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Virtue Theory: The Right Action in the Right Way

Introduction

Michelle is an all-around great person. She’s the type of person that volunteers at nursing homes on weekends, never forgets her friend’s birthdays, listens, and offers constructive advice but doesn’t blame. She’s happy, too. Everything she does, she does out of the goodness of her heart and not because she feels like she should.

Explanation

If you’re looking for a role model to become a better person, look no further than Michelle. She almost always says the right thing, and any time she does offend or become angry, she apologizes and changes her actions for the future. When in a tricky moral situation, you might ask yourself, “What would Michelle do?”

Definition of Virtue Theory

Virtue theory states that the best way to describe how we ought to act is by imitating people like Michelle. It characterizes how one should act in terms of how a virtuous agent would act. A virtuous person is someone who performs the right action, in the right way, at the right time, in the right amount, toward the right person.

The History

Virtue ethics is most commonly associated with ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle believed that as humans, we have an ultimate end of happiness or flourishing, called eudaimonia. All actions that bring us closer to eudaimonia are virtuous. According to Aristotle, virtuous actions are those a virtuous agent, someone like Michelle, would do.

One problem with virtue theory is that it seems very vague and circular. It sounds good to “be a virtuous person” and “aim toward virtues,” but we can’t do that unless we know what makes someone or something virtuous. However, Aristotle would argue that as humans, we are equipped to identify virtues - he called this tool “practical reason,” but you might know it as common sense. In many cases, we can identify appropriate actions and notice when something is off. Your best friend can buy you concert tickets, for example, but it would probably be weird for him to buy you a diamond ring or complain about your boss with you, since he doesn’t work at the same place. On the other hand, complaining about your boss with your coworker is entirely justified (though perhaps not virtuous), but buying them concert tickets is more inappropriate. These are social cues that we have developed over our lifetimes.

A key idea in virtue theory is that virtues are habits. The only way we can develop the virtues and become better people is through practice. Aristotle characterizes each virtue as a mean between two vices, an excess and a deficiency. For example, let’s say you spend a lot of money going out to eat; so much so that your bank account is taking a hit. You decide to never go out to eat at all. Any time your friends ask to eat out, you decline. Aristotle would characterize your behavior as an excess and a deficiency of the virtue of temperance. When you go out to eat all the time, you are being indulgent to a fault. Yet, when you do not occasionally eat out with your friends, you are being insensible. The key is to strike a balance - aim at the mean - and save money while also being sociable. Over time and with practice, you will find the mean for eating out that works for your friends and your checkbook. The same practice can be done with any of Aristotle’s virtues, including courage, friendliness, and modesty.

Virtue theory varies from the two other major normative ethical theories - utilitarianism and deontology - because it is agent-centered. Instead of defining what it means for an action to be good, it defines what it means for an agent to be good, thus making morality a holistic, individual, and lifetime endeavor. This illustrates Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. 

The agent-centered approach to ethics has its downsides, however. Recent psychological studies on situationism throw the idea of virtuous agents into doubt. Situationism argues that no one is a truly virtuous agent because one person exhibits different virtues, or lack thereof, in different situations. The famous Good Samaritan study found that whether divinity students would stop to help an ailing man depended on if they were late to a meeting - it had nothing to do with their virtue of benevolence. Therefore, situationism argues, there is no such thing as personal character traits that we can develop or virtuous agents that we can emulate.

Using It

Virtue ethics has increased in popularity in the last fifty years, largely due to the work of philosophers Phillipa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. Discontented with deontology’s rejection of self-interest as moral motivation and utilitarianism’s sacrifice of rights, Foot revitalized Aristotelian virtue ethics as a way to consider applied ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Hursthouse continued this tradition, arguing, for example, that abortion debates about the moral status of the fetus sever us from the facts of pregnancy and the interpersonal emotions that come with it, whereas virtue ethics can holistically consider a very serious decision.

By rejecting widespread moral reasons such as “Never tell a lie” or “Always increase pleasure,” virtue ethics can take a more contextual approach to morally ambiguous issues. It asks us to draw on common-sense ideas we have about how to treat others, consider when it’s okay to make exceptions to a rule, and imagine what kind of person we want to be.

Think Further

  1. Can you think of any virtuous agents in your own life, the public sphere, or fiction?
  2. Do you think morality is better characterized in terms of right actions or virtuous agents?
  3. Why might it be more useful to consider ethical action contextually rather than as a series of rules?

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Learn More

  1. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W.D. Ross, Internet Classics Archive, 2009, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.
  2. Crashcourse. “Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #8.” Youtube, 5 Dec 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrvtOWEXDIQ.
  3. Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3, 1991, pp. 223-246.
  4. Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove. “Virtue Ethics.”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2018, plato.stanford.edu.
  5. Patel, Pratik. “Applying Virtue Ethics: The Rajat Gupta Case.” Seven Pillars Institute, 11 Feb 2013, https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/applying-virtue-ethics-the-rajat-gupta-case/#:~:text=Virtue%20ethics%20is%20an%20agent,goal%20in%20and%20of%20itself.