Virtue Ethics: A Moral System You've Never Heard of — But Probably Use

The newest wave in ethics is also the oldest.


Are you the sort of person who always works for the greater good, or always sticks to moral rules? Perhaps you use a mixture of both? Or, maybe, are you neither of the above? Of course, do you know what you are if you are not one of those two?

While most people are familiar with Consequentialism and Deontology, they might be hard pressed to describe another system. This is for a simple reason, as both systems have been at the forefront of ethics for the last two hundred years. Modern Consequentialism is based heavily on the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1800s. These philosophers argued that the primary moral good is to maximize the total happiness. Philosopher Peter Singer is one of the foremost modern consequentialists . Deontology owes its genesis to Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative which dictated that the acceptable action in any situation is the action which we would will everyone to do in that situation.

There are, of course, other ethical systems. Prominent among them is the idea of Virtue Ethics, the preferred ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Ben Franklin, Nietzsche and Martha Nussbaum. In recent years this school of thought has seen a resurgence in popularity, especially in the reinterpretation of Aristotelian thought.

Virtue ethics differs from Deontology and Consequentialism by focusing on the character of the person rather than the details of a single action. While consequentialism is concerned with the state of the world after an action takes place, and deontology is worried about how closely rules were followed, virtue ethics asks “what does this action say about the character of the actor?” The right thing to do then, is that which demonstrates, encourages, and will habitualize the best character traits.

But, how do I do that? While it is easy to say how to follow a rule, and simple to follow a formula for happiness, deciding what the “Virtuous” thing to do in a situation is may be difficult for people just starting out in the process of become a good person.

Julia Annas suggests a method of using virtue ethics based on personal development. What you do in order to solve a moral problem changes based on how far along you are in moral study. A beginner would have to ask what a virtuous person would do in a particular situation. In the trolley problem, they might ask “What would Gandhi do?” before acting. As we grow, we begin to understand the “why” of virtuous actions, and need less and less to rely on the examples of others when making decisions. Eventually, she suggests, we become virtuous people, and understand what to do, why to do it, and how to do it ourselves; without the need for outside reference. By developing a set of “Moral Skills”, based on practical reason, we can become moral, virtuous, people.

She uses the example of a builder, as did Aristotle, to explain this moral development.

The beginning builder has to learn by picking a role model and copying what she does, repeating her actions. Gradually he learns to build better, that is, to engage in the practical activity in a way which is less dependent on the examples of others and express more understanding of his own. He progresses from piecemeal and derivative understanding of building to a more unified and explanatory understanding of his own. His actions may at this point differ from those of his role model precisely because he is a better builder. This is because he is learning, and learning contains the notion of aspiration to improve.

Objections to this system abound. What virtues should be selected and how? What if two virtues conflict? How am I supposed to know what the virtuous thing to do is if I am not perfectly virtuous now? Can a person with virtuous intention be unvirtuous? These questions have plagued virtue ethics since the time of Aristotle. In more modern times, the lack of a single, formulaic, approach to solving typical ethical issues was cause for a lack of popularity until quite recently.

Virtue ethics is a system that allows us to ask not only “What should I do?”, but also “How should I be?” with each action. It is less concerned with how we act from time to time and more worried about what kind of person we are all of the time. While it is often vague in its answers for what the right thing to do is, it can offer some cultural flexibility where other systems cannot. In a world where what is right and wrong are often difficult to determine, Virtue Ethics offers us a system that asks the larger questions and still offers us practical advice.

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