22 5.4 Normative Theories: Virtue Ethics

Both deontology and utilitarianism provide a reasoning process to evaluate an action for moral worth; deontology evaluates motives or intents of actions, and utilitarianism considers consequences/outcomes. Virtue ethics is an overall term that refers normative theories interested in the character and virtues of the person performing actions. An action is good if it is what a virtuous person would do. Moral actions are not measured by reference to normative standards such as rules and motives or outcomes and consequences.

Moral action is about character, what a person of virtuous character would do in a particular situation. Virtues are acquired character traits; they are not inborn or learned through reason. Unlike intellectual or physical characteristics, moral virtues are habits we acquire by practicing them and emulating exceptionally virtuous people or especially virtuous actions. Through practice we may acquire virtuous character.

5.4.1 Aristotle: Ethics as Virtuous Character

In a major work, The Nicomachean EthicsAristotle (384 – 322 BCE) describes the role of ethics as the cultivation of virtuous character. This work is believed to have been named after Aristotle’s son Nicomachus; if so, it is a fitting tribute to Aristotle’s idea that how we are raised makes all the difference. The Nicomachean Ethics is an expansive work about the pursuit of “the good life,” and understanding the good life is essential for achieving happiness. Note that the type of happiness being sought is not the subjective experience of pleasure; this type of happiness, eudaemonia, involves flourishing through intellectual excellence and moral virtue. For Aristotle, the development of a virtuous character takes place in the context of social relationships with others. Developing virtuous character is important because society becomes stronger; we will return to this idea in the unit on Social and Political Philosophy. The brief commentary and passages that follow serve to introduce Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics.

While intellectual excellence is taught, moral virtue is habituated; we do not come by moral virtue naturally, it must be practiced and perfected. For example, one becomes a just person by performing just acts, a brave person through performing brave actions. Moral virtues acquired through persistent practice of good habits become inclinations and part of the virtuous person’s character. From Book II.1:

Human Excellence is of two kinds, Intellectual and Moral: now the Intellectual springs originally, and is increased subsequently, from teaching (for the most part that is), and needs therefore experience and time; whereas the Moral comes from custom, and so the Greek term denoting it is but a slight deflection from the term denoting custom in that language.

From this fact it is plain that not one of the Moral Virtues comes to be in us merely by nature: because of such things as exist by nature, none can be changed by custom: a stone, for instance, by nature gravitating downwards, could never by custom be brought to ascend, not even if one were to try and accustom it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor could file again be brought to descend, nor in fact could anything whose nature is in one way be brought by custom to be in another. The Virtues then come to be in us neither by nature, nor in despite of nature, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving them and are perfected in them through custom.

Again, in whatever cases we get things by nature, we get the faculties first and perform the acts of working afterwards; an illustration of which is afforded by the case of our bodily senses, for it was not from having often seen or heard that we got these senses, but just the reverse: we had them and so exercised them, but did not have them because we had exercised them. But the Virtues we get by first performing single acts of working, which, again, is the case of other things, as the arts for instance; for what we have to make when we have learned how, these we learn how to make by making: men come to be builders, for instance, by building; harp-players, by playing on the harp: exactly so, by doing just actions we come to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave.

Acquiring virtuous character entails practice and habituation, but even when one acquires virtuous inclinations, virtuous moral action is not an automatic response. A virtuous act must be appropriate for the specific situation or conditions.

But let this point be first thoroughly understood between us, that all which can be said on moral action must be said in outline, as it were, and not exactly: for as we remarked at the commencement, such reasoning only must be required as the nature of the subject-matter admits of, and matters of moral action and expediency have no fixedness any more than matters of health. And if the subject in its general maxims is such, still less in its application to particular cases is exactness attainable: because these fall not under any art or system of rules, but it must be left in each instance to the individual agents to look to the exigencies of the particular case, as it is in the art of healing, or that of navigating a ship. Still, though the present subject is confessedly such, we must try and do what we can for it.

Essential to virtuous actions is the concept of middle ground, or the mean. The actions of a virtuous position fall between two extremes, between excess and deficiency. The extremes are vices, and the middle ground is a virtue. For example, in the face of fear, the virtuous action is one of bravery; the vice of excess is rashness, the vice of deficiency is cowardice. Similarly, with respect to relationships with others, being friendly is the virtuous mean between the excess vice of being ingratiating and the deficient vice of being surly. A person of virtuous character performs the right action, at the right time, for the right reason; in all respects, there is never too much or too little.

In like manner too with respect to the actions, there may be excess and defect and the mean. Now Virtue is concerned with feelings and actions, in which the excess is wrong and the defect is blamed but the mean is praised and goes right; and both these circumstances belong to Virtue. Virtue then is in a sense a mean state, since it certainly has an aptitude for aiming at the mean.

Again, one may go wrong in many different ways (because, as the Pythagoreans expressed it, evil is of the class of the infinite, good of the finite), but right only in one; and so the former is easy, the latter difficult; easy to miss the mark, but hard to hit it: and for these reasons, therefore, both the excess and defect belong to Vice, and the mean state to Virtue…

It [Virtue] is a middle state between too faulty ones, in the way of excess on one side and of defect on the other: and it is so moreover, because the faulty states on one side fall short of, and those on the other exceed, what is right, both in the case of the feelings and the actions; but Virtue finds, and when found adopts, the mean. And so, viewing it in respect of its essence and definition, Virtue is a mean state; but in reference to the chief good and to excellence it is the highest state possible.


This 9+-minute video is a general introduction to virtue ethics; it reviews material on Aristotle’s ethics and introduces some modern virtue-ethicists. Introducing Virtue Ethics [CC-BY-NC-ND]

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further information on Aristotle’s “good life.”

5.4.2 Modern-Day Virtue Ethics

The three philosophers presented here are a sample of those who regard the standard normative theories, deontology and utilitarianism, to be inadequate and ineffective for understanding the complexities of ethical life in modern societies. Each has adopted a view compatible with virtue ethics.

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 – 2001) was a British analytic philosopher. Among her notable contributions was her article “Modern Moral Philosophy,” published in 1958. The article was a trailblazing contribution to modern virtue ethics. She argued that neither Kantian ethics nor utilitarianism provides ethical concepts can work in our secular culture. She believed that the standard ethical theories to be ineffective because they were based on religion. Instead, she thought morality should be based on what is “good” about human nature, a view compatible with Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Rather than describing and action as “right” or “wrong,” it seems more meaningful and illuminating to describe the “actor” as “just” or “unjust,” for example, or “honest” or “dishonest.”

Bernard Williams (1929 – 2003) was a British moral philosopher who regarded ethical life as too disorderly to be understood within the structures of normative theories. Like Anscombe, Williams was critical of both deontology and utilitarianism. He argued that both theories have a conception of the person that is highly theoretical; there is no regard for the deep-seated commitments at the root of human character, and impartial principles provide little useful guidance or reason for actions. Williams regarded the discipline of moral philosophy as ineffective, with abstract and impartial principles attempting to offer tidy, general answers, when in fact, moral problems are untidy, complicated, and highly unique.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1929 – ) is a Scottish philosopher. In his famous work After Virtue(1981), he describes the forms of moral reasoning produced by Enlightenment thinkers as a failure in their effort to provide a universal and rational account of moral reasoning. No calculation or formula settles moral disputes. The moral language that prevails in the wake of misguided moral philosophy serves mainly as a theatrical tool to manipulate public attitudes and decisions. MacIntyre believes that Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics offers a more rational alternative to modern moral and political discourse because it is teleological, it has a purpose. The ultimate goal for acting as a virtuous person is to contribute to human goodness achieved as a community or society.

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide further information on the three modern virtue ethicists introduced here.


Let’s consider this scenario one last time: Suppose that instead of doing last evening’s homework, your usually compliant 12-year-old stayed up late playing video games. The next morning the child is distraught because the homework is not finished and asks you to call school and report that she (or he) is ill.

Suspend your personal values (how you might respond to this request,) and describe how a virtuous person would respond to this request. Which kinds of virtues would be practiced, which avoided? (100 – 150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

5.4.3 Virtue Ethics: Objections and Criticisms

Virtue ethics, like other moral theories, has critics. Here are some of the objections raised:

  1. Virtue ethics is too vague. The approach does not offer specific advice on what action should be taken. How does one know what a virtuous person would do?
  2. Virtue ethics is relativistic. There are no absolute values that apply across time and across cultures.


Given the knowledge you have gained about these three moral theories — deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics — which do you find yourself more drawn to? Explain your reasons.

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.

Complete the Unit Test by the date on the Schedule of Work.

Supplemental Resources

Aristotle and The Good Life

The Good Life: Aristotle. This video provides a summary of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.


Rebirth of Virtue Ethics: Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot. A brief introductory lecture on Anscombe’s role in the reawakening of virtue ethics


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) Bernard Williams. A comprehensive account of Williams’ work.


An Introduction to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue- A Macat Philosophy Analysis. A very brief analysis of MacIntyre’s book After Virtue


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