Virtue Ethics is person rather than action based. It looks at the moral character of the person carrying out an action.
- A right act is the action a virtues person would do in the same circumstances.
Virtue ethics is person rather than action based: it looks at the virtue or moral character of the person carrying out an action, rather than at the ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of particular actions.
Virtue ethics not only deals with the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, it provides guidance as to the sort of characteristics and behaviours a good person will seek to achieve.
In that way, virtue ethics is concerned with the whole of a person's life, rather than particular episodes or actions.
- A good person is someone who lives virtuously - who possesses and lives the virtues.
It's a useful theory since human beings are often more interested in assessing the character of another person than they are assessing the goodness or badness of a particular action.
This suggests that the way to build a good society is to help its members to be good people, rather than to use laws and punishments to prevent or deter actions.
But it wouldn't be helpful if a person had to be a saint to count as virtuous. For virtue theory to be really useful it needs to suggest only a minimum set of characteristics that a person needs to possess in order to be regarded as virtuous.
...being virtuous is more than having a particular habit of acting, e.g. generosity. Rather, it means having a fundamental set of related virtues that enable a person to live and act morally well.
James F Keenan, Proposing Cardinal Virtues, Theological Studies, 1995
Virtue ethics teaches:
- An action is only right if it is an action that a virtuous person would carry out in the same circumstances.
- A virtuous person is a person who acts virtuously
- A person acts virtuously if they "possess and live the virtues"
- A virtue is a moral characteristic that a person needs to live well.
Most virtue theorists would also insist that the virtuous person is one who acts in a virtuous way as the result of rational thought (rather than, say, instinct).
The three questions
The modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre proposed three questions as being at the heart of moral thinking:
- Who am I?
- Who ought I to become?
- How ought I to get there?
Lists of the virtues
This poses a problem, since lists of virtues from different times in history and different societies show significant differences.
Most virtue theorists say that there is a common set of virtues that all human beings would benefit from, rather than different sets for different sorts of people, and that these virtues are natural to mature human beings - even if they are hard to acquire.
The traditional list of cardinal virtues was:
- Fortitude / Bravery
The modern theologian James F Keenan suggests:
- Justice requires us to treat all human beings equally and impartially.
- Fidelity requires that we treat people closer to us with special care.
- We each have a unique responsibility to care for ourselves, affectively, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
- The prudent person must always consider Justice, Fidelity and Self-care.
- The prudent person must always look for opportunities to acquire more of the other three virtues
Good points of virtue ethics
- It centres ethics on the person and what it means to be human
- It includes the whole of a person's life
Bad points of virtue ethics
- it doesn't provide clear guidance on what to do in moral dilemmas
- although it does provide general guidance on how to be a good person
- presumably a totally virtuous person would know what to do and we could consider them a suitable role model to guide us
- there is no general agreement on what the virtues are
- and it may be that any list of virtues will be relative to the culture in which it is being drawn up.