upon hour hunched over sheets of paper or canvas carefully applying paint in increasingly complex patterns. You’ll have to practice using colours and shading, develop your observational skills, and all sorts of other things. For some, this may come naturally, but for the vast majority of us it would take time, energy and commitment. The same is true of acquiring virtues. To become brave, for instance, you must practice acting bravely until it becomes an integral part of your personality. Furthermore, just as painting gradually becomes more “fun” to an art student, so too should practicing a particular virtue become more pleasurable over time.

So we know that a virtue is a character trait and that it can be developed over time through practice (a stance based around the idea of a moral education). But how do we distinguish between vices and virtues?* This is a substantial problem, as people’s opinions on the matter are often subjective. There are however four so-called “cardinal virtues” that many philosophers have come to agree on over the years; fortitude (or courage), temperance (or self-discipline), prudence (or practical wisdom) and justice (which, used in this context, connotes a certain inner harmony and lack of egotism).   The strengths of virtue theory are numerous, which explains its current popularity amongst modern philosophers. The way in which it considers a person’s emotions and character rather than coldly analyzing his actions or their consequences; the concept that a virtuous person should take pleasure in acting virtuously rather than doing what he “has to do”; the emphasis placed on a learning process or “moral education”; its holistic perspective on morality, taking a person’s entire life and character into account; and its lack of a firm decision procedure in relation to ethical action, all contribute to its overall strength as a moral theory.

This last one is an interesting point, as it could easily be viewed as a weakness of the theory. It is one of the defining features of virtue theory – that it does not tell us what to do. But how can this be a strength, when it means that we’re provided with no real method for determining how we should act in a given situation? Well, the problem with having a decision procedure like those offered by utilitarianism and Kantianism is that it tends to simplify things. Moral situations come in an infinite variety, and the context of a particular situation can bring new and unexpected problems to the table. Simplification can work to some extent, but after a while it becomes a limiting factor, in that it damages the versatility of a theory.

*Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is as follows; “a habitual character trait that aims at the mean between two extremes”. Take bravery, for instance. It can be viewed as a trait lying somewhere  between cravenliness and over-confidence.


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  1. Pingback: Ideas – addictions, nursing theory and Impartiality « Gnstr's blog

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