Central to virtue ethics is the idea that morality is not performing certain right actions but possessing a certain character. Instead of asking, "What actions are right?" virtue ethics asks, "What kind of persons should we be?" In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that ethics enables us to live the good life and that the good life is possible only for virtuous persons. Aristotle described particular virtues in illuminating detail. After Aristotle, philosophical theory tended to focus more on right action and duties, but some contemporary philosophers argue for a return to virtue ethics.
What are virtues and how do they determine justice?
Virtues are specifically those traits that everyone needs for the good life, regardless of their specific situation. For example, courage is a virtue because it enables anyone to get what he or she wants. The virtues are integrally related to what Aristotle called practical wisdom, which is what a person needs in order to live well. Virtue is variously described as an excellence that is admired in a person, as a disposition to act in a certain way, and as a specific state of character. Lists of the virtues generally include: benevolence, compassion, courage, courtesy, dependability, friendliness, honesty, loyalty, moderation, self-control, and tolerance. In developing a list of virtues, we must consider not only the contribution of a virtue to some end but also the end itself. Aristotle considered happiness to be the end of life, and so the virtues must all contribute in some way to happiness. Thus, the character traits that enable a despot or a criminal or a lecher to be successful are not virtues because they do not conduce to happiness. Moreover, the virtues are not merely means to happiness but are themselves constitutive of it. For example, a parent cannot experience the joy of parenting without actually possessing the traits that make one a good parent.
Strengths and weaknesses of virtue ethics
A strength of virtue ethics is that it fits with our everyday moral experience. The response of most people to a complex ethical dilemma is not to think about how universal principles can be applied but to decide what they feel comfortable with or what a person they admire would do. Codes of professional ethics generally stress that a professional should be a person of integrity. Unlike the impartiality stressed by utilitarianism and Kantianism, virtue ethics makes better sense of the role that personal relations play in morality. Since business activity is based so heavily on roles and relationships in which such concepts as loyalty and trust figure prominently, virtue ethics is highly relevant to the workplace. A weakness of virtue ethics is its incompleteness. Virtue ethics can take us only so far in dealing with genuine ethical dilemmas. Some dilemmas involve the limits of rules (such as when concealing information becomes a lie) or conflicts between rules (when telling the truth would harm an innocent person, for example). Moreover, there are some difficult ethical dilemmas to which virtues do not readily apply. Some virtue ethicists respond that the importance of dilemmas in ethics has been overstated and that ethics is concerned primarily with the problems of everyday life. Another weakness is that virtue ethics does not address the problem of conflict. According to Aristotle, happiness is possible for anyone who becomes a certain kind of person, but insofar as our goals in life include possessing limited goods, not everyone can be successful. Virtue ethicists respond that morality is more a matter of living cooperatively than of moderating conflict.
See also: Aristotle's virtue ethics