Consequentialism, contractarianism/contractualism, and deontology are all moral theories. (1) They concern distinctive moral notions of obligations, concern and respect and, ultimately, questions of right conduct: what we can be held morally accountable for doing. The approach called virtue ethics is orthogonal to these theories in both respects. First, virtue is concerned primarily with character rather than conduct – with how we should be rather than what we should do. And second, a virtue ethics can be advanced, not as a moral theory at all, but as an account of other, ethically deep aspects of human life that are, it is sometimes argued, potential rivals to and perhaps replacements for morality and its distinctive forms.
The conception of a set of universal and finally authoritative norms or laws by which all moral agents are categorically obligated is far from the only form that ethical reflection can take. (2) The modern idea of morality derives from a distinctive historical tradition, the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic idea of divinely ordained law, to which it is a secular successor. Some philosophers have argued that this conception of morality is seriously defective in various ways and that our ethical reflections might more profitably take other forms. Several who have made this argument have looked to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for more promising ethical conception. (3) For Aristotle, the fundamental question is not, as for Mill, Hobbes, or Kant, What is the fundamental principle of moral right or duty and how might this be defended philosophically? Aristotle asks, rather, What is the goal of human life? What kind of life is best for human beings?
Nonmoral Virtue Ethics
Aristotle provides a distinctive example – a paradigm, really – of a nonmoral virtue ethics. (“Nonmoral”, again, because, although his translators frequently use “moral virtue” to signal that he means excellences of character concerned with choice, Aristotle does not relate these to any conception of a moral law under which all are accountable as equals.) Virtues, for Aristotle, are dispositions to choose what is fine or noble (kalon) for its own sake, and to avoid what is base. The operative notion is what Nietzsche called a “rank-ordering” ideal with respect to which one can be better or worse, not a norm or law that one complies with or violates. For Aristotle, the operative ethical emotions are shame, esteem, pride and disdain or contempt, not guilt, respect, self-respect, and moral indignation.
Virtues are excellences, traits, that is, that make something an excellent instance of its kind. In this way, Aristotle’s theory is a kind of perfectionism. It is a virtue in a knife, for example, that it have a sharp edge so that it can cut well. In general, we reckon which traits are excellences (excellent-making) in relation to a thing’s function (ergon) or characteristic activity.(4) As Aristotle believes that the characteristic activity of human beings is action (praxis) that expresses a distinctively human form of choice, namely, of actions valued in themselves as noble or fine (kalon), he concludes that the virtues are traits of character, that is, settled dispositions to choose certain actions and avoid others as intrinsically noble or base. We might put his point by saying that human excellences are states of character concerned with choices that are themselves guided by an ideal of human excellence.
In general, any such (nonmoral) human ideal can be a nonmoral virtue ethics. Although it might involve a teleological or perfectionist view of human nature, like Aristotle’s (according to which there is something human beings are inherently for or to be), it need not. A nonmoral virtue ethics may be advanced simply as a normative view about which traits in human beings are worthy of esteem (or disdain).
Moral Virtue Ethics
Analogously, a moral virtue ethics is a theory of what is worthy of distinctively moral esteem, that is, worthy of esteem in a moral agent. The best example of such a view is the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheston. Hutcheston argued that the basic moral phenomenon is a distinctively moral esteem for benevolence, the desire to benefit others and make them happy. Moral esteem, he held, is not primarily for any outcome, but for a motive or trait of character, namely, the desire to produce good outcomes for human beings and other sentient beings.
Virtue and Conduct
How, then, do virtue ethics bear on what to do? First, nonmoral virtue ethics remind us that questions of right and wrong are far from the only, or perhaps even the most important, ethical questions we can ask, even about what to do. Thus, it might be that failing to do significantly more to relieve world hunger, although famine relief is not morally obligatory, nonetheless manifests vices of complacency and self-satisfaction. Or, for another example, even if the environment cannot be wronged or unjustly treated, clear-cutting may still manifest an inappropriate attitude towards the environment or unlovely traits that are at odds with living a fully satisfying human life.
Second, in considering what to do, it can be helpful to ask what a virtuous person, or someone with a specific virtue (say, generosity), would do. This may simply be a useful heuristic, but it may also reflect the Aristotelian view that there is no way of formulating ethical insight that can be grasped and applied by someone who lacks the wisdom or “sense” of the virtuous person. As Lois Armstrong is reputed to have said about jazz, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Third, virtue ethicists sometimes put forward conceptions of virtue, not simply as guides to appropriate (or morally right) action, but as accounts of what makes an action appropriate or morally right. Thus, it can be held that an action is the right or appropriate thing to do in some case or circumstance just in case it is what the virtuous person would (characteristically) do in that circumstance.(5) Such a view might depart from the letter of Aristotle’s position, since he identified virtues as settled dispositions to choose specific actions for their own sake (as noble). This would seem to make which traits are virtuous depend on which actions are noble, not vice versa. Nevertheless, since it would hold that no access to the appropriateness of action is possible save through the wisdom or conduct of a virtuous person, such a view would remain quite close to Aristotle’s in fundamental spirit. What is common to any virtue ethics is the idea that guidance on controversial questions of case ethics can be gained only by looking to the virtues or the virtuous person as a model.
Stephen Darwall, Virtue Ethics, Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
(1) For classical and contemporary readings on these theories, see the following Blackwell anthologies (detailed on p. ii): Consequentialism, Contractarianism/Contractualism, and Deontology.
(2) G. E. M. Anscombe argued that since, as she claimed, the conception of morality is unintelligible without the idea of divine sanction, it cannot be secularized (“Modern Moral Philosophy”). Alasdair MacIntyre also advanced a very influential critique of orthodox moral philosophy (After Virtue [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981]). Bernard Williams also influentially criticized the idea of morality and its distinctive form of obligation (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985]). These writers all pointed toward Aristotle as an alternative model. See also Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
(3) For a discussion of Aristotle’s ethics, see my Philosophical Ethics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
(4) See pp. 8-9 of this volume.
(5) For an example of such view, see Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).