Virtue ethics is one of three major theories in normative ethics, the other two being deontological ethics and consequentialism (or utilitarianism). It holds the cultivation of moral character and embodiment of virtues as the essential issues in ethics, rather than the establishment of rules based on duties (deontological ethics) or consequences (consequentialism). When the term virtue theory is used, it normally refers to the Western conception of virtue theory rather than any of the schools of non-Western ethical thought.
The roots of the tradition of virtue ethics lie in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and so the tradition's key concepts derive from them. These concepts include aretê ("virtue"), eudaimonia ("happiness" or "human flourishing"), and phronêsis ("practical wisdom"). Virtue was regarded as the character trait of the soul with respect to its inner harmony. In the ancient Greek and medieval periods, virtue ethics was the prevailing approach to ethical thinking. The tradition faded out during the early modern period, as Aristotelianism fell out of favor in the West, and rivals of virtue ethics such as classical republicanism, Kantian deontology, and utilitarianism emerged. Virtue ethics, however, returned to prominence in Western philosophical thought in the twentieth century.
Virtue ethics encourages people to develop their character as the basis for the good life. Virtues invariably lead to goodness, because they are considered to be grounded in the ultimate, that is, for Plato, eternal truth in the Forms that are known by the soul. Likewise, eudaimonia to be received as the praiseworthiness of virtuous life was understood by Plato to be rooted in the Form of the Good (Plato), and by Aristotle to be the highest good fundamentally immanent in us and perfectly enjoyed in the life of God.
Virtue ethics started from Plato and Aristotle. There are at least three central concepts in virtue ethics: Virtue (aretê), eudaimonia ("happiness" or "human flourishing"), and practical wisdom (phronêsis).
According to Plato and Aristotle, virtues are character states of the soul with respect to its own inner harmony. Plato maintained that the inner harmony of the soul is reached when the rational part of the soul regains its knowledge of eternal truth in the Forms to be able to regain control over the other parts of the soul. Given a variety of modes of the soul's inner harmony, Plato in his Republic suggested four virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Aristotle, too, explained moral virtues in terms of the rational ability of the soul to control its appetitive portion. But, unlike Plato's thesis that virtues are only based on knowledge, he asserted that moral virtues should be learned also through practice to become habits. Aristotle considered many more moral virtues than Plato, and included virtues such as magnificence, liberality, friendship, sincerity, and self-respect. Aristotle also argued that each moral virtue is a mean between two corresponding vices. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between the two vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Where cowardice is the disposition to act more fearfully than the situation deserves, and foolhardiness is the disposition to show too little fear for the situation, courage is the mean between the two: The disposition to show the amount of fear appropriate to the situation. Other than the moral virtues, Aristotle categorized intellectual virtues, which consist in purely rational abilities of the soul unrelated to controlling the appetitive part, and the most important of which are "philosophical wisdom" of first principles (sophia) and "practical wisdom" of the good (phronêsis). While the moral virtues can lead us to happiness (eudaimonia), the intellectual virtues constitute even higher forms of happiness.
The system of virtue ethics is only intelligible if it is teleological, that is, if it includes an account of the purpose (telos) of human life, or in popular language, the meaning of life. Plato and Aristotle took eudaimonia as the final end or purpose of life and made virtues as the necessary condition to achieve this goal. Eudaimonia is a state variously translated as "happiness" or "human flourishing." The latter translation is more accurate; it is not a subjective, but an objective, state. It characterizes the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it. According to Aristotle, the most prominent exponent of eudaimonia in the Western philosophical tradition, eudaimonia is the proper goal of human life. It is reached through the moral virtues, but it is achieved even in higher forms through the intellectual virtues. Aristotle, like Plato before him, argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia was an activity that could only properly be exercised in the characteristic human community—the polis or city-state. What is interesting is that according to Plato eudaimonia as the final purpose of virtuous human life is rooted in the Forms, especially the Form of the Good. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest good, which is something immanent in humans and not a transcendent Form, but it is perfectly enjoyed in the purely contemplative life of God: "The activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness."
Obviously, strong claims about the purpose of human life, or of what the good life for human beings is highly controversial. So, virtue ethics' necessary commitment to a teleological account of human life puts the tradition in sharp tension with other dominant approaches to normative ethics such as Kantianism and consequentialism (or utilitarianism, which, because they focus on actions, do not bear this burden.
Various virtues are complementary to each other and work in an integral way. For example, a good intention of a person with the moral virtue of benevolence does not necessarily bear fruit, if he or she makes a misjudgment. According to Aristotle, therefore, one must have the intellectual virtue of "practical wisdom" (phronêsis) to make a proper judgment at the given situation, at the right moment with the proper method: "Again, the work of man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as with moral virtue; for virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means." One cannot properly possess any of the virtues unless one has developed practical wisdom. Conversely, if one has practical wisdom, then one has all the virtues.
The Greek idea of the virtues was later incorporated into Christian moral theology. During the scholastic period, the most comprehensive consideration of the virtues from a theological perspective was provided by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae and his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. The tradition however was eclipsed in the Renaissance, and throughout the early modern period, when the Aristotelian synthesis of ethics and metaphysics fell into disfavor. There appeared at least three historical rivals: classical republicanism, Kantianism, and utilitarianism.
Although the tradition receded into the background of European philosophical since the Renaissance, the term "virtue" remained current during this period, and in fact appeared prominently in the tradition of classical republicanism or classical liberalism. This tradition was prominent in the intellectual life of sixteenth century Italy, as well as seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain and America; indeed the term "virtue" appeared frequently in the works of Machiavelli, David Hume, the republicans of the English Civil War period, the eighteenth century English political party The Whigs, the prominent figures among the Scottish Enlightenment, and the American Founding Fathers.
Classical republicanism with its use of this common term "virtue," however, should not be conflated with virtue ethics, as the two philosophical traditions draw from different sources and often address different concerns. Where virtue ethics traces its roots to Aristotle, classical republicanism draws primarily on Tacitus (c. 56 - c. 117 C.E.). Virtue theory emphases Aristotle's belief in the polis as the acme of political organization, and the role of the virtues in enabling human beings to flourish in that environment. Classical republicanism in contrast emphasizes Tacitus' concern that power and luxury can corrupt individuals and destroy liberty, as Tacitus perceived in the transformation of the Roman republic into an empire; virtue for classical republicans is a shield against this sort of corruption and preserve the good life one has, rather than a means by which to achieve the good life one does not yet have. Another way to put the distinction between the two traditions is that virtue ethics relies on Aristotle's fundamental distinction between the human-being-as-he-is from the human-being-as-he-should-be, while classical republicanism relies on the Tacitean distinction of the human-being-as-he-is from the human-being-as-he-is-at-risk-of-becoming.
A trend even more challenging than that of classical republicanism started since the time of the Enlightenment. Moral theorizing now shifted its focus from the issue of what sort of person one should be to that of what one ought to do. Thus, the main questions to be addressed became: What actions should one perform? and, Which actions are right and which ones wrong? Questions such as: Which traits of character ought one to develop? and, Which traits of character are virtues, and which ones vices? were ignored. Thus, two more rivals of virtue ethics emerged: Kantianism and utilitarianism. According to classical utilitarians such as as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one ought to do actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The principle of utility is a criterion of rightness, and one's motive in acting has nothing to do with the rightness of an action. Similarly, for Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one ought to act only on maxims that can consistently be willed as universal laws. This is his deontological ethics. Kant, of course, does give motivation a central place in his theory of morality, according to which the morally virtuous person is someone who is disposed to act from the motive of duty. But this idea, of someone who always does the right thing from the desire to do the right thing, may not be an accurate picture of the virtues of the moral agent's character. This trend after the Enlightenment continued until the middle of the twentieth century.
With the historical appearance of classical republicanism and also with the ascendancy of the deontology of Kant and the utilitarianism of Bentham, virtue ethics moved to the margins of Western philosophy. But, virtue ethics was revived around the middle of the twentieth century. Its contemporary revival is frequently traced to the British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe (1919-2001)'s 1958 article, "Modern Moral Philosophy," in which she argues that duty-based conceptions of morality are incoherent because they are based on the idea of a law but without a lawgiver. She thus recommends a return to the virtue ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in eudaimonia.
Thereafter, Philippa Foot published a collection of essays in 1978 entitled Virtues and Vices. Since the 1980s, in works such as After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has made an effort to reconstruct a virtue-based theory in dialogue with the problems of modern and postmodern thought. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) accorded an important place to Aristotelian teleological ethics in his hermeneutical phenomenology of the subject, most notably in his book Oneself as Another. Following MacIntyre, the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas has also found the language of virtue quite helpful in his own project. More recently, Rosalind Hursthouse has published On Virtue Ethics, and Roger Crisp and Michael Slote have edited a collection of important essays titled Virtue Ethics, while Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen have employed virtue theory in theorizing the capability approach to international development.
One of the notable developments in the late twentieth century is "ethics of care." It was initially developed by the psychologist Carol Gilligan from a feminist perspective. While deontological ethics and utilitarianism emphasize universality, justice, and impartiality, ethics of care emphasizes the importance of relationships, emotional aspect of human being, the importance of family as the ground to cultivate moral virtues. (See main article: Ethics of care.)
One way of understanding the relevance of virtue ethics is in terms of the deficiencies in other normative theories such as Kantian deontology and utilitarianism. The virtue theorist may be interpreted as arguing that Kantianism and utilitarianism neglect or distort the notion of morally admirable motivation, and that they give an inadequate account of the morally good or virtuous person. This raises a question as to whether virtue ethics should be understood as supplementing the other normative theories of right action, or whether it competes directly with them. A virtue theory of the type which aims at a supplementary role can be called "moderate" virtue ethics, and a virtue theory of the type which bills itself as a competitor "radical" virtue ethics. This distinction is drawn from the American philosopher James Rachels (1941-2003)'s book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
On the moderate conception, the importance of virtue theory is to provide an account of moral motivation, of moral character, that will complement the other normative theories of right action. Moderate virtue ethics does not try to tell one what to do. It plays a complementary role. Principles of right action are still understood as justified by Kantian or utilitarian theories. For example, a prohibition on slavery may be justified by Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: Act always so that you treat persons as ends-in-themselves and not as means only. The moderate view of virtue ethics does not justify moral principles. Rather, the moderate virtue ethicist may be understood as saying that a person with the virtue of sensitivity, for example, is more likely to recognize when someone is being treated only as a means and not as an end. The theory of right action and the theory of virtue are complementary.
Some virtue theorists have radically maintained that virtue ethics is able to provide principled guidance about what we should do. This is to say that virtue ethics can also function as a theory of right action. If this were so, then virtue ethics would then be a complete moral theory. It could help people ascertain what they ought to do, and describe the valuable states of character which they want to develop. Radical virtue ethicists argue that right actions may be defined in terms of virtuous states of character. The idea here would be that it is right do x because that would be honest, for example. Or it is right to do x because that would be courageous. One objection commonly made against radical virtue ethics is that it is not able to properly explain why a state is a virtue without invoking moral rules. For example, regarding a situation where a person is tempted to lie perhaps because lying offers some advantage, radical virtue ethicists would say that this person ought not to lie because doing so would be dishonest. But, James Rachels asks what it means to be honest, and says, "Isn’t an honest person just someone who follows rules such as 'Do not lie'?" Rachels' point here seems to be that there is no way of making sense of the virtue of honesty without appealing of moral principles. If so, then moral principles are more fundamental than virtuous states of character, and cannot be explained in terms of them.
Virtue theories exist in almost all places and cultures, although they may vary because of the diversity of cultures and places. Outside the Western tradition, virtue theories have been developed in various religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam, and they have incorporated ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks in the West. Like ancient Greek virtue theory that found the purpose of the virtues in eudaimonia derived from eternal truth in the Forms (Plato), these non-Western religious traditions also have regarded virtues as something not accidental but purposeful and derived them from some ultimate existence that provides a purpose (dharma, Tao, Heaven, or God). Perhaps, however, there is a difference between the Greek virtue theory in the West and the non-Western virtue theories, and it is that the former explained the mechanism of virtues more clearly than the latter, by focusing on the interior orientation of the soul. Normally, therefore, when the term virtue theory is used, it is in reference to the Western conception of virtue theory rather than any of the schools of non-Western ethical thought.
Some criticize virtue ethics in relation to the difficulty involved with establishing the nature of the virtues. They argue that different people, cultures, and societies often have vastly different perspectives on what constitutes a virtue. For example, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious. This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies. Alasdair MacIntyre responds to this criticism, by arguing that any account of the virtues must indeed be generated out of the community in which those virtues are to be practiced: The very word "ethics" implies "ethos." That is to say that the virtues are, and necessarily must be, grounded in a particular time and place. What counts as virtue in fourth century Athens would be a ludicrous guide to proper behavior in twenty-first century Toronto, and vice versa. But, the important question in virtue ethics as to what kind of person one ought to be, which may be answered differently depending on the ethos, can still give real direction and purpose to people.
Another criticism of virtue ethics is that it lacks absolute moral rules which can give clear guidance on how to act in specific circumstances such as abortion, embryo research, and euthanasia. Martha Nussbaum responds to this criticism, by saying that there are no absolute rules. In a war situation, for example, the rule that you must not kill an innocent person is impractical. According to Nussbaum, it is the virtues that are absolutes, and we should strive for them. If elected leaders strive for them, things will go well. On the issue of embryo research, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that people first need to understand the social situation in which although many people are negative about embryonic stem-cell research, they are not upset with the fact that thousands of embryos actually die at various stages in the IVF (in vitro fertilization) process. Then, says MacIntyre, people need to approach the issue with virtues such as wisdom, right ambition, and temperance. Thus, some virtue ethicists argue that it is possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than on rules.
Virtue ethics, which encourages people to develop virtues as their character traits, is widely appreciated and accepted. It, however, is criticized by deontological ethics and consequentialism for being fuzzy about the existence of moral rules and principles that clearly determine what one ought to do and which actions are right or wrong. But, virtue ethics, when originally developed by Plato and Aristotle, was actually grounded in some absolute standard which could originate rules very likely, although G.E.M. Anscombe may have wanted to ignore this point in her attempt to revive Aritotelian ethics. According to Plato, the soul's virtue consists in knowledge of eternal truth in the Forms, and eudaimonia is rooted in the Form of the Good that pertains to God. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest good, which, although it is not a transcendent Form at all, is something perfectly enjoyed in the life of God. So, the above criticism directed to virtue ethics is not entirely legitimate. It may be that virtue ethics, as long as it is teleological, intends to eventually reach moral rules, although its starting point is the development of virtues as character traits of the soul. So-called "radical" virtue ethics goes even further, by ambitiously arguing that moral rules can be defined in terms of virtuous states of character, and it is a radical way of addressing the problem of the gap between virtues and rules. But, even this is critiqued by those who believe that moral rules or principle are always more fundamental than virtues, so that even virtues are determined by rules.
If virtue ethics is right, and if we have to start from development of virtues first to eventually fulfill some absolute standard, then during that ethical journey to fulfill it, the criticism from deontology and consequentialism will continue to exist. Perhaps the assertion made by radical virtue ethics about the unity between virtues and rules is just an ideal hard to reach, although it may still be possible to reach it, as is the case with Confucius who stated: "At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."
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