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Virtue Ethics: Morality and Character

What Are Virtue Ethics?


Aristotle Teaches Alexander The Great
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Both teleological and deontological ethical theories are called deontic or action-based theories of morality because they focus entirely upon the actions which a person performs. Those theories focus on the question, "Which action should I choose?" Virtue ethics, however, take a very different perspective.

Virtue-based ethical theories place less emphasis on which rules people should follow and instead focus on helping people develop good character traits, such as kindness and generosity. These character traits will, in turn, allow a person to make the correct decisions later on in life. Virtue theorists also emphasize the need for people to learn how to break bad habits of character, like greed or anger. These are called vices and stand in the way of becoming a good person.

Recently virtue ethics has not been a very common topic for study, but it dates back to the ancient Greek thinkers and is thus the oldest type of ethical theory in Western philosophy. Plato discussed four key virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. The first systematic description of virtue ethics was written down by Aristotle in his famous work Nichomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle, when people acquire good habits of character, they are better able to regulate their emotions and their reason. This, in turn, helps us reach morally correct decisions when we are faced with difficult choices.

One reason why virtue ethics can be popular and why they make an important contribution to our understanding of morality is that they emphasize the central role played by motives in moral questions. To act from virtue is to act from some particular motivation; thus to say that certain virtues are necessary for correct moral decisions is to say that correct moral decisions require correct motives.

Neither teleological nor deontological moral theories require motives to play a role in our evaluation of moral decisions — but encouraging correct motivations is very often a key component of the moral education of young people. We are taught that we should desire certain outcomes and that we should want to accomplish certain goals by our actions.

Another reason why virtue theories are so attractive is that the other moral theories share in common the difficulty in dealing with complicated moral calculations over what actions to take or which moral duties to emphasize. Virtue theories promise that once we are successful in creating the sort of person we want to be, arriving at the correct moral decisions will come naturally.

Key questions which virtue ethical systems ask include:

  • What sort of person do I want to be?
  • What virtues are characteristic of the person I want to be?
  • What actions will cultivate the virtues I want to possess?
  • What actions will be characteristic of the sort of person I want to be?


Problems With Virtue Ethics

The reality of virtue ethics isn’t as neat and simple as some might imagine. Although many common moral decisions may indeed come more easily to a person of the “right” moral character, the fact of the matter is that many moral dilemmas require a great deal of careful reasoning and thinking — simply having the right character cannot be enough to even make the right decision likely, much less assured. The fact that rule based and duty based ethical systems are complicated and difficult to employ does not make a person of good character more likely to make the right choices.

Another problem with virtue-based ethical systems is the question of what the “right” sort of character is which a person should have. Many, if not most, virtue theorists have treated the answer to this question as self-evident, but it is anything but. One person’s virtue may be another person’s vice and a vice in one set of circumstances may be a virtue in another.

Some advocates of virtue ethics suggest that we determine the right virtues by asking a virtuous person, but that is just an exercise in question begging. Others might suggest asking a happy person, but that assumes that happiness and virtue always coincide — by no means an obvious truth.

Perhaps a key to understanding virtue theories of ethics is to regard them as ways to approach moral psychology but not moral epistemology. What this means is that virtue theories should not be contrasted with theories about how to make moral choices, like the teleological theory of John Stuart Mill or the deontological theory of Immanuel Kant.

Instead, virtue theories of ethics should be treated as ways to understand how we become moral creatures, how we develop the means by which we make moral decisions, and the process by which moral attitudes develop. More importantly, virtue theories may be able to teach us how morals themselves should be taught, particularly in the earliest years when the more complicated decision-making processes are not yet possible.

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