Ethics: virtue ethics

In philosophy, virtue ethics can come in different flavours. The form of virtue ethics that I will be using in this tutorial is Aristotelean virtue ethics. This kind of virtue ethics, surprisingly enough, comes from the traditional philosopher Aristotle.

In Aristotle’s approach to ethics, it is less about judging by our actions and the consequences, and more about the person’s character. The character we should aim for, is a character of someone who is virtuous. The character we should avoid, is a character of someone who is vicious. A virtuous person, is someone who’s character is better explained in terms of virtues, whereas a vicious person, is someone who’s character is better explained in terms of vices.

What makes something a virtue or a vice?

A virtue, in the Aristotelean sense, is the mean between two extremes of behaviour, and a vice is the extreme version of that behaviour. The most clear example of an Aristotelean virtue is the virtue of being courageous. Courage is the mean between the two extremes of being cowardly or timid, and being rash or careless. An example of this could be a soldier during war. A soldier who does their duty and follows their orders is courageous, whereas one that runs away abandoning their fellow soldiers is being cowardly, whilst a soldier who charges like crazy without any consideration for the well being of themselves or others is being rash and careless.

Why virtue?

Aristotles defence of the virtuous character is that it would lead to a world he called ‘Eudiamonia’, which roughly translates as human flourishing. In a world where most people were virtuous rather than vicious, would create such a world. This is because he believed that behaviour of a more virtuous nature would bring about consequences that would more likely create circumstances that reflected a flourishing world. For instance, in both worlds where the solider is rash or cowardly, they are not helping anybody, whilst when they are courageous they are.

Test questions

Try to see whether you can decide what kinds of behaviour are virtuous or vicious:

  1. Stealing a sweet because you like them
  2. Stealing a can of beans because you are poor and starving
  3. Giving 10% of your income to charity
  4. Giving 80% of your income to charity
  5. Buying your child a used car when they turn 18
  6. Buying your child a third BMW when they turn 18

I highly recommend the book “Twelve theories of human nature” by Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, which is in the link below.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Ethics: virtue ethics”

  1. Enjoyed reading this piece. Short & sweet, coherent, and to the point. Your illustration at the end helps to bring your meaning home. Giving 80 percent of ones income can be virtuous too, if you consider they are making 6 digits or more, or should they happen to be wealthy in the first place. This might suggest that there are other occasions when the extreme/excess is no longer a vice but a virtue. Another implication of this is that we may have to judge each situation differently, depending on the particulars. There is a fine balance between being considerate and courageous. Having the wisdom to know the difference may require something in addition to moral virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Jason, yes as you can see these tutorials are targetted for those unfamiliar with philosophical topics. Yes you are quite right regarding how context changes the behaviour being virtuous or vicious, which is a strength virtue has over utlitarianism and categorical imperatives. However, as you correctly mention, some acts that would be seen as extreme are sometimes also seen as virtuous, which is a problem for Aristotelean virtues. Which is why I lean more towards moral intuitionism rather than virtue ethics.

    Thanks again,


    Liked by 1 person

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