This ethical system emphasizes a person’s character. The right thing to do in a given situation is what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. Of course, we now need to say what a virtuous person is: someone who has, and exercises, character traits called virtues. And virtues? These are character traits which lead to the flourishing of a human being (termed eudaimonia by the first virtue ethicist, Aristotle).
At the outset it is worth pointing out that virtue ethics, despite what looks like a long pedigree (going back to Aristotle), has only attracted serious notice relatively recently. Perhaps the main reason for this is that the other two major players (the deontological and the utilitarian), after dominating the field for a couple of centuries, have not provided wholly satisfactory accounts of how it is that one should best behave.
A second thing to bear in mind is that virtue ethics can be rather airily dismissed or passed over as not really worth bothering with – particularly by some moral philosophers. The guidance to ‘always do what a virtuous person would do’ seems pretty unhelpful at first blush. However, you should stand back and consider whether this is fair. As we have seen, ‘always do your duty’ and ‘always do what increases happiness’ might also be regarded with the same sort of dubious glance. But both of these guides to moral behaviour have good arguments in their favour, good justifications for being followed. At least as a credible possible alternative to help us sort out how to act in a good way it is worth dwelling on the possibilities that virtue ethics has to offer.
There are a couple of very important concepts which need exploring at the outset: eudaimonia and virtue.
This is the word that Aristotle used for the state which humans should aim for in their lives. It has different translations, the most common being ‘happiness’, ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’. Each of them captures something of what Aristotle meant but we should be clear about their limitations.
‘Happiness’ is certainly a part of it but it is not what we might call ‘simple happiness’. The trouble with happiness is that someone will always know what it is that makes them happy – it has a strong subjective element to it. What Aristotle would include in the concept of eudaimonia is the idea of what we might call ‘real happiness’ or ‘the sort of happiness worth having’. This has a more objective quality to it – I might think I am happy guzzling beer and watching soaps all the time but, we might argue, this is a waste of my potential and though I think I’m happy I’m not really happy because I am not achieving worthwhile fulfilment. (This may well be compared to Mill’s definition of ‘utility’.)
‘Well-being’ and ‘flourishing’ are, for this reason, often preferred as a translation. The aim of humans should be to act in such a way that one’s character develops towards the goal of greatest possible fulfillment or contentment with one’s life. ‘Flourishing’ is probably the better term of the two largely on the grounds that it is commoner and that ‘well-being’ has no convenient adjective which makes its use rather clumsy.
Again, this is a larger concept than a quick translation conveys. If we take as an example the virtue of honesty this does not simply mean always telling the truth or not committing crimes. Certainly, if someone has the virtue of honesty we would expect them to be reliable in their honest actions, but there is more to it than that. The honest person behaves honestly for ‘the right reason’ – not simply because it will get them admired, or win them some praise, or make them feel good about themselves – they are honest because this is part of the way to eudaimonia. Thus, the honest person we can expect to condemn others who perform acts of dishonesty and to praise those who behave honestly. Further, we would expect their emotions to be involved too – to be distressed by dishonesty, pleased by witnessing acts of honesty. Finally, honest people are particularly attuned to circumstances in which honesty is at issue: they care about it.
Thus, virtues are deeply entrenched in a person’s character, not merely called up on the spur of the moment to help decide what to do. A change in such character traits is profound and usually takes years to effect. If the change is more sudden, then it calls for special explanation (such as religious conversion, brain damage or drug-use). You cannot decide to be honest in the same way as you decide to stop smoking, for instance.
To return to the idea of the ‘right reason’ I mentioned in the paragraph before the last one, Aristotle linked the exercise of a virtue with what he called phronesis, or ‘practical wisdom’. Thus, an honest person will not have his honesty called into question if he is dishonest when circumstances are such that this is the wisest option. Lying to the mad axeman (a problem for the deontologist, you remember) is sensible and does not undermine the honest person’s character. That said, the honest person will regret having to lie, will not feel good about the lie, will point out that they have justification for lying. This is in contrast to the other ethical systems where you can feel good either about not lying (and thus helping the axe-man to their victim) or about telling a lie (and protecting their victim). Virtue ethics, because of its emphasis on character rather than actions, is thus more attractive in that it does allow for something more complex to be involved in our behaviour than a simple analysis of a single act as being right or wrong according to whether it is obeying a duty or makes more happiness.
Having indicated that honesty is sometimes not desirable, how can we still call it a virtue? This indicates that, perhaps like deontology where, on occasion, we are required to choose between conflicting duties, there might be a limitation to the concept of virtue which means that it is not always something which makes the person good. Perhaps the only virtue that might fit this bill is ‘wisdom’, and maybe ‘being just’. That said, we do have ways of qualifying characteristics to indicate that the underlying virtue is being overstretched – such as being ‘brutally honest’ when telling someone that they are too ugly to be a model, or being ‘too generous’ when giving a wastrel all one’s disposable income.
A last thing to consider in this exploration of concepts is what impels us to behave in a particular way. The virtue ethicist never forgets that we were once all children and the way that children act is not the same as how (most) adults act. Typically, children act without reasoning things out in the mature way that adults do (or can do); and they act much more out of immediate desires or passions rather than the rational desires that adults have. Again, we can recognize that the transition from child to adult in the degree of reasoning about things that happens is a slow one: how our characters develop depends on what happens in our formative years. This observation (and incorporation into the virtue ethicist’s view of how to behave) then helps us address the question of motivation when considering whether something is right or wrong. For both deontology and utilitarianism this is a difficult question to answer since they rely on a rational account being provided for each act as it comes. The virtue ethicist does not face the problem in the same way since how one acts is a function of how much training/experience one has had in developing a particular character-trait. Thus, if you develop honesty as a characteristic your motivation to tell the truth in a given situation is deeply entrenched in you and does not have to be referred immediately to reason or motivation.
One criticism often levelled at Virtue Ethics is that it is deficient when it comes to decision making. It does seem to be the case that ‘do what a virtuous person would do’ is a little inadequate. However, the premises can be set out so that, as a system it is certainly no less deficient than either rule-utilitarianism or deontology:
- An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances.
- A virtuous agent is one who has, and exercises, certain characteristic traits, namely the virtues.
- A virtue is a character trait that...
We have suspension marks here because different people will have different aims – ‘is useful or agreeable to its possessor and others’ (Hume), or ‘is needed for eudaimonia’ (Aristotle), or we might complete it by saying ‘the trait is on the following list’. Again, lists of what counts as a virtue can vary (Hume, for example, excludes ‘humility’, Aristotle ‘modesty’, Nietzsche ‘compassion’ and these three often find their way onto other ethicists’ lists).
Just like other systems, the virtue ethicist must then provide justifications for why particular virtues should be practised – and, just as importantly, why particular vices should be avoided.
Following up the criticism about decision making, we might ask the virtue ethicist what they would do in the situation where there is a conflict between virtues. This would appear to put them in the same quandary as the deontologist where a conflict of duties arises. Using our mad axeman example again, is the virtue of truthfulness to have priority over the virtue of compassion? And if so, what makes us decide in favour of one virtue rather than another?
To the virtue ethicist, this is much less of a problem. They would point out that, even if the deontologist can justify sorting out such problems of hierarchy of duties, then when that action is performed what the deontologist has done is the right, the good, thing. This, they say, is unsatisfactory and results from an overly-simplistic emphasis on action rather than on character.
Let us consider another difficult moral dilemma to illustrate what the virtue ethicist sees as advantageous about their approach. A young girl is raped and made pregnant: in this case, should abortion be allowed? For the deontologist there is a conflict of duties here – the duty not to take the life of an innocent (the developing baby), and the duty to allow freedom of choice to the individual (the raped girl). But let us imagine that this is resolved in favour of abortion. For the deontologist there is then no ‘residue’ or ‘remainder’ after acting by deciding on what to do: they are right. The virtue ethicist, on the other hand, will say that there is a ‘remainder’. A virtuous person in such a dilemma will be emotionally involved during the decision making (will not airily find the solution but will worry about it, be sympathetic to all sides of the problem, and so on) and, once the decision is made, will still have something to address morally: the feeling of regret about having to decide one way rather than the other, perhaps the necessity to apologise in some way for the decision being forced on them.
As mentioned before, it is this extra dimension of the involvement of one’s character in such decisions that virtue ethicists see as better because it allows for an account of ethical behaviour which more adequately captures what is the right thing to do than the simple (simplistic?) concentration on just the act itself. It contains within it the quality of action assessment as well as action guidance. It is through the consideration of difficult moral dilemmas that the virtue ethicist claims that we can recognise that, in fact, no hierarchy of virtues can be drawn up: circumstances will dictate which virtue a morally wise person will give a particular weight to, which virtue is to count for less.
Another criticism that is aimed at virtue ethics is its inadequacy on the grounds that it is empty. If I am to do what a virtuous person would do in given circumstances, then if I am a virtuous person myself I don’t need to think; and if I am not a virtuous person I won’t know what to do and thinking won’t help. Thus, it is empty because in neither case does it act as a guide. Their reply here is twofold. In the first place, character traits are slowly developed and even a virtuous person will constantly be reflecting on their characteristics and behaviour as their person and environment develops/changes. Secondly, the non-virtuous can seek the counsel of those people whose character they respect – they can ask virtuous people what they would do in given circumstances. Hence, non-virtuous people can also develop from a state of less to greater virtue thanks to our capacity for interaction with people (perhaps even fictional people) and our capacity for learning through reasoning about behaviour.