• Traced back to the philosopher Aristotle, who rejected Plato’s metaphysical account of goodness as a ‘thing in itself’. Aristotle thought that goodness is natural and psychological: just a part of being human.
• Virtue Ethics makes ethical behaviour into the aim (telos) of life.
• Aristotle puts forward ‘aretaic ethics’ (from the Greek arête – ‘excellence’), stating that developing an excellent character is all-important, rather than following a set of prescribed ethical norms.
• The ultimate goal is eudaimonia (‘flourishing’), for a person who practises virtue will feel happy and content.
Aristotle on Happiness and Virtue (AO1 material)
• Aristotle distinguishes between different types of pleasure. Some seek basic desires, others honour and respect, but the best thing is to be a lover of contemplation. Aristotle regards this as a virtuous philosophical ideal.
• A human being is a ‘rational animal’ able to contemplate and value the pursuit if virtue. So, we must use our reason to choose virtue.
• For Aristotle, the good life meant choosing the ‘doctrine of the mean’, that is, the sensible balance in behaviour. For example, if we are lacking in courage then we are cowards, but if we have too much courage then we are rash. The virtuous person chooses the moderate position of sensible courage.
• Aristotle identified 12 key moral virtues, along with 5 primary virtues and 4 intellectual virtues. For all of these, balance is the key to virtuous behaviour.
Other Virtue Approaches (AO1 material)
• The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that modern ethics is mistaken, because it has ignored virtue in favour of theories about what goodness is. She urged that modern philosophers return to personal virtue.
• Later, Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue argued that ancient societies were right to emphasise virtue. MacIntyre argued that the modern world would benefit from agreeing what we value as virtues and promoting them instead of theories about good actions.
• MacIntyre suggested that modern virtues should include: courage, justice, temperance, wisdom, industriousness, hope, and patience.
Strengths of Virtue Ethics (AO2 material)
• V.E. allows that virtue changes over time: that’s realistic.
• It is flexible, because it does not prescribe fixed duties. • Martha Nussbaum argues that V.E. is ‘holistic’ – considering personal wellbeing.
Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics (AO2 material)
• V.E. does not give clear guidance, unlike Kantian Ethics or Natural Law.
• It doesn’t deal with the problem of evil people who think they are right.
• Some things are absolutely wrong (Louis Pojman suggests torture). V.E. does not set out even the most basic or important moral boundaries.