Almost everyone agrees that it's good to have good character traits or virtues, and it's bad to have bad character traits or vices: we should be virtuous, and we shouldn't be vicious. Now, people disagree in many cases about what traits are virtues and which are vices, but they do agree that it's good to be virtuous and bad to be vicious, whatever they think that really is.
A type of ethical theory known as "virtue ethics" proposes that the virtues are key to how we should act. Instead of proposing that we should act in ways that produce the greatest overall consequences (as consequentialism proposes), or act in ways that involve treating no individuals as "mere means" and treating everyone involved as an "end in themself (as Kant's ethics proposes), or any other ethical theory, advocates of virtue ethics propose this:
We should act as a virtuous person would act: if a virtuous person would do a particular action, then it's permissible for us to do it; if a virtuous person wouldn't do a particular action, it's wrong. And actions are wrong or not wrong because that's what a virtuous person would do.
Some Virtues of Virtue Ethics
While more must be said to better understand a view like this—the details on what exactly it might be proposing—let's first ask what might be said in favor of such a view, or why one might accept it or think it's a good idea or find it plausible. Here are a few ideas:
- Such a view is likely very useful for educational purposes: e.g., moral education with both children and adults effectively appeals to the virtues: be kind! be compassionate! be caring! be thoughtful! be brave! don't be selfish! don't be cruel! don't be mean! be fair! is all good guidance and what we (or many of us) want people to know. This is likely more useful guidance than "maximize total happiness!" and "act on rules you can will that everyone follow!"—it's easier to follow, seems simple and easier to apply and just has more "bite" than many other theories (whatever that means!).
- It might seem like the wrongness and rightness of many actions is sufficiently explained by appealing to virtues and vices: e.g., you should be a vegan because it's compassionate and caring and empathetic and consistent with your best values; you shouldn't get a job in a slaughterhouse because you'd engage in cruelty and callousness and selfishness, and that would make your character more vicious in those ways. That's just two examples, among many more.
- Furthermore, there are some actions that it seems like there are obligations for what we must do, yet this is hard to explain on other ethical theories: e.g., issues where it's hard to see what we as individuals do will make a different to the overall issue (e.g., environmental and climate change problems), yet it seems like there are obligations (e.g., you should recycle, you should use less energy, etc., even if that's not going to solve or even make a noticeable impact on climate change). If there are such obligations, but other theories can't explain why, yet virtue ethics can explain or ground these obligations, this is a consideration in favor of virtue ethics.
- It just might seem to someone like a good idea: it's the best explanation that comes to mind and, for whatever reasons, they think it's a better explanation than other ones.
There surely are other considerations that might motivate virtue ethics also, but these are some of the more obvious ones.
Vices of Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics, however, has many challenges. Here are some:
- Virtue ethics requires identifying a virtuous person, who we should act like. This is challenging since most of us think we can identify many virtuous people, yet those people would often behave differently. Make your shortlist of people who you regard as even extremely virtuous: it's not like they would all respond to every challenging situation in exactly the same way. So someone might think that if an ethical theory is to tell us what we must do, virtue ethics fails in that regard.
- In response, virtue ethicists might say that this means that sometimes a variety of actions are permissible; so, if all virtuous people would not do the action, the action is wrong and something we must not do, otherwise it's not wrong or permissible; maybe they'd say that if all virtuous people would to an action, it's an obligation. So perhaps this isn't a strong objection to virtue ethics.
- Virtue ethics seems to require that some people have virtues and vices. While it may be obvious that people obviously have good and bad character traits, virtues and vices are often defined in terms of stable, character-defining traits. But there's research that suggests that people don't really have virtues and vices understood in this (perhaps idiosyncratic?) way: e.g., people who are often considered "compassionate" are not exactly uniformly and always compassionate: it really more depends on the situation, and if you put an often compassionate person in the right (wrong?) situation, they won't be or seem compassionate. Since virtues seem to depend on the situation and aren't as general and character-defining as virtue ethics suggests, this seems to be a problem for the theory: it appeals to and depends on psychological characteristics that we don't really have.
- In response, virtue ethicists might say that they aren't demanding that people be as they are not: they recognize that people aren't perfect and don't always consistently "live out" their virtues all the time. So virtue ethicists might modify their view, or re-explain their view as we should do what an ideally virtuous person would do, suggesting that our actual heroes of virtue (Gandhi, King, Jesus, etc.) aren't the real models for virtuous behavior, but "super" versions of them. In that way, virtue ethics moves to what's called an ideal observer theory of ethics: we should do what an "ideal observer"—basically a perfect being—would do in such a situation. Is this an improvement? We'll see below.
- Suppose you've done something really bad, and are trying to figure out what to do now, to try to make it right. What would a virtuous person do? What would an ideally virtuous person do? Well, they would have never wound up in this awful situation in the first place! So now, virtue ethics seems to propose that what you should do here is what a virtuous person would do, if they weren't acting in a virtuous way. But that doesn't seem to make much sense since the thought is just that a virtuous person wouldn't do this! Yet they could, but then they'd revert back to virtue to get out of their vice?
- In response, virtue ethicists might say that virtuous people weren't always virtuous: their virtue had to start at some point, and this is the time to start! Maybe that'd say that: I really don't know.
- Finally, virtue ethicists propose that actions are wrong because virtuous people do or would do them. But this takes us to a dilemma similar to the famous dilemma raised against divine command theory ethics: either there's a reason why virtuous people would do (or not do) the action or there's not a reason why people would do the action: e.g., there's a reason why virtuous people would, say, not be school shooters or not. If not, then it seems like their not being school shooters is arbitrary and random, not done for no reason, and so they could have just as well been school shooters. On the other hand, if there are reasons—like that school shooters cause all sorts of harms (terror, fear, anxiety, injury, death, and more) and are disrespectful (they do something terrifying, obviously, without the consent or permission of the victims) and other reasons, then those reasons are why the action is wrong, not because any virtuous person would do (or not do) the action. This objection concludes that virtue ethics is false: it's a faulty explanation for what ultimately makes wrong actions wrong and right actions right.
- In response, a virtue ethicist might say . . [TBD, since I honestly do not know how they might successfully or even plausibly respond to this objection: I think this refutes the view.]
- For a second "finally", a virtue ethicist is going to have to define what a virtue is. Other ethical theories can do this, fairly easily. For consequentialists, virtues are character traits that, when people have them, that tends to promote good consequences overall (happiness, etc.); vices are character traits that promote bad consequences, overall (unhappiness, etc.); for Kantians, virtues are character traits that lead people to respect others as ends in themselves; vices lead people to treat others as mere means. These explanations, however, are not available to advocates of virtue ethics, which seems to be a strike against their view: it's harder for them to explain what virtues and vices really are.