Virtue Ethics

Two different frameworks of approaching morality:

1) What is the right action to follow? This approach focuses on actions or rules for action (obligations, permissions).

We have already examined this approach many times (this has been the dominant approach in the west from the 1600’s to the present):

Social contract theory



All of these focus on what rules to follow

2) What character traits or qualities make somebody a good person? This approach focuses on the person (the individual) rather than rules for action.

So: 2 different questions: what we ought to do vs. what we ought to be.

Now, we are examining morality from the second approach (what we ought to be). I.e., what qualities make us moral people?

Answer: if you have virtues, then you are a good person.

Virtue (def.) = a commendable trait of character manifested in habitual action that is good for everyone to have.

Vice (def.) = a not commendable trait of character manifested in habitual action that is bad for everyone to have.

Explanation (of “virtue”):

“commendable”: praiseworthy, admirable.

“character”: a trait or quality of a person, not a rule for acting.

“habitual”: need to be a repetitive habit, not a “one-off” performance. Repetition makes it easier to do.

“anyone”: everyone can benefit from having a virtuous quality or character trait.

We seek and are attracted to virtuous people.

We shun and avoid people with many vices.

There are many different virtues: benevolence, compassion, cooperativeness, courage, courteousness, dependability, fairness, friendliness, generosity, honesty, industriousness, being just, loyalty, moderation, patience, prudence, reasonableness, self-discipline, tolerance, and etc., etc., etc.

4 cardinal (primary) virtues, according to the ancient Greeks: prudence [wisdom], justice, temperance [i.e., the right amount of pleasure], courage.

2 basic types of virtues according to Aristotle: intellectual virtues & moral virtues

Intellectual virtues: excellences of the mind (judgment and thinking), traits that allow us to understand, reason, and judge well.

Moral virtues: dispose us to behave well (action).

Our focus: on moral virtues, obviously.

BUT: the general definition of virtue doesn’t help that much; we need to go through examples to see how the virtues work in detail.

NOTE: each virtue is unique.


A virtue is a midpoint between two extremes: between excess and deficiency.

For the virtue of courage, the excess is recklessness or foolhardiness, and the deficiency is cowardice.

Courage = having just the right amount of fear: being steadfast in the face of danger.

BUT: The 9/11 hijackers were courageous, yet what they ended up doing was very horrendous (thousands of people died).

Possible reply: the hijackers had 2 qualities actually: courage (a virtue) and murderousness (a vice).

And their courage was used to murder thousands of innocent people.

Thus, given what they did, and given their particular circumstances, and considering the situation as a whole (in total) = they were bad people and what they did was wrong.

A further point: the points of excess and deficiency, thus the point of courage, will be different for different individuals, depending on their particular personality, upbringing or training, social role or position, etc.

Virtues are context-dependent, they are situational: they are sensitive to individual, time, place, and social context.

What it is for someone to be courageous will depend on the particular individual, time, place, and society we are concerned with.

YET: there could also be some general, common features of virtues (as we will see)


One can be generous with one’s resources: time, knowledge, emotional support, love, money, forgiveness, etc.

Extremes: stingy, extravagant.

Midpoint (“being generous”): giving just the proper amount.

Jesus gave too much, in fact everything; he was wasteful. NOT Generous!

We have to look out for our own interests as much as we look after other’s interest: this is the way to live normal, meaningful lives.

Our lives consist of projects and relationships that eat up a lot of our resources, and we shouldn’t give this up easily because if we did, we would lose meaning in our lives.

Some people may of course choose to live like Jesus if they find meaning in doing so. But most of us do not want to, and we don’t need to live like Jesus.

Thus, the best approach is: be generous while still being able to maintain your normal meaningful lives.

PROBLEM: the billionaire who needs a lot of fancy stuff to live a meaningful life:

What if this guy needs a yacht, 10 Ferraris, 10 mansions, lots of expensive watches, etc., in order to carry on his “normal” meaningful life???

Common moral sense: this guy should give up at least some of his luxuries to help the starving kids in the world. That would be the moral thing to do.

BUT: virtue ethics: he doesn’t need to donate anything, since to have a meaningful life he needs all of these things!

Thus conclusion: something must be wrong with the virtue ethics analysis.


The extremes:

Always lying or deceiving, or always telling the truth.

Midpoint (being “honest”): can lie when there are good reasons for doing so; also, should be honest only to those who deserve to be treated honestly.

But really: you mean it’s ok for an honest person to lie?

YES, sometimes it’s ok! 

Example: the priest trying to evade his pursuers (who want to murder him).

Honesty is not always the only thing we value:

(1) In some situations, another value may have more importance.

Example: life-threatening situation, where a lie could save one’s own life, such as the priest who lied to save his own life.

In such a situation, even if he lies to his pursuers, he is still an honest person overall.

2) Furthermore, honesty should be given only to those who deserve honesty:

If someone is trying to do bad things to you, this person doesn’t deserve your trust or honesty!

General Points

The importance of virtues: why are virtues so important? What is their significance?

They are necessary for a flourishing (excellent) life: to reach “eudaimonia” (bliss, happiness [but not necessarily pleasure], fulfillment in life):

For example: 

For social success, need: loyalty, fairness, honesty, etc.

For individual growth and development, need: perseverance, industriousness, etc.

To overcome challenges (e.g., danger, temptation, etc.), need: courage, self-control, etc.

NOTE: necessary does NOT mean sufficient! Although necessary, having them may still not guarantee a flourishing life.

Are the virtues the same for everyone? (Same virtues equally important for everyone to have?)

NO: depending on your personality, your job, or social culture, or even on the culture you belong to, some virtues will be more important for you than for others.

E.g., scholar vs. soldier, child vs. parent.

So: what virtues are important can differ from person to person, society to society:

Different social values and institutions can give rise to different kinds of life,

E.g., samurai values of honor and ritual suicide. In our society, this doesn’t make much sense.

The character traits needed to occupy different social roles will differ, thus traits needed to live successfully will differ for us.

BUT more generally, YES: some virtues are necessary for everyone to have, for example:

Courage: there will always be some kind of danger and risks you need to face in your life.

Generosity: there’s always someone who will need help, including yourself.

Honesty: every society needs reliable communication to function properly.

Loyalty: everyone needs friends to have a meaningful life, without loyalty you can’t have genuine friends, etc.

THUS: although social customs, individual personality, and situation all heavily influence and shape the virtues, we CANNOT say that social customs (etc.) completely determine the virtues.

In other words, at least some virtues (though maybe not all) come from our common human condition.

Thus, these are the same for everyone, i.e., important for everyone to have.

But NOT ALL of them, it seems. Further, the virtues may be determined differently from person to person.

Strengths of Virtue Ethics

Before moving onto criticisms and attacks against Virtue Ethics, lets examine some of its strengths:

(1) Offers a better account of moral motivations:

The Hospital Example.

We base our personal relationships on friendship, love, loyalty, and respect, NOT only on an abstract sense of moral duty (as Kant says, “doing the right thing” according to the C.I.).

So: Virtue Ethics provides a more complete account of the “moral life”: personal qualities (virtues) such as friendship, love, loyalty are important motivations for action and they are morally relevant.

For Kant, they are not directly relevant, only the abstract moral duty (from the C.I.) is relevant.

(2) Could successfully deal with reasonable doubts we might (sometimes) have on the principle of impartiality.

Recall that the principle of impartiality says: all people are equal from a moral point of view [need to treat everyone’s interest as equally valuable].

Virtue Ethics does NOT always accept this idea as true (although sometimes, it accepts it).

It seems that sometimes, in some situations, we should actually NOT be impartial.

E.g., a mother caring for her child more other children – she is partial (to her own child), but there is nothing wrong with this! Society may function the best if each mother is partial to her own child.

E.g., valuing friends over strangers – there’s nothing wrong with doing this, we need friends to have a meaningful life.

Virtue Ethics can easily explain this: some virtues (e.g., love, loyalty) are partial virtues, while others are impartial virtues (e.g., justice, beneficence).

There are partial virtues and impartial virtues.

Impartial virtues: require impartial treatment for all, e.g., justice (equal treatment for all).

Partial virtues: do NOT require impartial treatment for everyone, e.g., loyalty (favors friends and family over strangers).

Sometimes, it is ok for one to be partial, and Virtue Ethics can explain why.

The reason why a mother can be partial to her own child over other children, and why we can be partial to our friends over strangers, is because what is involved in these cases are partial virtues (love, loyalty)!

Problems for Virtue Ethics

Attack 1: Application Problem:

Consider the virtue of kindness:

I learn that your good friend died in a car accident, and you don’t know about this yet. If I don’t tell you, you might never discover this truth about your friend who died.

And you are the type of person who would want to know this.

What is the kind thing for me to do?

Should I do what you would want me to do, and tell you about this friend’s death? If I do, I would bring you mental pain.

OR: should I not tell you, and thus spare you the mental pain?

Is being kind about caring about what you want, or is it about not bringing you pain?

It seems virtue ethics cannot tell us clearly enough how to behave in such a situation.

This is the application problem: sometimes it is very difficult to apply a virtue to a particular case.

Attack 2: Clash of Virtues:

Imagine your girlfriend or boyfriend has a new haircut, and asks you how he/she looks. You can tell the truth and me unkind, or you can lie and be kind.

You may have good reasons to do both, but you have to choose one or the other.

What do you do in such a situation?

This is a similar problem with Kant’s clash of absolute rules problem.

This is the problem of clash of virtues: sometimes when there is a conflict of different virtues in a particular situation, virtues may not provide enough guidance.

NOTE: these two (Attack 1 and Attack 2) are NOT the same problems, although both are dealing with the problem of how virtues can guide us in specific situations.

Attack 3: Problem of Relativism:

The form that a virtue may take may vary according to time and place. (We already discussed this, but this attack is now insisting that this is a huge problem!)

For example: virtues of Confucian society were different from the virtues of Christian or Islamic cultures. Also, warlike cultures tend to value heroic virtues, while peaceful cultures tend to value generosity and kindness.

So, which one is better?

Also, what does it mean to live a fulfilling human life? Can this be separated from one’s own society/culture?

Further, every virtue could be given a different interpretation, depending on which culture you belong to, for example for courage:

Islam: courage is to live (and die) for your God.

Confucians: courage is to be a gentleman and scholar.

Zhuangzi: courage is to be a free individual.

Samurai: to kill yourself in a ceremonial way if necessary.

Thus: interpretations of even a single virtue could vary widely.

Why is this a problem for Virtue Ethics?

Because: Aristotle thought there was a common human nature (same for everyone): rationality. Relativism seems to go against this. 

Philosophical Background to Aristotle – Teleology

Morality (and thus virtues), according to Aristotle, is grounded in human nature. Human nature, in turn, is part of nature. So what is nature like, according to Aristotle? 

The philosophical background in which Aristotle develops his Virtue Ethics: teleology, which is a view about nature.

Teleology holds that everything in nature has a goal or purpose. Nature has an order, and these “principles of order” direct things toward goals (their mature final form, or essential traits, or tendencies or capacities qua species).

Natural things always fulfill a purpose or a goal. Everything in nature has a natural pattern of growth and development.

“Seeds of the same form always mature to the same form.” “Acorns always become oak trees, not elms.”

Human beings are a part of nature also, thus there is a goal and purpose to humanity as well. What is our human goal?

The ultimate goal for humanity is eudaimonia (blessedness, prosperity and flourishing, deep fulfillment, a healthy soul). This is NOT equal to pleasure.

Further, there are paths we should follow to achieve this ultimate goal of eudaimonia.

Developing the virtues produces a healthy soul in a person, which fulfills essential human functions and purposes and thus leads to eudaimonia.

Here it gets a little confusing – Aristotle also says that our “rational element” is unique to us and it is the essentially human function or purpose. Being rational, in other words, is what separates us from other animals.

The key assumption here is: only by being rational can human beings achieve eudaimonia.

Being rational has two functions:

A: to gain knowledge and truth about the world: the intellectual virtues help us achieve this.

Intellectual virtues include: practical knowledge, scientific knowledge, and practical wisdom. . .

B: to guide our free choices [free will] and actions properly: the moral virtues [what we have focused on] help us achieve this.

NOTE: thus, an essential feature of human beings is the freedom to act and choose in the way one chooses.

Only by developing BOTH of these capacities can we function well and flourish as human beings and achieve eudaimonia.

Not everyone can automatically achieve eudaimonia: nature has many defects (e.g., imperfect animals, plants and trees, and humans).

At the same time, we seem intuitively able to grasp the distinction between doing something well and doing it very badly (think of a great master chef vs. a person who is a horrible cook, we can easily decide who is the master and who is the awful cook).

Just as many things in nature, human beings can have many defects as well.

The goal, according to Aristotle, is to overcome these defects and achieve perfection (excellence, flourishing) as human beings (or at least get as close as possible to perfection).

The way to achieve this perfection (or flourishing, excellence and functioning well) is to perform our essential human capacities, i.e., exercise our rational functions (which requires the moral virtues, as we saw).

Only a healthy person that is functioning well and excellently can be a happy person.

This is the connection between the virtues and Aristotle’s teleological view of nature and the universe.

Kathleen Li


您的电子邮箱地址不会被公开。 必填项已用*标注