Virtue Ethics

A2 Virtue Ethics for the development paper 2012

  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 26-04-12 14:23

Intro & Key Concepts

  • Main principle = emphasises moral character of an agent rather than what they do/the rules they follow
  • asks not 'what ought I do?', but rather 'what sort of person should I be?' (is about being rather than doing)
  • Moral character of an agent is the driving force for moral behaviour as opposed to rules/consequences attached to an action
  • Opposite to deontology as does not follow particular laws/obligations
  • Aristotle = first to propose a form of VE by outlining key goal of human existence as eudaimonia (human flourishing & happiness)
  • said was life long pursuit, accomplished though reason & contemplation & comes through practice
  • Stated 2 types of virtues which if achieved go towards reaching eudaimonia - intellectual & moral
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2 Types of Virtues, & Prudence


  • inborn but can be acquired through learning & experience & developed through instruction; are rational & a trait of thought  
  • Aristotle listed 9, including prudence, wisdom, intelligence, technical skill, cleverness & judgement


  • traits of  character which are expressed by our behaviour; not inborn but can be can be acquired through habit & practice:
  • "We are what we repeatedly do. Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit"
  • includes courage, proper ambition, patience & truthfulness

Prudence = careful thought & ability to govern & discipline oneself by use of reason

  • In VE is this with which person addresses situation before analysing what would be virtuous thing to do
  • Acc. to Aristotle, is most important virtue b. must come before all others, as it is necessary to distinguish others between deficiency & excess
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Doctrine of the Mean

  • As a result - must state that key idea/feature of these virtues is they lead to increased sense of community
  • Aristotle argued living in a community alongside like-minded people is best & happiest way to live & achieve eudaimonia (cannot be achieved in isolation)
  • Doctrine of the Mean = proper position between 2 extremes: vice of excess - too much, & vice of deficiency - too little
  • Are represented as a seesaw to demonstrate a little is needed of each for person to remain balanced (& balance is what ought to be pursuing)
  • E.g. virtue of courage: vice of excess = foolhardiness, vice of deficiency = cowardice
  • Perfect balance between 2 extremes = Golden Mean & leads to genuine practical wisdom & moral virtue (so Golden Mean between above is courage)
  • Aristotle - "Everybody who understands his business avoids alike excess & deficiency; he seeks & chooses the mean, not the absolute mean, but the mean considered relatively to ourselves"
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Alistair MacIntyre - 20th C. Revival (shows still

  • Said VE is realistic & applicable to everyday life as does not require extensive research about what to do b. answer is our instincts (can be accessed by all)
  • Can be applied quickly to any situation - unlike duty/consequential based ethic which would need reseatch & contemplation on how to act
  • Said society is morally bankrupt - has lost sight of roots & now more about individualism rather than doing what is good for the community, & live in secular society so lost sight of spiritual values
  • Believed VE needs to be revived so is more applicable to this secular, morally bankrupt society - way for people to be rather than do without belief in God
  • Also said naturalistic ethics are overly complex & too time consuming, & criticised NML for being non-applicable for everyday situations
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Supportive Scholars

Elizabeth Anscombe

  • argued modern philosophy was misguided in that it was a mistake to associate good with actions rather than people
  • proposed moral codes & moral absolutes were anachronistic in a society which has largely abandoned God - society is more secular now & so many existing codes of behaviour have become irrelevant/cannot be applied
  • Says need to return to human flourishing

Robert Soloman (contemporay VE)

  • "The very idea that the good person is one who acts acc. to the right principles...makes my blood run cold" 
  • Means a person who follows rules not good solely b. of that, as in some circumstances principles need to be put aside b. more about people, & people who blindly follow principles are cold hearted as do not seem to consider consequences or harm
  • Critic of deontologists b. put rules/principles first over people (reason supports VE)
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Supportive scholars cont.


  • Argued VE is an appropriate way to make moral decisions & rejected other systems of morality which were based on Divine Command Ethics & discouraged people from achieving their potential

Philippa Foot

  • Claimed VE cannot guarantee happiness but does go some way to achieving it, therefore providing support as indicates VE can be implemented into people's lives to benefit what they already do
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  • Allows for moral heroes as role models, encouraging them to influence society positively, E.g. MLK - virtuous because had courage & sense of justice in peacefully fighting for black emancipation in US (also proper ambition), & Jesus virtuous because encouraged increased sense of community (brought together in faith)
  • Not religious ethic but fits well with Christian ethic - doing right thing & though Bible not considered is similar to WWJD, as Christianity also not about following rules & principles
  • Puts emphasis constantly on importance of person who is the object of most moral discourse so is human centred
  • Universal b. morality internal & found within; Leslie said must be based on character, & Stephen said that only mode of starting moral law must be as rule of character
  • Encourages sense of community, rejecting individualistic approach to ethics & this is the reason it is appealing to many
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Critics & Weaknesses

  • Julia Annas - warned of romantic nostalgia - old idea not necessarily a good one
  • Robert Louden - said VE does not provide answers to specific moral dilemmas E.g. euthanasia, & also said acts that appear virtuous on the outside may have doubtful inner motives


  • Neglect conduct - lacks rules & principles so does not help us work out how to behave or right/wrong
  • Guilty of looking back to a perfect age - Aristotle may have had valid points, but also weaknesses in his ideas; Annas said important to avoid romantic nostalgia, "Ethics would be a kinder, gentler place if we could forget about hard cases & talk about friendship & the good life instead like much nostalgia that is misplaced"
  • May be not universal- different societies & cultures value different virtue traits E.g. in Christian cultures = pride is a vice, but Aristotle said pride is crowning virtue (Aristotle's virtues may be useless for many)
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Weaknesses & Responses

  • Louden - "What can a virtue & vices approach say about specific moral dilemmas?" = does not help in tackling specific moral dilemmas

Responses to this:

  • Pincoff (1968), "It is not the central business of moral theories to help us resolve moral quandries"
  • Rosalind Hursthouse, feminist & VE on abortion (1988) - asked, In having an abortion would the woman be behaving viciously or virtuously?; belives eudaimonia is achieved through parenthood & motherhood. For a woman choosing an abortion "May manifest a flawed grasp of what her life should be & be about" = therefore demonstrating VE is useful in moral dilemmas
  • However, flaws in this response - what about those who are infertile, can they not achieve eudaimonia? & saying is achieved through motherhood does not consider other aspects of a woman's life (portfolio thinking common now)
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  • Useless/valuable/practical? - link back to question
  • In some ways yes, in others no - E.g. unstructured, not applicable etc., but main strength is that is human centred:
  • Keenan - "We are simply interested in persons, not actions. It is not 'what should I do?' but 'Who should I become?'" = has much value & therefore useful
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brilliant :) 

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