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Virtue Ethics


In 1930 C. D. Broad first proposed to divide ethical theories into two classes, teleological and deontological, thereby introducing a dichotomy that quickly became standard in ethics. Teleological theories were defined as ones that hold that the moral rightness of an action is always determined by its tendency to promote certain consequences deemed intrinsically good; deontological theories, as ones that deny this claim. Broad's dichotomy was widely accepted as being exhaustive, but in fact there are two fundamental classes of normative moral judgments that do not fit easily into it. First, it focuses on rightness or obligation, excluding moral judgments concerning what is admirable, good, excellent, or ideal. Second, it concerns only actions and their consequences, saying nothing about moral judgments concerning persons, character, and character traits.

The contemporary movement known as virtue ethics is usually said to have begun in 1958 with Elizabeth Anscombe's advice to do ethics without the notion of a "moral ought." Although her own critique of moral-obligation concepts (viz., that they have meaning only within religious frameworks that include the notion of a divine lawgiver) did not gain widespread acceptance among secular ethicists, her constructive proposal to look for moral norms not in duty concepts but within the virtues or traits of character that one needs to flourish as a human being quickly caught on. Soon thereafter philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, Edmund Pincoffs, and many others began to articulate and defend a third option in normative ethics: one whose chief concern was not a theory of morally right action but rather those traits of character that define the morally good or admirable person.

Phrases such as "revival of" or "return to" often precede mention of virtue ethics in contemporary discussions, and it is generally true that questions about the virtues occupy a much more prominent place in ancient and medieval moral philosophy than in moral theories developed since the Enlightenment. But it is important to note that the conscious awareness of virtue ethics as a distinct way of theorizing about ethics arose from within contemporary Anglo American ethical theory. Virtue ethics took root as a reaction against the underlying common assumptions of both teleological and deontological ethical theories and has achieved its greatest critical success as a protest against these accepted ways of doing normative ethics. Accordingly, one can view virtue ethics as having two complementary aspects: a critical program that presents a critique of the prevailing assumptions, methods, and aspirations of normative teleological and deontological moral theories; and a constructive program, in which an alternative virtue-oriented normative moral conception is developed and defended.

The Critical Program

At this first level virtue theorists are not necessarily committed to defending a full-scale alternative to existing ethical theory programs but rather to showing why such approaches are systematically unable to account satisfactorily for moral experience. Major criticisms made by virtue theorists against their opponents include the following.

overreliance on rule models of moral choice

Utilitarians and Kantians, it is held, both mistakenly view universal and invariable principles and laws as being exhaustive of ethics. But real-life moral exemplars do not simply deduce what to do from a hierarchy of timeless, universal principles and rules. They possess sound judgment skills that enable them to respond appropriately to the nuances of each particular situation in ways that go beyond mere mechanical application of rules.

overly rationalistic accounts of moral agency

Traditional moral theorists, it is held, too often assign a merely negative role in the moral life for desires and emotions. However, morally admirable people are not simply people who do their duty, but people who do so with the right kinds of emotions. Additionally, though many teleologists and deontologists do acknowledge the importance of motives in ethics, they typically mislocate them in abstractions such as "the greatest happiness principle" or "the moral law" rather than in particular persons and our relationships to them.


Mainstream teleological and deontological theorists tend to focus exclusively on conceptual analyses of their favored duty-concepts and then on logical arguments based on such analyses. Additionally, they tend to view moral questions as arising only when an individual agent is trying to decide what to do in certain problematic situations. These methodological commitments result in a view of morality that is impoverished and overly restrictive. Virtue theorists, on the other hand, are much more open to drawing connections between morality and other areas of life such as psychology, anthropology, history, art, and culture. Their long-term agent-perspective also enables them to correctly view moral deliberation and choice as involving much more than snapshot decisions.

The Constructive Program

In offering their alternative, virtue theorists face the fundamental task of showing how and why a virtue-oriented conception of ethics is superior to its act- and duty-based competitors. In what ways is moral experience better understood once virtue-concepts become the primary tools of analysis? Here one may distinguish two general tendencies: Radical virtue ethics attempts to interpret moral experience and judgment without employing duty-concepts at all (or at least by claiming that such concepts are always derivable from more fundamental ones concerning good peoplefor example, "morally right" acts might be defined simply as those acts performed by moral exemplars); moderate virtue ethics seeks to supplement standard act approaches with an account of the virtues. The former approach tends to view teleological and deontological ethical theories as totally misguided; the latter sees them merely as incomplete. Major issues confronting constructive virtue ethics programs include the following.

defining moral virtue

What counts as a moral virtue and why? Is there any plausible way to distinguish between moral and nonmoral virtues? How exactly do virtues relate to actions, reasons, principles, rules, desires, emotions? Are virtues beneficial to their possessors, and, if so, are they too self-centered to count as moral traits?

justifying the virtues

How can we establish the validity of those character traits defined as moral virtues, once the option of appealing to the value of the acts that the virtues tend to encourage is ruled out? Traditionally, moral virtues have been defined as traits that human beings need in order to live well or flourish. But does the idea of flourishing provide solid enough ground on which to base the moral virtues? Is it still possible to speak accurately of a single human function, or is human life more variously textured than the classical picture allows? How and why is evidence of flourishing necessarily evidence of moral virtuousness? On the other hand, if one declines to issue pronouncements about "the human telos " and instead opts for a softer, more pluralistic functionalism that seeks to define virtues in terms of different kinds of human purposes or practices, can one still arrive at a substantive notion of the virtues that holds that they are more than local cultural products?

applying the virtues

How do the virtues relate to one another in real life? Is there anything to the ancient "unity of virtues" thesis (which, on the Aristotelian model, views phronesis or practical wisdom as generating and uniting all of the moral virtues), or does it make sense to hold that a person might possess one moral virtue such as courage and nevertheless lack others? How many different moral virtues are there? Are some more fundamental than others? Can they be ranked in order of importance? Do virtues ever conflict with one another? What kinds of specific practical guidance do we get from the virtues, especially in cases where they appear to conflict with one another (e.g., honesty vs. kindness, love vs. fidelity)?

It should come as no surprise that radical virtue-ethics approaches have attracted far fewer followers than more moderate versions and that the critical program has had a much stronger influence on contemporary ethical theory than has the constructive program. Those who turn to late-twentieth-century work in virtue ethics in hopes of finding greater consensus on either theoretical or normative issues than exists among ethical theorists elsewhere are bound to be disappointed. Still, it is no small sign of virtue ethics's success that contemporary ethical theorists of all persuasions are addressing questions of character, agency, and motivation as never beforeand that there now exist greater realism and humility among contemporary philosophers concerning how ethical theory should proceed and what it might reasonably accomplish.

See also Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret; Broad, Charlie Dunbar; Consequentialism; Deontological Ethics; Kant, Immanuel; Metaethics; Utilitarianism.


Annas, Julia. "Virtue Ethics." In The Oxford Companion to Ethical Theory, edited by David Copp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Anscombe, G. E. M. "Modern Moral Philosophy." Philosophy 33 (1958): 119. Reprinted in her Collected Philosophical Papers. Vol. 3. Minneapolis, 1981.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Broad, C. D. Five Types of Ethical Theory. London: Kegan Paul, 1930. See pp. 206207 for Broad's division of ethical theories into deontological and teleological.

Flanagan, O., and A. O. Rorty, eds. Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990. Nineteen commissioned essays; see esp. part 5.

Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Reprinted in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

French, P. A., T. E. Uehling, and H. K. Wettstein, eds. Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue. Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Vol. 13. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. Twenty-nine commissioned essays.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johnson, Robert. "Virtue and Right." Ethics 115 (2003): 810834.

Kruschwitz, R. B., and R. C. Roberts, eds. The Virtues: Contemporary Essays in Moral Character. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1987. Seventeen essays. The first anthology on the topic. Includes an extensive bibliography of relevant works published up to 1985.

MacIntyre, A. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

MacIntyre, A. Dependent Rational Animals. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1999.

McDowell, John. Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Philosophia 20 (1990). Double issue on virtue, with special reference to Philippa Foot's work. Thirteen commissioned essays.

Pincoffs, E. L. Quandaries and Virtues. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

Slote, M. From Morality to Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Slote, M. Morals from Motives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sreenivasan, Gopal. "Errors about Errors: Virtue Theory and Trait Attribution." Mind 111 (2002): 4768.

Statman, D., ed. Virtue Ethics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wallace, J. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Robert B. Louden (1996)

Bibliography updated by Rosalind Hursthouse (2005)

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Virtue Ethics


Virtue ethics is one of the three major ethical approaches in modern moral philosophy, the other two being utilitarianism and deontology. Unlike the latter two, it focuses on the virtues. In the Western tradition of philosophy, virtue ethics begins with the ethical writings of Plato and Aristotle, but in the Eastern tradition its origins are even earlier. Confucius discussed in detail what might be regarded from a Western perspective as the virtuous character traits of charity, righteousness (the virtue pertaining to public affairs), propriety, wisdom, and sincerity and subscribed to something like Aristotle's doctrine of the mean regarding virtue. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, recognized such virtuesperfections of characteras patience, self-restraint, contentment, sympathy, mildness, courage, meditation, and knowledge. All the ancient ethical writers, from East and West, shared the view that there is an answer to the question "How should a human being live?" and that the answer is "virtuously."

The later Greek and Christian writers continued to emphasize the central importance of the virtues in human life, Augustine being the first Christian writer to place the theological virtues of the New Testamentfaith, hope, and charity (caritas, or love)beside Plato's four "cardinal" virtuescourage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Aquinas took more from Aristotle than from Plato, in particular Aristotle's view that our emotions and appetites can, through habituation, be brought into harmony with our reason. The striking consequence of this view is that, if perfect virtue is acquired, the agent does what is right, as reason directs, without inner conflict.

In Aquinas, and in later Christian writers, discussion of the virtues ran alongside discussions of God's, or "natural," law, but the rise of natural law jurisprudence in the seventeenth century saw this increasingly replaced by discussion of rules or principles intended to identify rightand in particular, justacts, regardless of the motive or character from which they sprang. This trend was rejected by Hume, who insisted that all right actions derive their merit only from virtuous motives and devoted most of his second Enquiry to a discussion of the virtues.

The real break with the virtue ethics tradition came with the emergence of the theoretical alternatives, deontology and utilitarianism, offered by Immanuel Kant and then John Stuart Mill. Although the tradition continued to some extent among Continental philosophers, it disappeared from Anglo-American moral philosophy for about a hundred years.

The Rise of Modern Virtue Ethics

Modern virtue ethics is generally assumed to have been launched by G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy," in which she roundly criticized utilitarian and Kantian ethics, briefly indicated "how Plato and Aristotle talk" about ethics, and startlingly claimed that we should give up doing moral philosophy until we had "an adequate philosophy of psychology." The latter turns out to involve, particularly, "an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced."

Fortunately, Anscombe's article did not deter moral philosophers from sticking to their subject. In the 1970s and 1980s Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, John McDowell, and Julia Annas followed her in criticizing contemporary moral philosophy from the perspective of their reading of the ancient Greeks (and in some cases Aquinas), in which talk about the virtues and vices naturally occurred.

They were not alone in finding the prevailing ethical literature unsatisfactory. By the 1970s, it had become respectable for moral philosophers to do applied ethics. (In the first half of the century they had concentrated almost exclusively on the methodology of ethical theory, metaethics, and the language of moral discourse.) But, despite the fact that articles on contemporary moral issues had become common, moral philosophy seemed to some almost as abstract and removed from everyday life as what had been done in the first half of the century. If "real life" was what was being discussed, why was there no mention of friendship and family relationships, of the morality of the emotions, of motives and moral character, or of moral education? Why did no one ever address the questions of what sort of people we should be and how we should live? Why was the concept of happiness, when it was employed, so unrealistically shallow? The writings of Anscombe's early followers alerted the dissatisfied to the exciting fact that all of these topics were discussed in Aristotle in connection with the topic of virtue.

By the early 1980s, a flood of books and articles had been published, enough to justify a survey article, Gregory Pence's 1984 "Recent Work on Virtues." Its title, however, was significant. The work surveyed was mostly on the virtues themselves, often on a single virtue such as courage or integrity, or on a group such as the virtues involving sympathy, or on the virtues' relation to knowledge or the emotions. Most of the writings discussed were not explicitly on what we would now call "virtue ethics," an approach that could replace the traditional deontological or utilitarian theoriesthough, as Pence notes, many of them made "grand claims" about this possibility. Nevertheless, they frequently contained passing and sometimes sustained criticism of the prevailing orthodoxy and illustrated, albeit perhaps in relation to only one virtue, how "a return to the virtues" avoided the problem identified.

Virtue Ethics's Criticisms of Prevailing Orthodoxy

A constant target of this criticism of the contemporary forms of deontology and utilitarianism was their shared conception of the task of ethical theorythat it was to come up with a set (possibly one-membered in the case of act-utilitarianism) of general rules or principles that, applied to particular cases, would provide a decision procedure for determining what the right action was. The theory would reveal what was right about the actions everyone already agreed were right, by showing them to be grounded, or justified, by the rules in question. Even more importantly, it would resolve any moral disagreements about what it would be right to do in problematic situations. The virtue ethicists' attack on the idea that moral dilemmas were best resolved by finding general principles received unexpected support from Carol Gilligan's 1982 book attacking the principles-based view of moral development espoused by the educational psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.

Closely related to the criticism of deontology and utilitarianism as obsessed with the formulation of general rules that would deliver cut-and-dried answers were trenchant objections to their use in ideal moral decision making. According to a prevailing view, a truly moral motive involved acting for the sake of duty, but in an influential 1976 paper, Michael Stocker highlighted the oddity of supposing that ideally your friend should visit you in the hospital because it was his duty rather than simply because you were his friend. Similar objections were pressed against the prevailing assumption that taking up "the moral point of view" involved being impartialaccording all rational autonomous agents, or the interests of all sentient beings, equal value. The virtue ethicists stressed that impartiality or justice was but one virtue among many and that how one should act in relation to one's own children, partners, parents, friends, students, patients, and so on was a central aspect of morality that was being ignored.

Before the reemergence of virtue ethics, Anglo-American moral philosophy had accepted as gospel John Rawls's claim (in A Theory of Justice, 1971) that there are just two "main" or "basic" concepts in ethics, "the right" and "the good." It is a mark of the extent to which virtue ethics has prevailed that it is now widely (though by no means universally) accepted that the concept of virtue is as important as the other two. This has had a beneficial effect on the other two approaches. Now that the significance of virtue has been recognized, deontologists and utilitarians are seeking ways to incorporate it into their theories, to the extent that it has become necessary to distinguish between virtue theoryan account of virtue or the virtues within the framework of any ethical approachand virtue ethics. There is thus revived interest in Kant's Doctrine of Virtue and in the new wave of character-based versions of consequentialism.

Another way in which virtue ethics has made its mark can be seen in the extent to which moral philosophers have retreated from their earlier position that a normative theory must come up with a decision procedure that will provide specific practical guidance in difficult situations. The virtue ethicists' stress on the importance of phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) eventually brought recognition that such wisdom is needed to apply rules or principles correctly (since we all know that the Devil can quote Scripture to his own purposes), and that they cannot be usefully applied in difficult situations by people who lack experience, insight, and moral sensitivity.

Current Debates about Virtue Ethics

Notwithstanding this concession, the claim that virtue ethics, unlike the other two approaches, cannot provide adequate guidance on actions persists as the most common objection to it. This is reflected in what is increasingly becoming the new commonplace among moderate anti-virtue ethicists, namely that "what we need" (for a complete ethical theory) is "an ethics of virtue AND an ethics of rules."

In the earlier days of modern virtue ethics, this was a plausible objection. It was based on the premise that the only guidance virtue ethics could come up with was that you should do what the virtuous agent would do in the circumstances. It is true that the earlier virtue ethics literature offered little more. But then it was pointed out by Rosalind Hursthouse (1991) that every virtue generates a prescription (Do what is honest, Do what is charitable/benevolent) and every vice a prohibition (Do not do what is dishonest, uncharitable/malevolent). The existence of these "v-rules," expressed in the vocabulary of the virtues and vices and hence part of "an ethics of virtue," refutes (literally) the premise on which the objection was based; what plausibility, if any, is retained by the claim that an ethics of virtue needs to be supplemented by an ethics of rules or principles is now the central debate.

In some instances, the claim seems no more than a verbal flourish; the v-rules must be "supplemented" by a principle of benevolence, a principle of nonmalevolence, and so on. Why so, one might ask, but why not indeed if people think it sounds more authoritative? Many criticisms of the v-rules fall foul of an obvious tu quoque (this applies to you, too) response. Of course, the requirements of the different virtues may, at least apparently, conflict. Honesty points to telling the hurtful truth, kindness or compassion to remaining silent or even lying. But so too do the related deontologists' and rule-utilitarians' rules, rightly reflecting the fact (ignored by the old act-utilitarians) that life does present us with dilemmas whose resolution, even if correct, should leave us with a remainder of regret. Like the other two approaches, virtue ethics seeks resolutions of such conflicts in a more refined or nuanced understanding or application of the rules involved; and as with the other approaches, its proponents may disagree about the correct resolution.

Perhaps overimpressed by Alasdair MacIntyre's early work, critics of virtue ethics have commonly asserted that the v-rules are inherently culturally specific and conservative because they are developed within existing traditions and societies. Virtue ethicists are amused by the implicit assumption that what their rivals find "reasonable" or "rationally acceptable" is not shaped by modern Western culture and (predominantly) American society, and are more than willing to admit that they have no reason to suppose that their own lists of rules are complete.

However, they do point out that their lists of rulesparticularly perhaps the list of vice-rulesis remarkably long in comparison with any that their rivals have produced, and grows naturally (albeit within our own culture) as people's experience of modern life contributes new terms. And they appeal to their list to rebut the charge that the guidance they offer is less specific than that provided by others. "Tell the truth," even if filled out to provide plausible answers to "All of it? Always? To anyone?" is still much less specific than what is yielded by "Do what is honest," "Do not do what is disingenuous, rude, insensitive, spiteful, hypocritical, untrustworthy, treacherous, manipulative, phony, sneaky," and so on. The issue is still hotly contested.

See also Natural Law ; Philosophy, Moral ; Utilitarianism ; Wealth .


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Anscombe, G. E. M. "Modern Moral Philosophy." In Virtue Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Originally published in 1958.

Crisp, Roger, and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. Dependent Rational Animals. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.

. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

. "Virtue Theory and Abortion." In Virtue Ethics, edited by Daniel Statman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. Originally published in 1991.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Pence, Gregory E. "Recent Work on the Virtues." American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 281297.

Stocker, Michael. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." Journal of Philosophy 14 (1976): 453466.

Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Rosalind Hursthouse

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