Virtue Ethics and its Potential as the Leading Moral Theory

By Alexandra M. Sakellariouv
2015, Vol. 12 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

Keller offers a thought-experiment to further explain. He details the story of three campersArthur, Benjamin, and Christine-who decide to invite a family who cannot set their own tent up to stay in their cabin one stormy night. However, all three campers have different motives for inviting the family to stay with them. Arthur wanted to relieve the family of their misery, Benjamin acted out of generosity, and Christine wanted to do what the virtuous agent would do. Arthur seems to have the best motive of the three. Keller explains, "it is clear that Arthur is the most generous, and the one who most resembles the fully virtuous person... (because) Benjamin and Christine each fail to have as a primary motive the truly generous one of using what one has to relieve the suffering of others" (p. 225-226). Arthur was the one who acted truly out of generosity and is therefore most like the virtuous agent. But, Christine did exactly what virtue ethics wanted of her. She thought about the virtuous agent and acted as they would. However, it would not be concluded that she had the best motives. Keller explains that people

"[m]ust say that what makes an act right is its being what the fully virtuous person would do, but add that having the governing motive of acting like the fully virtuous person precludes the possibility of being like the fully virtuous personso it is often undesirable to take as their motives the considerations that provide reasons for acting. Virtue ethics, it seems, is self-effacing..." (p. 227).

It can be seen that if people follow the reasoning of virtue ethics-think of and do what the virtuous person would do-people will not really be virtuous. People will not have the right motives; people will not act out of the goodness of the virtue, but rather because it is what they think is the right action. Thus, virtue ethics does in fact seem self-effacing. It does not seem satisfactory that the criteria for right action be only to emulate the ideal of a virtuous agent. Most people would agree that one should perform good acts because they recognize the goodness in acting a certain way. If this is accepted, then it must be agreed that virtue ethics is self-effacing and should not be favored over other moral theories.

It is worth noting that this objection may not apply to all varieties of virtue ethics. Recall Slote's radical agent-based virtue ethics. He said that one needs to consider the 'inner life' of an individual in order to evaluate right action. If the inner motivations and traits of the agent for evaluating an action were considered, then self-effacement would be seemingly avoided. People would have to consider whether they are acting for the goodness of the virtue, instead of merely emulating the virtuous agent. However, in the other variations considered, they did not give weight to the inner motivations of the agent. They would still fall victim to the selfeffacement complaint. Self-effacement is thus a valid criticism of most varieties of virtue ethics, but not all. Only when individuals are willing to accept a radical version of virtues ethics, such as agent-based, will they be able to avoid this objection all together.

The second and final objection that will be considered is virtue ethics' indeterminacy. This objection simply states that virtue ethics fails to be action-guiding; it cannot tell what one should do (Hursthouse, 2003, p. 28). It fails to resolve moral conflict. It seems that virtue ethics does not tell someone what to do; it says to think of the virtuous agent and act as they would, but it is unclear how people would know how to do so. Some virtue ethicists say if one is in conflict, one should ask someone they consider a virtuous agent. But this raises two problems. First, it is unclear how a virtuous agent can be identified. Perhaps it is someone that is admired. However, the criteria of what makes someone admirable varies from person to person, and an individual that may be admired may not actually be a virtuous agent. Secondly, there may not always be an opportunity to ask someone else for advice. It seems inconvenient to have to seek out a virtuous agent-who may not even be virtuous-every time one is in moral conflict. It is not plausible to do this in every scenario.

Furthermore, the requirements of different virtues may point people in different directions. What would be right according to one virtue may not be right according to the next. There is no ranking of the virtues that explains what the virtuous agent would do (Timmons1 2002, p. 292). For example, in Normative Virtue Ethics, Hursthouse (2003) writes "honesty points to telling the hurtful truth, kindness and compassion (point us) to remaining silent or even lying" (p. 28). Other moral theories will give an overarching principle or rule to follow in order to resolve moral conflict. But virtue ethics fails to do this. As in the example, people are confronted with a dilemma whether to abide by the virtue of honesty or the virtues of kindness and compassion.

In response to this objection, Hursthouse says the problem is merely apparent. She explains in Normative Virtue Ethics that the problem results from the agent not knowing how to correctly apply the virtues. She writes that

[t]rivially, the explanation is that they lack moral knowledge of what to do in this situation; but why? In what way? The lack, according to virtue ethics' strategy, arises from a lack of moral wisdom, from an inadequate grasp of what is involved in acting kindly (unkindly) or charitably (uncharitably), in being honest, or just, or lacking in charity, or in general, of how the virtue (and vice) terms are to be correctly applied" (p. 29).

Achieving the virtues takes practice and one must learn how to properly apply them. The problem is only apparent; there really is no problem, except anyone who asks these questions has demonstrated a lack of moral knowledge. Hursthouse admits this is not the most satisfactory answer, but it is the one most virtue ethicists will give (p. 29). She then goes on to discuss anti-theory in ethics, where philosophers are beginning to reject normative ethical theories. They deny the ability of normative ethics to ever provide a 'decision procedure' for deciding right and wrong (p. 31).

It does not seem like an agreeable response to say that anyone who does not know what the virtuous agent would do lacks moral knowledge. Without a guiding principle or hierarchy of the virtues, it is obvious that virtue ethics lacks determinacy. It cannot guide people in the same way that other moral theories can. It is very troublesome that a moral theory cannot give a way to resolve moral conflicts. For this reason, along with the problem of self-efficacy, there does not seem to be any reason virtue ethics should be favored over other moral theories. It suffers from the same problems as many alternative moral theories and is even arguably worse than other theories because of its indeterminacy.


In conclusion, the three main varieties of virtue ethics-care ethics, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and agent-based virtue ethics-do not stand well against the two main objections to general virtue ethics. In particular, multiple kinds of virtue ethics are indeed self-effacing. While some varieties may escape this problem (agent-based virtue theories in particular), the moral theory as a whole suffers alongside alternative moral theories. In addition, we have seen how virtue ethics suffers from indeterminacy as it fails to be action-guiding. In light of these criticisms, virtue ethics has no particular advantage over other moral theories. It is victim of self-effacement, just as other major moral theories in ethics, and fails to resolve moral conflict, which is arguably a crucial feature of a plausible moral theory. Unless such conflicts are resolved, virtue ethics cannot be regarded as more promising that any of the other moral theories.


I would like to acknowledge the influence and help of my numerous professors at McGill University, particularly in the political science and philosophy departments. Their work and passion inspire me daily to continue to pursue writing as well as further my academic career. I would also like to acknowledge and thank my family and friends for their support and encouragement. Many people have impacted and inspired me over the years, and I would not be the same without their influences.


Alexandra is currently a student at McGill University in the Joint Honors Political Science and Philosophy program with a minor in Sexual Diversity Studies. She is an aspiring writer and regularly contributes to various international publications including Her Campus, The Prospect, and Unwritten. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post and Elite Daily as well as several of her academic pieces have been published in The McGill Pre Law Review and the McGill International Review. Alexandra is currently the EditorIn-Chief of the McGill Ambassadors Program and is an Editor for the Canadian political publication The True North Times. In her future, Alexandra hopes to pursue a law degree and eventually work in the criminal justice system while still contributing to the academic community. She hopes her written work will one day be able to influence dialogue and discussion as well as further academic exploration in related fields.


Hursthouse, Rosalind. Normative Virtue Ethics. Roger Crisp, How Should One Line'? Essays on the Virtues. Oxford University Press, 2003. Print

Keller, Simon. Virtue Ethics is Self Effacing. Taylor & Francis Online. N.P., Dec. 2004. Web.

Oakley, Justin. Varieties of Virtue Ethics. Blackwell Publishing, N.P., September 1996. Web.

Slote, Michael, Virtue Ethics. M. Baron, P. Pettit, and M. Slote, Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate Blackwell. 1997, pp. 176-229. Stocker, Michael. The Schizophrenia of Modem Ethical Theories. The Journal of Philosophy, 73 (14). 1976. Print, pp. 453-466.

Timmons, Mark. Moral Theory: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.

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