What does it mean to be a good person? How does one determine what the “right” thing to do is in a moral dilemma? Originally introduced by Aristotle, virtue ethics attempts to provide a moral framework to answer these questions. Virtue ethics is one of the major methodologies in normative ethics. This moral theory has a strong emphasis on an individual’s character and virtues. To live a life that is ethical under virtue ethics, one must develop and establish character traits such as love, compassion, courage, and honesty. Under this approach to morality, an individual can attain virtuous traits through practice. Through repetition and practice of honorable traits like courage, love, and honesty an individual can eventually develop into a respectable and good human being.
Aristotle goes on to clarify what he means by virtue by stating “By virtue, I mean virtue of character; for this is about feelings and actions, and these admit of excess, deficiency, and an intermediate condition…But having these feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue” (Aristotle 2013, 624). Ultimately, virtue could be thought of as the center between two extremes, deficiency and excess. Virtue is the sweet spot between the two and is what individuals should strive for in any ethical situation. For instance, if there was a scenario where a person needed to have the virtue of courage. Aristotle would argue that the deficiency of courage would be cowardice, meanwhile, the excess of courage is rashness (Aristotle 2013, 626). Noting that too much of either would be “not well” (Aristotle 2013, 624).
In comparison to other theories like utilitarianism, virtue ethics has great contrasts. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism; this moral theory’s foundation is built on utility and is outcome centric. Generally speaking, a utilitarian would focus on the outcome that would bring the greatest amount of good (utility) to the greatest amount of people. Given the same situation, a person who believes in virtue ethics would act much differently than that of a utilitarian. Since they are not bound by consequences, they will not let the outcomes of their decisions to impact how they act. Instead, when confronted with a complex, ethical situation a virtue ethicists would likely ask themselves “What would a model human being do in this situation?”. Whatever the response is should be how the agent would act in the scenario. Next, there is Kantian ethics, but what is it? Both theories differ in interpretations of how one can live as a “righteous” person. Kantian ethics is a form of deontological ethical theory, it judges an action to be right or wrong based on whether it conforms to one’s duty or the law.
One of the most significant aspects to Kantian ethics is the categorial imperative. This was Kant’s system in which he used to determine what actions were right or wrong. Kant goes on to say that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (Kent 2013, 488). To put it simply, Kant is claiming that a person should constantly act in a way where their own actions could become the universal law for how everyone else should act, given the same scenario. When pitted against Virtue ethics Kantian ethics has a great focus on rules and universal norms for how someone should behave. Meanwhile, a virtue ethicist is concerned with the person, and the individual’s quality of character, with the goal of being a virtuous person, when determining morality. Then, there is Divine Command Theory (DCT). This is a famous metal-ethical theory in philosophy and is another form of Deontology like Kantian ethics.
This moral theory suggests that actions are morally right or wrong only because god commands or prohibits them. Essentially, this philosophy insinuates that for an individual to be regarded as moral they have to follow the commands of a character, god. Since god is in the position of creating facts it also makes them true as well. In a famous conversation between Euthyphro and Socrates known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, Socrates asks Euthyphro “Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it? “(Plato 2013, 218). Here, Socrates is asking if things are moral because they are moral in their nature, or do they become moral merely because god states that they are. This is one of the many criticisms of DCT, if god says to do something it doesn’t always make it moral. A virtue ethicist is different than a divine command follower because they are not concerned with the rightness or wrongness of certain acts but are instead concerned with the person’s character who is carrying out these acts. If god suddenly decided that murdering someone was right, then a DCT ethicist would obey god’s command. However, virtue ethicists would not bring themselves to commit such an act simply because some higher figure said so. As well, committing murder would violate what it would mean to be a virtuous individual and is seen as a deficiency of having compassion for others. To tie this all together let’s introduce a scenario to see how each moral theory mentioned would assess a situation differently.
In the film Man of Steel, Superman is faced with a moral dilemma when confronted with the opportunity to kill his foe, General Zod. Utilitarians would suggest for the hero to kill his enemy since Zod would be too much of a danger to humanity if left alive. Kantian ethics would assess the act of murder, although it would be better for Superman to kill Zod, it may not be morally good for Superman to kill him. A DCT ethicist would look to god’s command for their answer, does command them to kill others, those who are dangerous to others? Finally, a believer in virtue ethics would look at Superman’s moral character, does Superman want to be a person who takes his enemies’ lives? No moral theory is without flaws and virtue ethics is certainly one of them. A reason why one would reject to use of a virtue-based approach to morality is that this philosophy is quite vague. Virtue ethics does not offer clear instructions on how a person should act when in moral dilemmas. It proposes a rough guide on what an ideal person would/should do based on certain virtues, but this is sometimes difficult to determine when the situations become more complex. As a result, it makes it very difficult to apply it well in a situation. As well, since virtue ethics is focused on the character traits of a person it doesn’t take the context of a situation into consideration. For example, a soldier who is fighting in a war would likely be praised under virtue ethics because they are displaying virtuous traits, such as courage.
However, this model does not say anything regarding why or what the soldier is fighting for. As they could be fighting for unjust or immoral reasons. Philosopher Christopher Toner says, “It is often objected that virtue ethics is self-centered or egoistic” (Toner 595, 2006). Another common criticism of virtue ethics is that the theory is too self-centered. At its core ethics should be concerned with the well-being of others. Unfortunately, David Solomon claims that virtue ethics seems to concentrate too much on the individual. This philosophy seems to be more attentive on how one can attain certain traits rather than acting in a moral manner that will positively impact others (Solomon 653, 2010). Just because an agent holds certain virtues it doesn’t make them more moral. An act can seem like it stems from good virtues on the outside, but it may be fuelled by bad motives. In these aspects, the theory seems incomplete. Virtue ethics is not well-equipped and will experience difficulty when trying to deal with actual complex moral problems.
- Aristotle. (2013) ‘The Nature of Virtue’ in R. Shafer-Landau (ed.) Ethical Theory: An Anthology Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 615 – 629
- Kant, Immanuel. (2013) ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ in R. Shafer-Landau (ed.) Ethical Theory: An Anthology Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 485 – 498
- Plato. (2013) ‘Euthyphro’ in R. Shafer-Landau (ed.) Ethical Theory: An Anthology Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 218 – 219
- Solomon, David. (2010) ‘The Self-Centeredness Objection to Virtue Ethics: Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian Response’ in H. Yong (ed.) American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, pp. 651-692
- Toner, Christopher. (2006) “The Self-Centredness Objection to Virtue Ethics.” Philosophy, vol. 81, no. 318, 2006, pp. 595–617. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4127419