Virtue Ethics and its Potential as the Leading Moral Theory

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


There has been a modern revival of interest in virtue ethics as a plausible moral theory. There has been dissatisfaction with the way many modern moral theories emphasize moral obligation and law at the expense, some argue, of the individual (Slote, 1997, p. 175). Hence, virtue ethics now stands as one of the leading moral theories in ethics. This paper will explore the potential of virtue ethics as a plausible moral theory. It will begin by explaining the main arguments of a virtue ethical approach and the advantages it has over other moral theories. It will then go on to discuss three of the main varieties of virtue ethics; care ethics, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and agent-based virtue ethics. For each, it will explain how they distinctly define right action with regards to the virtues or the virtuous agent. The final section of this paper will explore two main objections to virtue ethics as a general moral theory. First, virtue ethics is self-effacing, as Simon Keller (2004) argues, for the considerations it advances should not always serve as motives for action. Second, the 'indeterminacy problem' states that virtue ethics fails to be action guiding. In light of these issues, there is no particular advantage of virtue ethics over other moral theories.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is a moral theory that emphasizes the role of an individual's character and virtues in evaluating the rightness of actions. It is one of three major moral theories. It is often contrasted with deontology, which emphasizes following moral rules, and consequentialism, which determines the permissibility of an action from its consequences. Virtue ethics offers an account of right and wrong based on what a 'virtuous agent' would do. It believes that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would perform in the circumstances (Oakley, 1996, p. 129). The right thing to do is whatever the virtuous person would do. The virtuous agent is a person whose character traits are virtues and does not have any vices. Virtues are character traits that are positively valued in a person. They are generally said to encompass traits such as honesty, kindness, and generosity. Vices, on the other hand, are character traits that are negatively valued (Timmons, 2002, p. 270). This can include traits such as dishonesty, cruelty, and selfishness. The virtuous person is an ideal to emulate. As Simon Keller (2004) explains, "we should not, according to virtue ethics, seek merely to act like the virtuous agents ... we should seek to be virtuous agents" (p. 224). Excellence in virtues is acquired over time. Virtues are different from excellences of nature, such as musical pitch or good eyesight, with which people are born. Instead, the more people practice the virtues and attempt to act as the virtuous agent would, the more virtuous people will become.

It can be seen in virtue ethics that goodness is prior to rightness (Oakley, 1996, p. 138). One must have an account of what a virtue is before one can decide if an action is right or wrong. Thus, one must have an account of good before an account of right. Virtue ethics uses aretaic classificationdetermining whether a trait is a virtue or a vicebefore giving a deontic classification of right or wrong (Timmons, 2002, p. 278). The very fact that a trait is classified as a virtue or vice allows for the determination of a right or wrong action. This paper will later discuss how different varieties of virtue ethics use different approaches to aretaic classification. Virtues will be classified as such because they are valuable in their own right. In this sense, virtue ethics believes the virtues are a plurality of intrinsic goods (Oakley, 1996, p. 139). The virtues are valuable in a way that cannot be reduced to a single, main value. They are valuable intrinsically rather than instrumentally. Virtue ethics differs in this way from other moral theories that tend to be monistic, meaning they believe all goods can be reduced into a single value. Utilitarianism, for example, is a popular form of consequentialism that believes all good can be reduced to the single value of pleasure (Oakley, 1996, p. 140). An action is right if and only if it produces the most pleasure, since that is the most important good of all. Different varieties of virtue ethics will prefer certain virtues to others, depending on how they define right action.

Moral Schizophrenia

The main advantage virtue ethics has over other moral theories is that it does not fall victim to 'moral schizophrenia' as it does not compromise one's motivations and reasons. First, the problem moral schizophrenia poses, which most moral theories face, must be understood. Michael Stocker (1976) identifies the problem, which he calls 'moral schizophrenia', in many modern moral theories such as consequentialism and deontology. Moral schizophrenia, he explains, causes a split between motives and reasons, so an indicator of a 'good life' is having harmony between motives and reasons (p. 454). If one wants to lead a good life one "should be moved by [one's] major values and [one] should value what [one's] major motives seek" (p. 454). A moral theory should support personal motives. However, the reasoning in many moral theories conflicts with personal motives. They require that people do "what is right, obligatory, [their] duty no matter what [their] motive for so acting" (p. 454).

Specifically, the impartialist nature of most moral theories does not allow people to treat anyone else differently. People cannot treat their family and friends any differently from strangers, even though moral intuitions support preferential treatment. Whatever personal motivation one may have to do something does not matter; one must always follow the reasoning of the moral theory, even if it conflicts with his or her motives. Moral schizophrenia in moral theories will prevent the agents from ever achieving the good life. Stocker explains that these moral theories "allow [people] the harmony of a morally impoverished life, a life deeply deficient in what is valuable ... people who do let them compromise their motives will, for that reason, have a life seriously lacking in what is valuable" (p. 455).

A life cannot be very fulfilling if everyone who performs his or her duty very rarely actually wants to. Moral schizophrenia means that, in most situations, individuals will end up discontent from following the reasoning of the moral theory. Modern moral theories do not allow for personal pursuits such as love, friendship, and community, which are valuable sources of pleasure. These theories do not recognize the value people can bring to lives. Stocker writes "there is a whole other area of values of personal and interpersonal relations and activities; and also of moral goodness, merit, and virtue" (p. 453-456). People's motives need to be in harmony for these values to be realized.

Virtue ethics avoids moral schizophrenia because it allows for virtues that harmonize motives and reasons. Recall that virtue ethics believes virtues are a plurality of intrinsic good; there are various reasons why certain virtues are valuable. It does not believe one overarching principle is the ultimate guide to live by, which generally would compromise other values in our life. Virtues ethics considers traits such as love, friendship, and community as virtues that are important for the wellbeing of the individuals involved. Specific varieties of virtue ethics will sometimes value certain virtues above others that are imperative to maintaining the personal and interpersonal connections other moral theories do not. NeoAristotelian virtue ethics values what is good for the wellbeing of the individual. Certainly acting upon personal motives is important for one's wellbeing, so it would value traits such as friendship and love that allow one to maintain personal connections.

Consider the following example to help further explain. A man has recently saved up a considerable amount of money in order to visit his friend in Iceland for a week. Instead of spending money on the trip, he could always donate it to a local homeless shelter to help directly feed the hungry. Surely donating his money to such charitable efforts would produce more happiness than would spending the money to see his friend. It would most likely be agreed that there is nothing wrong with him spending the money to see his friend. He saved the money himself and would gain personal satisfaction from seeing his long-distance friend. According to utilitarianism, a theory plagued by moral schizophrenia, the right thing to do is donate the money because it would produce the most pleasure.

However, think about what the virtue ethicist would say. The virtuous person would take all the virtues into account. They would consider the virtues of love and friendship. They would most likely conclude that the right thing to do is take the trip to Iceland. The reasons may include the fact that the person would be acting as a good friend or acting in their own best interest by going on the trip. This decision would satisfy the virtuous person because it harmonizes motives and reasons. Virtue ethics allows people to maintain personal and interpersonal connections important for the good life. Virtue ethics does not fall victim to moral schizophrenia, which is one advantage it has over most other moral theories.

Care Ethics

After understanding what makes a virtue ethics approach so appealing, some common varieties of this moral theory can be considered. Care ethics believes that the virtue of care is central to understanding morality (Timmons, 2002, p. 282). Most moral theories employ a conception of justice. The self is considered an individual and the primary concern is "to protect individual interests in a manner that preserves equal respect for all" (Timmons, 2002, p. 283). Care ethics, on the other hand, employs a conception of care where "the relationship becomes the figure, defining self and others... (and the moral agent) responds to the perception of need" (Timmons, 2002, p. 283).

Care ethics seeks to maintain and promote relationships with one another. It asks people to approach a moral issue with sensitivity. In care ethics, the virtuous agent is one who acts with the virtue of caring. They become the 'caring agent'. Care ethics believes an action is right if and only if it is what the caring agent would perform in the circumstances. The big appeal of care ethics is that it accommodates a person's intuition to give preferential treatment to those closest to him or her (Timmons, 2002, p. 282-285). It realizes and protects the value in personal and interpersonal relationships and activities. It avoids the problem of moral schizophrenia because it allows such intuitive motives to align with the reasoning.

Neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

A second variety of virtue ethics is neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. This variety is based on the work of Aristotle. Aristotle believed all actions aim at some good. Some things are 'ends' in themselves because they are done for their own sake. Other things are a 'means' to an end because they are done for the sake of something else. Aristotle believed all things contribute to a higher good; he called this 'eudaimonia'. Eudaimonia roughly translates to mean happiness, fulfillment, and human flourishing. It is the highest good because it is the end all other ends pursue; it is pursued for itself, never as a means to another end. Therefore, the highest good for humans is a life of eudaimonia or, roughly, a life of happiness. Aristotle explained that the highest good is reached when people perform human function well. Aristotle explained that it is humans' ability to reason or rationalize. This rational capacity allows people to "grasp truths, and practical reason, by means of which they are able to determine which ends to pursue and how best to pursue them" (Timmons, 2002, p. 274). Virtue is an acquired disposition that promotes excellence in actions. To perform humanly function well-to rationalize well-one must be in accordance with the virtues. Aristotle concluded, "the highest good (and hence eudaimonia) of human beings is a life of rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue" (Timmons, 2002, p. 272-274).

Modern neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics build off of Aristotle's original argument to create its theory. Consider the neo-Aristotelian argument that Rosalind Hursthouse (2003) proposes. She agrees that the distinctive feature of humans is their rational capacity. Exercising rational capacity in accordance with virtue-thus, to exercise it excellently-will lead people to the good life of eudaimonia. Hursthouse gives her requirements for virtues. She offers three theses:

  1. The virtues benefit their possessor. (They enable her to flourish, to be, and have a life that is eudaimon)
  2. The virtues make their possessor a good human being. (Human beings need the virtues in order to live well, to flourish as human beings, and to live a characteristically good eudaimon human life.)
  3. The above two features of the virtues are interrelated (p.167).

Virtues allow people to perform his or her function excellently; when people perform his or her function excellently, people reach eudaimonia. Since eudaimonia is the greatest good, reaching it makes one a good person. This both benefits people and makes them good. Hursthouse emphasizes that this approach is not in conflict with self-interest. Instead, the virtues are constitutive of a good life. They help people lead the best life and become the best they can be. From a neo-Aristotelian approach, people can see the virtuous agent will act in a way that leads to their wellbeing because the virtues are what allow people to flourish. Right action, in this sense, is characterized by wellbeing. The virtuous agent will act in a way that accords with his or her own wellbeing.

Agent-Based Virtue Ethics

The final variety of virtue ethics that will be looked at is agent-based virtue ethics as proposed by Michael Slote (1997). He explained that virtue ethical theories are typically 'agent-focused'; they are concerned with what it means to be a virtuous agent and to have particular virtues (p. 177). The more radical a virtue ethics approach is, however, the more 'agent-based' and concerned with the agent's inner life it becomes. Slote explains that a

"[r]adical kind of virtue ethics would say that the ethical character of actions is not thus independent of how and why and by whom the actions are done... the evaluation of actions is entirely derivative from and dependent on what we have to say ethically about (the inner life of) the agents who perform those actions. The more radical kind of virtue ethics is thus agent-based, not merely, like Aristotle's view (on one common interpretation), agent-focused" (p. 178).

Slote proposes agent-based virtue ethics as a radical form of virtue ethics. Both care ethics and neo-Aristotelian ethics were not concerned with the 'inner life' of the agent that Slote speaks of. All that matters is that people perform the action the virtuous agent would. But Slote says people need to look into the 'inner life' of the agents to see if they have the correct motivations for performing right action. An agent-based approach will "derive its evaluations of human actions-whether aretaic or deontic-from independent and fundamental aretaic characterizations of the inner traits or motives of individuals" (p. 206). It is essential that the agent be guided by the right motives and traits for the action to be right. The inner life of the agent-their motives and inner traits-is the basis for evaluating actions.

Different varieties of agentbased virtue ethics will have different accounts of what traits an agent must innately express in order for right action. Slote touches on several varieties. For example, one version may appeal to the notion of inner strength. This account would treat strength "as an ultimately admirable way of existing" (p. 218). There would be something innately admirable about being strong inside. Other accounts may treat morality as beneficence. It would say that an agent performs right action if they acted out of beneficence (p. 212-223). The action is right because the trait is being expressed from within the agent, and the trait is motivating the agent in the right way. An individual cannot simply copy the actions of the virtuous person; they must act out of the right motivations.

Objections Against Virtue Ethics

There are two objections against virtue ethics. Consider the charge Simon Keller (2004) makes that virtue ethics is self-effacing. A moral theory is self-effacing when "the considerations that it posits in telling that story sometimes should not serve as motives for action, according to the theory itself" (p. 221). Recall Stocker's moral schizophrenia, where he claimed most moral theories cannot allow for harmony between motives and reasons. Moral theories facing this problem are selfeffacing because people would intuitively agree that the considerations they propose should not act as motives in every situation.

Keller identifies two things wrong with selfeffacing theories. First, they do not properly tell people what should motivate them, "so they fail to perform a function that an ethical theory should perform" (p. 222). Secondly, they do not allow for a "psychologically harmonious life" because they do not allow the agent to be motivated by what is important to them (p. 222). Keller asserts that "if the virtue ethicist is to avoid self-effacement then she must make the following claim: it is never undesirable for an agent to be moved to action by the thought that her act is in accordance with the virtues, or by the thought that she is acting as the fully virtuous person would" (p. 224-225). Virtue ethics would have to allow one's motivations to be acting like the virtuous person, not acting out of the good of a virtue. Keller says that virtue ethics cannot commit to such a statement.

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