49 Virtue Ethics

How does virtue ethics operate?

Virtue ethicists think that the main question in ethical reasoning should be not “How should I now act?” but “What kind of person do I want to be?” Developing virtues that we admire in others and avoiding actions that we recognize as vicious develops our moral sensitivity: our awareness of how our actions affect others. Virtuous persons are able to empathize, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes, and to look at an issue from other people’s perspectives.

Virtuous individuals are also thought to be able to draw upon willpower not possessed by those who compromise their moral principles in favor of fame, money, sex, or power.

What kinds of questions are asked by virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics focuses more on a person’s approach to living than on particular choices and actions and so has less to say about specific courses of action or public policies. Instead, this ethical approach posed broader questions such as these:

  • How should I live?
  • What is the good life?
  • Are ethical virtue and genuine happiness compatible?
  • What are proper family, civic, and cosmopolitan virtues?

Because of the broad nature of the questions posed by virtue ethics, ethicists sometimes disagree as to whether this theory actually offers an alternative to the utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethical reasoning. How does someone who follows virtue ethics determine what the virtues are without applying some yardstick such as those provided by utilitarian and deontological ethics?

Utilitarianism and deontology are hard-universalist theories, each claiming that one ethical principle is binding on all people regardless of time or place. Virtue ethics does not make this claim. Those who favor this theory may hold that certain virtues like compassion, honesty, and integrity transcend time and culture. But they do not aim to identify universal principles that can be applied in all moral situations. Instead they accept that many things described as virtues and vices are cultural and that some of our primary ethical obligations are based on our emotional relationships and what we owe to people we care about. In the end, though, virtue ethicists will always ask themselves, “What would a good person do?”

How has virtue ethics been applied in the real world?

Someone employing virtue ethics will consider what action will most help her become a better person. Virtue ethics arguments will discuss ideals as the motivation for acting. In December 2014, Senator John McCain delivered a floor statement to the US Senate, condemning CIA interrogation methods. He deplored the use of torture by our country:

Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world (McCain, 2014).

What is the main weakness of virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics may seem to avoid some of the apparent flaws of duty-based ethics and of utilitarianism. A person guided by virtue ethics would not be bound by strict rules or the duty to abide by a state’s legal code. Presumably, then, an individual who has cultivated a compassionate personality consistent with virtue ethics would not easily surrender a friend’s hiding place in order to avoid having to tell a lie, as would seem to be required by duty ethics. Nor would a person guided by virtue ethics be bound by the ‘tyranny of the (happy) majority’ that appears to be an aspect of utilitarianism.

On the other hand, some thinkers argue that virtue ethics provides vague and ambiguous advice. Because of its emphasis on the imprecise and highly contextual nature of ethics, virtue ethics is often criticized as insufficient as a guide to taking specific action.

How can I apply virtue ethics in real life?

When confronted with an ethical dilemma, consider:

  • Which option would a good person choose?
  • Would I feel comfortable if everyone knew I’d made that choice?
  • Which option shows care for those that are vulnerable?
  • What virtues and vices apply in this context?
  • What is the proper application/ measure of virtues appropriate to this choice?


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