The prominence of rules, consequences, rights, and duties is a relatively recent phenomenon in moral thought. For Plato, Aristotle, Laozi (or Lao-tzu), Confucius, the Buddha, and Jesus, the primary focus of the good life was on cultivating virtues and battling vices. Yet among these diverse traditions moral character and its significance for personal and social good have been subject to considerable debate—which continues in the early twenty-first century by drawing on the thought and research in sociology, anthropology, film studies, folklore, religion, biology, neurophysiology, pedagogy, medicine, and other disciplines. Both ancient reflection and contemporary scientific inquiries seek to identify the principle virtues and vices and how they develop or weaken. Adversaries debate whether the virtues (and vices) are intertwined, whether they exist independently, or whether there is a chief virtue (or vice). Such inquiries easily lead to more general questions of human flourishing and distinctiveness, so that ultimately at issue are basic questions concerning the nature of human happiness and the good society.
From the perspective of virtue ethics, science and technology are arguably enduring components of the good life. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), for instance, describes virtue as a kind of human excellence or striving for perfection. (The Greek word for virtue is arête, which encompasses both moral capability and specific talents. A musician, for example, might give a virtuoso performance.) In this sense both episteme (knowledge or science) and techne (craft, art, skill, know-how) are forerunners to the modern notion of technology and involve human arête. Controversies about the responsibility of scientists and engineers evoke this twofold sense of virtue, insofar as they address the special types of knowledge they pursue as well as their moral positions regarding the results and applications.
Scientific discoveries and technological products also pose challenges to understanding and embodying a virtuous life. Studies of animal and human behavior raise questions about possible similarities between animals and humans in promoting cooperation or fostering competition. In place of proposals for political utopias and personal desires for posthumanist transformations, can advanced technosciences be limited or guided by the values found in folk wisdom, venerable sages, or sacred texts? Or do many technical inventions thwart the search for a virtuous life by zealously promoting and catering to ordinary vices? Instead of assisting with the cultivation of temperance, justice, courage, love, or charity, do they perhaps tempt humans with vanity, sloth, anger, lust, and greed?
A virtue-based ethics is agent centered, presumes a telos or purpose for human life, and encompasses both personal and public goods. In light of ecological problems growing out of the human use of technology, critics have charged virtue ethics with being anthropocentric. It neglects or devalues the welfare of animals, natural entities, and the environment. Defenders of virtue ethics respond that a fundamental virtue such as humility promotes recognition of human limits and asks humans to view themselves as simply parts of a larger cosmic whole. Moreover, the concept of virtue as a perfection applies to nonhuman as well as human entities. While the idea of a telos or purpose in nature is problematic for science and technology, the topic remains a source for lively discussion among philosophers of biology who study possible adaptations to ethical theory. Indeed, even in the philosophy of technology, analyses of the role of functions is a research issue of potential relevance to virtue ethics.
As such issues indicate, despite the tendency to portray virtue ethics as a settled tradition of strong consensus and enduring narratives, there have always been lively debates about the scope of a virtuous life, the relative strengths or weaknesses of specific virtues and vices, and the best vision of human happiness. For example, three classic representatives of virtue ethics emphasize contrary views on pride. Aristotle considered it a principal virtue. One should attain a proper sense of self—one's accomplishments and contributions. A proud individual is not driven by vanity or boasting, for these lead to excesses of indulgence that would be unworthy of a free and rational person. The proud individual is courageous—the most fundamental virtue, for without courage one can hardly embody other cardinal virtues such as justice or prudence. A model is the citizen whose democratic participation is free of destructive vices such as envy or rancor.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), though, were among many Christians and religious thinkers who believed pride to be indicative of an exaggerated sense of self, involving vanity or, worse, the temptation to view oneself in godlike or superhuman terms. Pride was the queen of vices, for it spawned the decline toward deadlier ones, such as envy, anger, and lust. Such vices corrupt one's moral character and undermine efforts to become a just person. This distortion of self brings about neither happiness nor salvation, only ruin or damnation.
Buddhism and Daoism, meanwhile, taught that true virtue seeks the no-self or personal transcendence. This involves overcoming the drive for individuality in which satisfying the desires and needs of one's physical self is primary. Intellectual nitpicking may derail this goal. But reflection on the nature of this goal remains essential, and can generate parables and paradoxes that are potential guides to enlightenment (see Saeng 1991, Chuang Tzu 1996). Enlightenment is realized not when one becomes a dutiful citizen or achieves self-esteem, but is moved by compassion for another. This is an experience of insight and joy.
Disciples and pedagogues have continually debated the nature and prominence of the virtues. The Western tradition that featured the seven cardinal virtues—courage, justice, temperance, and prudence among pagans, and love, hope, and charity as the Christian additions—is hardly carved in stone. Seven has been a magical number, but other virtues have also been considered essential to the good life. Aristotle, for instance, devotes more attention to friendship than any other single virtue, and friendship may be considered the basis of scientific and technical communities.
At the same time the underpinnings of virtue have been extensively debated. For example, pagans focus on the meanings and demands of individual courage or the extent of its relation to political justice, whereas monotheists anchored a moral life not in self and society, but primarily in God. The contentiousness of these disputes and their failures to successfully promote virtue eventually led to a radical challenge of virtue ethics that nevertheless did not eliminate its relevance. Rather, according to the historian of modern moral philosophy J. B. Schneewind (1998), these disputes relegated the virtues and vices to secondary status. Displacing them as the primary focus of ethics were duties, happiness or pleasure, autonomy rather than character, and the right rules or laws for gauging ethical conduct.
After more than 200 years of rationalism and emotivism in moral theory, toward the end of the twentieth century virtue ethics underwent a revival. Dissatisfied with the inability of prominent moral theories to address human well-being, resolve concerns about justice in an increasingly technological world, and inform or guide individuals toward the good, philosophers began reassessment of the centrality of virtue. A key contributor to this was Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue (1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). Invoking the wisdom of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, along with the lessons of contemporary social and political thought, MacIntyre espoused an enriched view of the integral and narrative self that challenged rival notions of the self as little more than a utility maximizer or logical servant to duty.
MacIntyre's learned eloquence and sharp critique of his own intellectual and moral times spawned a veritable industry. Responses ranged from best-selling children's books on the virtues to theoretical and scientific inquiries into the nature of moral character, whether or how it can be taught, and the relation of individuals to others: other humans, other species and life-forms, even deities. Some scientists have contended that, contrary to MacIntyre's emphasis on human identity as flourishing in cultural and historical storytelling, human morality should more sensibly emulate animals. Monkeys and chimpanzees, birds and elephants, according to zoologists, illuminate more accessible and realistic moral guidance than the (less realistic) heroes and saints who permeate human literature.
Such disputes—interweaving disciplines, incorporating historical and cultural contexts, responding to calls for justice or courage and to temptations of anger or lust—underscore the lasting appeal of virtue ethics. Unable to resolve all the philosophical questions put to it in journals and seminars, nor ready to dictate every moral situation (which theories can?), virtue ethics highlights controversies as vigorously as any other moral theory. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in relation to science and technology.
Sloth, Leisure, Efficiency
Medieval Christians learned the seven deadly sins through the mnemonic device of an acronym—s-a-l-i-g-i-a. Each letter represented a deadly sin in order from the queen of vices (superbia being pride) to the deadliest (acedia or sloth). In between are situated avaritia (greed or covetousness), luxuria (lust), invidia (envy), gula (gluttony), and ira (anger). Warnings against sloth—from the Benedictine rule concerning the dangers of idleness to popular jokes about couch potatoes—represent it as the death of the soul as well as the spirited body. Sloth is more than laziness or lethargy; it constitutes a lack of purpose, an indifference to others and the goings-on of the world. In his Pensees (c. 1660), Blaise Pascal frequently remarked how people fill their time with diversions, such as games, chatter, and sensual delights. These prevent contemplation of more defining matters that include the meaning of one's death or a believer's relation to God.
By contrast, leisure is upheld as a sign of independence and accomplishment. What Pascal denigrates as diversions can be praised as just desserts. In leisure individuals explore their potential, be it in time of play, hobby, volunteer work, or even, as G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) wryly noted, "the time to do nothing at all." To this end inventions promise to lessen arduous chores while opening more opportunities for whatever one desires. Household gadgets save on cleaning and organizing; robotics and assembly lines spare the sweat and blood of labor; sophisticated weaponry produce greater damage with risk to fewer personnel. Leisure relies on the promises of efficiency. These promises, however, can be misleading insofar as they exchange one set of difficult expectations for another. For example, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) has demonstrated the deceptive attractions of household technologies. The washing machine cuts down the once-a-week ardor of washing by hand and wringers, but introduces the everyday demand for a clean set of clothes, hence making laundry a daily chore. The invention of the four-burner stove with oven shifts family expectations from variations of a pot of stew to a five-course meal, hence the popularity of the cookbook. The overall result is that technologies tend to reduce the physical pressure of housework while increasing the solitariness and frequency of household tasks. The promise of more leisure, concludes Cowan, is often illusory.
From a virtue ethics perspective, however, there remain additional concerns with leisure. While scholar derives from the Latin word for leisure—implying both an individual and cultural good—leisure nevertheless poses considerable danger. As studied by Sissela Bok in Mayhem (1998), many leisure technologies involve decadent forms of play. Video games, television shows, and movies featuring callous and malicious regard for human (and animal) life have gradual effects on participants and audiences that can be just as pernicious as the tortures of ancient spectacles. This danger prevents individuals from seeking or realizing their potential as genuine human beings.
From the perspective of what might be called a technological virtue—if not technological duty—of efficiency, which emphasizes cost–benefit analysis, convenience, speed, and reliability, these gradual and pernicious effects are difficult to assess. A consequentialist or utilitarian option might consider measurable and substantive results enjoyable in the near future or negative influences on other virtues. Indeed, there are kinds of leisure that mask opportunities for sloth. This is not free time as envisioned by those who endorse human flourishing, but an appeal to vanity that plants the seeds for a slow death of one's humanity and moral character. Worse, humans become less focused on other virtues, such as justice, care, or loyalty.
Pride, Vanity, Control
As noted, Aristotle and his adherents view pride as a positive value, whereas Christian philosophers see it as vicious. Though numerous moral traditions and religions challenge pride, often what they have in mind is hubris or vanity. Hubris involves a kind of arrogance, boasting, or overweening confidence. Vanity involves an undue or unrealistic sense of one's self. Hubris is portrayed in one who fails because of unwarranted sense of self-worth. Vanity is depicted in one who wants to look younger, richer, more powerful, or more knowledgeable than one really is. Boasting, begrudging, and being envious are some of the cravings of vanity. These cravings are often driven by a technological fix, the unshaken belief that a device will always arise—such as diet pills, cosmetic surgery, or transplants—that helps to overcome the effects of aging or unwanted anatomical features. The vain person thus hopes others see a version of oneself that one does not quite believe. That is why medieval moralists pictured the vainglorious person staring into the mirror.
Pride is ambiguously presented in the human trait that desires control. Humans are increasingly adept at withstanding or overcoming natural forces. Protecting themselves from the whims of weather, rechanneling water sources so they can dwell in deserts, or regulating their own predatory or procreative tendencies, they find in science and technology the powers to explain and control the forces of nature. Humans also attempt to extend this control to human domains that were previously resolved in terms of freedom, wisdom, upbringing, or environment. For example, by reclassifying a vivacious or imaginative child as one with attention deficit disorder or disciplinary problems, the child shifts from a subject in need of a certain kind of pedagogy to a candidate for Ritalin.
Determining when technological control should yield to a moral approach is a perennial concern for virtue ethics, particularly for those who support Aristotle's notion that part of a virtuous life is striving for the means between the extremes. With increasing capabilities brought by a variety of technologies, humans still need to strike a balance between turning nature into a managed artifact and resigning themselves to all the challenges and threats nature presents.
The desire for control can nevertheless be another form of vanity. That the world, nature, or other people act without any regard for one's wishes or well-being—indeed, that they seem oblivious to one's very existence—insults a person's own (inflated) sense of self-worth. Symptomatic of this inflation is the ubiquity of cell phones. Owners insist they carry them for possible emergencies. But this claim is betrayed by its omnipresent use. Is the desire to be always and immediately accessible to anyone a symptom of vanity, justified pride, or unending control?
Honesty, Loyalty, Responsibility
Honesty is often described as an intellectual and a moral virtue. The ability to understand things clearly, to know one's own motives and aspirations, and to comprehend circumstances and other humans involves intellectual abilities that precede and accompany moral deliberations and actions. Yet the temptation to deceive others and manipulate the truth also makes honesty a moral issue.
This temptation is especially pronounced in professional ethics. Given their expertise, authority, and the confidence ordinary humans have in them, scientific and technical professionals have a distinctive responsibility to understand and articulate the possible effects of their research. The details of this responsibility can be overshadowed by conflicting loyalties. According to the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916), loyalty is a virtue essential to the good life. Though its etymology comes from law (lex in Latin), Royce views loyalty more in terms of love, purpose, and commitment. Individuals find meaning in their lives when anchored by the object of their loyalty; moreover, this attitude generates respect for the loyalties that give others a purpose.
In professional circles, however, loyalties are not always unified. Among researchers and engineers, for example, there can be obligations to one's employer, the sponsor of a research grant, colleagues and the principles of the discipline, families, and of course the general public. A notable exemplar is the scientist Joseph Rotblat (b. 1908). He was a contributor to the Manhattan Project, in which the United States developed the atomic bomb during World War II. After the defeat of Germany, Rotblat concluded that the project was no longer justified by the danger of Nazi bomb development and left the project. His is a difficult example to follow. Often researchers and even college professors can elucidate the lofty principles that they are supposed to adopt, but when millions of dollars from a grant are at stake, their loyalty to truth can be compromised by loyalty to the research momentum. Some moralists believe the virtues of integrity, self-respect, and honesty can overcome conflicts of loyalty and corruptible compromises. In complex enterprises, however, the notion of personal responsibility can be overshadowed by demands of the workplace or a competitive climate in which one sticks to the proverbial rules and goals of the game rather than challenging the legitimacy of the rules and goals. In such a context, the virtue of responsibility may be torn between courageous criticism and loyal adherence to the team, group, or community.
Justice, Greed, Progress
According to Plato and Aristotle, justice is a virtue that involves harmony or analogy between perfections in citizens and in the state. Modern political philosophy has been skeptical of this view and questioned whether the virtues of individual and society need to reflect one another. In his famous The Fable of the Bees (1705) Bernard Mandeville contended that a society can flourish in spite of—and often because of—the vices of its citizens. With appropriate constraints—such as a competitive market or constitutionally separated powers—the natural impulses and selfish appetites of the populace can be harnessed to yield social benefits. As Mandeville poetically noted: "Thus every part was full of vice / Yet the whole mass a paradise." This attitude persists insofar as economists claim that even though gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) fuel vanity and greed, the Internet indulges lust, and fast food sates gluttony, economic growth and the general welfare are assured.
Virtue ethics theorists nevertheless question such an assessment. For instance, John Casey (1990) argues that justice is first and foremost a disposition within individuals, and defends the traditional view of the truly just person as one who leads a balanced life, recognizing the claims and goods of others. From this perspective, economic greed threatens justice. Though often associated with tycoons, royalty, and celebrities, greed is a temptation in nearly everyone. This is why, A. F. Robertson (2001) writes, stories and concerns about greed cross all ages, and are manifest in everything from children's tales such as "Puss in Boots" to intergenerational squabbles over property and controversies about professionals who appear more devoted to income and prestige than family or service to society. Daniel Callahan (1987) has further argued that with the advances of medical technology, the question needs to be raised whether humans have become greedy for life, attempting to live in excess of a natural life cycle, when they can no longer function or contribute, and at the expense of the well-being of younger generations.
From a virtue perspective, it is essential to ask whether greater affluence spawns generations of more just individuals (and more just societies) or creates more possibilities for vices to thrive (and injustice to grow). How often have parents and grandparents not lamented that increases in the number and glamour of toys among children are not easily correlated with any increases in willingness to share? To what extent does the example of the United States, whose abundance is historically unprecedented, but whose level of government-sponsored foreign aid is not particularly impressive, bear on assessments of political justice? According to Leo Marx (1987), in eighteenth-century America, philosophers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson saw both personal and social justice as essential measures for assessing national progress. In the nineteenth century, however, the meaning of progress shifted from rights, equality, and personal freedom to material gain and industrial growth, a change that continued across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Scholars such as Dinesh D'Souza contend that many critics miss the central issue on the debates over the meaning or evidence of progress. Instead of seeing wealth as a potential obstacle for the establishment or expansion of justice, D'Souza sees wealth as the key to increasing global well-being. While he acknowledges that enormous increases in scientific knowledge, technological power, and material prosperity characteristic of the 1980s and beyond have carved new gaps between the world's rich and the poor, he points out that in absolute terms the poor and the rich today live much more comfortable lives than did the poor and the rich 500 years ago. Whereas in 1500 only the most wealthy had indoor plumbing and well-heated homes, today even the traditional poor—such as students, seasonally employed, or those too feeble to work—possess cars, reside in secure surroundings, and rely on pricey media such as the Internet, cable TV, and cell phones. Interpreting Thomas Jefferson as a defender of class hierarchies based on a natural aristocracy of individual merits D'Souza believes capitalism has been a gift rather than curse to human life. The desire and search for wealth tames the destructive potential of greed and envy. Guided by a virtue of prosperity, capitalism embodies the prudence to use science and technology that, according to D'Souza, "... has in practice done more to raise the standard of living of the poor than all the government and church programs in history" (D'Souza 2000, p. 240).
This systematic effort towards greater wealth can also be the basis for an essential social virtue—namely, trust. Trust involves a common and cooperative regard for norms or mutual self-interest. In the view of social scientist Francis Fukuyama, this regard is most effective in communities where social capital and ethical values are most prominent. These communities are not, however, rooted in traditional units such as the family. They are instead found in associations that transcend kinship, such as businesses and companies. The benefits of these associations are most notably seen in three advanced technological and capitalist societies: the United States, Germany, and Japan. Here, according to Fukuyama, one understands the basis of other social virtues and their relation to a life of prosperity.
The estimated benefits of capitalism's virtues are not readily supported by research. Contrary to those who assume a millionaire's summer palace that perilously rests on the ledge of a shore cliff is the spark to global justice, demographers and ecologists find that prosperity's recipients are segmented rather than universal. That is, pockets of great wealth often have negligible or negative influences on the range of human (and non-human) suffering, starvation, or disease. Moreover, excesses of fortune foster a sense of obliviousness to the conditions of others. Such obliviousness—a potential vice insofar as it is interpreted as willful ignorance—turns a blind eye to human threats to the climate. It overlooks human causes of continual increases of pollution, thus jeopardizing the traditional lifestyles of native peoples. It downplays the continued emphasis on consumption of natural resources that generate droughts and scarcities among the world's poorer populations. Obliviousness becomes vicious when it pooh-poohs scientific claims that drastic changes in weather patterns brought on by human pollutants—in the year 2000 each American produced 4.5 pounds of garbage per day—endanger the lives of animals and fish throughout the planet (See, for example, De Souza, Williams, and Meyerson 2003, Post and Forchhammer 2004).
Character, Self, Other
Proponents of virtue ethics emphasize the development of moral character. This development assumes that there is an integral person, a core to an individual that is definitive. Moral pedagogy is directed to this core. The lessons about courage, loyalty, justice, or compassion found in traditional narratives, folktales, sacred texts, honest dialogue, or exemplars help form one's true or genuine identity. These sources reside in other humans, those who spin the narratives, relay the tales and texts, or are admired exemplars. Despite Voltaire's quip that character is so inborn humans could no more change it than wolves could lose their instincts, proponents of virtue ethics generally argue that moral character can be developed, taught, changed, and practiced.
This assumption has three challenges. The first is biological. Paul M. Churchland (1998), for one, proposes that human virtues can be more thoroughly understood from a neurophysiological perspective. Pedagogy and environment obviously have some influence, but they play a secondary role to identifying and treating malfunctioning synapses or chemical imbalances that might prevent the moral agent from successfully cooperating in the well-being of the group. Zoologist and ethnologist Frans de Waal (1996) contends humans have much to learn from animals who exhibit uncanny methods for establishing justice, tolerance, and compassion, and resolving conflicts, without resorting to massacres and war.
Second is a scientific and creative challenge. This challenge stems from the ambiguous human disposition of curiosity. Humans want to know, a desire that seems unquenchable. Curiosity is a likely culprit behind the original sin of Adam and Eve. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) describes the attempt to know another as a form of capture. At the same time, inventions give humans radical new ways for seeing, hearing, and learning about the world and the universe. Anyone with a stereo can hear Beethoven indefinitely more times than residents of nineteenth-century Europe. The depths of the oceans and dark abysses of the universe are as impossible for human curiosity to resist as exploring their own genetic material or the chemical charges that drive their urge to mate. And under the rubric of transhumanism, researchers are exploring how such fields as genetics and nanotechnology can reinvent the human forms of intelligence, emotion, physiology, and communication. This curiosity does not have to lead to identification of a true self; it can introduce possibilities for creating new selves. With the advent of cyberspace, according to Allucquère Rosanne Stone (1995), humans have found evermore ways of experimenting and playing with a variety of identities. The face-to-face encounter is not the ideal, just one of many options. It has its own limitations, from which cybercommunities can be valued as liberating rather than alienating.
Third is a philosophical and pedagogical challenge. The idea of a core self is neither self-evident nor coherent. For example, Alphonso Lingis (2004) describes an array of virtuous deeds—of illiterate mothers, gallant youths, mute guerillas, compassionate prisoners, free-spirited nomads—that cannot be attributed to an integral or holistic self. The realization of a virtuous capacity seldom springs from proper habits, one's internal biology, or the narratives of ancestors or cybercommunities. Instead, humans learn about courage, justice, or love as imperatives from contact with others—in their physical or embodied presence. Science and technology should expand rather than displace the possibilities for face-to-face encounters. Such possibilities suspend the insistence on control and self-respect by emphasizing respect for and openness to others, regardless of whether or not they are neighbors, friends, strangers, or aliens. This respect is not grounded in or preceded by understanding or knowledge of shared values. Instead, writes Lingis, it involves courage rather than caution to trust another insofar as trust dissipates one's own projects and identities. "Trust is a force that can arise and hold on to someone whose motivations are as unknown as those of death. ... There is an exhilaration in trusting that builds on itself" (Lingis 2004, p. 12).
Such challenges recognize an ambiguity in the human relation to science and technology. Whether this ambiguity demonstrates progress or regress in ethical life is subject to debate. From a virtue-ethics angle, this debate must include the relative strengths of the virtues and vices, their personal and social significance, whether or how they can be taught, and to what extent science and technology primarily guide humans to realization of their true selves or invite them to devise or create other ways of being.
ALEXANDER E. HOOKE
SEE ALSO Aristotle and Aristotelianism;Augustine;Buddhist Perspectives;Christian Perspectives;Confucian Perspectives;Jewish Perspectives;Islamic Perspectives;Pascal, Blaise;Plato;Shinto Perspectives;Thomas Aquinas;Thomism.
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Bok, Sissela. (1998). Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Lucid and balanced presentation on potential social and moral hazards emerging from a culture entertained by everyday violence, particularly in the form of news, television dramas, and video games.
Callahan, Daniel. (1987). Setting Limits. New York: Simon and Schuster. Thoughtful account of how traditional morality and ongoing changes in medical technology have produced a tragic dilemma for contemporary life.
Casey, John. (1990). Pagan Virtue: An Essay on Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press. A thorough account of the principal virtues—particularly courage, temperance, justice, and prudence—that preceded Christian moral thought.
Churchland, Paul M. (1998). "Toward a Cognitive Neurobiology of the Moral Virtues." Topoi 17(2): 83–96.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. (1983). More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic. Fascinating survey of promises and pitfalls encountered among household gadgets and utilities.
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Darling-Smith, Barbara, ed. (1993). Can Virtue Be Taught? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. Scholars discuss the extent to which virtue ethics and specific ethics can be central feature of education.
Darling-Smith, Barbara, ed. (2002). Courage. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
De Souza, Roger-Mark; Williams, John; and Meyerson, Frederick. (2003). "Critical Links: Population, Health, and the Environment." Population Bulletin 58(3): 3–43.
D'Souza, Dinesh. (2000). The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. New York: Free Press. Articulate explanation and defense of the rise of capitalism and its positives influences on moral progress and human welfare.
Etzioni, Amitai, ed. (1995). New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Collection of essays by academic writers, with central focus on defending and reviving the sense of a traditional community as the basis for citizens leading a virtuous life.
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Fukuyama, Francis. (1995). Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: The Free Press. Historical and sociological account of differentiations between high-trust and low trust societies, with contemporary industrial and capitalist countries triumphing over kinship and clan-driven countries in terms of generating greater trust and prosperity.
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Lingis, Alphonso. (2004). Trust. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Elaborate descriptions of various encounters involving humans having the courage and trust to rely on one another regardless of a common language or culture.
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Robertson, A. F. (2001). Greed: Gut Feelings, Growth, and History. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Anthropological study of historical and contemporary attitudes and practices that indulge and battle the temptations of greed.
Royce, Josiah. (1924). Loyalty. New York: Macmillan.
Saeng, Chandra N. (1991). "Insight-Virtue-Morality." In Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society, ed. Charles Wei-Hsun Fu and Sandra A. Wawrytko. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. (1995). The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Taylor, Gabriele. (1996). "Deadly Vices?" In How Should One Live? ed. Roger Crisp. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Concentrated analysis of the meaning of a deadly vice, and whether specific virtues can confront or overcome the vices.
Waal, Frans de. (1996). Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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 virtues—perfections of character—as 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 Testament—faith, hope, and charity (caritas, or love)—beside Plato's four "cardinal" virtues—courage, 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 right—and in particular, just—acts, 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 theories—though, 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 theory—that 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 impartial—according 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 theory—an account of virtue or the virtues within the framework of any ethical approach—and 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 rules—particularly perhaps the list of vice-rules—is 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 .
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): 281–297.
Stocker, Michael. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." Journal of Philosophy 14 (1976): 453–466.
Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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 people—for 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 before—and that there now exist greater realism and humility among contemporary philosophers concerning how ethical theory should proceed and what it might reasonably accomplish.
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): 1–19. 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. 206–207 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.
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): 810–834.
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): 47–68.
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)