Virtue ethics doesn't question how we act, but instead studies who we are as people. It is agent-centred and seeks to find goodness by enriching the individual.
The first person to put forward the idea of looking inwardly in such a way was Aristotle. Proposing the ethical theory in Nicomeachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that as humans everything we want or desire should lead to happiness, because happiness is good as an end in itself.
The great end of happiness - the ultimate happiness we all aim for - is called eudaimonia. In order to reach eudaimonia, Aristotle stated, we must be virtuous people.
"We become builders by building."
Types of virtue
According to Aristotle, there are two types of virtue:
- Intellectual virtues
- Moral virtues
Intellectual virtues are things which can be taught and developed through teaching. Moral virtues are qualities of character - they can't be 'taught' and come about through habit and experience. Aristotle said that everyone can become virtuous, but not everyone will. The most valuable virtue, he suggested, is reason. By reasoning we can work out what is right. And by doing what is right we can reach eudaimonia.
Aristotle may seem all nice and virtuous, but he did argue that virtues were only accessible to men, something that has been heavily criticised, particularly by Annette Baier, who argues that virtue ethics is male-centred.
Working out a virtue - golden mean and vices
In terms of working out a virtue, Aristotle highlighted the importance of finding a 'golden mean' in qualities of character.
He said that all virtues have two vices, or extremes: the vice of deficiency (too little) and the vice of excess (too much). In the middle of those two vices lies the virtue.
Bravery - vice of deficiency for bravery is cowardice, vice of excess for bravery is foolishness
Finding the golden mean between the vices is how to work out a virtue; Aristotle doesn't give any tips on how to do this or what happens when people disagree on virtues, which is a major flaw in virtue ethics.
Aristotle argues that virtues help society whereas virtues are not helpful to society.
Modern virtue ethicist approaches
Anscombe, a modern day virtue ethicist and Catholic, wrote a paper called Modern Moral Philosophy, and argued that our reliance on action and consequence is wrong.
"How can there be any moral laws if there is no God?"But she said human flourishing doesn't require a God, even though she argues for one herself.
Foot, also a modern day virtue ethicist, counters a popular criticism against virtue ethics. Many people often argue that virtues may be used to a bad end, ie. an end that isn't eudaimonia. Foot stated that this is wrong, seeing as a virtue is only virtuous if used to the right end. She said that loyalty - a virtue - isn't a virtue if used to a bad end - so for example loyalty to Hitler.
However, Foot has been criticised for assuming that all people work towards similar goals, when this is simply not true of humanity. We all have different goals and motives - it is foolish to suppose we all work towards a common good.
MacIntyre, who wrote After Virtue, argued that virtue is important in achieving our purpose. He also criticises Kantian ethics and utilitarianism for not appreciating the importance of virtue. He said that human virtue depends on a sense of community:
"Virtues which sustain the households and communities..."
MacIntyre's reliance on community brings up another weakness of virtue ethics: it is not culturally aware. In some countries it is virtuous to marry a twelve year old girl. Is that virtuous in our society? Of course not. So who is right? Surely there can't be a common good if different nations have different virtues?