Virtue and Vice

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Assuming that human agents possess settled dispositions or character traits, some of which are especially deemed worthy of praise while others deserve blame or reproach, moral philosophers have long treated the first sort under the category "virtue" and their opposites under the general term "vice." The fin-de-siecle revival of the virtue tradition in normative ethics as a third force, alongside Kantianism and consequentialism, has resulted in focused attention by theorists of all persuasions on the nature and proper role of virtues and vices in any comprehensive treatment of morality. Thus, two consequentialists (Driver 2001, Hurka 2001) have produced full-length treatments of the virtues, and there has been a growing appreciation of the key role of virtue in Immanuel Kant's ethics (Herman 1993, O'Neill 1996, Wood 1999). While the attention to virtue among Kantians and neo-Kantians is not too surprising, since much of Kant's later work was devoted to working out the important role that virtue and character play in morality (the weighty concluding section of the 1797 Metaphysics of Morals is rightly titled "The Doctrine of Virtue"), the consequentialist turn to virtue is, perhaps, more surprising. Jeremy Bentham, for example, gave a rather rude treatment of virtue in his Deontology, as recently described by Julia Annas (2002).

An Empirical Challenge to Traits of Character

This recent consequentialist vindication of virtue can involve a considerable departure from the paradigmatic picture of virtues and vices as traits of character, however. Tom Hurka (2001), for example, defines moral virtues and vices as responsive attitudes taken up toward intrinsic goods and evils, in explicit opposition to the view going back to Aristotle that treats them as stable dispositions or persisting states of persons. In this identification Hurka is acknowledging a controversy stemming from certain results in social psychology that some philosophers have taken to rule out on empirical grounds any robust conception of personality traits. Extreme situationists argue on the basis of considerable experimental evidence that the layperson's readiness to attribute to themselves and others robust character traits that are stable across situations, both over time and in various circumstances, and that can be used to predict behavior, is undermined by what has been termed "the power of the situation."

In experiments no longer permitted by twenty-first-century ethical guidelines, subjects were duped into administering what they were led to believe were severe electric shocks to their "victims" or invited to "role-play" as prison guards to such an extent that the subsequent sadistic behavior caused the researchers to abort the exercise. In addition, we have increasing evidence from developments at prisons in Iraq and other places around the world that average American young people, in stressful environments, can engage in dehumanizing practices that shock almost all of us. Gilbert Harman, considering both experimental and real-life examples of such catastrophic character failure, has forcefully pressed the negative implications he sees for the very foundations of virtue theory: "I myself think it is better to abandon all thought and talk of character and virtue. I believe that ordinary thinking in terms of character traits has had disastrous effects on people's understanding of each other. I think we need to get people to stop doing this. We need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop explaining things in terms of character traits. We need to abandon all talk of virtue and character, not find a way to save it by reinterpreting it" (1999/2000, p. 224).

Such a sweeping dismissal of all talk of character traits is, arguably, an overly simplified reading of the relevant personality studies (see Matthews, Deary, and Whiteman 2003 for a synthesis of the empirical evidence favoring interactionism, the view that behavior is a function of both personality differences and situational influences). Yet even the more balanced presentation of a similar skepticism in John Doris's 2002 study surely calls for critical appraisal by virtue theorists of any normative persuasion. Annas (2002), Swanton (2003), and other virtue ethicists have responded to the challenge. There is also room for more detailed treatments integrating social psychology, personality theory, and ethical theory, preferably by collaborating researchers with relevantly different research interests and, perhaps, in newly designed psychological experiments designed to test for cross-situational attribution of virtues and vices (see Cawley, Martin, and Johnson 2000).

The exploration of this basic challenge to virtue theory promises to carry on the pioneering work of Owen Flanagan, who first brought philosophers' attention to the situationist challenge and who championed what he labeled the "Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism": "Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behavior prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible, for creatures like us" (1991, p. 32). This call for ethicists to take note of social-scientific findings dovetails nicely with recent philosophical calls for naturalist or science-friendly approaches to the philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics. The principle is best thought of as giving contemporary substance to the familiar principle that "ought" implies "can."

Virtue Theory as Distinct from Virtue Ethics

A distinction should be drawn, then, between virtue theory taken quite generally and virtue ethics proper, where virtue theory covers any theoretical treatment of the nature of virtue and vice, even if their role in the theory is not central, and virtue ethics privileges them in some way or other. In Christine Swanton's self-consciously pluralistic conception (2003), virtue ethics, like consequentialism, should be seen as a broad genus encompassing various species. Thus, alongside the familiar neo-Aristotelian varieties of virtue ethics (Foot 2001, Hursthouse 1999), there is room for Michael Slote's "agent-based" account (1992), which opposes the neo-Aristotelian emphasis on the agent's happiness and well-being (eudaimonia ) as grounding the goodness of virtue insofar as its presence helps the agent to flourish in a social context, in favor of the view that various inner traits and motives are admirable on their own. James Martineau thus joins Friedrich Nietzsche in the pluralist pantheon of virtue ethicists, alongside Thomas Aquinas and David Hume and their Greek and Roman forebears.

Any version of virtue ethics gives primacy of place to moral character over action, to the aretaic over the deontic, and sees the individual's development of virtues and elimination of vices as the best assurance that good deeds (right actions) will be forthcoming. Thus, for the virtue ethicist, the familiar bumper sticker's call for "random acts of kindness" seems incoherent as well as quixotic. If people cultivate the virtue of kindness, they can be reliably counted on to perform kind actions in a variety of circumstances, to adjust their reactions to others' needs consistently and appropriately, by expressing a suitable interpersonal sensitivity, rather than by following formulaic prescriptions or rules for conduct. An honest person, for example, will not only tell the truth when called upon to do so but will also not shade it or allow others to dissemble. The honest person will not resent just criticism, abide flattery, envy rogues and rascals alike, or engage in any number of sharp practices in business dealings.

Dishonest people, in contrast, will predictably exhibit the opposite sorts of behavioral tendencies. They will lie when convenient, cheat on their taxes, allow others to think them more deserving than they truly are, overlook mistakes on restaurant checks that are in their favor, and so on. For both the virtuous and the vicious, then, character structures will be expressed in a variety of ways and across a variety of circumstances, although some core traits will remain at the center of the individual's personality.

Comparing Virtue and vice

It may be thought that a certain asymmetry will be found when comparing virtue and vice, with the former, perhaps, more predictable in its natural expression than the latter. A coward, it may be thought, might not run from some dangers and might not fear a wide range of things. Perhaps the Falstaffian figure that comes to mind is just a stereotype, and real cowards are much more selective in avoiding danger, rhetorical war hawks avoiding the draft by enrolling in college, perhaps, but not avoiding the most intimidating teachers or toughest courses.

This impression might simply reflect the fact that virtue theorists say much more about positive traits and much less about negative ones. It is the virtues, after all, that the theorist is trying to inculcate; detailed descriptions of the vices are often left out or given short shrift. The theorist accentuates the positive, perhaps. Aristotle, in his general theory of the virtues as the means between vices on both sides, one of excess and the other of deficiency, had a great deal to say about the vices and saw them as having the same psychological structures in the soul as the virtues. For him, vices were equally "settled dispositions" (hexeis ), results of the wrong sort of habituation as opposed to the right kind. In departing from Aristotle in this regard, owing to our relative disenchantment with his general theory of excellence (aretē ) as a mean, we moderns may well have tended to downplay the phenomenology of vice.

Tom Hurka's categorization of the range of vices (2001), from the pure ones (e.g., malice, Schadenfreude, sadism) at one end of the spectrum, through those of indifference (e.g., callousness, sloth, smugness), to the mildest forms at the other end, which he calls vices of disproportion (e.g., foolhardiness, avarice, intemperance), is a welcome reminder of the richness of our moral vocabulary and of the basic symmetry to be found when comparing virtue and vice. They both come in various forms and degrees, and can be similarly graphed by intensity and the relative value of their respective objects and fields. One important vice, hypocrisy in all of its manifestations, is the subject of the 2004 book by Bela Szabados and Eldon Soifer, who treat it from Kantian, consequentialist, and virtue ethicist perspectives. The philosophical fortunes of vice are thus on the rise.

The Problem of Vagueness in Appeals to Virtue

Critics of virtue ethics as a serious competitor in normative ethical theory have found it wanting in its vague decision procedure for deciding difficult cases. Moreover, by comparison with consequentialism and deontology, virtue ethics has made few contributions to the field of applied ethics. As for the last charge, the scene is shifting a great deal, since it is common these days to have virtue ethics treated alongside its more familiar predecessors with equal billing, as it were, in textbooks. In the subfield of professional ethics, Justin Oakely and Dean Cocking (2001) have deployed the resources of virtue ethics, comparing them favorably with Kantian and utilitarian approaches. The idea of a good general practitioner, whether in law, medicine, or business, is ripe for development along the lines of virtue ethics. Oakley and Cocking address a number of difficult issues from this angle in the course of their book.

One chief worry is the seeming vagueness of the advice to follow the example of the ideally virtuous person, especially in displaying the exquisite sensitivity to concrete detail supposedly exhibited by the practically wise (phronimos ), which moral particularists and antitheorists tend to highlight. John McDowell (1998) and Martha Nussbaum (1986), among others working within the Aristotelian framework, have stressed the advantages of thinking of moral choice as uncodifiable, as the product of particular judgments made on the spot by individuals who embody the relevant virtues and are thereby in a better position than others to rightly perceive and assess the immediate needs of the situation. A virtuous friend, for example, is in the best position to give painful yet necessary advice to an individual, at the right time, with the right affect, neither too forcefully nor unclearly phrased, with due allowance for the receptivity and ability of the other to listen and take it in at that time. Similarly, the temperate person hits the right target in choosing bodily pleasures, adjusting intake by giving due attention to the situation (e.g., a party or a wake) and its demands (e.g., the need to stay alert and focused versus an opportunity to relax).

Christine Swanton (2003) has developed this ancient target analogy so favored by Aristotle and the Stoics in compelling fashion. She defines a virtuous act as one that hits the target of the relevant virtue, and she stresses the vicissitudes and complexities of "moral archery." Imagine that you are at a conference where you spot a stranger with some command of English who cannot (as you can) fully appreciate the sophisticated and scintillating philosophical discussion going on. You decide to devote your energies to the apparent needs of the stranger, leave the meeting room and make conversation, only to discover that this is more difficult than you imagined, definitely not enjoyable, and, the truth be told, perhaps not as helpful to the other as you had hoped. He could just as easily have spent time at the book exhibit while you stayed in the session, and you could have met him there in due time. The point is that while a kind person might have impressions calling for an expression of virtue, the exact specification of what is kind in the precise circumstances is not at all clear in advance or even in situ. Even the ideal moral archer may miss the target for reasons extremely hard to calculate in advance. Nonetheless, sensitivity to the particular environment is the distinct strength of the ideally virtuous agent.

Against this sort of appeal James Griffin has forcefully replied, citing the implausibility of "an ideally virtuous person, whose dispositions are in perfect balance and who therefore is better able to perceive situations correctly, including features that general principles often fail to capture. This is another piece of over-ambition in ethical theory" (1996, p. 115). While Griffin's complaint stems from his general pessimism about the ambitions of a normative theory to take us deeply into the solution of practical moral problems, virtue ethicists do have a special responsibility to be more precise than they have been.

Rosalind Hursthouse (1999) has been quite sensitive to this particular charge and has emphasized that the alleged imprecision of virtue ethics is in part an artifact of the fact that most ethicists are so familiar with, and not explicit about, the basic principles of the main normative theories on offer. Consider the following principles (one for virtue ethics, one for consequentialism, and one for deontology):

(VEP) An action is right if and only if (iff) it is what a virtuous agent, acting in character, would do in the circumstances.

(CP) An action is right iff it promotes the best consequences.

(DP) An action is right iff it accords with a correct moral rule or principle.

Since ways of filling out the consequentialist and deontological proposals come so readily to mind, we can immediately think of various ways to give more substance and specificity to (CP) and (DP). For example, in the consequentialist case we envisage utilitarian attention to quantity and quality of pleasure, satisfaction of preferences, or maximization of happiness These criteria are applied to acts themselves or to rules for choosing acts as in versions of rule utilitarianism. In the deontological case, we think of moral rules and principles, such as being commanded by God or in accord with natural law, licensed by the categorical imperative, responsive to the formula of humanity, chosen by free agents in an ideal initial bargaining position, etc.

Because ethicists since the enlightenment have been unaccustomed to filling in the details of any virtue theory, (VEP) can seem hopelessly vague to those whose historical perspective begins more or less with Kant. Hursthouse argues that when the most basic principles are staked out as starkly and simply as above, (VEP) has as much clearly marked precision as (DP) and (CP). As we become accustomed to the workings of the moral imagination of those at home with the virtues, we will find it easier to fill in (VEP) with alternative specifications, compare the advantages of each, and weigh and balance the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of historical and contemporary proposals of virtue theorists. Perhaps it will also be easier to see how society at large harbors and encourages various vices and character defects in our social, political, and personal lives. Surely, greed and ruthlessness in business and carelessness of citizens in rich nations lead people to ignore the needs of the planet and its less fortunate inhabitants, and hence lead to poverty and environmental degradation.

One attractive feature of a virtue-theoretical approach to morality is the fact that most communities around the world, however different they are in culture and religion and a myriad other ways, tend to organize their early moral education of children around the promotion of virtue and the avoidance of vice. It may well be that, in trying to reach across cultural divides to find a common moral vocabulary with which to address the pressing moral issues of global reach, we would do well to supplement the categories so familiar since the Enlightenment in the West (e.g., duty, utility, costs versus benefits) with the highly nuanced and richly textured vocabulary of virtue and vice.

See also Evil; Moral Psychology; Virtue Ethics.


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