Virtue Ethics Essay

Virtue Ethics

Recently there has been a revival in virtue ethics due to some philosophers like G. E. M Anscombe. In 1958, she suggested that modern moral philosophy is misguided, and therefore we should top thinking about obligation, duty and rightness and let virtue ethics take centre stage. (Rachels, 1999, p. 177a)

Since the re-awakening of the theory of virtue ethics, it has been seen as being a rival with other moral theories such as, Kantianism (also known as duty ethics) and Utilitarianism (also known as consequentialist theory). The reason for comparisons is not farfetched – the revival of virtue ethics has been perceived by some as a theory that is meant to take the place of the other two theories, however, this is proving to be very difficult since virtue ethics has also been found wanting on some grounds as well.

The most significant difference between all three theories seems to me to be the centralised question they ask, which is the basis for each moral theory. Utilitarianism is a theory about actions and consequences, and all it asks is this: which action will produce the best possible outcome? Kantian on the other hand deals with rules and obligations, and asks this: what is the right thing to do? Virtue ethics on the other hand is fundamentally about character of the moral agent and asks the question: what is the right character to have? But it is not just limited to character, if not it would tag virtue ethics as character ethics. It is also about human flourishing.

An intriguing aspect in the revival of virtue ethics is the fact that some deontologists and utilitarian’s have recognized its importance and have therefore added it to their own theories. For example, the revived interest in Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue (Hursthouse, 1999, p.3a)

However, virtue ethics has not come this far without criticism; the list of criticisms is numerous. Amongst others the most popular is that virtue ethics does not give appropriate guidance.

I shall start by defining virtue ethics and moving on to analyse the concepts surrounding it. Thereafter I will attempt to distinguish between it and other moral theories i.e. utilitarianism and Kantianism. Furthermore, I will talk about issues in global ethics and how virtue ethics may be applied to them, and finally, address the question on if there are any difficulties in doing so.

What is Virtue Ethics?
For a long time two methods of understanding morality have been taken up by two moral approaches which are Kantianism and Utilitarianism. Kantianism which is also known as deontology is a result of the work of the German Philosopher, Immanuel Kant which is concerned with ideals of universal law and respect for others; Utilitarianism, also known as consequentialism is known to maximise end results. However, recently, there has been a revival in virtue ethics, a theory which focuses on moral agents and virtuous character finds its roots in the ancient Greek philosophy, and has been neglected over the past years since the likes of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato talked about it. (Baron et al, 1997, p.3)

Virtue ethics is an approach to ethics which focuses on character and virtues and has its roots in Aristotle. The two most distinct features of virtue ethics are; it is agent centred, and makes use of areteic terms. According to Rosalind Hursthouse, it has been described as:

an ethics which is agent centred, rather than act centred, and as concerned with being rather than doing, as addressing itself to the question, ‘what sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question ‘what sorts of action should I do?; as taking certain areteic concepts (good, excellence, virtue) as basic than deontic ones (right, duty, obligation) (1999, p. 25)

Other features are numerated by Oakley and Cocking as follows; firstly “an action is right if and only if it is what an agent with a virtuous character would do in the circumstances” (2001, p.129). Another feature is that “goodness is prior to rightness”. Virtue ethics claims that we need an account of human good before we can determine what the right action to take is; which makes virtue ethics a teleological rather than a deontological ethical theory. (Oakley, Cocking, 2001, p.19)

Furthermore, “virtues are seen as irreducibly plural intrinsic goods i.e. they are valuable for their own sake rather than as a means to promoting some other value. Virtues are also objectively good in the sense that is they can add value to a life” (Oakley, Cocking, 2001, p.21). For example the virtue of kindness is in itself good independently Also, some goods such as friendship are agent-relative while others are agent neutral (Oakley, Cocking, 2001, p.23), and finally acting rightly does not require that we maximise the good.

From the above description, it is easy to see the basic idea that virtue ethics promotes. It emphasizes on the moral agent; that is the character of a human; how the person acts, how the person behaves, how the person thinks, and the whole entirety of this person. For example, it focuses on who I am as a person, not on the things I do. It draws attention to the way I reason which in turns influences the way I behave. If I think about evil things long enough, I will eventually perpetuate such acts. If I have an ill will towards my neighbours and wish them dead, sooner or later, I will begin to act in an ill manner towards my neighbour.

Virtue ethics focus on being the right person, and the train of thought follows that if I am a good person, I will do good things; if I am a bad person, it will be difficult and almost impossible to do right things because of the kind of personality and being that I am, It motivates people to work on their character, so that they can know the right action to follow. Hence, virtue ethics asks the question; what kind of person should I be?

However, it will be difficult to know the kind of person one should be without knowing what the “ideal” person should be like. If you “are” a certain way, you would “act” a certain way. If you are greedy, you would steal, as a consequence of your greed (that is if you cannot meet your insatiable needs). So what is the kind of person we should be? According to virtue ethics, what kind of person we should be is a result of the virtues we possess because virtues play key roles in our lives. How then can we know these virtues, in other words, what is virtue? How can we differentiate virtues from vices? And why is it good to possess these virtues? Also, do these virtues apply to everyone? (Rachels, 1999, p.185)

In answering the first question; what is virtue? Edmund L. Pincoffs, a philosopher who taught at the University of Texas suggested that: “virtues and vices are qualities that we refer to in deciding whether someone is to be sought or avoided and that virtue as a trait of character is manifested in habitual action which is good for a person to have” (Pincoffs cited in Rachels 1999, p.178).

The above definition begs the question of what virtues are, and what kind of characters constitutes a virtue? There seem to be no definite answer for this question, however, there are list of traits which can be classified as being virtues. This is by no means a comprehensive list of virtues but just a summary of lists that are seen as basic virtues. They include; honesty, kindness, courage, generosity, loyalty, discipline, courteousness, fairness, friendliness, compassion, confidence, tolerance etc. In as much as there are categories of virtues, there are classifications of vices as well, some of which are; selfishness, laziness, arrogance, greed, jealousy, anger etc. (Rachels, 1999, p.178)

There is a slight controversy on the question on if these virtues apply to everyone or not; some theorists believe that there are basic intrinsic virtues that all human beings should strive to acquire no matter what society or generation or way of life they have as opposed to different people having different classes of virtues. For example, instead of only soldiers possessing courage, all humans should possess that character. Aristotle’s view supported the above statement, he believed that “one may observe in one’s travels to distant countries the feelings of recognition and affiliation that link every human being to every other being” (Aristotle cited in Rachels, 1999, p.186)

However, this belief seems to be lacking credence because people and societies are different and what may be seen as virtuous in one society may not be the same in another; People who live in a particular society have live their lives according to the norm of that particular society. What was believed as virtuous hundreds of years ago may not be virtuous in these contemporary times. For example, if it was seen as virtuous for a woman to be married as a virgin in the ancient times, that may not be applicable now because of the change in our times, yet the fact that a woman does not get married as a virgin in these times does not connote that she is not virtuous.

Virtues are good but why are they important for one to develop the virtues instead of vices and why is it necessary? Wallace states that: “certain virtues play different roles and functions in a human life, some factors in many different ways contribute systematically to human good and virtues in specifiable ways so contribute as a part of such a system” (1978, p.15). Also, Rachels says it depends on the specific virtue being talked about. Therefore we can say:

generosity is desirable because some people will inevitable be worse off than others and will need help. Honesty is needed because without it relations between people would go wrong in myriad ways. Courage is a good thing because life is full of dangers and without courage we would be unable to cope with them (1999, p.184)

We cannot give all the reasons why every virtue is important but we can analyse the above statement and see that they are important in their own way. Aristotle answered that the reason why being virtuous was important was because the virtuous person will be better off in life, not necessarily richer, and it is needed to conduct our lives well (Aristotle cited in Rachels, 1999, p. 185).

Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism
The essence of utilitarianism is in getting the best possible outcome in any given circumstance; Utilitarianism believes in the “greater good” or maximising outcomes. How can an outcome be defined as good? How can it be characterised as producing the most happiness? If a gang of robbers go into a house and rob Billy of all his possessions, is it okay? Since it will give the robbers greater joy to rob poor Billy as opposed to the aggregate of the happiness Billy will get from not being robbed. For utilitarian’s, the end always justifies the means, and it does not matter if greater satisfaction is as a result of lying or cheating someone, as long as it satisfies more people. As Mill stated: “the utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable and, the only thing desirable as an end; all other things being desirable as means to that end” (Mills cited in Rachels, 1999, p.108)

Virtue ethics believes that if a person is good, their actions will be good as well, so instead of focusing on the outcomes one should focus on having the right character.

Virtue ethics makes character essential to right action at least in the sense that its criterion of rightness contains an essential reference to the character of a virtuous agent, and this distinguishes it from utilitarianism which evaluate an act according to the consequence that it actually results in (Oakley, Cocking, 2001, p.11)

Utilitarianism can be associated with some ideas which distinguish it from other theories. Utilitarian theories are welfarist, consequentialist, aggregative, maximising and Universalist (Scarre 1996, p.4). An action is okay if the greatest satisfaction is achieved. You count the consequences for human happiness of one or another course, and you go with the one with the highest favourable total (Taylor cited in Scarre, p.1)

The major distinction between virtue ethics and utilitarianism is this; while virtue ethics is agent based, utilitarianism is agent neutral. For virtue ethics, Hursthouse states:

It is agent centred in that it introduces the concept of the virtuous agent in its account of right action, where utilitarianism and Kantianism introduce the concept of consequences and moral rule respectively (1999, p.29).

This is different for utilitarianism. Slote says: “consequentialism is agent-neutral, one’s obligations to oneself are no weaker or stronger than those to any other single person” (1997, p.191)

Scarre distinguishes utilitarianism further:

It is clear that utilitarianism is a theory of moral justification, concerned to lay down conditions of right and wrong actions but should also be seen as a theory of moral deliberation, aiming to inform us how to decide which actions to perform and which to avoid (1996, p. 13)

In addition, virtue ethics is also seen as “being pluralistic, in as much as it insists upon the richness and complexity of the ethical while utilitarianism treats all values as ultimately commeasurable and of a single kind” (Baron et al, p.201)

Virtue Ethics and Kantian Ethics
Kantian ethics which is another moral approach to morality that differs from virtue ethics, and can also be known as duty based ethics or deontology. It is a theory that focuses on rules not consequences like utilitarianism or character like virtue ethics. An action is either right or wrong not because of the consequences it produces, or the person in action, but because the act in itself is wrong. Kant’s ethics lays moral rules down that must be adhered to, for instance, do not lie, do not steal, and do not commit adultery. Kant’s ethics also follow that a person should do the right thing irrespective of the consequences that follow. For instance, if I had to tell a lie to save my life, it would go against Kantian doctrine. “Immanuel Kant, believed that morality is a matter of following absolute rules – rules that admit no exceptions, that must be followed come what may” (Rachels, 1997, p.122). And “according to the Kantian tradition, morality is based on a universal and impartial law of rationality” (Crisp, Slote, 1997, p.1).

The first point of differentiation is that while virtue ethics emphasize that persons rather than actions should be the primary focus of ethics and should address itself to the question, ‘what sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question ‘what sorts of action should I do?(Baron, 1997, p.34). Kantian ethics is believed to focus more on rightness of an action than about virtuous character based on its principle of the Categorical Imperative which is the basis of all other rules. This principle aims to provide the right guidance on actions that are morally permissible. Wood writes:

a moral imperative is categorical because its function is not to advice us how to reach some prior end of ours that is based on what we happen to want but to command us how to act irrespective of our wants or our contingent ends (2008, p.67)

Another distinction between Kantian ethics and virtue ethics is their different understanding of the nature of character and that of a virtuous person. Baron states:

many virtue ethicist have as their model of the virtuous person someone whose dispositions and temperaments are ideal; someone for whom acting virtuously is a second nature, and whose desires, tastes, likes, and dislikes, interests and manner just naturally are those of a virtuous person…for Kantians, being virtuous involves more conflict between ones desires and what one sees one should do; less “automatic” responses and more reflection (Baron et al, 1997, p.40).

Also, unlike virtue ethicist, Kantians are believed to act out of duty and obligation. Baron states that “virtue ethicist favour areteic terms (“good,” “bad,” “virtuous,” “vicious”) over deontic terms (“right,” “wrong,” “duty,” “obligation”)” (Baron et al, 1997, p.34).

Furthermore, another distinction has to do with motivation; a virtuous person does not act from duty rather he/she is motivated because they have desires that virtuous people have. The virtuous person has virtuous desires, and a right action is one that issues from virtuous desires (Baron et al, 1997, p.34).

Virtue Ethics and Corruption
Corruption is a global ethical problem in the sense that corruption is multicultural and is found in every strata of a society and every race. It can also be distinguished into different degrees which can be either minor or major forms of corruption, but no matter the distinguishing of varying degrees, no one is better off than the other. Corruption is corruption and should not be condoned. No one can claim ignorance to it since it is something that can be found in different levels and at varying degrees. Elliott writes:

It occurs in democracies and military dictatorships, and at all levels of development and in all types of economic systems, from open capitalist economies such as that of the United States to centrally planned economies such as the former Soviet Union’s (1997, p.1).

Corruption has globalised in the past few years and has emerged as a global issue. Corruption does not have a singular universal definition but several authors have come up with different definitions that will sum up the concept of corruption. Several scholars have sought to define it but corruption is not a concept that can be confined to one simple definition because different people and offices define it differently, as it relates to them. Corruption can be defined by public opinion, as well as official law of nations and also as it affects the general public. Therefore there are different definitions of corruption. However, I will prefer to focus on public corruption, which is corruption by public officials. Public corruption is defined by Neild as: “the breaking by public persons, for the sake of private financial or political gain, of the rules of conduct in public affairs prevailing in a society in the period under consideration” (2002, p.5). Features of corruption can include cronyism, bribery, fraud, nepotism, embezzlement, favouritism, trafficking.

There have been a lot of suggestions and ways on how to tackle corruption; different organisations such as the OECD, Transparency International (TI), and European Union have initiated a lot anti-corruption reforms such as taxation, development aid, and governance, however, it has not been as effective as it ought to be. This is where the need for the application of virtue ethics emerges. I believe that virtue ethics once combined with other anti corruption initiatives will effectively reduce the rate of corruption because virtue ethics is the only moral theory that encourages individuals to develop positive character traits, and if people do have good character they will not be involved in vices such as corruption, and although moral practices differ globally, there are still some character traits that are consistent and valued globally. For instance, virtues such as respect, courteousness or friendliness are universal.

In Africa for example, it is a sign of respect for one to greet elders by kneeling down before them, while in South East Asia, it is by bowing. Both are respectful acts and although both acts differ because of their custom, their actions are a representation of the same values. This goes to exemplify how universal the virtue of respect is. So now that we have laid down the ground work of what virtue ethics is and what core virtues really are, we can suggest that virtue ethics can combat corruption alongside other anti corruption policies. Khan suggested:

reducing the discretion of public officials through liberalization and privatization, Improving salaries of public officials, thereby addressing their low living standards in many cases, but also increasing the opportunity cost of corruption since they stand to lose their positions if detected, improving the rule of law so that corrupt bureaucrats and politicians can be prosecuted and punished, and encouraging greater transparency of government decision-making through deepening democratization, decentralization and the creation and encouragement of civil society watchdogs (

Since corruption is an abnormally in the morality of a society, moral reasoning is also needed to treat this issue. Dramer suggested:

an ongoing ethics programme containing two main parts: a character development part aimed at developing dispositions, attitudes, habits – or “virtues” — such as honesty, loyalty, fairness, benevolence, conscientiousness and more, and a reasoning ability part aimed at (1) sensitising public servants to moral problems, (2) improving their analytical skills, and (3) developing their ethical imaginativeness (

Other forms of combating corruption seem to be about coercion and enforcement, but virtue ethics is a non-coercive method because it encourages individuals to develop morally acceptable ethical behaviour, which consequently will promote integrity.

There seems to be no hitch in applying virtue ethics to this global ethical problem.

Virtue Ethics and Euthanasia
Another problem in global ethics is the issue of Euthanasia also known as mercy killing. Euthanasia is the act of ending someone’s life, especially someone who is sick or terminally ill to end their pain and suffering, thus when we define euthanasia, it should be as: “death understood as a good or happy event for the one who dies” (Foot, 1979, p.15). Euthanasia can be justified only if the person involved is undergoing so much pain that even drugs do not relieve him or her and if the prognosis of their health is declining.

Euthanasia is classified into different types such as; voluntary euthanasia (whereby the patient is coherent enough to request for it), involuntary euthanasia (the person is not capable of giving consent, e.g. people in coma’s) and non-voluntary euthanasia (whereby it is imposed on the patient). It can be further classified into passive euthanasia or active euthanasia (Ladd, 1979, p.8). However, my analysis will be based on voluntary euthanasia which has been characterized by Tooley as a situation whereby a person in his normal reasoning has chosen to end his/her life because living does not pay off in the long run based on available prognosis (Tooley cited in Brock, 1979, p.101).

Euthanasia has been through many debates, is ending the life of someone in great physical pain regarded as paying them a favour? One school of thought believes that if the patient actively ends their life because they can no longer bear to go through pain, it may be considered as suicide. On the other side of the coin, is the school of thought that believes that if the person’s life is ended by someone else, it can be placed on the same shelf as murder.

The question is can virtue ethics be applied to euthanasia? Stewart suggests:

If the focus is on the virtues in play, the character of the patient, their families and friends and the doctors involved-and if the desire to have euthanasia stems from a virtuous character then it would be a good thing, a noble act, where active or passive, voluntary or involuntary (2008, p.91)

As long as the decision to have euthanasia comes from a virtuous person, then it is the right thing to do, because a virtuous person always does the right thing. Hursthouse says that in tragic dilemmas a decision is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would decide, but the action decided may be too terrible to called “right” or “good”.

I believe we should live a life of happiness, people living in misery cannot be said to be living in eudemonia, and so in such cases I believe eudemonia is compatible with euthanasia. If not giving euthanasia to a patient is going to make their life more painful and full of misery then it does not tally with Aristotle’s concept of human flourishing. Brink suggests: “a valuable life consist in the possession of certain character traits, the exercise of certain capacities, and the development of certain relations with others and the world” (Brink cited in Scarre, 1996, p.6). Living can only be considered flourishing if the patient goes through less pain, and if euthanasia seems to be the only option, then by all means, we should go down that route.

It is out of the virtue of compassion that euthanasia is applied, and it is a courageous thing for the patient to do also, virtue ethics would promote a painless, peaceful way to end the patient’s life to alleviate suffering rather than an exit full of anguish. Virtue ethics is fine with euthanasia as long as it is done virtuously. According to Aristotle: “an action is virtuous only if it is the right sort of action performed for the right sort of motive” (Brody, 1988, p.35)

Stewart states that different virtues are necessary in order to apply euthanasia; the virtue of courage is needed when the patient makes the decision on when to die, also the virtue of pride, and the virtue of wisdom to know when the right time is. As for the medical staff, virtues needed are professionalism, compassion and also wisdom. Family and friends would also need wisdom to advice the patient if they feel he/she is making the wrong decision (2008, p. 92)

There is a bit of difficulty in applying virtue ethics to the issue of euthanasia, due to the fact that it does not present what the right time is for a person to be euthanized. It just says that the virtue of wisdom will be applied and this answer does not seem sufficient based on the reason that virtue ethics does not gives rules or directions on how things ought to be done.

Aristotle’s theory emphasizes only one moral appeal which is an appeal to the virtues, and this feature is both its strength and weakness. Its weakness, apart from the question on whether it adequately defined the virtues, is that it fails to take into account the other many moral appeals which must be incorporated into any adequate moral theory (Brody, 1988, p.9)

Also, concerning the virtues, there might be some conflict, in the sense that, courage needed for euthanasia is considered a virtue, what if the patient decides to be enduring? Or exercise more patience? Courage and patience are classified as virtues…what then, does one do? This question is insufficiently answered by virtue ethics as relying upon the virtue of wisdom to prevail. I agree with Hursthouse, who states that:

Charity prompts me to kill the person who would (truly) be better off dead, but justice forbids it. So virtue ethics fails to give me any guidance over the rightness or wrongness of euthanasia…virtue ethics lets us down just at the point where we need it the most, where we are faced with the really difficult moral quandaries and do not know what to do (1999, p.43)

In the beginning of this essay, I defined and analysed the concept of virtue ethics, and in the following paragraphs I attempted to distinguish between the three moral theories which are, utilitarianism, virtue ethics and kantianism by enumerating the features. I also tried to apply virtue ethics to two issues in global ethics which are corruption and euthanasia. Virtue ethics can be applied to some problems in global ethics like corruption and euthanasia because “virtues are relevant to the moral evaluation of individuals and their actions” (Brody, 1988, p.35), however, it won’t be without some difficulties.

In summary, I believe virtue ethics was compatible with corruption because I discovered that an ethics of virtue can reduce the rate at which corruption is globalising if public officials possess or develop certain virtues however; there seem to be difficulty applying it to euthanasia because of the many criticism of virtue ethics that I stated earlier, the major being that virtue ethics does not provide guidance. It only tells us to develop one’s character but it seems to be vague.


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