Normative ethics is comprised of three systems: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. While virtue ethics goes back to Aristotle or earlier, it is only more recently that virtue ethics has begun to compete more actively with consequentialism and deontology as a viable system of ethical thought.
What is virtue ethics? In its simplest form, it is ethical action judged by one’s character. Instead of looking to an outside list of rules or a formula for determining outcomes, virtue ethics seeks to enact behaviour based on the virtues within the person.
Concepts within Virtue Ethics
There are three concepts based on Greek words that are important for understanding virtue ethics. Arête is a Greek word that means excellence or virtue. Virtue is much more than a habit, it is more of a character trait. It can be understood in this way: “To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset.”1 Virtue is a concept that is tied very much to the identity of the person.
Another concept is based on phronesis, which means practical or moral wisdom. The concern with a simple reliance on virtue divorced from concerns of context is that it may not result in the best action. Moral wisdom allows the person to understand the nature of consequences and the fact that some features of a situation may be more important than others. This comes through experience. One can understand the “practically wise as those who understand what is worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know in short, how to live.”2
The final concept is that of eudaimonia, which can be translated as happiness or flourishing. This is a helpful definition: “Eudaimonia is happiness, contentment, and fulfillment; it’s the name of the best kind of life, which is an end in itself and a means to live and fare well.”3 The hope is that by acting out of the virtues within the person according to moral wisdom, the person will experience eudaimonia.
Branches of Virtue Ethics
There are three main branches of virtue ethics. The first is that of eudaimonism. This is the form of virtue ethics that is closest to that formulated by Aristotle. Eudaimonism has been described in this way:
If the function of man is reason, then the good man is the man who reasons well. This is the life of excellence or of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is the life of virtue—activity in accordance with reason, man’s highest function.4
Virtue is determined by what builds into eudaimonia and the person then acts upon those virtues.
A second branch of virtue ethics is that of agent-based accounts. This was developed by Michael Slote and it represents an attempt for a non-Aristotelian virtue ethics. Eudaimonist virtue ethics are agent-focused, that is they are determined by the virtues of the individual. Agent-based virtue ethics are based on admirable human traits that we can recognize within the people that are respected in society.
The final branch is that of the ethics of care. This formulation emerges out of feminist reflections on the nature of ethics. The concern of this branch is that traditional understandings of virtue were often determined from a male perspective. A virtuous person generally meant a virtuous man. The ethics of care looks to virtues of women to provide an alternate understanding of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics does not rely on just where the person is at and expect the same behaviour. There is a place for development. Alasdair MacIntyre describes virtues as emerging out of three questions: Who am I? Who I ought to be? How I ought to get there?5 There is a need to reflect on these questions and to seek the development of character.
There is also a need for moral education and development. There is a place for developing good habits that are associated with virtues. That is not to say that virtues are habits, but rather that good habits can lead to growth in virtue. It is from these virtues that truly ethical behaviour should emerge.
There are criticisms of virtue ethics, such as the lack of detailed rules and the focus on the self. But these need not be weaknesses. These aspects actually help individuals to remain ethical in a time of a rapidly changing culture and frequent changes of rules. Virtue ethics has the ability to weather these cultural storms and hold the person to the virtues that define their character. This makes virtue ethics a viable alternative to both deontology and consequentialism.
1. Hursthouse, Rosalind, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/ethics-virtue/>.
2. Hursthouse, Rosalind, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/ethics-virtue/>.
3. Nafsika Athanassoulis, “Virtue Ethics”, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/>.
4. Nafsika Athanassoulis, “Virtue Ethics”, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/>.
5. “Virtue Ethics,” Ethics Guide, URL = <http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/virtue.shtml>.